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How mentorship guides Victor Terry's initiatives as State Farm's first chief diversity officer

Victor Terry was appointed State Farm's first chief diversity officer in June, 2020.

Victor Terry credits mentorship as one of the most critical things to impact his career.

Mentorship is what helped him thrive in school shortly after he transferred from the University of Alabama, where he had friends but also a mountain of student debt, to the private Samford University, where his mother had taken an administrative job in order to receive free tuition for her son.

For his first few months on campus, Terry adjusted to what he describes as an "overwhelmingly Anglo" institution, but support quickly came in the form of Dr. Robert Service, who goes by Bill, a business school professor who made himself available to Terry and guided his college career as a mentor.

"Dr. Service has always pushed me beyond my comfort zone on a professional level," Terry tells CNBC Make It. "One thing that came out of that mentorship is that, as a sophomore, I became the first minority underclassman to become the president of the professional business fraternity."

Through this relationship, Terry was introduced to State Farm and began working for the insurance company as an agency field specialist in 1997 after graduation. As he's progressed in his career with State Farm, from working as a field specialist to an agent to an area vice president, he's continued to seek out mentors and provide guidance to junior associates — "far too many to name, but they all have been critically instrumental in my development and ability to earn the right to compete for more responsibility over time," he says.

In June, Terry was appointed as State Farm's first chief diversity officer and says building a culture of mentorship and promoting underrepresented talent from within will be among his main priorities in his new role.

Diversity chief role seen as an evolution to ongoing work

The decision to formalize the position of a chief diversity officer was borne out of recent protest surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black Americans, which led State Farm leaders to consider what more they could do to work toward more equitable diversity and inclusion at the company.

Senior vice president Annette Martinez considers the role an extension of the work she's done leading the 98-year-old company's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, which was formalized in 2002.

In the last five years, State Farm has increased representation of women and non-White employees in the workforce by 10 percentage points, Martinez says. In 2020, State Farm is 58% women and 40% non-White, which includes 19% Black or African American, 10% Hispanic, 4% Asian and 7% other, defined as American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and two or more races.

With the formal appointment of a chief diversity officer, "it's not a brand new thing," Martinez says, "but it's an evolution."

Terry, who now additionally assumes the role of vice president of public affairs, says he's long been passionate about the company's existing D&I efforts, including by taking a leadership position in State Farm's African-American Forum and volunteering with community initiatives.

"As I step back and consider this role," Terry adds, "it's to build on the platform Annette and the D&I team have already started, and to work to do better so we meet the needs of our customers and our workforce."

Mentorship as a key to an equitable workplace

Terry already has a few priorities as State Farm's first chief diversity officer.

One will be to reexamine State Farm's recruitment strategies, for example by reworking its intentional recruiting efforts at historically black colleges and universities.

In the first quarter of 2020, 68% of new hires at State Farm, primarily for entry-level roles, have been from minority groups, with a demographic breakdown of 30% Black, 15% Hispanic, 3% Asian and 20% other.

Beyond improving diversity and representation among new hires, Terry believes a lot of the hard work will come with retaining, developing and promoting minority employees within the organization.

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In 2019, 9.4% of State Farm employees quit their jobs. Workers with longer tenure are more likely to stay: The share of employees who quit with five to nine years with the company is 1.2%, while employees with 10 or more years is below 1%.

Additional numbers show that it's not enough to hire minority workers into entry-level roles without providing equal access to a supportive work environment and opportunities for advancement. A 2019 Center for Talent Innovation report showed that while roughly one in three Black professionals aspire to hold an executive position at work, and nearly two in three consider themselves to be "very ambitious" in their career, Black professionals today hold just 3.2% of executive and senior manager positions and less than 1% of Fortune 500 CEO spots.

For Terry, part of bridging the opportunity gap at State Farm will mean getting managers more involved in equity efforts. Through a newly established governance council, Terry and Martinez will identify senior leaders across the enterprise who will meet to form and implement management practices that align with the company's diversity and inclusion goals, particularly in hiring and promoting. 

Getting buy-in from leaders at every level in the organization, and not just those at the top, is crucial, Terry says. "We believe these people should have influence to lead two levels up and two levels down in terms of championing new initiatives of D&I and being a strong support structure as we execute our initiatives," he explains. "I think people support what they help build rather than it being top-down compliant. We believe ownership and accountability culture built into the organization will serve us well."

Additionally, more than 19,000 sales agents across the country work to get State Farm products and services to market and are among the least diverse of the company's workforce. Just 27% field employees are women, and 20% identify as members of a minority race, including 8% Black or African American, 7% Hispanic, 4% Asian and 1% other.

I think people support what they help build rather than it being top-down compliant. We believe ownership and accountability culture built into the organization will serve us well.
Victor Terry
Chief Diversity Officer, State Farm

Terry's plans to increase these numbers will include renewed focus on a Diversity and Inclusion Agent Champion Network, launched in 2017, where sales leaders help identify and mentor agents who want to move into leadership roles.

"It's important we double-down on mentoring development opportunities for all associates," Terry says.

'We know it's not enough'

Currently, among over 6,000 managers at State Farm, 25% are from underrepresented groups, and Terry hopes to increase those numbers through the promotion of new managers throughout the organization. In the first quarter of 2020, 37% of newly promoted managers were non-White.

Higher up, 23% of State Farm executives are non-White, compared with 14% across all industries nationwide, according to data from the Equal Employer Opportunity Commission. "We're proud of those numbers, though we know it's not enough," Martinez says.

Having "enough" diversity in the workforce isn't about reaching a set target or being compliant with the EEOC, Martinez says.

"Rather, it's about building the expectation: Is the slate of candidates [hiring managers] consider highly diverse in terms of experience, or whether they're minority or female?" Martinez says. "We look at the available workforce. What is the available workforce, and how can we be representative that, plus [more]? It's thinking about available talent, people with the right skill sets, pools of candidates — we want to be representative and [more]."

"We're used to being No. 1," Terry says, referring to State Farm's designation as the top auto and homeowner insurer in the U.S. according to the S&P Global Market Intelligence, which measures economic performance and other data points of large publicly traded companies. "We like it. When other companies reference State Farm and say, 'We want to be more like State Farm in representation and opportunities,' or 'We're not State Farm yet, but we're working on it,' that's an aspiration I have for us."

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