Giving Back

Giving Back

Insuring Lives and Ensuring Change

Forming an insurance company may sound like an unlikely catalyst for social change, but, for The Redwoods Group, it made perfect sense.

The business of insurance generally brings numbers to mind, not to mention terms like premiums, deductibles, and beneficiaries that make most people’s eyes glaze over. However, in 1997, when Jennifer and Kevin Trapani founded The Redwoods Group, the North Carolina-based property and casualty insurance underwriter, they wanted to create something more altruistic than the typical insurance company.

The Redwoods Group ambitiously set out to save children’s lives. Working with Young Men’s Christian Associations (YMCAs), Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), and summer camps, they do more than insure these organizations in the event of sexual abuse, drownings, or accidents. They’ve made it their mission to take unprecedented measures to help stop these tragedies before they happen—especially in minority and/or underserved communities.

Kevin points out, “We have incredible access to data, and we realized we could use the power of our data to keep people safe. For example, why is it that a black child is three times more likely to drown than a white child? Or six times more likely to be sexually abused than a white child?” For the Trapanis, these numbers add up to social injustice. It’s unbalanced statistics like these that drive The Redwoods Group to turn analytical insights into real change.

Unlikely model

Forming an insurance company may sound like an unlikely catalyst for social change, but, for the Trapanis, it made perfect sense. Both had years of professional experience in the field and felt that, by leveraging what they knew, they could fulfill a deeper goal of creating safer environments for children. Kevin explains, “If we could operate in a way that combines a deeper understanding of data with a willingness to change behavior to keep kids safe, that's good work. And we set about building that business.”

As obvious as this approach was for the Trapanis, it was certainly a new model for an insurance company—particularly at a time before the term “social enterprise” had been coined. They went from boardroom to boardroom attempting to sell investors on a business that they knew would be financially successful and, more importantly, one that would make a difference in the world. How did investors respond? “They laughed at us,” Kevin points out.

Eventually, after knocking on enough doors, they discovered backers who understood that The Redwoods Group’s immediate goal was to keep children safe. The profits, although necessary for sustainability, were secondary to their mission.

Eventually, after knocking on enough doors, they discovered backers who understood that The Redwoods Group’s immediate goal was to keep children safe.

Personal influences

Kevin had two experiences that inspired him to pursue the work of protecting children. In his high school and college years, Kevin was a lifeguard during the summer months. One day, he had a life-changing incident occur on his watch that haunts him to this day. “I lost a man in the surf…and I couldn’t revive him. I had to look his family in the eye and tell them that he was dead. You don’t lose that. Ever. So, if we can save kids and families from that pain, that’s our goal,” he states.

A more positive motivator was his connection to YMCAs. Growing up, Kevin had spent years in YMCA programs and had fond memories of those times. “I owe a lot to the YMCA, but YMCAs have significant risk. They have 9.5 million kids in their care every day, and bad things can happen,” Kevin notes.

The Trapanis reflected on these influences, and, as Kevin describes it, “We found ourselves standing at this intersection of having a powerful insurance background and a group of customers who were underserved by traditional insurance companies.”

Three steps to success

They approached their new enterprise with a three-step model for a business: the first is cause, the second is capital, and the third is tri-sector leadership. Kevin explains the initial step by saying, “First, you have to care very, very deeply about something that is much bigger than you. It has to be a BHAG, or a Big Hairy Audacious Goal.1 If your goal is that no kid is sexually abused in this country, then your aim is not to curtail it by five percent, but to eradicate it.”

As for capital, The Redwoods Group is a certified B Corporation, which means it’s a for-profit company certified to meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. Their company was one of the first of its kind in this space. There are now 1,400 certified B Corporations from 42 countries across 120 industries.

Finally, Kevin points out that, beyond having a cause and capital, tri-sector leadership is required, meaning the type of personal leadership skills that will drive collaboration and eventually a change in behavior across business, government, and nonprofit sectors. “I think the most profound social change comes when somebody is supremely upset with the status quo,” Kevin adds.

When looking at the numbers, there are a lot of reasons to be angry. In the United States, roughly 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys is a victim of child sexual abuse.2 Thirty-five hundred people (just over 20% of them children) die due to accidental drowning every year in the United States.3 It’s statistics like these that motivate the Trapanis to challenge the status quo every day, and they’ve made incredible strides.

Through rigorous research and onsite investigations, The Redwoods Group has pioneered best practices for safer pools by changing lifeguard position, reducing glare on the water, and teaching guards to scan the shallow end first, because statistically that’s where more drownings occur. As a result of their training and guidelines, YMCAs now experience about one drowning death per year, down from the average number of 13 between 2000 and 2005. It’s a marked improvement, Kevin notes. “That’s 12 fewer families each year that have to be told their child or parent has drowned.” Kevin goes on, “However, one is still too many. Our work isn’t close to being done.”

What’s next?

Because “one is still too many,” The Redwoods Group constantly seeks ways to improve their practices so that, ultimately, zero casualties happen on their watch. To that end, they are now working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which gives them the potential to serve another 4 million children every day. They also hope to find ways to connect with schools and institutional care facilities and improve those communities as well.

Reflecting back on nearly two decades in business, Kevin shares, “Jennifer and I were blessed to be able to work together and create a social enterprise that has helped make a difference in the world. It has certainly made a difference in our lives.” Based on the numbers, The Redwoods Group has definitely improved the lives of millions of children…and counting.

For more information about The Redwoods Group, please visit http://www.redwoodsgroup.com/.


1 BHAG is a term from the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James Collins and Jerry Porras.

2 “Child Sexual Abuse Statistics,” National Center for Victims of Crime, 2012, https://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/child-sexual-abuse-statistics

3 “Unintentional Drowning: Get the Facts,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2014, http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Water-Safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html



 

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