Insurance Careers Corner: Q&A with Annette Martinez, Senior Vice President, State Farm

By Kris Maccini, Social Media Director, Triple-I

Triple-I’s “Insurance Careers Corner” series was created to highlight trailblazers in insurance and to spread awareness of the career opportunities within the industry. This month, we interviewed, Annette Martinez, senior vice president, State Farm, who discusses her 33-year career in insurance, growing diversity and inclusion at her company, and the significance of Jake from State Farm.

Annette Martinez

Tell us about your role at State Farm and the work that you do. What attracted you to work in the insurance industry?

I’m currently a senior vice president at State Farm and that includes oversight of what I call the “people areas” – human resources, learning and development, public affairs, and the executive succession and development team. I’ve been with State Farm for over 33 years.

My degree is in Biology and Chemistry, and I was working for an R&D facility early in my career. My husband started with State Farm as an auto underwriter, and he encouraged me to come over because of the opportunities.

I began my insurance career in health underwriting. Every two to three years, I was able to recreate myself into new roles. I spent five years in life/health operations before moving to human resources. Within human resources, I was able to work in early succession efforts and then move into leadership in human resources. In 2002, I started the diversity and inclusion initiative and the trajectory of being able to move the organization forward. Like many in the insurance industry, I came in thinking I’d get great experience for a couple of years and now here we are 33 years later, and it’s been an amazing journey.

You launched the first office of diversity and inclusion at State Farm, initiated its diversity council, and started its affinity group program. You’ve also been recognized and awarded on numerous occasions for your work in diversity and inclusion. What inspired you to become a champion of diversity and inclusion?

From the time that I was young, fairness was always important to me, which may be in part because I was raised in an environment where I didn’t see people like me. However, for a long time I have and still believe that everyone should be treated with respect and dignity and have the same opportunities. Opportunity should be open to anyone who has the desire and the capability.

When I began the diversity initiative, I was already conducting diversity training in the organization. State Farm is a fantastic company and has been progressive in programming over the years. We started one of the first minority summer intern programs, but I knew there was more that we could do. My focus was on improving opportunity and bringing people into the organization who had a different pattern of thinking and could positively impact the company. That’s what diversity does. It’s not only a social imperative – we all get to benefit from that – it’s a business imperative about how we treat and gain new customers and how we move forward.

You mentioned that not a lot of people looked like you throughout your career. As a Latinx woman, what obstacles have you faced and overcome?

That’s correct, early on in my career, very few people looked like me. It was isolating. I had to understand that my voice mattered and that I had the opportunity to speak on behalf of many others. There was a lot of pressure with that.

I’ve had some amazing mentors over the years of all genders and races. There was a retired senior vice president, Dave Gonzales, who was the first Hispanic executive that took me under his wing. Dave told me it was going to be a difficult road, but he was and has always been a great support system for me.

We’ve always had mentorship programs at State Farm, but several years ago we started a more formal matching program for people who want to mentor or be mentored. It’s blossomed into a way of life and become part of the culture. I’m active as a mentor and a mentee. I’ve had senior leaders throughout my career who have coached me on to the next level. I’ve also had people [early in their careers] who have guided me into what’s happening at all levels. As a senior leader, it gives me insight into how our actions impact every employee.

How can we foster an honest and open culture at the workplace that welcomes and encourages employees to have conversations around race, discrimination, and equity?

In 2019, we decided to get bold in our conversations. State Farm started working with CEO Act!on For Diversity & Inclusion and implemented a program called “Conversations Worth Having.” In February 2020, we had our first session on racism. We knew that it was going to be a difficult and honest conversation. We had a panel that shared their stories about their lives, their children, and what they experienced.

We had no idea that COVID-19 would happen a month later. The social unrest throughout 2020 was foundational for what we needed to address last year and will continue to address this year. These open conversation forums have continued and are important in allowing people to express their frustration and allowing us to be part of the solution.

We learn every session. Setting ground rules is also important – trust that people’s intentions are honest, listen before you react – some basics in conversations that we talk about each session. If someone responds negatively to a session, we take the time to speak with them one on one to have conversations on a personal level as well.

How has State Farm addressed the current social and racial climate of this past year? Are there any actions or initiatives that State Farm has taken to support Black and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities inside and outside the workplace?

State Farm named a Chief Diversity Officer in 2020, which was an important step for us. We also realized that we needed to be quicker with our communications and the acknowledgment that we stand against racism. In the past, we may have addressed it internally at a more moderate level, but we took the stand that State Farm is against racism and the hatred that leads to racism. This is who we are. We respect people – everyone should be treated with respect and dignity, and there is no place for racism in our organization.

There is more work to go into this. It’s an ever-evolving journey, and I think we’re learning as we communicate. We are the Good Neighbor organization. We care about all our neighbors, and we aren’t exclusive to anyone.

Our CEO, Chief Administrative Officer, and Chief Diversity Officer have also been involved in listening sessions to allow employees the opportunity to talk about an experience that they have had, even at State Farm, to better understand the work ahead of us. We want to be an organization that’s part of the healing process.

Jake from State Farm was recently recast as an African American man, actor Kevin Miles. How do you think this change has made an impact on diversity and representation in insurance and has it helped State Farm reach out to more people of color?

The first Jake from State Farm was an actual employee. We pivoted away to some other campaigns for a while, but then we did some research and realized that Jake from State Farm was still very relevant. We knew the needs in a marketing and advertising world today would require more than what we could ask of an employee, so State Farm began an external talent search. We are typically very intentional about diversity in our marketing and advertisements, but ultimately what we did was pick the right actor for the right role.

The actor [Kevin Miles] is from Chicago. One of my favorite stories involves an event early on in his role as Jake from State Farm. We invited him to do a meet and greet at headquarters. It was a big deal, and he brought his parents to the event. The atrium was packed with employees waiting to meet him. He was humbled, kind, and genuine, he spent hours talking to and taking pictures with employees. His success is not only impressive externally – it’s impressive internally as well. The traits you can see and feel from Jake from State Farm are also traits Kevin embodies. And because of that, we intentionally let a lot of Kevin come through in his role as Jake from State Farm.

Can you speak about any upcoming or future diversity and inclusion initiatives for State Farm that you’re excited about? What are your goals for 2021 and beyond?

We’re proud of the intentionality that we put behind diversity and inclusion. State Farm just kicked off a governance council in January, which is a group of senior leaders in the organization who will drive the future strategy of diversity and inclusion.

One focus area that we are looking at is more transparency. How do we tell our story internally so that our associates feel comfortable? How do we tell the story greater from an external perspective? We’re working on deliberate performance goals for all associates around diversity and inclusion, which will be part of their performance assessment and how they actively engage in that work. We are continuing to define our metrics and tangible ways to measure the progress that we are making as an organization. The “Conversations Worth Having” sessions are scheduled throughout the year as well as the listening sessions with our executive leadership. We’re excited about the continuation of programming and leaning into the opportunities ahead of us.