Sharon Emek: A teacher of insurance and motivator to many

Sharon Emek, like many in the insurance industry, started her career in a different field. She spent several years employed as a professor at Rutgers University as a professor of English. From there, she formed The Emek Group, where she served as president and CEO for more than 20 years. After leading her own successful company, she served 13 years as partner at CBS Coverage Group, Inc.

But it’s Emek’s newest venture that is making waves within the insurance industry. In 2010, she launched Work at Home Vintage Experts, LLC (WAHVE), which offers an innovative contract staffing talent solution for insurance firms. WAHVE bridges the gap between insurance firms staffing needs and “vintage” insurance professionals desiring to phase into retirement working from home, enabling insurance firms to get the work done at a significant savings, whether it be customer service, policy checking, rating, underwriting or claims.

WAHVE’s success recently led Emek, Ph.D., to be named the Vistage Leadership Legacy award winner at SmartCEO‘s New York Brava! awards event in August 2016.

The award honors exceptional high-impact female small business executives across any industry with an average annual revenue of $5 million to $100 million.

“We selected Sharon because she has broken the mold of the traditional insurance staffing structure, in a way that is changing lives and producing impressive results,” said Lee Peters, regional executive for Vistage’s mid-Atlantic region.

WAHVE now has more than 350 vintage professionals working remotely for over 275 insurance firms throughout the country, including agencies, carriers and MGAs. With the July 20 addition of the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina, 24 state insurance agent associations have endorsed WAHVE’s services for its members.

Emek, who serves as the CEO at WAHVE, recently took the time to respond to the following questions for this week’s Women’s Insurance Network Producer Profile feature.

 

How did you get your start in the insurance industry? Why insurance?

I ended up in the insurance business by chance. While I was teaching writing, I was also doing some consulting to help companies teach their managers how to write. I became interested in management and decided to take graduate courses in organizational structures and management to better help my clients.

I left Rutgers and became a management consultant to businesses and was eventually referred to a large insurance agency in New Jersey to help them get organized. It was the early 1980s, during the advent of computerization. The agency did not have any written procedures and for the first time had to use various insurance companies’ computer terminals. Each employee did things the way they learned at their previous employer so each file was managed differently.

The agency principles were great sales people but not good managers. I developed an organizational structure and procedures for them. What I subsequently learned was that their agency was typical of most agencies.

I was then referred to a large broker in New York, which led to my deciding to specialize in management consulting for insurance brokers. Based on my work, Aetna and Chubb began referring agencies to me to help them get organized and use their computer systems. Eventually, Aetna and Chubb encouraged me to open my own insurance brokerage and they helped me get started. They felt the industry needed some women agency owners. I agreed with them and went back to school to become an insurance expert, get my broker’s license and CIC.

 

What do you see as some of the biggest issues facing the industry today?

One of the biggest issues I believe the industry is facing is attracting and keeping young talent. The industry needs a lexicon change. Young people don’t look at insurance as an exciting career. If we were described as the risk management industry, that we identify and assess threats to organizations and recommend methods of mitigation, we would attract Millennials. The industry’s rigid management style also is a deterrent. It needs to be more flexible and technology enables that.

At the same time, the insurance industry is set to lose a huge percentage of its experienced workforce. The industry needs to change their mindset about the ability of older workers to extend their careers in flexible work arrangements.

In the next 10 years, artificial intelligence (AI) will transform many jobs and some current products will become negligible, like personal auto insurance, as people won’t own cars. It will be cars as a service with driverless cars.

Workers comp will be a much smaller market as factory jobs and most dangerous jobs will be done by robots, which is already happening. Robots don’t get fingers cut off or have soft-tissue back injuries, and definitely no sexual harassment issues. We should be thinking about what jobs AI will disrupt in our industry.

 

How have you handled being a woman in a male-dominated industry?

At first it was difficult. In the late 1980s, when I would walk into an industry meeting, I would be the only woman. I would typically be asked if my father, husband or boss sent me to represent him. I would answer, “I sent myself.” I did not let them ruffle my feathers. I was confident I knew more about how to run an insurance agency than they did, and that I knew more about insurance than most of them did.

How I handled being a woman was to be more knowledgeable, smarter, more involved in the industry and run a stellar agency. The insurance companies noticed and invited me to be on their agency advisory boards. I joined the Big I of New York Board and became the second woman chair of the board.

 

What would you tell women who are running their own agencies or advisory firms?

I would tell them to believe in themselves, overcome the fear of taking risks, be bold and run a state of the art, forward-thinking, best practices agency that nurtures and rewards talent. They should become active in the industry as well since that will give them perspective and access, both of which are essential. The industry has far more women leaders today, but still the percentage is small.

 

What did you gain from earning your Ph.D. in English and how have you applied it to your business?

What I gained from being a professor is how to listen, and the understanding of how people learn. A classroom is like running a small business and when you have multiple classes to teach each semester, you are actually running many small businesses. Each classroom is, in a sense, a microcosm of humanity and has its unique makeup. You have to manage 30 to 100 people in each class, deal with different personalities and different ways of learning. You learn to focus on how best to teach these students so that they gain the knowledge they need to succeed in the world.

When I started my agency, I never thought that I was selling anything. I thought I was teaching prospective clients about their businesses or personal exposures, the risks that faced them and how best to protect their assets. I was passionate about teaching them and enrolling them in my approach.

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