Heather Zepeda had achieved the goal she had sought throughout her school years — practicing law at a prominent international firm in Washington. Her practice focused on the defense of corporate clients in connection with domestic and international mergers and acquisitions.
But she wasn’t happy, despite earning a good income and being on a good career track at the firm.
“I was working incredibly long hours and had little to no personal life. And I didn’t feel fulfilled by the work that I was doing,” she said. “Even though my income was pretty great, I did not see that lifestyle as being sustainable for me. I didn’t feel as though I was having the impact I wanted to have. But I had one-track-minded my way into law school and that legal career. So I never considered other careers.”
One of Zepeda’s business connections knew she was looking for a career change and suggested the life insurance business might be a good match. But Zepeda’s previous experience with the business had been negative.
“I hadn’t had the best experiences with insurance advisors,” she said. “I felt that I was condescended to a little bit by a couple of people. And it seemed to me that the insurance business was transactional business. Even though I had only a limited experience with the industry, I couldn’t see myself as part of it.”
It didn’t help that Zepeda had been cold-called “pretty relentlessly” by people wanting to sell her insurance and that advisors she had met with had been what she called “very sales-y and very aggressive.”
“At one point, I met with someone to discuss insurance and they asked me if I wanted my dad in the conversation,” she said. “And I was a successful professional in my 20s!”
Despite her misgivings about an insurance career, Zepeda took up her contact’s suggestion that she meet with the managing partner of the Northwestern Mutual office in Washington. And she didn’t look back. Today she is managing director of Northwestern Mutual’s Washington office, located on Pennsylvania Avenue, four blocks from the White House. She also manages leadership development as well as recruiting and new advisor training and development in five suburban Washington offices. She has been with the company since 2013.
Meeting Clients Where They Are
What changed her mind about entering the insurance business?
“When I began to learn about the business, I learned how incredibly impactful it is, and how it really is about relationship building,” she said. “It’s about meeting the client where they are, understanding who they are and what’s important to them and how to help them get where they want to be. There’s a lot of problem-solving as well as trust building. That’s something I can appreciate, and it really resonated with me.”
Zepeda’s initial negative experience with the industry has influenced the way she approaches it now that she is on the other side of the desk.
“When I’m working with the new advisors on my team, I help them be more aware of who it is that they’re talking to, or make them aware of things that they might be doing that show bias or would turn off the person they’re talking with,” she said.
“I can take my experiences as a woman and talk to new advisors about things such as, if you’re talking with a couple, make sure you’re engaging both parties in that conversation. Make sure both people are on the same page and that they understand what’s going on. Don’t make assumptions; don’t assume that either spouse is controlling the finances or making the decision. Get both people involved in the process as you’re building the relationship.”
Zepeda’s advice to her team members also stems from her experiences with the industry when she was younger and single. “Don’t assume a woman will rely on other people to make financial decisions with her. And don’t assume she’s not well versed in insurance or planning either.”
When Zepeda first interviewed for a job with Northwestern Mutual, the managing partner was in the process of opening the Washington office. He focused on recruiting people who wanted to change careers. The idea of working with others who came from different work environments appealed to Zepeda. And as the mother of a 6-month-old daughter, the idea of having some work flexibility instead of being expected to work 80 hours a week also appealed to her.
“In the beginning, we planned for me to come in the office and help him recruit agents for the first few months, then work on marketing and work on a business plan to launch my practice,” she said.
Zepeda started as an advisor and began to develop a client base. But she soon started to recruit new advisors and bring them on to her team. She has about 20 advisors who work directly with her. Some are new to the business while others have been around for a number of years. She became managing director of the office in 2019.
Leo Tucker is Northwestern Mutual’s managing partner in Washington. He brought Zepeda on board when she started her career with Northwestern Mutual, and he called her “by far the most dedicated and passionate person I’ve ever met.
“Not just about financial planning, but also as it relates to building a diverse firm and creating opportunity for both women and people of color. Her strategies around building an inclusive environment have enabled our firm to enjoy numerous awards and recognition. She role models what strong and inclusive leadership needs to look like today.”
Developing A Diverse Practice
Just as all her clients are different in terms of experiences and needs, Zepeda said the advisors she works with also have diverse backgrounds and experiences.
“When I started in the industry, it wasn’t very diverse,” she said. “But in our office, we’ve brought in more women, more people from diverse backgrounds. But there’s also the understanding that if you’re bringing in people from different backgrounds and different experiences and who will have different practices in terms of who they potentially will work with, then you can’t develop everyone the same way.”
Zepeda depends on word of mouth to recruit advisors.
“We have to be out in the marketplace, meeting people and developing relationships with people who know us, either because they are clients or because they are other important relationships that we’ve cultivated over time,” she said. “We educate them about the ideal candidate for our office. What does that look like? Where is this person right now in terms of their profession?
What are their characteristics? — that sort of thing. And we’re relying on those people we know to help us identify those individuals who would be the ideal candidates for us.”
Zepeda advises financial professionals to meet clients where they are, and that also relates to the way she trains advisors. “As we train our people, we must meet them where they are as well. We’ve had to be thoughtful about everyone’s differences and really thinking what that means in terms of the way they’re approaching the marketplace,” she said.
Washington is a city of diversity, but when Zepeda started in the business, her office wasn’t reaching those diverse communities that needed help with insurance and financial needs, she said.
“That certainly has been a work in progress for us,” she said. “Not every community is in the same place in terms of their perspective regarding financial planning, or maybe even their exposure it. And so again, that requires us as leaders to be a lot more thoughtful about the experiences of our new advisors.”
Zepeda’s office has set its sights on serving a number of different ethnic communities, she explained, particularly the Black community. She helped to open a branch office in a Maryland suburb that has a large Black population. “The reception from the community was amazing, and they realize we are committed to helping grow wealth within the Black community,” she said.
It’s Important To Listen
Outside of work, Zepeda enjoys taking her daughter to an indoor rock-climbing gym. Her family recently started paddleboarding and likes to be outdoors as much as possible. She and her family also look for ways they can volunteer to help others in their neighborhood.
Zepeda recalled how her own experience of listening to someone whose opinion she valued led her to the insurance business.
“Entering this business never would have crossed my mind. But because someone I trusted referred me, I took a second look at it,” she said. “And I’m incredibly thankful because it turned out to be something so good for me. That’s why I believe we need to find people who, for whatever reason, are not getting out of their career path what they hoped to get out of it. But if they work hard and they care about people, we can take that person and make them a really great advisor.”