Shortly before he was due to graduate from Miami University of Ohio back in 1974, Jerald Tillman was invited to meet with a recruiter for an insurance carrier. His response? “I did not go to college for four years to go into the insurance business.”
But Tillman’s football coach persuaded him to meet with the recruiter, who asked him his career goals.
“I immediately told him, ‘I want to run my own business,’” Tillman recalled. “I said, ‘I like my freedom, I like to have my time, I want to come and go as I please, and I want to earn an unlimited income. I definitely want to be my own boss, have my own office but not be stuck in the office all day. That is my dream.’”
The recruiter replied that Tillman just described the insurance business.
“He told me, ‘Jerald, you know all the employees here at Miami University; they all have health insurance. And if you could be the one to underwrite the health insurance on all of these 5,000 employees, you could make a lot of money.’ And he also told me that if I wanted to provide the health insurance on all these employees, I would be meeting with the top executives, even the president of the university. I said, ‘So that’s what insurance is about?’ And he said, ‘That’s insurance.’ He got me interested in insurance because I never dreamed that insurance was the way I could have my own business.”
Tillman eventually signed on with Aetna Life and Casualty. But when he told his mother about his plans for post-college life, her reaction was similar to the reaction he had when he was first approached about entering the business.
“She said to me, ‘You went to college for four years to do what?’ and she told me she was disappointed in me. Because she had had very little exposure to the insurance business except for the man who came around every week to collect the premium on a $3,000 or a $5,000 life insurance policy.”
Tillman reassured his mother that “it’s a different industry out here than what you think, and I’m going to prove it to you and make you proud.”
Today, Tillman is CEO of JL Tillman Insurance Agency in Cincinnati. In addition, he founded the National African-American Insurance Association in 1997.
When Tillman started out in the industry, his first general agent gave him a piece of advice. “He said, ‘If you’re going to get into something, get into it.’”
Tillman took the advice and became active in the local association of what was then known as the National Association of Life Underwriters, now the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors. He was named to a local leadership position and progressed to a leadership position on the state level.
He began attending conferences and noticed how few people of color were present. “In the beginning, it didn’t bother me because I was concentrating on learning from others who were in this business. But after four or five years in the business, I decided I would make a commitment and make it my life’s work to contribute to the industry and bring more African Americans into the insurance industry.”
It was an ambitious commitment, especially because Tillman was in his mid-20s at the time. He started where he was, in Dayton, Ohio. He created an organization he called the Association of Black Insurance Professionals and invited Black life insurance agents from his city to join.
Meanwhile, Tillman’s practice was taking off. He realized he needed to expand from life and health into the property/casualty world in order to satisfy all the insurance needs of his clients. He established a Nationwide Insurance agency and eventually moved to Cincinnati as a district sales manager for the company.
After Tillman settled in Cincinnati, he asked whether there was an organization for Black insurance professionals in his new city. “There were a few people who were getting together, but there was no association,” he said. “I told the people about the organization I started in Dayton and said why don’t we collaborate with them? And then we had two organizations, one in Dayton and one in Cincinnati.”
The Power Of Public Relations
Tillman realized the power of public relations and media coverage in giving credibility to the organizations and their members.
“I told the two chapters that every time they vote in a new president, they have to put it in the newspaper,” he said. “We have to be proud of what we do, we have to be proud of this industry and we have to let people know we’re professionals too.”
Black advisors “have to be confident, we have to know where we’re going and we have to share our success with the world because the world is not used to seeing a lot of successful Black people,” Tillman said.
After an industry trade publication included a photo of Tillman with an article about the Cincinnati organization, a Black advisor called him on the phone.
“He said, ‘Mr. Tillman, I was looking in this magazine, and I saw a Black face. And I was shocked. I immediately asked myself, what did he do wrong? Did he steal something? Did he lose his job? But then I read the article, and I was immediately fired up. I want you to help us start a chapter in Cleveland.’”
Chapters eventually sprang up throughout Ohio over a period of 20 years under the umbrella of the Ohio Association of Black Insurance Professionals.
“The purpose was to establish a support group for African Americans in the insurance business to encourage outstanding, successful careers that will break the glass ceiling, to encourage African Americans to obtain their professional designations and to recruit more African Americans for the industry,” Tillman said.
The organization’s members were invited to The American College to attend the annual Lang Dixon Education Day, a day of professional development established in honor of a Black advisor’s contributions to the industry. One major topic of discussion was the practice of redlining from an agent’s perspective and from the corporate perspective. The insurance industry press covered the event, and Tillman said the big story that emerged was that “Black insurance agents said insurance companies avoid inner cities.”
The result was increased interest among Black insurance professionals, who asked Tillman for help establishing their own professional organizations in their cities. Tillman was ready to make the Ohio Association of Black Insurance Professionals a national organization, but he said his board members weren’t ready to expand nationally.
Taking It National
He decided to create a new name for this national organization, the National African-American Insurance Association, and to proceed with establishing bylaws, a dues structure and all the other parts that go along with a professional association.
Tillman began going to industry conferences to find the top Black talent in attendance. After identifying 10 Black advisors from these conferences, Tillman invited them to meet him in New Orleans, and NAAIA was born. The year was 1997, and the organization’s motto was “Now is the time.” Today, the organization comprises 17 chapters, and its membership increased to more than 1,000 in 2020.
“So many people have found us because they want to be part of positive change,” Tillman said. “They want to tear down the barriers because we’re all in this together. And there is so much talent out there. My objective was to do what I can to integrate the industry and match the talent to the industry. Because I knew that African Americans were talented enough; they just didn’t have the exposure to the insurance industry. I knew there was an opportunity to play matchmaker in this industry.”
As NAAIA’s executive director, Margaret Redd has worked with Tillman in the association for more than 20 years.
“Twenty-four years ago, Jerald defined a vision and strategically engaged others to make NAAIA a reality,” she said. “The outgrowth of Jerald’s vision is that through NAAIA, thousands of African Americans and other insurance professionals have been inspired, developed, supported and empowered as they navigate their career and business journeys.”
Redd described Tillman as a “game changer and a visionary whose legacy and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion will have significant and positive industry impact for generations to come.”
Lack of exposure to the insurance industry and its opportunities, Tillman said, is a challenge in getting more African Americans into the industry.
“For the most part, the people who already were in the industry, they recruited people who went to their schools, people they went to church with, people who were in their neighborhoods, people like them,” he said. “African Americans weren’t exposed to the industry and didn’t get those opportunities.”
One of NAAIA’s goals is to expose more Black students to the industry and get them to consider careers in the insurance world. The organization is working with historically Black colleges and universities as well as with Junior Achievement to promote insurance as a career.
Tillman’s practice is a multiline agency where he provides individual life insurance as well as property/casualty coverage. He specializes in working with business owners. Outside the business, he enjoys travel and the outdoors, and he runs 15 miles a week. He is in the process of writing a book with the working title Soaring Above The Clouds, in which he shares his insights on how to handle life’s trials and tribulations.
At age 69, he is beginning to think about transitioning his practice someday. He has three daughters, and he said that at least one of them is interested in entering the business and eventually taking it over.
“In the meantime, I’m still enjoying my agency work, I still get excited over writing business. I still go into the office every day. I’m in a sweet spot in life. I have my own agency, and I have everything within my span of control. I’m making decent money, and I come and go as I please. I’m happy.”