In honor of Women’s History Month, PLUS would like recognizes its past women Presidents. PLUS has had three female Presidents in its history, with two of them, Heather Fox (2016) and Debbie Schaffel (2018) serving as President within the last four years. Additionally, moving forward PLUS will have female Presidents in 2021 – Susan Angelo, and 2022 – Jennifer O’Neill. Michelle Romano, who the first female PLUS President in 2002, has retired from the Industry. We took a few moments recently to catch up with Heather and Debbie about their experience in the industry and with PLUS.
What is your current role?
Fox: I serve three roles. I am the General Counsel, managing ARC Excess and Surplus, LLC’s (ARC’s) legal department. I also manage ARC’s Claims Department, advocating with carriers on behalf of ARC’s clients. Finally, in my role as Chief Broking Officer, I act as a resource to all of ARC’s brokers with respect to complex placements and I provide support on emerging coverage trends. I love the varied role because I am involved on the front end with the placement, as well as in the claims, making me stronger in both roles.
Schaffel: I joined Aon in 2003 as a manager in our private and nonprofit practice group and have been the national manager of that group since 2008. I am responsible for a team of 42 people who handle all the management liability needs for Aon’s private and nonprofit clients.
How did you get started in the industry?
Fox: I was practicing law in Boston and wanted to move back to NY. One of my good friends from high school was working at AIG at the time and got me an interview. I knew nothing about insurance at all and didn’t plan to stay in insurance, but I met a great crew of people at AIG and grew to love our business. And here I am over 20 years later still passionate about our business!
Schaffel: I needed a job. When I was a senior in college, I spent most of my non-class time as editor of the Cornell yearbook which was pretty much a full-time job. As a result, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to on-campus recruiting so missed a lot of on campus interview possibilities. The ones I did attend convinced me that my original thought of being a financial analyst was a terrible idea and I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated. As it got closer and closer to graduation, my father told me that I WOULD have a job when I graduated. He knew someone who knew someone at AIG, and I interviewed with them. I interviewed with their construction group and with their management liability group. Luckily for me, the management liability group offered me a job first. Of course, the day I started was the day that the person who was supposed to be my boss quit so it was an interesting start to my career in insurance.
How has the industry advanced in providing opportunities for women and what more needs to be done to open-up opportunities in the future?
Fox: The financial lines industry has made good strides in terms of the number of women with roles in middle management. I think we need to work with women at the start of their careers to support them so that they have the same opportunities as their male colleagues at the critical early stages of their careers. Ultimately, women need more formalized support to achieve equity. There are organizations, such as the PLUS Women’s Foundation and The Bridge that are offering this more formalized support through the efforts of both male and female industry colleagues.
Schaffel: I think that having more women in leadership positions now has definitely helped open up the opportunities for other women who are joining or are newer to the industry. When I was first coming up in insurance it was normal for me to be the only woman in a meeting. While that still happens more often than it should, it is also gratifying to see that there are more and more meetings where the women actually outnumber the men. I’m lucky to work at an organization now where many of our senior roles are held by women and advancement decisions are based on merit rather than gender.
Do you have any advice for women newer in the industry?
Fox: Work hard and network, network, network. Look at every opportunity to strategically expand your network. Don’t just network with other women. Get outside your comfort zone at events by trying to move beyond talking with people you already know. Ask the people you already know to introduce you to others. Pay it forward. Introduce others within your own network.
Schaffel: Be yourself. Don’t try to become someone you’re not. Let your skills speak for themselves.
As busy professionals how did you fit it in and why did you feel it was important to volunteer with PLUS?
Fox: My early involvement in PLUS was important to me mainly for networking and education. As I started to volunteer later in my career, as a co-chair of the D&O Symposium and then as a Trustee and President, I was more focused on giving back to our professional liability community and working to continue to evolve the amazing PLUS organization. I pushed myself to accept the role of President (in addition to my day job) because I knew how important it was for a woman to have the President role, given that only one other woman had been President in PLUS’s almost 30 year history at that time.
Schaffel: Honestly, I volunteered because I thought it would be fun. And a great opportunity for me to meet other people and expand my network in the industry. Both of which were true. I think anyone can find the time for things if they think they are important enough to them to put forth the effort. I spent a lot of time outside of normal work hours catching up on my “real” job because of the hours that I spent volunteering with PLUS and I don’t regret a minute of it. It’s all about finding the right balance for yourself.
What was your favorite part of being the President of PLUS?
Fox: I feel so fortunate to have worked with such a fantastic Board of Trustees and PLUS staff. Some of my favorite memories are the laughs we had at our board meetings and especially our board dinners!
Schaffel: Well, other than working with Robbie and the rest of the PLUS staff (who are all fantastic at what they do), my favorite part was actually the year before I was President when I was President Elect and Conference chair. While I was petrified about getting up in front of a room full of people and giving a prepared speech, the ability to contribute to putting together our signature event was immensely rewarding and a ton of fun. Filming the opening video for the conference took me way outside my comfort zone but, once I did it, it proved to me that I am capable of more than I previously thought I could do. Once I moved on to President, being able to lead our organization forward and have a lasting contribution to our industry was equally rewarding and significant.