Interview with Heidi McCormack, CEO and co-founder of Emerald Life

Heidi McCormack is CEO and co-founder of Emerald Life, the first insurance company ensuring equality for all, particularly women and the LGBT+ community.

In 2019, Heidi was named Diversity & Inclusion in Insurance Leader and was a Top 50 Executive Ally for the fourth year in OUTstanding & Yahoo Finance awards.

A former executive at General Motors – one of several positions she’s held globally – Heidi spearheaded GM’s entry into Russia and fast became a role model for women in the boardroom. 

What’s your career background?

Most of my working life has been spent in Russia, working in investment banking and mergers and acquisitions. I was born and raised in Washington DC, but studying international economics and Middle East Studies at university led me to living and working a very international life.

After studying in Cairo, I worked there for three years where my first job was in business development for a large construction company. My career in finance really took off when I worked on privatising a major automotive company in Russia. Thereafter, General Motors approached me to be Director of Finance in Russia – a country that I ended up living and working in for 25 years. 

I moved to the UK in 2015. I am CEO of Emerald Life, a disruptor in the insurance space which focuses on diversity and inclusion. I co-founded Emerald with my friend and business partner Steve Wardlaw, a former lawyer also working in Russia, who is a prominent LGBT+ activist and Stonewall Ambassador.

The insurance industry is one of the most discriminatory and unrepresentative consumer services around. So we focus on supporting four cohorts of consumers that are radically underserviced and underinsured: women, LGBT+, non-traditional families and single people. Ironically this constitutes almost 80% of the insurable population, so this is not a niche. 

We challenge unconscious biases and are trying to modernise an industry that has not changed for decades. Modern life and relationships have shifted dramatically from the ‘traditional’ aspirational model of the heterosexual couple with 2.2 kids, 2.2 pets and 2.2 cars to a huge aray of constellations of ‘family’ constructs.

Yet product design, advertising and marketing campaigns have not shifted to be inclusive and representative of reality. So we design products that embrace a variety of people’s life circumstances and needs in a way that no other insurance company has done before. 

Where did the idea for Emerald Life come from?

The idea was actually my business partner, Steve’s. After a very successful career in law – he wanted to create a business that would advocate LGBT+ rights.

We both wanted to create an enterprise that tackled some of the worst areas of discrimination that people face every day, and the insurance sector is inherently blighted by inequality.  

Initially, Steve pursued setting up an LGBT-friendly retirement home, but the financial crisis put a stop to that. Over the next several years, we kept hearing stories anecdotally from friends about how they hated insurance companies, how they discriminate against people living with HIV, and gay people.

So we investigated and did research including several YouGov surveys and found that LGBT+ people are 50% less likely to have insurance than straight people or actual negative customer experiences. Emerald Life is the culmination of that research and our vision is to change insurance for the better, particularly for women and the LGBT+ community, and fuel positive social change. 

How did you move from idea to actual business?

We initially worked together to raise investment, using personal savings, our own networks as well as getting friends and family to chip in. Our initiative clearly resonated with many people, as we managed to raise an initial seed funding round of £1.8m.

We are a small team but we all work together towards a common purpose, so that keeps us tight knit and focused on achieving the same goal.  

What’s your USP?

Quite simply, we are the UK’s most inclusive insurer. We want to challenge the mould of so-called ‘normality’ and tackle financial discrimination. Such discrimination is often indirect or hidden.

There is widespread distrust amongst consumers – not least with people who feel marginalised – that when it comes to purchasing cover of any kind, they will be denied access or given a poor deal.

Some consumers are let down on the product front. When it comes to the actual customer journey, customers can experience further injury because of poorly trained customer service staff, unable to deal with people who don’t match ‘traditional’ norms.

There are still archaic IT systems in the industry with which it is actually impossible to process married gay couples with a Mr & Mr heading. And yet these systems underpin the structure of some of the world’s biggest insurance providers. So things have to change.

Who’s your target audience?

Our focus is on the underinsured and the underrepresented. We provide insurance products (home, travel, pet, wedding etc) to women, LGBT+, non-traditional families and single people and like-minded people who like what we do.

Increasingly, we also provide insurance services for SMEs too. We insure theatres, LGBT and women’s charities, and about 10% of the Pride events in the UK. Our aim is for Emerald Life to be the ‘go to’ insurer where diverse consumers can trust us to understand their needs.

Quite a few of our clients are entrepreneurs and founders of SMEs who have left big corporate structures. Through our various social initiatives, we try to stoke further dialogue around the inequalities within the industry in support of our target customers.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

We employ various tactics. Both Steve and I are active speakers on insurance and LGBT+ issues. I do a lot of guest talks on unconscious bias and under-represented communities. And Steve is often in the press or on TV talking about everything from the controversy of teaching children about diverse and inclusive relationships to HIV and homelessness through an LGBT lens.

A lot of the social issues we talk about naturally dovetail with Emerald Life’s mission, so we can talk about our business passionately and authentically. 

Winning business awards has helped boost Emerald’s brand awareness as well. We have won awards both for customer service and its ethical stance, and have changed policy design (such as eliminating discriminatory pricing for people living with HIV in travel insurance) and also set up partnerships where corporates and large organisations offer our product as part of employee benefit programmes.

We use all these instances to celebrate and amplify Emerald and its vision. 

What’s been your most successful marketing strategy?

This really varies quite widely by product, market segment and channel. It’s just as important to highlight some of the pro bono activities we do and charity partners that we support as it is to market products to various customer groups.

Without getting too technical, I would say our most successful marketing strategies focus on SEO (search engine optimization) and content which explains the product, various issues about a product, potential pitfalls of not having certain insurance, tips which causes us to rate highly in what we call organic search – so not paying for clicks but spending the time to build a body of knowledge and discussion around what a product is and what are its benefits.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

To many people’s surprise, my most challenging experiences about being a woman in business was not experienced in Russia while I was running General Motors, but in the UK today working as Emerald Life’s CEO. This is because insurance is still a very conservative sector with no diversity.

At meetings where I am primarily dealing with white men over the age of 50, I have often been treated as if I were invisible, with these people preferring to converse with my business partner Steve. 

And your proudest moment so far?

I had a very fulfilling career at the helm of General Motors. For example, the Russian operation experienced huge growth from $15mn to just under $450mn; I supervised the development of three manufacturing plants and also expanded the portfolio from two to five brands.

But of course, Emerald has been one of my proudest achievements, because we’re about meaningful innovation to improve people’s lives.  

Why is work so important to you?

I think it’s important to approach what you do, not as a job, but as a passion. In the ‘work’ that I’m doing with Emerald, I feel strongly about designing products for underinsured communities and reaching out to those communities so that they too can have the financial and life support which puts them on much firmer ground.

Seeing people respond positively to what we do when we talk about our mission and the experiences that led to this venture also underscores why what we do is so important to us. We have a profound sense of purpose and that is food for the soul.

Who inspires you?

Not entrepreneurs or figureheads as such, but I meet inspirational people every day in my line of work. These are people who have overcome enormous challenges andwho have learned to strongly be themselvesand share their experiences to raise awareness.

This includes (but is not exclusive to) people who have undergone harrowing experiences of ‘coming out’; survivors of domestic violence; people who are living successfully with addiction challenges, and people with mental wellness issues.

We never know what it is like to walk in someone else’s shoes and, most of the time, we have no idea what is going on in people’s lives. But those people who have come out the other side of difficult times and become stronger and more empowered because of these experiences – these are the people that inspire me the most. 

How do you balance your work with your family?

Finally, at the age of 55, I think I might have mastered the balance between business and career. Seven years ago, when we started the research to create Emerald Life (and certainly for the first three years of launching a financial services start-up) my To Do list only got longer and the sleep quotient, shorter.

But I’m getting better at focusing on priorities and identifying what doesn’t have to be done immediately. 

We’re a very small team so it’s not about delegation so much as what is the most impactful thing for us to focus on during work hours to improve and benefit the business. 

It’s not always easy to create time for myself and, historically, I’ve not been good at it. Exercise and anything non-work related gives the brain a rest, and it actually makes me more efficient – although that has been a hard discipline to instil. Breaks, time with friends and family and time for myself – there’s really no real replacement for how these activities recharge the batteries.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

I can’t imagine anyone wanting to get into insurance as it is one of the most boring (but important) things imaginable. I’m only partially joking. But my three pieces of advice about life and job and career and the balancing acts that we all have to do are as follows.

1) Do something you like

If humanly possible, in these trying times of coronavirus and unemployment, if you don’t like what you’re doing, step back and take the risk of change.

I know it’s scary – but see it as an opportunity to do something you like. This is even better if you can do something you love with stimulating people around you. Life is too short to do what you don’t like doing.

2) Have a life

This means balance between work and career, family and time for yourself. It’s simple advice but not easy to do. It’s taken me years to take care of myself and I’ve learned how to do this only recently.

Indeed, there are times in one’s life when you need to focus on the career, but even in those intense periods, life balance will only make you more effective.

3) …?

I don’t have a Number 3 – hopefully that will come with my learnings from the next decade!

You can find out more about Emerald Life on their website.