The startup has moved from one Des Moines-based accelerator to another

Right after wrapping up the Global Insurance Accelerator’s 100-day program, Safari, a recruitment and training startup targeting the insurance workforce, is now taking part in BrokerTech Venture’s third accelerator cohort that launched in April.

The company started in New York, where founder Jelani Fenton started his insurance career in the leadership development program at insurance brokerage firm Marsh and McLennan. He was one of 50 graduates in the program, but the only male person of color.

“This is the largest insurance brokerage in the world,” Fenton said. “If they can’t find three or even four candidates of color within their pipeline, then I definitely recognized that there wasn’t that large of a pipeline.”

With his lived experience driving him, he started Safari about seven months ago with a focus on addressing three issues: an aging workforce, the workforce’s lack of diversity and awareness of the different roles in insurance.

Fenton’s four-year degree wasn’t in insurance, which also helps spur the mission of Safari to expand access to insurance careers for candidates from different backgrounds and experiences given the wider shift toward skills-based credentials.

“We’re talking about candidates that are highly talented but they’ve just, for whatever reason, that four-year degree path might not necessarily be what they are looking to pursue,” he said. “These are highly talented, highly capable people that just need that opportunity.”

Registered apprenticeships have emerged as a way for companies to introduce new candidates into their pipeline and provide career and educational training at the same time. Some insurance companies have adopted the practice and Fenton wants to make it more widespread.

Safari plans to work with community colleges, military transition offices and employers to create a 12-month program available nationwide where apprentices can gain career training and pursue a two-year degree in risk management while working in their area of interest in the industry.

Below Fenton shares his perspective on the social impact of insurance, the effects of a diverse workforce on consumers and his experience in the Global Insurance Accelerator.

The following Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

What are the reasons you see for the lack of a diverse workforce in the insurance industry?
Firstly it’s difficult to get a large diverse pipeline of candidates when you’ve got structural considerations around where our industry is typically recruiting from. Compared to let’s say, finance or accounting, which you can study anywhere, there’s only so many different universities that you can go to to study risk management and insurance and programs are typically graduating less than 3,000. That’s one piece where it will be very difficult for our industry to be able to recruit a more diverse pipeline because of the fact that they don’t have the feeders on campuses across our country, compared to other industries, which by default, are going to have a larger pool of candidates to pick from.

Secondly, a lot of people have been recruited into this industry from family members or people that might come from their neighborhoods. As you think about that pipeline, if historically many folks say that they might fall into the insurance industry, or they didn’t necessarily set out to pursue a degree in the insurance industry it’s typically because they knew someone within the industry. We know what the typical makeup of the industry is, so it’s going to make it very challenging for our industry to be able to recruit a more diverse pipeline of candidates when we don’t have that many people in the industry to then pull their peers into the industry too.

The last piece is just a lack of awareness. It really kind of ties back to the fact that even at campuses where there are not risk management and insurance programs, students just are not aware of the variety of different career paths that you can take in the insurance industry and it’s just not that viable option for them compared to finance or accounting.

How can having a less diverse workforce affect consumers of color seeking insurance coverage?
For an example, let’s say if you’re a Spanish-speaking consumer, and you’re looking to purchase or literally just get information about your policy from someone — online there’s so many open roles right now for bilingual customer service representatives and agents with that particular skillset. There are such large, embedded folks coming from all these types of backgrounds in our communities across the country. The fact that there is not a market that is particularly servicing those types of consumers, we’re talking about a $3 trillion multicultural consumer market in our country today, and insurance is something that everyone needs. We all know that the demographics of our country are shifting, and if you’re an insurance company and don’t have a workforce that aligns with the shifting demographics of our country, it’s going to be really difficult for you to be able to tap into a growing market, and every insurance company is always looking for ways to grow.

With social impact being a core value of Safari, how do you think it can be practiced in the insurance industry?
When disaster strikes, the first company that you’re going to call is the insurance industry. One of the hidden things that people don’t know about the insurance industry is that it stimulates homeownership in our country where they invest a lot in mortgages and other types of things that ultimately spur entrepreneurialism in our country but also spurs things such as homeownership and other things that give back to broader society.

As I think about how the insurance industry can double down on that effort. We recognize that there’s a huge gap in terms of opportunity in our country right now, where particularly for people coming from certain types of backgrounds, and I would say that this is across demographic but also socioeconomic as well, where it’s getting that much more difficult to be able to achieve upward mobility unless you already have resources. What I think ultimately the insurance industry can do at this point is recognize that they currently have a problem with all things talent, and you can really check off two boxes here as you kind of think about recruiting the types of talent into the pipeline that have been kind of boxed out traditionally from our industry.

From an economic and social mobility perspective, that’s Safari’s bread and butter and we’re looking to go after those types of candidates that the opportunity gap has probably most affected. Insurance companies employ roughly 3 million people in our country today, and that’s a huge opportunity where you’re going to be taking candidates from all types of backgrounds and providing them with a lot of high skill, high opportunity types of career paths, which can serve a business purpose, but also help serve a societal need around really expanding access to high income careers to essentially re-establish the middle class in our country.

What were your impressions of the Global Insurance Accelerator and Des Moines?
Throughout the 100 day process, I would say that the thing that I’ve been telling everyone is that I came in with this pie-in-the-sky idea and GIA was instrumental in allowing me to build a business around that. I think that that’s ultimately been the most valuable part of the experience for me. This accelerator in particular, really could only work in a place like Des Moines because you have that engagement from all stakeholders. You have your investor company engagement, you have your investor company employee engagement, but then you also have the engagement from the broader insurance community in Des Moines. Regardless of if they’re a GIA investor company or not, you have a lot of people that have provided a lot of their time, expertise and knowledge to help the companies going through this program ultimately get off the ground, which I thought was the most instrumental part in like getting us from zero to one, and I wouldn’t call it zero to one yet because we have not started generating revenue yet, but it’s actually laying the foundation for our company today.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to say that Fenton was the only male person of color in his class of the leadership development program at Marsh and McLennan and that he received a four-year degree before starting his insurance career.