After chatting with the remarkable Pamela Davis – who is who is believed to be the first woman to start an insurance company – what really resonated with me is her persistent mantra that ‘Behind every great woman is her ability to look after her own health and wellbeing.’
In fact, the Founder, President and CEO of Nonprofits Insurance Alliance (NIA) – a ground-breaking group of cooperative insurers protecting U.S. charitable not-for-profit organizations – says she transformed both herself and the nonprofit insurance market by, “Always putting my own health first, so I could think clearly, and take on big challenges.”
And no one could doubt Pamela’s message of ‘self-care and self-love’ after they learn of her long journey from an environmental education settlement school in economically humble Appalachian Mountains to a natural foods store in Ohio to the California headquarters of a national insurance group serving 23,000+ nonprofits in 32 states and D.C.
Pursuing fairness and ignoring doubters
During our recent conversation, Pamela jokes that her upbringing “directly prepared her” for a career in insurance. “I grew up in a family that didn’t believe in education above high school for women, and I was only expected to have a husband and children,” she says. “I did many things, including run a natural food restaurant, but, in my thirties – on a whim – I drove with an employee to California to study natural healing arts. I loved what I found out west, so I sold my restaurant and never went back.”
Although the west coast lifestyle was invigorating, Pamela quickly realized she would not go far without higher education, so she returned to school to earn degrees in economics and public policy, without yet knowing what precise career she wanted.
Perhaps by fluke, Pamela’s life purpose became clear when she was hired to write a second-year thesis on the difficulties that nonprofits had finding liability insurance: “I did some research and realized that California had recently passed a law to allow nonprofits to create their own risk pools, so I wrote about that. After a foundation published 5,000 copies of my paper, I became an instant insurance expert, with virtually no background in the business.”
At that point, Pamela decided to build the solution she envisioned, even though experts told her it would fail, since “nonprofits were considered poorly managed and thus un-insurable.” “So, I spent two years pulling it together, raising money to cover our expenses and arranging $1 million in low-interest subordinated loans from foundations to create the company surplus,” says Pamela. “The thing that drove me was my passion for fairness. I believed that nonprofits were better managed than they were given credit for, and that proved to be true.”
Overcoming entrenched gender bias
Not only did Pamela face an uphill battle to convince funders, legislators, and industry peers to support her concept but, three decades later, she still recalls their reaction to a woman executive and her mostly female team.
“Right away, I saw that there were no other women in positions of authority in insurance,” notes Pamela. She remembers defending herself and her company when one reinsurer would not cover them because of her female management team, and when a major funder waged a secret coup to replace her with “an insurance man.” “Even though I spent two years putting this together, they didn’t want me to be CEO,” she says. “I also remember attending a conference of industry executives and being asked if I was ‘excited about going shopping’. No one would sit with me at the event, so it was a very isolating experience.”
If anyone expected Pamela to surrender to these humiliations, they were wrong. “Fortunately, I have never waited for other people’s approval, so I just pushed ahead,” she explains. “I really believed in the value that people in the nonprofit community provide, and I felt I could share my entrepreneurial skills to help them do a better job serving their communities.”
But is sheer willpower enough to win such fights? “The most important thing for me is to make my own health my first priority, because it allows me to think clearly. If you are healthy, with a clear mind and self-love, you can do so much more without caring if others love you back,” responds Pamela. She notes that she eats well (she’s recently become a full vegan), sleeps more than eight hours a day, walks, and practices Qigong, the ancient Chinese technique of meditation, breathing and movement.
Referencing the often-repeated flight attendant script, “Put your own mask on before assisting others,” Pamela emphasizes that, “Women should not under-estimate the power of being in charge of their own health and well-being. Once you have that self-mastery, you can accomplish more than you expect.”
And Pamela urges women to aim high when setting those goals: “We don’t have time to work around the edges anymore, since it’s clear that the old system is not bringing the change we need soon enough. I encourage women to be bold, think about their communities and the legacies they want to leave.”
In Pamela’s case, she’s focused on creating gender equity within her organization, and today 50 percent of the group’s senior leadership team is women, 70 percent of middle managers are female, and one third of all employees are persons of color. “For the most part, US businesses are not getting the best people in the top jobs, even though there are plenty of women and people of color who are ready to be leaders. My team is trying to break that pattern and we manage with love, with leaders who nurture growth among all of our employees.”
While admitting that she’s built an “odd career, in which I started out as CEO,” Pamela’s counsel to women is, “Whatever you are doing, get healthy, love and trust yourself, and your heart will tell you what to do.”
More about Pamela E. Davis: Based in Santa Cruz, California, Pamela is the Founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance (NIA), a group of cooperative nonprofit insurers for more than 24,000 tax-exempt nonprofits in 32 states. Believed to be the first woman to have started an insurance company, Pamela has held this post for more than three decades and won many industry accolades. Most recently in 2021, she was named for the second time to The NonProfit Times’ Power & Influence Top 50 list, which recognizes innovative leaders and visionaries of the nonprofit sector. In 2017, Pamela was named among 125 Elite Women by Insurance Business America, as one of the women at the vanguard of the insurance industry. Pamela holds a Bachelor of Arts degree with highest honors in economics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Masters degree in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley.