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Before Emma Allen emerged as a successful financial professional, she was Chuck E. Cheese — the iconic mouse who cheers on children as they win arcade games and eat pizza.
“That was probably the worst job I’ve ever had,” Allen laughs. “The outfit weighed 100 pounds and kids would knock me over. My teammates thought it was funny.”
Though Allen doesn’t miss those days working at the family entertainment center-turned-pizzeria, she doesn’t regret them. “Nobody wants to be Chuck E. Cheese, but it was on the path to where I needed to be,” she says.
Since January 1999, Allen has managed Emma Allen State Farm, an insurance agency in Charlotte. In this position, she has helped thousands of families achieve financial literacy. She has also mentored the next generation of financial professionals.
We chatted with Allen to learn a thing or two about personal finance. We also spoke about how to pursue your dream job, even if you are weighed down by a Chuck E. Cheese costume.
State Farm Insurance does business differently. How do you get that point across to potential customers?
Our best cheerleaders are people who’ve done business with us over the past 30 years. Because I’ve been at it so long now, people are referring their grandkids to me. That’s really the biggest testimony about who we are and what we’ve done.
There are a lot of people who get into this financial services business and they’re in it for a year or two. But there aren’t that many people who have been in it for 30 years and have the kind of reviews that we have. That really is our barometer.
What specific services do you provide?
We sell traditional policies like home, life, and auto insurance. But we also provide free financial planning for everything from building your basic budget to knowing what things ought to be part of your long-term financial plan.
What about your character has helped you maintain such a long and successful career in this industry?
I would not provide a service for you and your family that I don’t currently provide for me and my family. So, oftentimes, I’ll turn my computer around and show people the products that I’ve had and how they have performed. That makes a difference to people.
Even when people come to me and are thinking about a financial plan, I say to them, “Shop around. There’s no pressure. If you find a plan that you like better, I’ll review it for you.” Not many people are willing to do that.
Throughout your career, you have held very forward-facing positions. Have you always had a knack for interacting with people? Or did you develop those skills over time?
It was quite intentional. From the time that I was in junior high school, I saw how people in my minority community were treated by the bankers, insurance agents, and other financial professionals in my town. So, quite intentionally, I decided at a very young age that I was going to be an advocate for financial literacy.
There’s no question that there are people who have preconceived notions about who they want to do business with. Some of those people are people of color. Some of those people are not people of color. I had to learn to chart my own path. There are people that don’t want to do business with me because I’m a woman or because I’m a woman of color. And I’ve decided to let the success of my clients and their families tell our story for us.
I tell my team, “We are not here for everyone. We are here for the people who are on the same path as us and who want to do business with us.”
You have been in the industry for 30 years. What has changed? What do we still need to work on to help underserved communities achieve financial literacy?
What I’m noticing is that my generation understood the need for savings and the need for insurance coverages, but didn’t have the right distribution sources. They needed people who were willing to teach them about the right products.
What I’m experiencing now is that the younger generation — people in their 30s — seem less concerned about that kind of stability. For example, many people believe that life insurance is just for death. And it’s not. There are many ways to use life insurance as part of a financial strategy.
How has your company pivoted to adapt to these cultural changes?
We’re having to meet people where they are to tell the story. Social media is now a really big part of what we do. My community involvement has also shifted so that I’m in places where I can meet these folks. I’m broadening my horizons so that I capture this generation that, frankly, needs more education.
We also hire young people in our firm. We want people to do business with people they can relate to and who look like them. So, I’m here to coach, train, and build a new generation of financial professionals. That’s part of my legacy.
You’re obviously very passionate about financial literacy. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to find a passion and leverage it to advance their career?
I’m not naive. I’m aware that people every day have to, for whatever reason, go to a job that they don’t like. There’s no shame or embarrassment in doing work that you don’t like. However, while you’re doing that work, prepare and dream. Write it down and crystalize where you want to be. Be as specific as possible and start working toward that.
I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I’m going to step out on faith. I’m going to leave this job that I hate because I really want to do this or that.” Well, I’m not going to jump out of a window when I don’t see anything underneath that might break my fall. We need to prepare first, whether that looks like networking or saving six months — though really it should be 18 months — of an emergency fund. All that preparation matters and puts you on the path to your ultimate dream.
Can you think of a time when you were dreaming and preparing while working a job that wasn’t your calling?
I’ve had a number of jobs and bosses that I hated. For instance, I managed a call center and that was a job from hell. But I put a date in the sand in my own mind and noted the things that I needed to accomplish.
One of those things was to get a few mentors who were where I wanted to be. It’s so important to be around people that you want to be like, not necessarily from an income perspective but from a personality or internal competence perspective. These folks are always pouring into you.
Do you still have mentors?
Absolutely. Some of the young people in my office teach me things every day. I consider them mentors. I think defining who your mentors and coaches are more broadly is a valuable asset. Some people would say, “Oh, that person has a job that I did 10 years ago. They don’t have anything to teach me.” They may not have anything to teach you from a career perspective, but they may have something to teach you from a cultural or human perspective.
What is something you have learned recently from one of these mentors?
I’m somebody who didn’t know how to turn a computer on, so Instagram and Facebook were completely foreign to me. I have learned so much in the last 24 months from my younger coaches and mentors.
Hindsight is 2020. Is there any advice you wish you had given your younger self?
I would have started my financial plan a whole lot earlier. What if I had started right after college, at 23 years old, just putting a little bit of money away? What if I had started buying some real estate? I guess the bigger lesson is don’t wait for the motherlode. Take smaller opportunities consistently because they may grow into something really, really large.
Other than social media, what have you learned recently that has helped you grow and evolve both professionally and personally?
Don’t stop doing good. Sometimes, when you try to do good, people don’t appreciate it or, on the contrary, resent it and hurt you in the process. But don’t let their actions change who you are. Stay on your path.
Previously, I would be hurt for a lot longer. I would carry it for six months or a year before I could let it go. But now, I move on much more quickly. I don’t have any desire to harm them back or retaliate. I believe that the world does what it does and that karma is what it is. It’s not my job to provide justice. It’s my job to continue to do the good work.