RADICALLY DIFFERENT WORLD
One woman’s journey from corporate life to independence
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
Over the life of our Broken Glass series, we’ve heard plenty of horror stories about the discrimination women in the industry have endured. Topping the list must be what happened to Kelly Pappas, JD, CPCU, AIC, who spent almost 13 years with a large organization where she specialized in claims management and data analytics.
A change in the company’s top management brought in a new executive vice president who oversaw the department where Pappas worked. “One day in 2013, the new EVP asked me to train a young man,” she recalls. “At the end of the training, the EVP told me that the young man would now be my boss. What’s more, after more than 12 years of being a top performer, I was suddenly told by the EVP that I didn’t have what it took to progress further in the organization.
“I spoke with managers in other departments to see what options might be available,” Pappas continues, “but at the end of the day I felt the culture had shifted so dramatically from what I had loved that it was no longer a good fit for me.”
What was next for Pappas, who was an experienced civil litigator in addition to her background in claims management?
A quantum leap
“One of my mentors was a former boss who had left the insurer we both worked for to join Foster Sullivan Insurance Group, an independent agency in the Boston area. After leaving the insurer, I called him and explained what had happened, and he gave me some great advice: ‘Don’t let your success at a job define your success as a person.’ The fact that the new EVP didn’t think I had what it took to succeed under his management didn’t mean I wasn’t a success,” Pappas says.
Pappas reached out to Mike Foster, the owner of Foster Sullivan, and she spent time with producers at the agency to get a feel for the role. “Mike didn’t sugarcoat it: Being a producer is hard work, day in and day out—but it’s incredibly rewarding,” Pappas says. She decided to join the firm, and that choice catapulted her into a radically different world.
She went from a company of thousands of people to a firm with 20 employees. “Decisions and initiatives can move much faster in an independent agency than they can in a big organization,” she explains. “It’s like the difference between a speedboat and an oil tanker. We have much less bureaucracy and don’t have meetings in which either nothing gets accomplished or an issue could have been resolved with a quick email. As an independent agent, I succeed or fail according to my own choices, and to a great extent I have control over outcomes.”
At Foster Sullivan, Pappas specializes in construction, technology, and professional services. “My law degree and my claims background are useful in my work with construction contractors,” she comments. “I review the risk transfer language in contracts. My clients find it extremely beneficial to work with someone who can understand the contracts they’re signing as well as the contracts they’re asking their subcontractors to sign.”
The Boston area is a major technology hub, and Pappas works with biomedical manufacturers to arrange insurance for the clinical trials they conduct both in the United States and overseas. “It’s fun when I’m insuring a clinical trial in Germany and I get the policy and it’s written in German,” Pappas says with a laugh. “That’s when Google Translate comes in handy.” She also works with technology companies that develop hardware and software products as well as with data center and server movers.
Women in the industry
We asked Pappas for her take on attitudes toward women in the industry, especially in leadership positions. “With carriers, I still think it’s an old boys club,” she responds. “According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, in 2019 women in the insurance industry earned only 62 cents for every dollar a man earned, and I think that’s largely because of the minimal representation of women in C-suite roles.”
To illustrate her point, Pappas shares a story from her days with her previous employer. “An issue of the monthly employee newsletter highlighted the top leadership of the company in a two-page spread with photos, bios, the works. Every photo but one was of a man—and the exception was the woman who was the head of HR. I don’t know why the company was celebrating that,” she says wryly.
“As a producer,” she comments, “my clients respect me for what I can do; gender doesn’t play a role.”
Women bring valuable qualities to leadership positions, Pappas believes. “Women know how to collaborate and how to build personal relationships,” she says. “Men and women are different, and that’s something to be celebrated. It’s not something we need to change in one another. The key is understanding how we are different and how we complement each other as we pursue success.”
For young women, “Opportunities in the independent agency sector are endless,” Pappas declares. “Agencies are always looking for the next rising star, whether it’s a producer, a claims specialist, or an account manager. In an independent agency, you learn how to communicate, deal with conflict, be persuasive, solve problems, and market yourself. Becoming a partner with your clients is the most rewarding work you can do. And in most cases, you have the flexibility to achieve a healthy work/life balance.”
What advice would Pappas offer to a young woman who is considering a career as an independent agent?
“Spend time with a local agent,” she says. “This job is not for everyone. If you’re not comfortable taking absolute personal responsibility, look elsewhere. If you have what it takes, though, being an independent agent can be the best job in the world.”
Do you know a female independent agency leader we should feature? If so, please email details about her as well as contact information to Elisabeth Boone, CPCU, senior features editor (email@example.com). We’ll take it from there.