Founder, Mernice Oliver Looks Back On NAAWI’s Beginning, Ahead to the Future
It’s been three years since Mernice Oliver founded the National Association for Advancement of Women in Insurance, or NAAWI, and the association has come a long way while navigating through significant industry shifts and a global pandemic. Through it all, the NAAWI team has remained committed to supporting minority women and helping them grow their careers in the insurance industry.
As 2021 comes to a close, Ms. Oliver sat down with veteran insurance journalist and NAAWI’s new Communications Director Amy O’Connor to talk about how the association has evolved and what exciting new opportunities are still to come for its members.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Amy O’Connor (AO): What motivated you to start NAAWI and what was your vision for the association?
Mernice Oliver (MO): My goal was to create an opportunity for minority women. I found there are tons of membership organizations for women in insurance, and financial services but there was nothing specifically for minority women of color and multicultural women in the industry. Sometimes, to be perfectly honest, we get lost in those bigger organizations because we’re just not a priority.
I wanted to create an opportunity for women to come build really solid relationships, build better professional networks, but also be somewhere they can get some personal and professional development and not feel as if they are an afterthought.
We truly wanted to disrupt the industry and offer something different … We really wanted women to feel that they had a sense of community.
AO: How has your vision for NAAWI evolved over the last three years?
MO: I think my conviction for the organization and my commitment to the organization is stronger now than when I started in the beginning. Not to say I wasn’t committed because I absolutely was committed in the beginning, but we’ve had a lot of things happen.
This was pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, pre so many other situations that we all faced … and [NAAWI’s work] is so much more important now than ever. So, if anything has changed, I will say I am even more committed to making sure that women who are in the minority in the insurance industry get what they need so that they can build stronger and thriving careers in the industry. But I also want to attract more women of color into the industry as well.
AO: The murder of George Floyd and the racial justice movement that tragic injustice sparked led many insurance organizations to publicly commit to embracing diversity, equity and inclusion.
How does that compare to when NAAWI started, and do you believe the industry is finally ready to meet this moment and follow through on their commitments?
MO: I hold such tremendous hope that we’re finally going to see some real change. Because the truth of the matter is, no company, no industry, but particularly the insurance industry, can’t just bury their heads in the sand any longer and say, ‘I’m not going to address this. I’m not going to deal with what is happening.’
We’re losing out on top talent, either attracting them or retaining them, because they’re just jumping ship and leaving, or they’re not even considering the insurance industry as a viable career opportunity for themselves.
I would say I hope that we’re going to see some tremendous change, but you know, I always believe you have to put your money where your mouth is.
Now, I would have never thought 20 years ago that any insurance company would have come out and made any commitments to diversity at all. For companies to come out publicly and almost immediately, and some took the lead … So, I hope that other companies have been listening and they’re watching and they have made a commitment to do the same.
AO: What are your goals for NAAWI for 2022?
MO: Our theme, our ‘Four Pillars’ are leadership, diversity, growth and community. So, year three is all about growth. It’s going to be our theme for the year – growth in membership; growth in what we’re offering for our members.
We’re launching the NAAWI Growth Club, which is an opportunity for women who are members to get monthly training for personal and professional development. We’re going to bring in experts from all over the industry to come in and share best practices, their success stories, and really pour into our membership to help them get prepared for the next level in their careers.
We’re also launching a membership drive with a huge lofty goal. We want to start a [NAAWI] community of no less than 10 women in every state in the country. We’re going to be extremely busy expanding those communities nationwide, and also really promoting regional directors for every state. We have some big goals.
AO: Looking back on the last three years since you started NAAWI, what are you most proud of?
MO: I’m most proud that we made it through really the most difficult time in the past 100 years in terms of managing through a pandemic. We kicked off our Executive Roundtables in January of 2021, and I really had no idea how this was going to go. And every month, member attendance has grown, and more people have shown more interest in being part of these roundtables.
That’s really tough considering everyone is kind of scattered, our attention is spread really thin, and people are still committed to showing up. We’ve been able to maintain, we didn’t close, we didn’t fold, we’re still here thriving and looking for even more growth in 2022.
I would say that’s really what I am most proud of, we really stuck it out and came through some really difficult times.