One on one with the lady who radicalised financial services in Zimbabwe

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Zelina Francis

My grandfather used to wake up early in the morning every last Friday of the month to catch the only bus that could ferry him from Mazvimba in Chirumanzu, district to go and pay for his life insurance. Gone are those days, Zimselctor.com has managed with a blink of an eye to transform the buying and distribution of insurance products in Zimbabwe. Now you can buy or pay for your insurance from anywhere at any time without the worry of finding offices closed missing the bus or having to wait in long queues.  With Zimselctor.com you can buy insurance from any corner of the world, from the comfort of your home, in your office and even whilst travelling as long as you have an internet connection. Risk and Insurance Zimbabwe (RI) managed to have a one on one with one of the Individuals who managed to make this dream a reality Zelina Francis (ZF). Zelina is one of the few women who have managed to conquer the two male dominated fields of insurance and technology. She is the cofounder of Zimselecotor.com a financial and insurance online aggregator which has radicalized the financial services in Zimbabwe.

RI:  You could have opted to work in any industry why did you choose insurance?

ZF:  Every path I took somehow led me back to insurance.  My first encounter with insurance began way back in the late eighties, when fresh out of high school I took my first job as an office administrator for the Insurance Institute of Zimbabwe.  Intrigued by it all I took all the insurance courses even though I didn’t really need to, to do my job.  Leaving Zimbabwe to study Information Technology abroad in the UK, I returned several years later with my Masters to work for Deloitte as an IT Consultant.  It was during this time whilst on a career defining engagement developing an IT Strategy for Old Mutual Zimbabwe that my love affair with Insurance began. I was invited a while later to work for Old Mutual and lead the transformation of its insurance systems from a legacy mainframe platform. After that I then ventured into the Banking sector leading Banc ABC’s post-merger transformation around 2000.  Once again my calling drove me back into insurance, when this time, having set up my own consultancy, I found myself influencing technology strategies for Zimnat Insurance Group, Fidelity Life, Nicoz Diamond and others.  Leaving for the UK once again to test my skills on the international market I joined RSA, the UKs third largest short term insurer.  This is where I observed the impact that the fast paced disruptive online aggregator trend was having on the traditional insurers.  This is also where the seed was sown to start up Zimbabwe’s first online comparison site or aggregator. I have also worked in banking and in telecoms, but insurance is my real passion.

RI:  How long have you been working in the insurance industry.

ZF:  27 years is the actual elapsed time, with a few breaks when I studied and tried other sectors 

RI:  From the time you have been working in the insurance industry wt issues affect women in insurance?

ZF:  It is without a doubt a male dominated sector, not just in Zimbabwe but worldwide.  It is changing a bit now but it has not been unusual for me to sit on executive teams or attend conferences as the only woman at home and in the UK.  Unfortunately, the same is also true for my technology career.  The challenges that go with this gender imbalance are that the standards for excellence are far higher for women, more scrutiny, difficult to network and then there is the age old discrimination.  In the UK it becomes a double edged sword, not only are you female, but you are also black!  That’s a lot of barriers to overcome, so in order to survive and thrive, you develop a very thick skin and Formula 1 paced drive.

RI:  And over those years what have been the successes of women in insurance?

ZF:  When you finally make it to the top ranks you are either respected or revered as a “tough cookie” since you have to be one to get there.  I also think women bring a bit of a human touch to insurance, we find it easier to talk about insurance in simple terms.  Something I learnt during my stint in the telecommunications sector is that when designing products, it is important for the people designing the products to be able to identify with the consumers of the products.  Most importantly, since insurance products are consumed by men and women alike, the same consideration should be applied when creating and delivering the products.

RI:  What is your view on the presence of and reporting women in insurance?

ZF:  I do not feel that this is sufficient; more can and should be done to raise the profile of women in insurance.

RI:  What could be done to increase the number of women in insurance?

ZF:  Women in leadership positions in insurance need to actively inspire and mentor younger generations of women to take up a career in insurance.  Once they are in they should support them because the forces of the male dominance are still at play.

RI:  What is the riskiest thing you have ever done in your life.

ZF:  ZimSelector.com – the first online comparison site for insurance in Zimbabwe.  It was a risky idea on so many levels, introduced during one of the worst economic periods. Firstly, at the time we presented the concept to our participating insurance companies, we were presenting “vapour-ware” or a non-existent system.  It was an idea with no example that they could relate to.  So we developed a prototype and had to do quite a few rounds of explaining the concept before we got them to buy in.  We were very proud to have on board Zimbabwe’s leading most trusted brands, and this was important to us because of our promise to our customers.  It has been an incredible journey in many respects, excitement, thrills, some difficult lessons, lots of sacrifices but all in all, a worthwhile risk.  We are proud to be doing our bit to elevate Zimbabwe’s insurance solutions to a world class standard.

 

RI:  In your view what is the public perception of women in insurance?

ZF:  In addition to some of the perceptions I mentioned earlier, I think the public at large are still getting used to women leading insurance companies.  The numbers of women in senior roles in insurance has significantly increased over the last fifteen years.  I think the public perception of those women that have made it is that they are very capable and can be trusted.

RI:  Any words of advice for women who might want to join the insurance sector

ZF:  I would certainly offer lots of encouragement to women wanting to join the insurance sector.  There are few industries that can offer such a financial stable, procedurally mature and conducive environment to develop your career.  Of course the counter-side to that is that insurance companies are typically conservative organisations and cautious with their evolution.  So if you thrive on fast pace and rapidly changing environments, then it is probably not an ideal choice.

 

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