Sam White: The real challenge is flipping the script and getting people to understand that at its core, insurance is a people-centric product.
Sam White fired herself as CEO at the beginning of the year and replaced herself with a psychologist. They have an egalitarian structure in the business so that the staff make all the decisions. The CEO is not there to make the decisions. He's there to facilitate them making the decisions and have found that to be a massive driver for success because they feel that they own their own results.
Sam White, founder of the insurance company Freedom Services Group and recently a finalist in the 2022 Great British Entrepreneur Awards, gives an exclusive interview to Dimitra Triantafyllaki and emeastartups and talks about female entepreneurship, her disruptive business, the female-centric motor insurance business Stella Insurance. Sam White is a strong advocate of diversity, equality, innovation and making business human applying a human-first approach to leadership, paving the way for a better and healthier working environment.
emeastartups: How did everything start? What gave you the motivation to become an entrepreneur at a such young age and in a male-dominated industry?
Sam White: I always like to say, I don’t have some highly glossed startup story. The truth of the matter is that my first job out of university was in insurance and while I was doing well in it, I realized I really didn’t like other people telling me what to do. So I set up my first company because I was desperate for independence and freedom, and to plough my own field as it were. Working in a male dominated industry probably compounded that for me because as a young woman, I wasn’t really being taken very seriously so I figured the only way for me to be able to control things will be to do it for myself – and that was the main motivation for me back then and how I embarked on this path.
emeastartups: Can you tell me a few things about your company Freedom Services Group?
Sam White: On the surface, we’re quite a standard motor insurance business. The group has claims TPA, so we handle motor insurance claims. We used to handle claims on behalf of other insurance companies, we now handle our own claims on behalf of policies that we sell ourselves. We have an insurance broker that sells policies to the general public and we design our own insurance products in our own MGA. I think really, what makes the business quite different and this has been evolving over the last couple of years is that we have quite a unique style of management. So I actually fired myself as CEO at the beginning of the year and replace myself with a psychologist. We have an egalitarian structure in the business so that the staff make all the decisions. The CEO is not there to make the decisions. He’s there to facilitate them making the decisions and we found that to be a massive driver for success because they feel that they own their own results. As an example, my executive assistant became the Head of Culture and Engagement in the business around six months ago. She’s been driving forward a lot of the things that she saw over the years that were potential challenges, and one of the things she wanted me to implement was the four-day working week, which she was in charge of rolling out a couple of months ago, and it’s been a roaring success. But to make it work as it did, she asked the staff – ‘how would you make this work for everybody?’ and the staff had input on the structure and the processes.
emeastartups: You follow a human-centered approach. Do you think that all businesses nowadays could probably do the same and how this can help businesses more?
Sam White: I mean, we are all humans. So the fact that we’re at work shouldn’t make any difference to how you’re behaving. And I think there’s a real danger and it’s particularly pronounced in the financial services sector, that people almost play it being at work. So they put on this role and this persona, that I’m a CEO or I’m a finance director and they lose touch with that humanity. For me, that creates a lot of dysfunctions because as in all aspects of life, if you aren’t being true and authentic, then the connections you’re making with others aren’t true or authentic, and you can’t do good work in that set of circumstances because nobody is actually asking for what they want – which is how you end up with miscommunication. I am also a big advocate of, you know, looking at psychology as a tool in business. What we know from a psychological viewpoint is that if people aren’t connecting properly, they tend to play games at work which can be dysfunctional.
emeastartups: We said in the beginning, you are in a male dominated industry, how difficult it was in the past, and have things changed now for women in businesses in general?
Sam White: The percentage of money that goes to female founders is around 1% of the total funding available so that bothers me. Until we change the amount of money that goes into female founders, then nothing else is really going to change. There have been some improvements as there are some more senior female leaders in the insurance industry nowadays but we have still got a long way to go.
emeastartups: Women could be great leaders but they are not given the opportunity to prove that, why do you think that’s the case?
Sam White: I think one of the challenges is that all the current leaders or the majority of current leaders are men. And so they admire and respect male characteristics which are very different to female characteristics of leadership. Now, ironically, a lot of the studies have shown that empathy, emotional intelligence, all those things, which actually are biological traits which women have an advantage are real precursors for success. The problem is that you’ve got that bias that people in positions of power don’t necessarily believe that to be the case. So instead, they assume that emotional intelligence is weakness and people are too soft – they are seeing too much of the humanity and giving people an easy run of it. I think that’s where a lot of these challenges come in, this sort of male perception of what is the right kind of leader and so women are not always accepted if they bring their true self to work. And then you have a compounding problem that sometimes women will emulate male leadership styles because they think they need to do that to advance in their career and it just doesn’t work.
emeastartups: How did you manage to be named as a finalist in the 2022 Great Britain and how did you feel about that?
Sam White: I was shocked as anybody when they put me forward for the finalists. So I actually had a chat with one of the team about something completely different a few months ago, and they asked me if I had ever applied and going forward for awards has not been something that I have really done before this point. So I was absolutely delighted and it is a real honor as I have followed the Great British Entrepreneurs Awards in the past. Being as excited as I am about building businesses and all the opportunities that affords me in life so was just great to get there.
emeastartups: How do you think the insurance industry can change in the future? How can female leaders make it a reality?
Sam White: What excites me about the insurance industry is that it has so much potential. I think insurance could be a huge force for good in the world. In fact, it is already a huge force for good because if you look at whenever there’s any kind of worldwide catastrophe, there is probably an insurance company that’s stepping in to help support. The problem is we don’t do a very good job of selling that side of the industry. We talk too much about numbers and not enough about people. The real challenge here is flipping the script and getting people to understand that at its core, insurance is a people-centric product. Also, what I have seen is that because there are not as many women in the insurance industry, the products are not designed to appeal to women either. This was when I launched Stella Insurance, I started with a blank sheet of paper where we could design an insurance product that will be appealing to women.
emeastartups: What difficulties did you face because of the pandemic? How did you overcome them?
Sam White: I nearly lost the business during the pandemic. It was a really, really difficult time. I even ended up in a situation where I had to use the deposit from a house to pay the staff wages because we were struggling. The claims TPAs income is entirely dependent on new claims coming in. Obviously during lockdown, the number of people on the roads was massively reduced so our volume was probably down to 20% of what it would normally be. We were also looking to launch a new telematics product and the volumes of sales in the market as a whole had dropped by 40%. In addition, we had to move all of the staff to remote working which we had not done before so had to
overcome challenges such as getting the tech set up and processes in place. It really felt like there were challenges being thrown at us from all sides. I then came across the same challenge I've had over the years where despite there being government loans available to help and we had good numbers in the year before the pandemic, we struggled to get the assistance from our existing bank. So we really, really had to fight quite hard to get through that that process.
emeastartups: Now, tell me about Stella Insurance. How did you start it? What did you have in mind mostly?
Sam White: It was launched in Australia and at the moment we are planning on launching it in the UK, aiming to have it go live in October. Stella was born out the frustrations I’ve probably had over the last 20 odd years being in a sector that wasn’t really designed for me and wasn’t really designed for women. So what I wanted to do was just build the brand to be unapologetically for women. We thought about what women like or dislike or like about insurance and how we can design a product that’s going to be supportive of them. For example, we found that there was a clause in the policy that if a partner or somebody you knew had damaged your vehicle, you weren’t insured which disadvantaged women, particularly if one was a victim of domestic abuse for instance. So we took that out of the policy. We also discovered that women, even more than men, were aggrieved by the lack of loyalty in the insurance industry and people were getting charged more if they stayed with an insurer than if they went out and look for a new business policy. So we changed the policy so that we could reward people for staying with us over a period of time. Also, women tend to be more time poor because they have the burden of childcare, etc. So we simplified and made their customer journey quicker. We also wanted to show that we didn’t just talk a good game, we were genuinely supportive of the causes that that kind of dear to mine and the team’s heart. And so we formed a partnership with Women and Girls Emergency Centre – every time we sell an insurance policy, we give 5 dollars back to them and that’s enabled them to support a number of women who have been in a crisis situation. From a branding perspective, we’ve been very cheeky. The brand advertising is extremely in your face in communicating what we stand for and what our brand values are. I think everybody who have seen it has said it doesn’t look like an insurance advert and that’s what we wanted. We wanted to be kind of fresh and different.
emeastartups: With which companies have you cooperated so far and do you have in mind any future collaborations?
Sam White: We have had a number of partnerships. To be honest, I wouldn’t have a business if I didn’t have the partnerships over the years. As a small startup all those years ago I needed larger corporates to be able to build the business and the likes of AXA Insurance were really key partners for us in the early years from a claims viewpoint. As we’ve grown, we now work with them as a as a panel insurer, with the broker. More recently, I have been looking for alternative sources of capital to be able to grow the business in the future. I am super excited about some American brokers that we are working with to bring a product that’s launched over there that isn’t yet here in the UK market. For me, looking outside of your own industry, but also looking at inside of your own territory as we did with Australia when launching Stella, can give rise to new opportunities.
emeastartups: What are your plans or ambitions for the future?
Sam White: World domination. I always like to say I want to take Stella to every territory I can. We’re in Australia now, will be in the UK soon, and then hopefully Canada and various other territories. I also want to expand into different insurance products. We are very motor centric at the moment but we want to sell home insurance, pet insurance and also start to innovate and create insurance products that don’t exist today to help solve new arising problems.
emeastartups: What advice would you give to someone starting their business now?
Sam White: The most important thing is to understand the fact that you will have multiple failures and multiple struggles and that is normal. Women in particular, as entrepreneurs, probably have a bigger fear of failure than men do, which could hold us back but actually failure is a big part of how you reach success. It’s important to understand that you don’t have to be perfect – I haven’t met an entrepreneur who hasn’t had challenges and obstacles to overcome.