Top Women in Benefit Advising

Our Top Women in Benefit Advising for 2020 are an exceptional group of women who have worked tirelessly to carve out their own space in the advising field. From starting their own firms, to mentoring other women in the field, to balancing the demands of both work and family life, these professionals shared both the challenges and successes of being a female adviser.

“I believe it is my challenge to spend time and effort to ensure women behind me are held to the same standards as their male colleagues,” says Danielle Capilla, the director of compliance for employee benefits at Alera Group.

Adviser Aida Swanson says she never views being female in the adviser space as a detriment, despite the fact that the field is male-dominated and she was often expected to start in administrative roles. When she didn’t see the job she wanted, she made it for herself, starting her own firm, Swanson Benefits Insurance Solution, in 2018.

“If someone says no to me, if I'm not invited, if I'm not welcome, my first thought is never, ‘Oh, it's because I'm Hispanic. Oh, it's because I'm a woman,’” she says. “My first thought is, ‘There's something that I need to be doing better. There's something that I need to work on.’”

See this year’s winners, chosen by EBA’s editors and listed in alphabetical order. Please share your thoughts and experiences with us and on Twitter using the hashtag #TopWomeninBenefitAdvising.

Beverly Beattie, CEO and founder, Selden Beattie
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What are you most proud of in your career?

Being an organization that employs mostly women, I’m extremely proud that I have been able to offer women the optimum opportunity to learn, grow and realize their greatest potential, both professionally and financially. I believe in creating a culture of empowerment and Selden Beattie is a place where creativity, mentorship and intellectual capital is encouraged. Innovation, embracing change and taking risks have been part of what I consider the recipe for success.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

I have always embraced being a woman and focused on the end goal and achieving it. The greater the challenge, the greater my motivation to tackle it and win. No is not a word in my vocabulary. I mentor our team of mostly women to think the same way and never give up.
Heather Bowers, benefits consultant, Lone Star Benefits
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What are you most proud of in your career?

I am most proud of the fact that LSB has a 98.6% retention rate with our clients. We never lose a client unless they get bought out by a parent company, close their doors or, on very rare occasions, decide to move to a PEO model.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

Being a woman in the "old boys club". While most men are very respectful of women in this industry, I have attended industry conferences and have had older male brokers ask if I'm an account executive, since many still don't view women as a role on the broker side. It hasn't slowed me down or made me feel defeated; it motivates me to work even harder.
Danielle Capilla, director of compliance, employee benefits, Alera Group
Danielle Capilla CROPPED
What are you most proud of in your career?

I am the most proud of my ability to make some of the most complex legislation and regulations in our industry (the ACA, ERISA, the CARES Act) understandable and digestible for clients who have no regulatory or legislative background.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

As a woman who has been successful in our industry (I’ve been a member of senior leadership in large EB organizations) it is often assumed by male colleagues that I have not been disadvantaged by being a woman, or that I am not interested in furthering the path for women behind me, because I don’t see a need for it. But the opposite could not be more true. I believe it is my challenge to spend time and effort to ensure women behind me are held to the same standards as their male colleagues.
Emma Fox, chief operating officer, E Powered Benefits
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What are you most proud of in your career?

At some point I realized that my legacy wasn’t what I’d originally planned for. I am not meant to be unreasonably wealthy or famous; I am meant to listen, re-purpose, strategize, execute, and then teach. I’ve been really proud of becoming a spokesperson for change who others want to collaborate with. I’ve been proud to align with associations and organizations to lend my expertise. I’ve been especially proud to watch other women gain their confidence and find their groove and their space.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

The practice of shaking of the preconceived notion that I have to work harder or smarter or louder. Half of my challenge has been me getting in my own way and deciding that I’m already at a disadvantage that doesn’t really exist much anymore. I still encounter moments of sexism in my industry and while it used to derail me and incite a level of aggression, I have taught myself that all I need to do is remain consistent and trust myself.
Erica Gaynor, account executive, Ollis/Akers/Arney Insurance & Business Advisors
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What are you most proud of in your career?

The flexibility of applying my knowledge in multiple industries has been very rewarding. Every company is in the "relationship business" whether they want to admit it or not. Being able to assist with connecting the dots on communication and well-deserved recognition has been a highlight for me.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

I have a hospitality background so am accustomed to a mostly male-led industry. Seeing more women step into leadership roles while maintaining all of the components of their familial relationships and embracing the softer side of business has been a life-long goal.
Nancy Giacolone, president, Olympic Crest Insurance
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What are you most proud of in your career?

Being a trailblazer and never accepting the limitations others put on me. I was told I wasn’t outgoing enough to sell, I was told that I was too young, I was told that women didn’t have a place. Instead, I took a risk and put myself out there and started my own business, which will celebrate 25 years next April.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

I was sued a couple of years ago by someone I brought into my agency who needed help and I thought would also help me. It was incredibly demoralizing and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through. It was during this time that I became acquainted with Q4 and went to my first conference as a guest. Seeing all of the great things staunchly independent individuals were doing reenergized me.
Jamie Greenleaf, lead advisor/principal, Cafaro Greenleaf
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What are you most proud of in your career?

My passion is having a positive impact on the people that I work with. By helping employers design relevant benefit packages for their employees, not only is there significant influence on the organization’s benefit spend, but we are empowering their employees to become financially stable and independent. Status quo does not yield results. You have to change the conversation and think differently.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

Being a woman has given me an insight that men do not have. That is why diversification in the workforce is so important.
Misty Guinn, director of benefits and wellness, human resources, Benefitfocus
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What are you most proud of in your career?

I am most proud of the small, everyday victories where my voice and strategies help individuals become better healthcare consumers and help others improve their total well-being. I am proud that I have been able to build trust with our associates through transparent communications and by demonstrating how much I value their voices. I’ve also earned the trust from my leadership to be a respected voice that is an authentic learner of the industry driven by data and empathy.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

My biggest challenge as a woman in the industry has been overcoming the restraints of an outdated perception that women should be seen and not heard. In many areas, women are considered to be driven by their emotions and not data. We must challenge our assumptions and recognize the importance of welcoming all voices. The typical C-suites and boardrooms that we enter are primarily still male-dominated and I find myself always picking my seat, my posture and my words with intention to communicate that I am there to be a strategic partner, not just a transactional participant.
Cristy Gupton, founder and president, Custom Benefits Solution
Christy Gupton
What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m most proud of learning and understanding how to advocate for my clients. Another adviser once said that you work for who pays you, and that concept shook me out of complacency. When I was depending on insurance companies to pay me, my advice and recommendations were all flavored based on what products to sell. Now, I reject that and only work for my clients.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

Balancing compassion while striving to meet goals. When I first started out, I believed that the best business leaders were ruthless work-a-holics. I’ve always had a passion for service and charity, but I believed that my time volunteering and what I did for a living were two separate worlds. But strength is not about what you take, but realized in what you are able to give.
Ricki Hancart, account manager, Conner Insurance
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What are you most proud of in your career?

My ability to see the full picture when working with my clients. I provide innovative and unique strategies, like specialty medication programs and sourcing prescription drugs for free, while ensuring the strategy is communicated well, meets compliance standards, as well as the employer and employee’s best interest. It’s easy to provide great ideas, but it takes effort and a holistic viewpoint to make them successful.

What has been the biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

I think the biggest challenge for me has been age, rather than gender. It is not uncommon for clients to trust advisers who are older, because the perception is that they must know what they’re doing. Time spent and experience in this industry breeds wisdom, but it doesn’t always mean that the adviser is providing the best ideas. I know that I bring a perspective from a different generation than many of my clients, which means I’m able to help them navigate uncharted waters, like embracing technology! The key to moving past age misconceptions is to communicate assertively, while also being open to coaching along the way.
Angela Kiani, area vice president, Gallagher
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What are you most proud of in your career?

Both my father and my grandfather were insurance agents and I am very proud to follow in their footsteps. When I joined my father in 2005, he taught me that if I focus on taking care of my clients and treat them as if they were my family, success would follow. I speak about this vision regularly with my team. We earn their business every day by our actions, not just our words. I have grown our business double digits each year by simply delivering on this client-centric mission.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

My biggest challenge was to figure out balance. I want to be the best wife, the best mom and the best at my career. In order to stand out in this industry, you need to work hard, be well-educated, keep up with the legislation, network with industry experts and use all of this information to engage in meaningful ways with clients and prospects. I found that I needed more hours in the day in order to conquer everything. My solution became to wake up earlier than everyone else. If you can train your body to wake each day at 4 AM, it is amazing how much you get done in the morning when your brain is fresh and the rest of the world is still asleep.
Jennifer Kinley, employee benefits director of client engagement, Propel Insurance
Jennifer Kinley Cropped
What are you most proud of in your career?

I am proud of building an employee benefits division that focuses strictly on benefits for the senior living industry. Senior living clients do not always have the margin to provide competitive benefits to their employees. One of my core strengths is being a connector. I am proud of being able to connect my clients with the resources and plans they can afford to offer their employees. I am passionate about mentoring our up and coming female insurance peers to make sure we continue to have these women in our field.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

It is no secret that the insurance industry is a male dominated field when it comes to consulting. There are unconscious biases women have to fight every day in order to gain the respect as a professional business woman. When I transitioned from an account executive to a consultant, I soon realized I would have to work twice as hard as my male counterparts to earn the trust of the C-suite executives and win their business. We must continue to develop ourselves both personally and professionally to instill the courage and confidence needed to succeed in this profession.
Michelle Milam, director of HR, compliance and technology division, Business Benefits Group
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What are you most proud of in your career?

Building an entire division of our company from the ground up and designing the vision of what we seek to achieve. I’ve been in an advising role throughout my career, but creating a team at BBG that advises on HR, compliance and technology and tying those to our shared benefits strategies as an agency has been a differentiator in our market segment. I’ve had the opportunity to mentor those that work on my team, as well as colleagues in the HR industry and watch them grow and nourish their own careers, just by offering a different perspective.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

Credibility at times has been challenging, however, I think that has been more attributable to age than gender in the long run. I think for anyone in an advising role, you have to be relatable and provide a credible solution, which is easier and much more fun now with many years of experience behind me than it was when I was younger.
Rachel Miner, founder, Thrive Benefits
Rachel Miner
What are you most proud of in your career?

I've been able to be a really good role model for my kids, both in business and in life.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

There is a natural perception that a man who is assertive is on his game, but that a woman who is assertive is the B-word. This is a crazy male-dominated business, so to be a 35-year-old woman makes you stick out like a sore thumb. When I first began in the industry, at every conference that I went to people either assumed I was an account manager or a vendor. I have had vendors that don't offer me a handshake because they don't think I'm an important person.
Nicole Negvesky, business development director, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners
Nicole Nagevsky
What are you most proud of in your career?

Helping shape the future of our industry ranks among the highest in bringing me satisfaction. Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work with varying levels of talent, from the college intern to seasoned professional, and bring them insights into how we can be better, think more broadly and continue to evolve and adapt as our industry continues to change. The benefits of yesterday look very different from the benefits of today and I can’t wait to see what awaits us in the benefits of tomorrow!

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

The biggest challenge I faced is thinking that successful women in this industry had to act like men. It never served me well and I'm proud that I'm the same person at home as I am at work.
Kieran Pittman, director of strategic growth, BeniComp Health Solutions
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What are you most proud of in your career?

I am most proud that I have been given the chance to build a division as an intrapreneur within BeniComp and redesign a product that solves the two largest issues in the industry: rising health costs and chronic disease. The work we are doing is significant, which is something I feel very tied to personally and professionally. The journey has not always been an easy one. Along the way, especially as an innovator, I learned how to really power through challenges, fail fast, and keep going for the sake of the mission.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

Being a businesswoman, for me, is about being resourceful and deeply knowledgeable about the industry, business, and solutions. I learned that this industry presents an extra layer of challenges because it is a very dynamic and complex environment. I remember when I first entered into the industry with zero knowledge of insurance, and I was bombarded with unfamiliar terms, more acronyms than real words, and people around me who seemed to know so much more than me. I had a moment where I wondered if I would ever be at that level. From there, I spent endless hours researching how things work, talking to mentors in the industry who have made success for themselves, and being resourceful. This domain will always be challenging, but that is the exciting part!
Sally Prather, employee benefits practice leader, Alera Group
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What are you most proud of in your career?

I like to look at challenges that seem impossible, strategically think them through, and then build out a successful solution. When I first started in the brokerage business, I was responsible for a team of six with roughly $2 million in revenue. After only four years, I had more than doubled the practice, growing to a team of 12. I’m particularly proud to say I’ve collaborated with, hired, mentored or led dozens of people over the years that have become leaders in their respective fields or areas of expertise.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

Giving up precious time that would have normally been spent with family has not been easy. Over the years, I’ve had to sacrifice time as professional responsibilities and roles grew. Striking a balance is never easy for anyone, but especially women who are told they can do it all and have it all. While there is truth to it, the reality is there are difficult sacrifices that will be made along the way.
Aida Swanson, principal, Swanson Benefits Insurance Solution
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What are you most proud of in your career?

Starting my business while 8 months pregnant. I knew there would never be a good time, so I just went for it. I wanted to change the way clients were serviced and create a culture within the organization of transparency, value, while truly putting the client's needs first.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

Often, women get placed in administrative and assistant roles where it can take years to move up. This was the case for me in the past and I decided I was not going to go into an administrative role again. I didn't want to spend years proving myself knowing very well I am capable of succeeding. When a challenge arises, I see it as more of an opportunity to learn and grow. The only way to get to the top is to put yourself there. It was scary to do, but with my knowledge, background, and work ethic I knew I could succeed and I have.
Elizabeth Vaughan, area vice president, Gallagher
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What are you most proud of in your career?

My career has been filled with rich, diverse experiences, which have enabled me to grow both personally and professionally. After the birth of my first child, I decided to reinvent myself and take on the challenges of establishing a new career in the employee benefits industry. I am proud of my strong passion for service excellence and love delighting my clients with my responsive, professional approach.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?
While certain industries such as insurance have historically been male-dominated, I believe that is changing. Education and confidence are key for women in any business. Being a “student of the game,” someone who is willing to take the time to learn the fundamentals, is the quickest path to success and differentiation. Being willing to make changes and keeping a healthy sense of humor can help women navigate difficult situations.
Jessica Walters, chief operating officer, Total Control Health Plans
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What are you most proud of in your career?

I am most proud of continuing to push myself to try harder and learn more every day. If there is something I am not familiar with, I ask questions and do my research to have a better understanding so I am able to speak to others from an educated mindset.

What has been your biggest challenge as a woman in the industry?

The biggest challenge as a woman in this industry has been getting employers to see that there is a different way of managing their healthcare supply chain while helping them understand that maintaining the status quo is not sustainable. This requires our expertise to determine who the best partners are for each employer and helping them understand that small changes without much impact to their employees has a significant impact to their bottom line.