Heidi McCormack has been named a Diversity and Inclusion in Insurance Leader and was a Top 50 Executive Ally for the fourth year in OUTstanding & Yahoo Finance awards. A former executive at General Motors, Heidi spearheaded GM’s entry into Russia and fast became a role model for women in the boardroom.
Here she shares why she decided to start inclusive insurance firm Emerald Life, and what it’s like to work in the insurance industry.
Tell us why you decided to set up Emerald Life?
Some of the most marginalised people in society – women, LGBT+, non-traditional families and single parents – are also some of the most discriminated when it comes to financial services, like insurance.
My friend and business partner, Steve Wardlaw – who is a former lawyer and a prominent LGBT+ activist – wanted to create a business that focused on these four cohorts of consumers who are radically underserviced and underinsured. In actual fact, this is not a niche market, but constitutes 80% of the insurable population.
We didn’t initially have the intent to set up an insurance business. It is, after all, often perceived as one of those ‘boring but important’ services. But we heard so many anecdotes from friends and acquaintances about financial discrimination – from gay couples who’ve adopted children but didn’t fall within the insurance company’s definition of ‘family’ to people who have been turned down for insurance because of HIV, and countless other stories – that we wanted to do something about this. No other insurance company was doing anything to change the status quo.
That is how Emerald Life came to be. We are disruptors in the insurance space, focusing on diversity and inclusion. We want to catalyse positive social change and modernise an industry that only benefits so-called ‘traditional’ aspirational models of people or constructs of family (white, heterosexual, male).
Why is it so important to you to have a strong mission around diversity and inclusion?
In terms of values, reforming old systems that previously discriminated particular consumers is absolutely the right thing to do. But also, diversity and inclusion is our USP – it is the foundation upon which our business is built. Our success as an organisation is determined by how successful we are at making financial products accessible to all those who will ordinarily be rejected, discriminated or have uncomfortable customer journeys with existing providers. But our success is also determined by how effective we are at causing reform in the wider insurance industry and tackling financial discrimination of the marginalised as a whole. Our business also supports a number of charities too; we set up the Emerald50Fund in order to support grassroots LGBT+ activism in South Africa.
How did you get into the insurance business?
Neither me nor my business partner Steve, have a background in insurance. Much of my career has actually been in investment banking and mergers and acquisitions.
I studied Middle East Studies at university and my first job was in business development for a large construction company. I then lived in Russia for 25 years, privatising a major automotive company and then became an Executive Director at General Motors.
At this point, Steve was a top oil and gas lawyer also working in Russia. He wanted to create a business that would advocate LGBT+ rights, and I very much wanted to be a part of that journey.
Steve’s original idea was to set up an LGBT-friendly retirement home but the financial crisis of 2008 killed that dream. It wasn’t until a good few years later did we come up with the idea of setting up an insurance company.
Listening to people’s lived experiences of discrimination when purchasing financial products really struck a chord. So we conducted market research to explore this further and learned that LGBT+ people are 50% less likely to have insurance than straight people. In addition to this, they are more likely to have very negative customer service experiences.
That was our calling. We now had both a social mission and a business case for setting up a venture that addressed these issues. Emerald Life is the culmination of that vision and a mandate for positive change.
To get the business off the ground, we used our personal savings and our own networks – including former colleagues and family – to raise investment. It was clearly something that many people believed in because we managed to collect £1.8m from the funding round.
What is an average day like for you?
An ‘average’ day in the age of Covid is naturally different from the ‘old’ norm. I get up, make myself a cup of tea, and then glance at emails. I do 15 minutes of pilates, take a shower and begin my work day at home. Like most people I’m sure, the day is a combination of video calls, emails and ‘deep-think’ work for which the phone gets turned off so I can concentrate with no distractions.
One of the challenges of working from home is that it’s difficult to switch off. The boundaries between home and work are easily blurred, so I’ve found myself actually working longer hours than before.
Before Covid, each day was very different. I used to walk to my office in Bermondsey. The ‘heart’ of the insurance industry is across London Bridge, and so I used to walk to most of my meetings. You get to see the best parts of the City and I find it’s great exercise.
There are really two distinct parts to my day job: firstly, there are internal reviews and meetings with the marketing team, plus strategic, financial and accounting reports to oversee. Secondly, there are lots of meetings with potential corporate partners, our underwriters, charities and other non-profit organizations we support, like WOFFF (the Women Over Fifty Film Festival). In an average week, I have three to four evenings of business drinks or dinners or functions to attend.
What’s the thing you love best about what you do? Why should others get into this field?
My job is actually my passion, so although it’s “work”, often it doesn’t feel like it. I feel very strongly about what we do and our social mission, and that energises me in the day to day.
It feels great seeing people respond positively to what we do too. We’re a small team, but we are knitted together by a strong sense of purpose.
I also love that, in this line of work, we have met some of the most inspiring people. I don’t mean this in the traditional ‘hero’ sense of the word but people who have conquered great personal challenges and adversities – from survivors of domestic violence to those who have overcome addiction – to become stronger and more empowered from their experiences. This is a human-centred business, and we listen closely to people’s narratives to inform what we do.
What are some setbacks or obstacles you’ve faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
Interestingly, being treated as if I were invisible at meetings. The insurance industry is very conservative – like an old boy’s club, there is just no diversity. Despite my standing as CEO of Emerald Life, I primarily deal with white men over the age of 50 who would rather converse with by business partner Steve. This is certainly not the experience I had while I was running General Motors in Russia. This may be surprising, but I found Russia much more accommodating to female leadership than the UK insurance sector.
What’s the biggest misconception about working in insurance?
The biggest misconception is that working in the industry is ‘boring’. There are so many facets to insurance: sales and marketing, claims, regulatory aspects including compliance, customer satisfaction, the IT of both back office systems and front of house web journeys, how people experience and engage with your site and the brand – it’s actually really varied.
Designing our products for various cohorts and understanding their wants, needs, priorities; analysing what the competitors are failing to do; developing compelling marketing campaigns – there are so many moving parts to working in insurance. I find all aspects fascinating.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into this field?
There are some very exciting opportunities in the insurance sector, and the industry is slowly starting to innovate. Great change is required and equates to great opportunities – plus so many different roles available if you want to pursue a career in financial services. I would say that, if you don’t have any experience in the insurance industry, don’t worry. Being an outsider and having fresh eyes and a fresh perspective can actually be beneficial. Before Emerald Life, I had no insurance industry experience, but this actually helped me question the standard way of doing things and enabled me to think outside the box. Coming from outside an industry can enable you to develop ideas that have impact and drive change.
Can you tell us your plans for the future – what’s next?
We are always looking to add new products to our offering. In particular, we are working on ‘protection products’ – which involve critical illness cover and income protection cover; all important cover should ones’ life circumstances take a turn for the worse. These products provide income streams if one becomes sick or injured and cannot work. As with our existing products, we are working with potential providers to ensure that new products are both state of the art, do not discriminate, and fully embrace all of our customer groups.
If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
Three things: be kind, give the benefit of the doubt and listen, listen, listen … you will learn so much.