e004. Community Outreach with Ralph Smithers, Jr.

Ralph Smithers (He/Him) is the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Community Relations Leader for Encova Insurance. Encova provides workers compensation and other commercial insurance, as well as auto, home, and life insurance for individuals. Encova employs 1200 associates and serves clients in 29 states. The company is based in Columbus, Ohio.

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In this episode, Ralph highlights how Encova leads within the Columbus business community to have a broader impact on equity.

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“Community Outreach” Full Episode

Full Episode Transcript

Welcome to including you. I’m your host, Amy C. Waninger. My guest today is Ralph Smithers, Jr. Ralph is the diversity equity, inclusion and community relations leader for Encova insurance Encova provides

[00:01:00] workers’ compensation and other commercial insurance, as well as auto home and life insurance. For instance. Encova employees about 1200 associates and serves clients in 29 states.

The company is based in Columbus, Ohio, and Ralph is a dear friend of mine going back several years. Ralph, welcome to the show. I am so glad to have you

It is as an absolute pleasure to be here.

Thank you so much. So I’m curious, because I know you’ve been in your role for several years now, and let’s be Frank.

The insurance industry is not always on the cutting edge of progress in terms of how we manage, how companies get managed. Let’s just, I think that’s fair to say. So when Encova started this work or as they continue this work, what drives. The need for this and in Encova what are the, what’s the why behind diversity and inclusion in Encova.

Thanks. Thanks for saying that, Amy, and I’m glad you said that. I w I was thinking it, but you said it, and I think the reality is. In

[00:02:00] order for our company to have a future ready workforce that is ready to respond to the dramatically changing demographics in our country, where we are expected to become majority minority in our country by 2042.

And every time someone does more research, it gets sooner. It was 2045. When I first started looking at that when you consider that generation Z is already majority minority. So your fresh talent pool is gonna look a lot different than say, 20 years ago or however long you want to go back.

Maybe even not that long. It becomes urgent to make sure that we are positioning ourselves so that we can not only have a future ready workforce, but to be able to relate to our customers, even if our colleagues don’t reflect the diversity of all the communities we’re in our customers will and have a good foundation to be able to talk to our

[00:03:00] customers, relate to them, respond to their needs respect, whatever sensibilities they have, as far as, making that important transaction, then we’re going to have trouble in the future.

You know, that is so true and that’s one of the reasons that I tell companies, you can’t really sit on this any longer. This is an urgent need now. And I know, from talking to you before that Encova has some key performance indicators around this, around what you want your workforce to look like, act and behave can you tell us a little bit more about how you’re measuring success in this area? For some people, I think it can feel squishy or intangible.

Sure. And there’s certainly a lot of intangibles in this, but I would say that the driving objective that I’ve always looked at facing this work is to make sure that our workforce reflects the diversity of the communities we serve.

Now, we have offices in places that aren’t very diverse.

[00:04:00] So we can’t have unrealistic expectations about what we can do there. But here in Columbus we are the fastest growing metropolitan area and city in the region. Columbus has been the largest city in Ohio for years, but our metropolitan areas about the takeover.

And that’s coming at the expense of other parts of the state and one of the things that’s really interesting, we’re expecting in Columbus to have an increase in our population of 1 million by 2050. Which isn’t that far away it’s abstract, I can go back that far in my career.

And I was, in, in the workforce for a few years, so it’s abstract, but it’s really not that far out, but we in Columbus we have seen upwards of 82% of the new people coming to Columbus being born outside of the United States. That’s our talent and I used to say this, especially to our the CEO that was

[00:05:00] present when I was first came into this role. If we are in the fastest growing city, in our largest state. We really have to be dialed in to all this, because I believe, nowadays in an insurance, being a insurance industry veteran yourself you understand that when things start going bad, we start looking at our loss ratio. We start looking at or underwriting.

We start looking at our marketing. We start looking at all those traditional factors to see how things are going. But I am convinced that in our industry, as well as all industries. That DEI is going to be another diagnostic if a company is not performing as it should be, because if you don’t have the talent, if you can’t get access to talent, if you can’t appeal to the customers that are out there, then you’re going to start to falter and I think DEI is going to be a diagnostic, it’s going to go right up there with all the other financials.

[00:06:00] I completely agree with you. I think that this is so important and I know that in the past, there’s been a lot of stigma around words like quotas, but what we’re talking about, isn’t quota so much as representation and making sure that the inside of your company matches the outside of your company, so you can continue to do business and I think when we focus on numbers, We track the numbers, but we focus on why those numbers are important. We can probably bridge those gaps a little bit faster. Don’t you agree?

Absolutely. In fact I get it. I had a chance to talk to a group earlier this week and it got to make a few points. So first of all, I here in Ohio for the first time in recorded history, we had a higher death rate than birth. So trends are accelerating. That’s the first time that’s ever happened in Ohio and it’s happened in a few other states as well. So I always stress that and especially when that question about quotas comes up, because it does come up. That’s the association that a

[00:07:00] lot of people have about this work and I just stress that one, Diversity equity and inclusion benefits everyone and it’s not a matter of, or it’s a matter of more no one is going to get displaced. Population changes in birth rates are taking care of that. A lot of what’s been driving the great resignation.

I don’t know this for sure, but I’ve seen a few things that suggest that. The baby boomers moving into retirement has been a big factor in this. And that’s something that I know I was looking at some of our data, five years ago, I knew it was going to be pretty dramatic. So no one is going to get displaced.

It’s going to be a matter of having to deal with the available talent and the available customers and if you don’t choose to respond to that, then you know, you might have trouble.

Yeah, there are so much opportunity. Not just in the insurance industry, in a lot of industries, there is so much opportunity to go around and really, it’s not about people

[00:08:00] fighting over jobs. It’s about companies fighting for people right now, especially, and I know one of the things that you’ve done retaining employees is so important when you’re talking about a tight labor market. One of the things that Encova has done has been to launch employee resource groups. You guys did that about four or five years ago, I think, and I was wondering if that has helped with your retention and how that has played into your success at Encova.

Yeah. Our resource groups at, Encova are the heartbeat of our DE and I efforts being a department of one, I really lean on our leaders to help, and they do, it’s a labor, it’s a passion play, it’s a labor of love, and I’ll tell you what, I’ve heard this many times many times where I’ve had people say, being part of this group is what gets me up in the morning. It’s what keeps me here. They look for, with the resource, before resource groups, you tended to only connect with people in your immediate department and maybe a handful of stakeholders outside of your immediate work group. Whereas

[00:09:00] this has helped people, especially when you consider that we have, certain populations that are so underrepresented, this is allowed connections to occur across our enterprise and, we’re really spread out. We’re more spread out now than ever. We only have maybe a third of our population here in Columbus and maybe another, but less than a third in Charleston, West Virginia, and then when you start spreading out, when you’re doing. Claims, adjusters, marketing folks, all of the other people that make an insurance operation go, we are really spread out. So even those department level connections, especially with COVID are not quite the same as they used to be, but the resource group connections are drawing people together.

People are fighting a higher purpose oftentimes in the work and the experiences that they get and all, ultimately, I think it contributes to allowing people to find a way to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves.

So all of that success that you’ve had with those employee

[00:10:00] resource groups, was that what you anticipated would happen?

Like what was the goal when you started them to begin with? Because again, you were ahead of the curve on this, especially in your industry.

Yeah. That’s a great question. So, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to give you a shout out, Amy. I, before I came into this space, I was a full blown hardcore insurance person. I’m a charter property, casualty underwriter among other titles and designations. And I remember when we were really trying to get this off the ground, there was this great article in CPCU magazine written by none other than Amy Waninger about resource groups, what their purpose is, how they’re structured, what they’re intended to do and that turned out to be such a helpful resource for me to help communicate what we were trying to do. Both for our associates who really had no idea and our leadership. So, I did want to give you a shout out for

[00:11:00] that. So

thank you.

So, the goals that, that we have, we I consulted with any person that did this work, who would have lunch with me or coffee.

I bought a lot of coffee and bought a lot of lunch. Most of it out of my own pocket to really learn and brains from anyone who would sit down and talk with me, and we established a high level pillars of what we were hoping to charter our resource groups around, and I’ll give a shout out to Honda.

We actually. I have a big Honda plant, not too far away, and they actually had a model that we mostly adopted our plan from, and the goal was is that, we didn’t want to have this, not a club. We, we didn’t want to have clubs don’t really have we wanted our groups to serve the business.

So we, we wanted to create networking was one objective. And I’m going to try to make sure I remember all this networking service to the community professional development.

[00:12:00] And I can’t remember the third off the top of my head, but I’m going to remember it as soon as we’re done, I’m sure. But personal professional development, networking service to the community.

And also, I guess the other one, I just remembered what it was contributing to the business operation. So an example of that is we had the national urban league conference here. Back in 2018, right? When we were first launching our resource groups and we had members of our African American resource group accompany our talent acquisition team to the urban league expo so that folks can speak to their own experience about the company and be able to help those that are trying to figure out if insurance is something that they want to do could maybe get a friendly face and maybe someone they might be able to relate to.

Countless examples of that. Our LGBTQ group has been instrumental in helping us review and get some of our policies changed and help us increase our corporate equality index score. We’ve had a working parents

[00:13:00] group has done things like having a virtual graduation ceremony to help recognize our young people our  young stakeholders who are parents of our associates, or I’m sorry, the kids of our associates when COVID shut down all the graduation ceremony. So, you go through all of those different things. So that definitely added a lot of texture and quality networking and overall sense of belongingness.

I think that’s all fantastic. I love the connection that you make. And I know your role specifically focused, not just internally, but also on community relations and community impact from within Encova.

And I noticed too, because I follow you on social media and I follow pretty closely my insurance friends, people are taking notice of this outside of, Encova. I have seen your picture on, I don’t know how many stages recently holding different trophies and awards and plaques and certificates of

[00:14:00] excellence, and I was wondering if you can tell us just a little about I think you got one just this last week, didn’t you?

Yeah, thank you, Amy. I appreciate that. First thing I’ll say is that I had been very fortunate, very blessed. I’ve been able to be recognized for different things and sometimes. It’s like getting a purple heart.

You get the recognition, but when you look at all the blood and sweat and tears that went into it, flip a coin, I’m glad to be recognized, but boy, I’ve got marks to show what that was all about. I’ve had a couple, I’ll share some of have a little more meaning to me, I was actually a recognized as an outstanding diversity champion by Columbus business first, this was three years ago now, and the folks that nominated me for that were from our LGBTQ resource group and I helping move some policies along that made a huge impact on our corporate equality index score. As well as just the overall quality life of our

[00:15:00] company, and that was hard. That, that was really hard. It wasn’t as if everything was going my way on that, and that one was almost like a purple heart in some ways where I felt like I suffered a little bit, but we were, being recognized was amazing. I also, and this is another one that means a lot to me.

I just recently got recognized by Ohio state, by the office of diversity inclusion at Ohio state. I think it was outstanding or distinguished community volunteer. I think that’s what it says. Forgive me. I actually received scholarships from the Ohio state office of diversity inclusion. When I was a student, I was a pioneer in that respect, such that most of my school’s paid for, and I have ever since that time, I was one of those students that, they say C’s get degrees and, I relate to that a little, and I was a student who just barely qualified for the program that I was in, and they gave me the scholarship and that scholarship

[00:16:00] actually grew over my time in school, such that I was able to graduate debt free and just completely appreciate that blessing.

So I made a commitment as a 20 something. It’s this one day, I’m going to pay all this back with interest, and I’m a friend of mine launched a scholarship called the bucking, the trend scholarship at Ohio state that was focused towards African-American males to help buck the trend of African-American males not graduated from college. We didn’t want to see anyone not make it through school because they didn’t have the resources. So, we started pulling our own resources together. About 10 years ago, I was invited to participate in that and we not only have provided over $20,000 worth of scholarships.

Largely out of our own pockets, but we’ve also connected with the students and we tell them all the time we, you know, instead of just handing them a check, we might have

[00:17:00] lunch or a gathering. We might connect on LinkedIn or what have you, and we tell them all the time. The scholarship is nice and it’s something that’s gonna really help you out right now.

But what we’d like to try to do is do some networking with you and that network is going to be worth many times more than your scholarship is so that, so I got recognized for kind of my work in that a couple of weeks ago have also been recognized as a oh, as an outstanding advocate from the Ohio minority supplier development council.

That meant a lot trying to move that along, and supplier diversity is a little bit outside of my regular lane, but I want to make sure that we’re trying to make an impact there with that, and then also. That the company has been recognized versus some other other things around the community certainly that I had, it had a big part in, so I’m really proud of that. But most importantly to me is the results. The awards are nice, but the outcomes are better.

Absolutely, and I think

[00:18:00] it’s nice when people notice the outcomes, right? To me, the awards are about somebody noticed the outcome, and when you have that kind of an impact repeatedly in your community, people are bound to notice the impact that you’re having, and I’m, so I’m always happy to see people recognized for their work. I’m going to be selfish and admit I’m extra happy when it’s people that I know. So just know that every time I see you holding one of those awards, it just, it warms my heart and it makes me smile and it makes me proud to be associated with somebody who’s doing such amazing things.

I feel the same, my biggest reward is getting to have a conversation with you. That definitely goes both ways, and I will say this, a lot of the work is thankless. Usually when you’re out there, you’re having to extend yourself a little bit.

You’re putting your neck out there. Usually, a lot of times you only hear about something if it goes wrong, you’re taking a big risk. You might be spending so much time on something that might be outside of your core work

[00:19:00] duties that maybe you don’t respond to an email or you miss something in the office. That’s the ongoing risk, but, to your point, it is quite a blessing to, to be noticed, and I don’t do anything for that purpose, but when you are noticed it, it means a lot. So, I appreciate you asking about.

Oh, of course. I’m glad to now your work, I know you got big plans for Encova but I wanted to talk about it was as we think toward the future you’re involved as an advisor to the Columbus partnership and that’s a, an association of central Ohio CEOs.

And I know that you’ve got some big plans there too. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s next? Not just for, Encova, but also for Columbus.

Sure. So, I’m one of several advisers better both from the corporate and the non-profit community to help talk to our leaders about formulating a strategy here in central Ohio to make

[00:20:00] diversity equity and inclusion our regional economic advantage, and it’s very exciting because the partnership has a tremendous track record of getting things done. Big things. Our most recent initiative was call it smart Columbus to try to get more ready for electric vehicles and things like that. So everywhere you go, you see a place to plug in an electric car and you see a lot of things getting ready.

So, the partnership is looking at trying to do the same thing in a DE and I, and this was just reported in our Columbus dispatch in our newspaper earlier this week. So, I could certainly share it, but there’ve been some of the brightest minds in the world doing research on this and most exciting things that we have going on in Columbus right now is that Intel is building a new plant here in central Ohio, which is expected to bring $10 billion worth of economic benefit to the region Everyone’s all dialed in ready, very

[00:21:00] excited about Intel and what that means with the chip shortages and everything. It’s gonna help a lot of things out, but the study that was done. Suggested, and if we can reach a state of equity, particularly with African-Americans with the efforts that are underway, that we could realize a new Intel plant every year it’s, this is the equivalent benefit.

So, $10 billion a year of the economic impact to our region. So, it’s really cool to be able to be in the room to see where all these deliberations and research and discussions are occurring, and to see that kind of get translated into that kind of economic result is very exciting, and Columbus is going to try to do its best to take the lead in that so that we can be a thriving, exciting place to live.

I think that’s incredible, and I want to say this another way, if I may, because I don’t want this to get lost on anyone in case they didn’t

[00:22:00] make this logical jump. If building equity in Columbus for the African-American community will generate $10 billion of impact every year. Then the reverse of that is the inequity in place right now is costing the community $10 billion per year, until that goes away. Is that fair to say?

Absolutely. In fact, I would argue that it might even be higher because, the $10 billion is presumed to be an ROI that comes in the form of, higher compensation and, those sorts of things.

I don’t know exactly what they study, if you look at all the other issues that are prevalent whether it be. We have opioid challenges. We have infant mortality challenges. You start looking at the stresses that go on the healthcare system. It’s quite possible. In fact I don’t know this for sure, but I believe it will probably, if we dug into it, we’d find out that we’re probably being weighed down more than

[00:23:00] that, just because of all the other bad things that happen when equity does not exist.

Yeah, and it’s interesting because we’re always asked, I think as diversity and inclusion professionals, we’re always asked for a business case around why we want to change something, and I always want to ask in response. I don’t usually, because I don’t want people to think that I’m a smart Alec, but I always want people to tell me what’s the business case for doing it the way we’ve always done it? What’s the business case for staying in this place? and when we look at an area like Columbus where we’re saying the economic drain of the status quo is 10 billion plus per year. The business case for change writes itself. We don’t need to make a case for it. We can just say, look, you’re spending billions of dollars unnecessarily and not just unnecessarily, but. To your own detriment, and I just, I feel like this is such important work that needs to be done, and the way you’re doing this in collaboration and in partnership

[00:24:00] with your region and not just within your own company, I think is. Both commendable and smart and necessary, but also in many ways, revolutionary. Cause I don’t know that a lot of mid-sized companies in mid-size cities are thinking this way, and so thank you, Ralph, really for the work that you do for the impact that you’re having, and thank you for being on, including you. I’m so glad to see you again.

It was an absolute pleasure, Amy. And I’m a huge fan of yours. I, every time you do a live stream on LinkedIn, every time I can, when I’m available, I’m trying to try to log in and make sure I see that, and really appreciate making sure that we push that business case because there are skeptics out there, and especially in the corporate world where we’re motivated by bottom line results and having been a finance major and having that mindset, it’s really cool to be a part of that and be able to relay, some of those

[00:25:00] things I’ve been able to learn through this journey.

So thank you. Absolutely.

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Amy C. Waninger Author Bio

Amy C. Waninger is the Founder & CEO of Lead at Any Level, where she improves employee engagement and retention for companies that promote from within. Amy offers assessments, advisory services, and training on essential skills for inclusive leaders. She is the author of eight books. Learn more at www.LeadAtAnyLevel.com

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