How a new wave of benefits consultants are shaping the industry’s future
Bukola Ishola’s father immigrated to the United States from Nigeria in search of a better life. He later learned firsthand that the high cost of health care in the U.S. can make the American Dream much harder to achieve.
“What drew me to insurance at a young age was the fact that my dad had an employer who did not provide a comprehensive benefits plan when I was born,” Ishola says. “That ended up being really costly.”
This lesson stayed with her as she graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara and worked in several positions in human resources and insurance. In the fall of 2021, she joined Nava Benefits as client manager.
“It wasn’t until I was in my last HR position that I realized, yes, I do like human resources, but what I really enjoy is benefits,” she says. “I thought about my dad paying that bill; like many other immigrants, he had to navigate the intricacies of the insurance industry. It wasn’t fair that my father came to this country in search of a better life and got unexpected and unplanned-for medical bills. I said, ‘I have to do something about this.’ That’s how I ended up here.”
We all know the journey to a career in the benefits industry is often a winding road rather than a direct path. Michael Smith, a benefits consultant for Butler Benefits in Amarillo, Texas, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in health care administration and spent two decades working for several hospitals, physician groups and other providers. Then, like Ishola, he came to realize that his experience and interests were steering him toward a benefits career.
“Given my experience seeing firsthand the impact that health benefits have on patients, I felt a strong conviction to join the revolution on the benefits side of the industry,” he says. Smith connected with company president Josh Butler on LinkedIn and liked his approach to health care.
“He’s a great storyteller with a fierce passion for helping people, especially those who are overpaying for health care and insurance,” Smith says. “The more we continued to talk about the industry over coffee and lunch, the more I knew we needed to work together for the greater good. In January of this year, everything aligned and he offered me a job to join his team.”
Smith, who is in his mid-40s, and Ishola, in her mid-30s, are part of the next wave of benefits professionals who will help shape the industry in coming decades. They will lead the way to a more equitable and tech-savvy future for the industry, while not losing sight of the importance of a personal touch.
“I consider myself blessed to have met the right people at the right times to help me establish myself,” Ishola says. “This industry is weighted heavily toward white males. As a second-generation Nigerian-American woman, it typically would be very hard to navigate your way to a position like this.
“But fortunately, Nava Benefits understands that to make positive change in health care, we need to eventually replicate a microcosm of what our country looks like in regard to diversity—not only race or gender, but maybe your religion or your sexual orientation or your gender preference. We need to make sure we get an idea of what it’s like for everyone to actually utilize insurance.”
The pandemic has helped accelerate the pace of change on several fronts.
“In March 2020, I had just started working fully remotely from home, which offered great flexibility for my family and me,” Smith says. “However, I am a relationship-driven person who thrives by being around people. Although my professional network continued to grow during the pandemic, I found Zoom more impersonal and a harder environment in which to make genuine connections, which limited some of the business I needed to conduct.”
Now that the pandemic has eased, he is finding ways to integrate the latest technology with personal interaction.
“Technology is fantastic in so many ways,” he says. “I’m all for automation and efficiency where it makes sense, but most people still enjoy that warm interface with someone who has their best interests at heart. My approach is built around informing clients and employees face-to-face based on their needs. Education is key, and some people require that extra TLC to help make their life better.”
Ishola agrees. “When I joined Nava during the pandemic, technology really allowed me to fit into our organization in a way I had never experienced before,” she says. “It definitely was a better experience than any of the jobs I had before COVID. I feel in sync with my team and peers, not to mention with my clients. I feel connected, and I think it’s because we were able to use technology in a way that our industry had not tried. For an industry that is notoriously slow to move on and be progressive, we figured out how to do it well.”
The general perception that there is a digital divide between people who are older and younger than 40 can be misleading, she adds.
“I am kind of an old soul at heart,” Ishola says. “When I joined Nava, I was like, ‘Whoa, there is a lot of technology I need to learn.’ I had never used a lot of the programs that we use internally. Likewise, a lot of the programs we offer our clients are very tech-focused. It’s been an experience where I can really empathize with my clients. I am like, ‘Hey, I know it’s hard.’ I am not a fresh 30-year-old who knows things like TikTok. I am able to find a connection with somebody who thinks of me as a young person but then realizes I am also struggling with trying to learn a new system.”
Even as newer employees learn what it takes to succeed today, they understand that the industry will look much different at the end of their careers than at the beginning. Ishola foresees the balance of power shifting from carriers to brokers and employers.
“I don’t see carriers keeping up with the way brokers now want to do business,” she says. “They are slow to move. It will be interesting to see what the catalyst will be to get them to meet clients and brokers where they are. There is going to be a new dynamic.”
Smith expects the movement toward greater transparency to have a positive impact on cost, access and quality of care.
“Honestly, the government has already created several headwinds and tailwinds related to price transparency and fiduciary responsibility across the industry that I feel will only grow stronger,” he says. “Health care is one of the only things we purchase in our country for which we don’t know the actual price before services are rendered, so this legislative ground work has the ability to help employers and their employees in coming years.
“My hope is that through local arrangements, direct contracts and greater willingness of employers to take back control of their plans, we will see market prices drop while increasing quality and access to care.”
Although people enter and remain in the benefits industry for a variety of reasons, the common denominator is the satisfaction they get from serving clients.
“My job is to make life better for employers and their employees by helping them design and implement a robust health plan that doesn’t break the bank,” Smith says. “I like to tell people it’s like taking a peek behind Oz’s curtain. You hear and read about the $4 trillion health care machine that makes up approximately 20 percent of our national GDP, as well as all of the bloat and waste. The more you dig into how the system works, the more you find the corruption and perverse incentives that do not have patients’ overall wellbeing at the core. My opportunity is to open employers’ eyes, build awareness and create affordable solutions.”
Meanwhile, Ishola is committed to making the health care system more equitable for businesses of all sizes.
“Being able to take care of those small- and medium-sized businesses means a lot, because most people in this country are in search of the American Dream,” she says. “That may mean running a mom-and-pop shop, but that business will need benefits. I want to make sure they have the same access that Pepsi, Coca-Cola or FedEx have and help level that playing field.”
Most of all, she is determined to make sure that no one else has to do through the financial challenges that her father faced.
“At the end of my career, I will be happy to retire, because I did my job,” Ishola says. “There is going to be a change where employers, brokers and employees can call the shots. The carriers will be like, ‘OK, we’re going to have to play ball.’ It will not be easy to get there, but I am really optimistic.
“I want to be able to turn my computer off every night, every Friday, every quarter, every year knowing that what I did positively affected somebody. It may be one person, it may be 20 people it may be 2,000 people—I don’t care. But I want to feel I am making things better.”