Vice President of Education and Labor Advocacy, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
September 29, 2022
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Women Taking the Lead (WTTL) program is focused on showcasing top executive women, connecting them with a network of allies who will champion their work, and providing these leaders with professional growth opportunities to drive change in C-Suites, boardrooms, and congressional and corner offices in DC and throughout the country.
Each month Women Taking the Lead highlights a female leader within the U.S. Chamber membership to showcase how women are currently leading in all areas of the business community. In September, we are highlighting Hispanic Heritage month in a conversation with Kathleen Coulombe, Vice President of Retirement Security & Principal Deputy Federal Relations, American Council of Life Insurers, and Women in Government Relations (WGR) President.Read more about Kathleen in her own words below.
Q: Tell us about American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI) and the decision to get involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion issues.
A: Pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) commitments is a top priority for ACLI. Looking through the DEI lens for the life insurance industry, life insurance companies are uniquely positioned to help achieve DEI goals through the products we offer and the investments we make in the U.S. economy. Our products build financial certainty and can significantly enhance the transfer of intergenerational wealth. Our investments in underserved communities increase the promise of upward mobility for their residents.
ACLI launched its Economic Empowerment and Racial Equity initiative in 2020. It is the catalyst for programs and concrete actions that are making a positive difference. The aim of the initiative is 1) expanding access to financial protection tools, 2) advancing diversity in companies and on boards, 3) supporting financial education to help close wealth gaps, and 4) expanding investments in underserved communities.
Additionally, what has been impactful for me and my ACLI colleagues, has not only been what ACLI has been doing externally, but a profound commitment to DEI internally. Our Forum for Fearless Conversations group creates an open and safe forum for staff to have ongoing conversations on DEI concerns. The group provides a platform for staff to discuss what is happening in our communities, our personal experiences and hardships, and what we could do as colleagues and friends to support each other.
Q: What type of work does ACLI do in DEI, particular within Hispanic community?
A: A natural progression from ACLI’s EERE work was an industry-specific initiative for closing the affordable housing gap. Home ownership is not just part of fulfilling the American Dream, but also is a powerful step to sustainable financial security – and one of the surest ways (other than a life insurance death benefit) to pass wealth inter-generationally. Home ownership rates for Black and Brown communities have lagged behind others at the same rate since passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968.
This year, ACLI members joined together to launch 360 Community Capital, a nonprofit network that will pair the life insurance industry’s long-term investment strategies with on-the ground expertise from community partners who know what families and communities need to thrive. It is a force multiplier for an industry that already has $6 billion in municipal affordable housing bonds to leverage. Strengthening Hispanic communities through affordable, sustainable housing is one way that life insurers are able to leverage their expertise in order to invoke real change in communities.
Q: Tell us about your role at ACLI and what brought you to the issues facing our Hispanic community?
A: My role at ALCI has been focused on individual financial security, and specifically, on retirement security. My personal life and experiences have worked to shape how I approach my work, and specifically, vulnerable communities that will benefit from smart retirement policy. My husband was born in El Salvador and immigrated to the United States as a child. Concepts about money, savings, and financial security were not kitchen table conversations. He and his family were focused on survival. I have seen firsthand how challenging financial planning and growth can be and how crucial financial tools at many stages are to inform and give people the ability to improve their financial situations.
Advocating on behalf of the life insurance industry on retirement security includes a fundamental element of understanding the needs of the Hispanic community. Currently, I’m working on retirement legislation that incentivizes lower- to middle-income savers to invest for their retirement while filling gaps in employer coverage. Specifically, the legislation would substantially expand retirement savings coverage to part-time workers, and through an expanded Saver’s Credit, which provides lower income earners a tax credit as an incentive.
Q: What other challenges do you see the Hispanic community facing?
A: Access to startup capital as an entrepreneur, and especially as a female Hispanic entrepreneur, remains an obstacle. A McKinsey study found that Latinos have the lowest rate of using bank and financial institution loans to start their businesses compared with other racial and ethnic groups, rely more on personal funds, and receive a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars invested each year by venture capital firms. Latino entrepreneurs will make up 29 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, up from 17 percent today. If Latino owned businesses grow as fast as the U.S. average, they could add $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy - which would add almost eight percent to the $18 trillion U.S. economy. These emerging business owners are a powerhouse to their communities and the economy, and they need financial tools in order to succeed.
Two years ago, I had the opportunity to moderate the Women Taking the Lead’s “Leading Latinas in Business” discussion. I spoke with three dynamic Hispanic women who had made immeasurable contributions to the communities they served. Monika Mantilla, President and CEO Altura Capital Group and Co-Founder and Partner of Small Business Community Capital, really struck me, because she and her colleagues are actively working to fulfill this need and having great success. We need more opportunities for capital for Hispanic entrepreneurs, especially Hispanic women.
Q: How would you recommend others support members of the Hispanic community and honor Hispanic Heritage month—are there particular resources you’ve found helpful?
A: Whether it’s during Hispanic Heritage month, or any other time of year, seeking to understand and appreciate Hispanic culture is key. Educate yourself about the culture and nuances that reflect different heritages. Appreciate that someone who is Hispanic is of Latin American or Spanish descent, and has a rich history passed down through generations deriving from their country of origin. Do what you can to experience the diverse traditions that are woven through food, music, dance and literature. And most importantly, be an ally where you can.
As for resources, immerse yourself in the culture in a variety of ways. Visit the recently opened Molina Family Latino Gallery located in the National Museum of American History. If you’re not in the DC area, you can experience virtual exhibits through the National Museum of the American Latino (currently under development) that explore the history and contributions of the Latino community. If you’re into podcasts, I loved the episode of the Equality Lounge called “The Vibrancy of Hispanic Culture in the U.S.” I also just started reading Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia, which I can’t put down. Lastly, support local Latino businesses and organizations, like Mary’s Center, a DC-based community health center that provides healthcare, education, and social services to the uninsured and underinsured – primarily within the Hispanic community.
Q: What advice would you give to a woman just entering your field of work?
A: Don’t be afraid to take on new opportunities. Early in my career, frequently I was given the opportunity to take on new responsibilities. Some of them seemed daunting and I questioned my ability to be able to accomplish them. Each and every one not only helped me gain a new skill or build a new relationship, but gave me the confidence that was key later in my career. I also learned a lot – most times about things outside my field or expertise. I was also able to draw advice and recommendations from my professional organization, Women in Government Relations (WGR). Throughout my career, I’ve gone to women I’ve met through WGR seeking counsel and expertise. It has been a game changer. So, I’d also recommend any young woman in the field of government relations to join WGR!
Q: What motivates you to wake up and go to work?
A: The people I work with! The quote from Michael Benanav, “You travel faster alone but farther together,” has always resonated with me because the best work experiences I’ve had have been attributed to the team I work with. Not only do they motivate me to do my best, but they also inspire me, and I look forward to opportunities to collaborate. We work really hard, but we also have a lot of fun together. I’m also very fortunate to have an all-female line of succession. My boss, my big boss and my CEO are all women. I feel 100% supported in my career and personal goals and I have three dynamic mentors who have provided me guidance and advice over the years.
Q: How do you define success?
A: I used to think success was getting to some magical point in my career, a pinnacle or place where I would instantly know that I had succeeded. But really, it is the many small victories and little wins along the way. It’s also a combination of personal and professional growth that has led to a place of fulfillment, contentment, and pride. I feel I have succeeded when a colleague seeks out my input, when my children master a new skill, or when my husband and I pull off an epic date night. (Advocating on the passage and enactment of a key piece of legislation feels pretty good too!) As women, we tend to have a lot of balls in the air, fearful of letting someone or something down. Success is getting to the point when you know which balls will bounce and which you’ll never let drop.
About the authors
Allison L. Dembeck is vice president of education and labor advocacy in the Government Affairs Division at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, focusing on education, labor, and workforce development issues.