An account executive internship program straight out of college taught Julie Zimmer (pictured) one very important thing: how undervalued the insurance industry is.
“Without insurance, nothing happens: you can’t get a bank loan to expand your business, you can’t walk out your front door to drive to work and know you’re protected if your house burns down while you’re away, you can’t get a mortgage,” Zimmer, now head of insurance at Flexport, said. “What we do is vitally important to every aspect of the economy and our livelihood and people don’t realize that.”
Her esteem for the industry stoked, Zimmer stuck with insurance and, after a brief stint on the underwriting side and working at some of the largest brokers in the country, she joined Hub International. She spent 14 years with them when they first came to the United States from Canada and with all of nine people at head office, she recalled with a laugh, only a handful were actual insurance people. But Zimmer is first to tell you opportunity is what you make of it.
“I rolled up my sleeves and did a variety of different things because I was willing to say ‘I’ll take that on, I’ll try that’ or ‘let me take a stab at it’,” she said, adding that she grew with the company: she was heavily involved in building their brand and sales operations and when she exited was heading their middle markets globally.
“At Hub I realized that I have a passion for building new things – I struggle to just maintain,” she said. “So I set my sights on insurtech.”
Ten years ago, as insurtech was beginning to emerge, Zimmer realized the intersection of technology and insurance was not only an interesting space but a vital one to sustaining the business into the future. She instinctively sensed that tech innovation wasn’t going to come out of the traditional bricks-and-mortar sections – it had to come from start-ups. Zimmer made the jump to Embroker, a digital insurtech start-up out of San Francisco, where once again she joined the ranks early – she was there setting up the Ikea furniture, she noted – but this time as COO. She’s still a major shareholder today, noting “we built an amazing company that continues to thrive and really pushed the boundaries of traditional business insurance distribution.”
Zimmer’s belief that the real future of insurtech was in embedded distribution and ecosystems led her to Flexport, the first global supply chain company founded after the internet. It allows customers to digitally manage all of their supply chain needs on a single platform, including insurance protection for cargo shipments: if you’re shipping goods from China to the Port of Los Angeles for distribution in Chicago, for example, you can elect to have that cargo insured. It’s an embedded transaction, sold when the purchaser is buying something else, and Flexport is building an ecosystem for the global supply chain.
“I was intrigued, and I decided to put my money where my mouth was and just go build this thing,” Zimmer said.
While Flexport’s approach fit perfectly with Zimmer’s vision, there’s another aspect that was important to her as well: Flexport isn’t just moving commercial goods, they’re also delivering relief to Ukraine, are heavily involved in COVID and PPE, and work with hundreds of charitable organizations to move goods to people in need. With up to 80% of relief budgets going to supply chain expenses, “Flexport.org makes sure when bad things happen around this world we’re responding in meaningful ways.”
“I’m really proud of that: it’s important to have a mission, believe in it and align yourself with companies that support your belief system too,” Zimmer said. “I’m very forward-looking. I wake up every day and try to figure out how we can do things better – that’s what gets me excited and keeps me passionate about what I do.”
Zimmer stays close to innovation in the industry, advising pro bono several insurtech start-ups and sitting on the board of LuckyTruck out of New York. She believes if you are generous with your expertise, good things happen and it pays off down the line – “and it always has for me,” she noted, adding “if there’s a piece of my story that inspires, I’m onboard to share it.”
In the spirit of speaking to her experience, making connections and giving freely of her time, Zimmer is participating in the upcoming Women in Insurance Chicago event. Whenever she speaks to young people in the space – especially young women – she stresses how a combination of traditional insurance and tech makes their resume extremely valuable in this marketplace. From a practical standpoint there’s a talent gap in the industry and no strong bench to fill it, which means there’s more opportunity, especially for women, than there ever has been. For someone who sees that need and wants to expand their career horizons, “insurance as a discipline offers so many different career experiences that not looking into it is a missed opportunity,” Zimmer said.
People also tend to miss out on the riches that can be mined from the last frontier of diversity: experience. A speaker for the session “Lessons learned from a multigenerational workforce,” Zimmer said although diversity of thought, race and gender have become main tenants of business, multigenerational diversity is often overlooked. It’s important – and relevant – to Zimmer, who sees people like herself who’ve been in the business for decades struggling to maintain relevance coexisting with new entrants struggling to build credibility, and that gap can lead to biases.
Everyone’s value propositions are different and good leaders should look at what everyone brings to the table – only diversity of experience can create strong, sustainable businesses. The key to success for Zimmer is simple: everybody, including more mature workers, should challenge themselves to understand new systems, embrace new processes and seek new ways of looking at things.
“Push the envelope and ask yourself if there’s a better way to do something. I’m almost 58-years-old, I work in the tech space and I teach every single day and I learn every single day – it’s what keeps me young, engaged and fulfilled,” she said.
To hear more from Julie on the importance of diversity of experience, register for the Women in Insurance Chicago event today.