Women’s Stories: Speaking Out on Diversity and Inclusion

By Randy Myers

Diversity and inclusion have shot to the top of the agenda at many businesses. At the 2021 SVIA Spring Seminar, several of the stable value industry’s most prominent women leaders shared insights into their careers, offered advice for other women, and talked about ways to promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace. They revealed themselves to be strong fans of mentoring, networking, taking risks, and being their authentic selves on the job.

They included Bradie Barr, president of Transamerica Stable Value Solutions Inc.; Cindy Cristello, director of contract and product development in the stable value solutions group at New York Life; Karen Edgerton, senior vice president and head of stable value at Reinsurance Group of America; Aruna Hobbs, head of institutional investments at MassMutual; and Lacey Lockward, vice president and head of stable value at Prudential Financial. Jennifer Gilmore, head of stable value portfolio management for Invesco Fixed Income, moderated the discussion.

The importance of taking risks
Few people achieve career success without taking a risk somewhere along the way. Risk and opportunity, Hobbs told participants at the Spring Seminar, are inextricably intertwined. She took a risk when, looking past the doubts of her community, she came to the U.S. in her early 20s with no money, a college scholarship, and a plane ticket purchased by her father. As a more recent example, she took a risk again by leaving a good company and colleagues she enjoyed to join MassMutual, where she would be taking on new challenges to run a business but is grateful for the opportunity and the team she works with. “Learn to recognize risk as an opportunity, do your homework, and then go with what your gut tells you,” Hobbs concluded. “Nine times out of 10 women have strong, instinctive feelings and can lean into that as they move forward.”

Cristello also took a risk when she left a job with an established company to help start a stable value wrap business for a French bank building a presence in the U.S. She made the leap, she said, because even though she was comfortable in her prior job she was not entirely happy—she wanted more opportunity to put her own stamp on things. She also was reassured by the bank’s commitment to the new venture. Finally, she said, she was not fearful, having always believed that “if you want to succeed you can’t think about failure.”

Edgerton’s career has shown that navigating risk can sometimes involve doing things that make us uncomfortable, but also having the courage to push back if too many red flags are waving. At one point in her career, Edgerton explained, she turned down a job when the employer pressured her for a fast decision on taking it even though she still had questions about it. Later, she took a job that would require some uncomfortable time learning new skills, and today remains grateful for that challenge and what it taught her. “I sometimes wonder if part of the reason we can’t make more strides is that we stay in our comfort zone and don’t push ourselves to be uncomfortable,” she summarized.

Barr described herself as someone who does not take a lot of risk. “It’s why I’m in stable value,” she quipped. But whatever the challenge, she has learned that hard work and authenticity can go a long way toward meeting it. “I’ve always found that as long as I’m true to me and the people I love, things work out in the end,” Barr said. Also important, she suggested, is keeping work issues in perspective. “When I look at the risks I’ve taken in my personal life with matters of the heart, coming out as a lesbian to my very conservative Southern family was a heck of a lot riskier than whether or not we were going to allow a couple of extra high-yield securities into a portfolio, or whether I was moving from city A to city B for my career,” she said.

Promoting diversity and inclusion
To promote diversity and inclusion in the workforce, Barr advised firms to look beyond the top business schools when hiring and look to historically black colleges and women’s colleges—and to consider hiring liberal arts graduates. She noted that one of her early career heroes was Irving Bailey, president and CEO of Capital Holding Corp., an insurance company that ultimately became part of Transamerica. It was under the leadership of Bailey, a French major in college, that Capital Holding introduced the first synthetic GIC issued by a U.S. insurance company.

Barr also called on business leaders to be intentional about making sure everyone who belongs at the table is at the table when making decisions, and to be brave about calling out sexism, even if it means speaking out to a supervisor or senior executive.

Hobbs encouraged companies to build more women and diverse senior leaders as it can have a halo effect in the ranks – If I can see it, I can be it. She urged business leaders to become advocates for junior colleagues who deserve career opportunities and to help them share the spotlight. She also advised periodically bringing people peripheral to a business discussion into meetings to help broaden their horizons, and to “seek out the quietest voice in the room” to encourage participation by colleagues whose voices otherwise might not be heard.

Even absent formal policies, individual business leaders can make a difference on the diversity and inclusion front, Edgerton said. Her company, Reinsurance Group of America, is led by a woman and makes diversity and inclusion a top agenda item. She told the story of a European colleague whose business unit began requiring the last two candidates for any position to be a man and a woman. “Within a very short period of time, they had substantially increased their number of female employees,” Edgerton said. She theorized that that simple approach could be helping employers overcome biases they might inadvertently bring to the early stages of the hiring process.

Lockward observed that most people have times in their career when they feel unseen or unheard, and she shared several ways she has sought to combat that. One has been by finding an ally among colleagues—someone who can provide unvarnished feedback on how she is performing and support her when needed, and for whom she can do the same. When required to inform others that they need to change their own behaviors, Lockward added, it can help to first ask their permission by saying something like “I want to help you get to the next step” or “I want to help you be seen and heard and I have some ideas; can I share them with you?” That approach, she suggested, may help colleagues feel more included and valued in the workplace.

Cristello said New York Life is rewriting job descriptions to appear more inclusive and recommending that hiring managers consider removing overtly masculine words like “ambitious” and, during the interview process, focusing more on a candidate’s motivation and skills rather than which company they’re coming from or what school they attended. New York Life also is working to ensure that salaries and benefits packages are consistent across diverse groups, she said.

Advice to their younger selves
Gilmore asked each of the panelists what advice they would give to their younger selves if given the opportunity.

Hobbs said she would have advised her younger self to be bolder and more confident, to be mindful that some of the worst work experiences are also the best growing experiences, and to cultivate communication and networking skills earlier in her career because they become more important later. Edgerton also would have advised more bravery and confidence, as well as listening more, having more fun, devoting more time to her own mental and emotional health and wellness, and advocating for herself more often.

Barr said she would have told her younger self to ask more questions, but also to be a bit more thoughtful about what she was doing. Cristello would have pushed back harder against the idea that women in the workplace should not show emotion or discuss their family lives, because “it’s much better to be authentic.” Lockward would have advised her younger self to go to graduate school sooner than she did (she went after 11 years in the workforce) and to be less shy about voicing her ideas and opinions at work.

Perhaps the most common thread in each woman’s story was a willingness to stretch beyond their comfort zone at key points in their careers.

“If I have a life motto,” Barr concluded, “it’s ‘See a need, meet a need,’ which I got from my grandmother. She was the person who jumped in and just took care of a need, no matter what it was.”

Watch the presentation here