Executive Spotlight: Jelani Fenton, Founder & CEO of Safari

Stewart Foley:
Welcome to another edition of the InsuranceAUM.com Podcast. My name is Stewart Foley. I’m your host, joined today by Jelani Fenton, founder and CEO of Safari. Jelani, welcome.

Jelani Fenton: Ah, thank you so much for having me, Stewart, very excited to be here.

Stewart Foley: I can’t wait to talk about this because what you’re doing is phenomenal. But I want to start off the way we start them all; what’s your hometown? What was your first job? And what’s a fun fact?

Jelani Fenton: Okay. My hometown is Brooklyn, New York. I’m from Crown Heights. My first job was actually working at Staples in Central New Jersey, so I was a customer service representative walking up and down the aisles at Staples. So, I can tell you that that was a great experience in its own right, to learn how to interact with people and deal with folks. I got that job when I was 15. And a fun fact about me is that I’m first generation American, my parents and my whole family is from the small but mighty island of Trinidad and Tobago, so we’ve got a lot of country pride.

Stewart Foley: Very, very cool. That is a great fun fact.

Jelani Fenton: Absolutely.

Stewart Foley: So, what does Safari do?

Jelani Fenton: Yeah, absolutely. I think, Stewart, you actually might be one of the people that has described it best. We’re an incubator for talent for the insurance industry. So think of us as essentially a platform that connects job seekers, so these would be anyone from someone that’s rolling out of the military to someone that might be at a two or a four-year college or someone that’s trying to make a career transition into financial services. We connect them in to training opportunities and then place them into full-time job opportunities within the insurance space. I think our bread and butter is really focused on entry-level roles within the insurance industry across underwriting, brokerage, and claims, is what we do.

Stewart Foley: So this is the problem, man, this industry needs talent. Everybody talks about it. You focus on diverse talent, that is part and parcel of what you do.

Jelani Fenton: Absolutely.

Stewart Foley: The insurance industry, as it’s been labeled, is pale, stale, and male, so heavens to Pete, there’s a lot of wood to chop there. What is your background, and your career journey that got you, because you’ve got deep street cred in the insurance industry, man. What’s your background?

Jelani Fenton: Absolutely. Stewart, I like to tell everyone that there’s riches and niches. So I love this industry, and I’m really excited to build products and services that exclusively serve our industry. But a little bit more about my story, I came into this industry back in 2013, fresh out of undergrad. I went to the University of Maryland for my bachelor’s, and I started in the Leadership Development Program at Marsh, so I started out as essentially a broker trainee within their casualty division. So, I spent about four years there.

But the genesis story for Safari really kind of ties back to that first day that I walked in. You made a joke, but it’s a serious experience that I had about the insurance industry being pale, male, and stale. So I was the only male of color in a class of about 70 recent grads in the Leadership Development Program at Marsh. This is the largest commercial insurance brokerage in the world, and it was very telling that our class was not that diverse at the time. And that’s really kind of where I think the genesis story for Safari really started back in July of 2013.

So I spent four years at Marsh, had a great time, learned a ton, and then ended up transitioning out to go back for my MBA full-time up in New Hampshire at Dartmouth. And then, transitioned over to investment banking at Evercore. So I spent two years in the investment banking world doing mergers and acquisitions and capital raising for insurance companies, had a really, I would say, specific focus on companies on the distribution side. So I worked with a lot of private equity companies that were doing the insurance M&A rollups, as well as several carriers that were looking to execute on any types of M&A or capital raising. So I did a couple IPOs, did a couple follow-on equity offerings as well.

And most recently, but prior to starting Safari, I worked at an insurance technology company named Rhino, which created a product to replace the traditional cash security deposit with insurance. So it’s essentially a surety bond that comes in and protects your landlord in the event that you don’t pay your rent there. So I really love the insurance industry. I think it’s the best industry on the face of the earth. And now, I’m really excited to continue my journey within the industry with what we’re doing here at Safari.

Stewart Foley: And so, it’s interesting. I’ve taught for a number of years, and one of the things that I hear out of students is that part of their evaluation of what they want to do in life is they look, today’s student looks at how that industry deals with diversity. All right? I had a 19-year-old intern who was an absolute rockstar, and she’s the one who originally put that idea in my head. And the insurance industry wants talent, they need talent. They need diverse talent. They say that they want it, but when a student looks at the industry and looks at the demographics, it’s not a great tale necessarily, right? So how does Safari address the needs of the insurance industry by cultivating and growing this talent?

Jelani Fenton: Yeah, absolutely. So I wanted to touch on the first piece of what you were talking there about just representation, right? So I think I live by, I would say, one of my mantras in terms of, “It’s hard to be what you can’t see.” Right? So if you’re someone that’s coming in from outside the industry, particularly as a diverse professional, and you look around at the executive boards and middle management at most insurance companies across the board, you’re likely not going to see too many people that look like you, and that can be slightly discouraging. But for me, as a person, I tend to view that as an opportunity, right? And at the end of the day, we kind of have to start somewhere, particularly as we kind of think about the changing demographics of our country.

So in terms of how we actually execute on this strategy, we’re super intentional about going out to, I would say, talent pools that tend to be more representative of the broader demographics of our country. And what I mean by that would be going into two-year institutions as well as military transition offices. So, we’re currently working with the Department of Defense with their Skill Bridge Program that essentially allows any active military who are transitioning out of the military back into the civilian workforce to be able to get training and job placement services to essentially allow them to be able to get back into the civilian workforce.

So those pools of talent typically tend to have a demographic makeup that is similar to the broader makeup of our population here. And ultimately, what that looks like for us is that we essentially build the bridge between your two-year institutions and these military transition offices to really increase awareness of insurance industry careers, because Stewart, I’m sure when you’re talking to young professionals or interns that are looking to get into financial services, when they hear insurance, they typically, I guess their eyes probably roll to the back of their head and they might hit the snooze button, right?

And I think that our industry unfortunately has a marketing problem, where there’s a huge disconnect between what we actually do and the value that we add to society and what people think that we do. I like to make the joke that, “When you say insurance, people tend to think of Willy Loman back in the day of the Death of a Salesman, having to go door-to-door and knocking on folks’ doors to sell life insurance.” And that’s not the nature of what we do. We’re a very dynamic industry, and I think that ultimately what we are tasked with doing as a company here at Safari, is doing some of that external marketing work to increase awareness, to increase the knowledge base of job seekers about the variety of career paths that exist in our industry, and using that as a tool to essentially recruit more talent, particularly more diverse talent into the pipeline.

Stewart Foley: A good friend of mine named Randy Lauer, I think I introduced you to Randy, came out of the Marine Corps. And he is quick to point out that the military uses diversity as a strength. And I was speaking with somebody yesterday who said, “Just the whole term DE&I puts you in a box.” I think there’s something to that. I think people somehow or the other think that “I’m going to have a diverse workforce,” that somehow or the other, they think that they’re going to take second best talent or whatever. And I have a huge problem with it. And I’m kind of asking, I guess this question, why do you think insurers need to be focused on diverse talent right now?

Jelani Fenton: Absolutely. Absolutely. So, when I talk about diversity, I really talk about the business opportunity there, because listen, we’re all in the world of business. We’re all here to maximize profits for our organizations, but also to serve the policyholders and the customers that need insurance across our country and across our world. So as we think about the shifting demographics of our country, I think that within Millennials, we’re the most diverse generation in history, right? So about 44% of Millennials come from some diverse background. And that’s only increasing as we get to the Gen Zs. And I believe that it’s Generation Alpha after Gen Z. Don’t quote me on that.

Stewart Foley: I didn’t know that. It’s good to know, man. I’m learning stuff. It’s good.

Jelani Fenton: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. But that’s ultimately the business opportunity, right? I think every insurance company recognizes that they need to be able to serve the customers that they are looking to sell their products to, and the best way to be able to do that is to have a workforce that is representative of the communities that you serve.

But also, as we think about just spending power and wealth accumulation in diverse populations as well, multicultural consumers have about $3 trillion in spending power. And that proportion, the proportion of wealth in multicultural communities, has increased from 10% back in 1990 up to about 17.6% in 2020. So again, this is now a business opportunity that the insurance industry can chase here, whether it’s going directly to diverse consumers or diverse-owned businesses, which are only increasing in terms of their spending power every single day.

So I think that there’s absolutely… We also all recognize that a lot of people from these backgrounds have been boxed out of opportunities within our industry for decades. And now, as we kind of think about what the macroeconomic opportunity exists, that exists here within our country, there’s a lot of money that’s flowing into these communities. There’s a lot of wealth creation that’s happening in these communities. So now, as an industry, we need to be a lot more thoughtful about who we’re putting on the front lines in order to be able to sell our products and services to these communities.

Stewart Foley: I couldn’t agree with that more. You talked about shifting demographics. I think the other thing that’s shifting in the insurance industry is what kinds of talent, what sorts of skills are required? So when you offer training as part of, you have some risk management in the insurance curriculum on the Safari platform that students can actually get coached up on to become more competitive in an interview environment when they’re competing for jobs, right? Can you talk a little bit about the resources that you’re bringing to the student or to the veteran who’s looking to enter the insurance industry?

Jelani Fenton: Yeah, absolutely. So we cover it from both a pre-hire and a post-hire training perspective. So on the pre-hire level, yes, our software platform does have several training materials that job seekers can tap into across both licensing to get them licensed on the P&C or the life and health side, as well as just basic fundamentals of property and casualty and life and health insurance, to really get folks not only the training that they need to be able to hit the ground running in their career, but also to help them get a better understanding of what you would actually be doing and why the insurance industry does provide you with a dynamic career opportunity.

Because again, this really kind of ties back to that disconnect between what your job seekers kind of think that they’re signing up for when they consider a career in the insurance industry and what they’re actually going to be doing. So that’s kind of what we cover from a pre-hire perspective. We’re really just focused on, “How can we provide as much training and as much support as possible for someone that’s looking to start their career in the insurance industry and providing that highly trained talent to the insurance company so that they don’t have to worry about that.”

And now, on a post-hire perspective, we also kind of recognize that a lot of the job seekers that we would be bringing into the fold, maybe they don’t have a lot of training, let’s say, within a corporate type of setting. So, we actually look to set up leadership development programs that are very similar to the program that I went through at Marsh, where let’s say if we’re working with a large carrier or a large broker, we’ll be providing them with the support to essentially put together an apprenticeship-style training program that allows one of the candidates that we place into that role to be able to get additional training on a weekly basis, where we’re providing them with both the technical training to get them various designations, industry-specific designations within the insurance industry, as well as just general managerial training, right?

So we really look to provide a wraparound service that anyone that’s coming through our pipeline will be able to get both the technical training as well as the managerial training that will really allow them to get further in their career. And we call ourselves the “tour guide for your career.” It’s a bit cheesy, but that’s really where we get the name Safari, in that we don’t want to just place you into a role, we really want to set you up with all the tools that you’ll need to be successful in that role over time.

Stewart Foley: I was referred to you and met you through Kevin Croft at Drake University, and I’m very happy you have made this. Part of what we’re trying to do here at InsuranceAUM.com is, I am absolutely 1,000% trying to promote your business and what you’re doing.

Jelani Fenton: I appreciate that.

Stewart Foley: I 100% support what you’re doing. So at the end of the day, you need connections to colleges and universities, career programs, and you need connections to insurance companies looking to hire talent, right? For those who are listening to this podcast and go, “How does this work?” Maybe start with how do you work with educational institutions? You mentioned how you work with veterans and then how do you work with companies?

Jelani Fenton: Yeah, absolutely. So on the talent pipeline side, we basically look to create partnerships at either the faculty/administration level or within career services or within workforce development at the educational institutions that we work with. So that’s ultimately how we’re increasing exposure and awareness of the training program to the students that we’re looking to get into the pipeline.

Now, from a company perspective, we’ll typically work with a company. I say our best path into the organization is working with, let’s say, a business unit manager who understands that there’s a need for talent within either their business line or at an enterprise level. Or we also typically tend to work with a talent or HR team that have a broad understanding of the talent needs within the organization.

Ultimately, what we do is we work with the companies in two ways. So, we offer access to our software platform, where a company essentially could sign up for a subscription to our software platform, where they can get access to the talent pipeline that we’ve developed. And they can essentially find the talent, whether it’s on a geographic level or a specific background level that they’re looking to fill their hiring needs with.

And then separately, we also look to engage companies that are looking to either set up an early careers internship, externship, or apprenticeship program, where we can essentially go out, find the talent that would be able to essentially go through that program, and we would actually be doing all of that technical training and managerial training that would be presented throughout the six or nine-month training program that we’re connecting these candidates into. So we have, I would say, a variety of different products and services that we can offer to the companies that we work with. And ultimately, how we look to do that is in working with either the business unit managers or the HR teams that recognize that there’s a need or an opportunity within the organization to launch one of these types of programs.

Stewart Foley: The website, and we’re going to make sure this is on all the podcast materials, but it’s insuresafari.com, is that right?

Jelani Fenton: Yes, that is correct, insuresafari.com.

Stewart Foley: Insuresafari.com. So tell me, just as we go here, what’s your vision for how Safari can be a change agent in our industry? And the listeners to our podcasts, there’s two major groups, right? There’s insurance investors, investment teams, chief investment officers, you met some of these folks at our event last month. These investment teams are not huge necessarily in the insurance space, but there’s definitely a need for talent there as well.

The other audience that we have are asset management firms. And in that situation, they are also, the financial services community more broadly there too, there’s always a war for talent. And we talked about it most recently with Aaron Diefenthaler at RLI, who I know you spoke with at our event. So talk to me a little bit about how you see Safari being a change agent in the industry.

Jelani Fenton: Yeah, absolutely. I think that ultimately our goal that I look to as kind of our North Star, is to really help our industry recruit that next generation of leaders for the industry. So one of the things that we really didn’t touch on earlier was the fact that we have an aging workforce within our industry, right? And I think that the statistics that continue to come out, or that will, 50% of our industry is reaching retirement age or about to retire out over the next 5 to 10 years. And that’s a huge problem as we kind of think about the need for that young, fresh talent to replace this exodus that we’re going to be faced with over the next 5 to 10 years from a retirement and aging out perspective.

So ultimately, how I think Safari can really be a change agent for our industry is being able to recruit these leaders who can be the frontline workers that will allow our industry to be able to better serve diverse markets across our country.

But also, I really want to have the opportunity to recruit this next generation of insurance entrepreneurs who can launch your next generation of insurtechs, the next generation of insurance agencies. I’m not only focused on recruiting folks that will sit in a seat within an organization, I think that there’s a lot of value in recruiting this next generation of insurance entrepreneurs who can launch the next generation of your local insurance agencies or insurtechs, across the board too.

So we obviously want to be that vector, I would say, of talent for all talent that will be flowing into the industry over the next 5 to 10 years to really help solve this talent shortage that we have, but also to be an incubator as we have discussed at length here, Stewart, for the next generation of insurance entrepreneurs who can create better products and services that will ultimately create better products and services for the diverse communities across our country.

Stewart Foley: Yeah. It’s a big deal, right? There’s a real need for talent. There’s a real opportunity. I used to tell students all the time, “Most students don’t have exposure to the insurance industry.” They’re familiar with what they see on television, car insurance, commercials, and so forth. And so, they’re familiar with those kinds of names that are household names, but there are something on the order of 1,800 insurance companies, maybe more, in the US and all over the world. I used to show people pictures of the underwriting floor at Lloyd’s. That’s an amazing place. It’s incredibly dynamic, the kinds of risks that are insured and that are evaluated, the level of expertise that’s required, whether it’s fine art, whether it’s one of our Executive Council members is at FM Global. They do amazingly interesting stuff. It’s effectively an engineering company in many regards.

And the number of facets in the insurance industry are so varied, whether it’s not only by line of business, but also just talking about the world of reinsurance for just a moment, risk management and modeling, and all the things that are going on there. And then to your point, insurtech, which is a massive movement that it seems to me should be getting the attention of a group of people who essentially need to be, I don’t know what the right word is, educated or made aware of the reality of the insurance industry today. That’s part of your challenge, isn’t it?

Jelani Fenton: Absolutely. Absolutely. And the point that you made there around just, again, that disconnect between the dynamic upper career opportunities that do exist in our industry and what people ultimately think what we do, it’s huge. I was reading The Institutes the other day, they had put out a statistic that just among Millennials, I think that there was about 80% of Millennials just have a very bare-bones understanding of what a career in the insurance industry looks like. And that’s not great, because as you think about it, I had the opportunity to interview at large investment banks such as Evercore, Goldman Sachs, across the board, right? And they’ve got people lining up down the street to go work at those types of organizations, right?

Stewart Foley: Absolutely.

Jelani Fenton: And AIG, FM Global, Marsh, Aon, they’re doing a good job of being able to recruit, but the demand will never be there. And I think it’s unfortunate because there are, I would say, equally as interesting types of work opportunities and equally as lucrative work opportunities in our industry as there are within investment banking and just broader financial services, right?

Stewart Foley: Yeah, absolutely, Aaron and I did a podcast just recently. These investment shops at these insurance companies that are not household terms, are not household words. You look at our Executive Council, you look at a Nick Martowski at Magmutual, you look at a Rip Reeves at Egis, you look at Joe Eppers at Selective, at Sanjay Chawla at FM Global, you look at a Peggy Gartin at AAA, look at Susan Chung and Amica, and the list goes on, these are smart people and it is smart money.

Jelani Fenton: Absolutely.

Stewart Foley: And these people are as sophisticated of an investment teams as you’re going to find anywhere. And the opportunity to get exposure to these folks and to these strategies, they’re dealing with some of the… There is no more difficult assignment than managing insurance money. Sorry, pensions and endowments and foundations, but it’s the truth.

And the asset management firms that work in this space are the best in the world, and the investment problems and challenges that they’re facing and the issues that they’re dealing with are as complex and as challenging as any in the world. And I just think that the opportunities are vast and the opportunities are interesting. And I hope that people who hear the podcast and listen to this, especially if the folks on the earlier end of their careers can get excited about that and really have a look at our industry because there’s a lot going on here.

Jelani Fenton: Absolutely. I say it in jest, but I truly believe it. I think that there’s never been a better time to be in the insurance industry, regardless of which end of the supply chain that you’re on. Whether it’s on the investing side, we’re seeing a lot of really interesting stuff that you have the opportunity to kind of be on the leading edge from, Stewart, with all the work that you’re doing on the Insurance AUM side with investing in the future of climate and investing in the future of so many different, I would say, opportunities that are just so critical to the way that our society functions.
But even on the underwriting side or on the brokerage side, insurtech, digitization, just kind of the future of the way that our industry interacts with consumers and businesses is fundamentally changing right now. And I think that we’re kind of at an inflection point now where the traditional way of doing things, it will always be there, but it’s just slowly changing. And over the next 5 to 10 years, there’s going to be a ton of shifts in the way that our industry conducts business.

And I think it’s a really exciting time. I think that it’s a great time to be anywhere in your career in the insurance industry, but particularly for folks that are just coming in or in the early stage of their career, there’s so much opportunity out there. So that’s the gospel that I love being able to spread, and that’s the gospel that I hope to continue to spread to the young professionals that we’re looking to get into the pipeline.

Stewart Foley: Last question. What would you tell your 21-year-old self today if you were looking out at the opportunity set that is this industry?

Jelani Fenton: Ah. I would tell myself, “Learn how to sell.” And whether that’s selling yourself or selling a product or a service, making the shift over to entrepreneurship has been probably one of the most difficult things that I’ve done, just in terms of the way that you have to, I guess, maintain patience, but also just the way that you have to not only sell yourself, but create a brand and sell that. So it’s definitely been one of the most challenging things that I’ve done within my professional career, if not the most challenging thing.

And the next time that I get on campus up in either in Maryland or up in New Hampshire, the first thing that I’m going to tell everyone that’s on campus is, “Learn how to sell. Whether it’s taking an enterprise sales course or whether it’s taking a professional development course, that will be the most valuable thing that you can learn, because it is just such an important tool to have in your toolkit.”
You can learn all the technical stuff from either doing the job or from a book, but learning how to sell, understanding the patience that is required for the sales cycle, that has been the most challenging part of this whole endeavor for me. So, I appreciate it because I think that it’s gearing me up to be able to have a lot of flexibility in my career, but it’s something that I almost wish that I was selling Cutco knives back in the day, or going door-to-door selling Primerica or life insurance, because it’s such a great skill to have.

Stewart Foley: Yeah, it’s interesting. I used to have students say, “I don’t want to do sales.” And I’m like, “I’ve got news for you. Everything, whether it’s selling an idea to your boss or whether it’s promoting an idea in a meeting, or whether it’s getting the job itself, you are in effect selling.” I’ve built InsuranceAUM.com from scratch, and I can tell you that it is a challenge to establish a brand, and the one thing that I’ve come to really respect is people who have founded companies that have gone on to become large companies, that folks who are successful entrepreneurs have my utmost respect. It is a real accomplishment. And I think that the opportunities, you’re seeing more and more entrepreneurial opportunities in the insurance industry. You see it all the time on the insurtech side. Insurance companies are doing interesting venture opportunities, solving problems using their own capital to solve problems.

Jelani Fenton: Absolutely.

Stewart Foley: There’s just a lot of good stuff going on here. So I really appreciate you joining and really appreciate you being on. I hope that everybody who hears this is motivated and gets a chance to check out insuresafari.com. And this has been Jelani Fenton, the founder and CEO. Jelani, thanks for being on, man.

Jelani Fenton: Yes, thanks for having me, Stewart, really appreciate it.

Stewart Foley: My pleasure. And thanks for listening. If you have ideas for podcasts, please shoot us an email at podcast@InsuranceAUM.com. My name is Stewart Foley, and this is the InsuranceAUM.com Podcast.

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