Celebrating Latino Heritage Month with the LPA
Reflections on Diversity
|Justin Cruz ran a data science group at American Family
Insurance before becoming the vice president
for inclusive excellence about seven months ago.
Part 2 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
For most of his formative years, Justin Cruz, vice-president of inclusive excellence for American
Family Insurance, lived near the corner of Badger Road and S. Park Street on Cyprus Way. His family
moved to South Madison from Chicago when he was one-year-old in 1973. It was almost as if his
mother made it a point to raise her son where he would get an excellent education, no matter what
the cost would be for her.
Cruz is the perfect person to manage the inclusive excellence efforts of American Family. On the one
hand, he worked as an actuary for AmFam for 15 years and then ran a data science group. He is
familiar with the technical side of the insurance industry and understands the trends that the
company is facing. On the other hand, he is Puerto Rican and understands the dynamics of being a
person of color in a predominantly Euro-American organization. It can be very isolating.
“Coming up through the organization on more of the technology side, it’s sort of a plus and minus in a sense that on the one hand, there is no one like me within our
actuarial and our data science,” Cruz said. “You don’t have role models. You don’t have that structure of support around you just by feeling like you are a part of this
community and you belong here. That’s difficult because everyone experiences setbacks in their careers. When you already don’t have that solid base — there are a
lot of people here who look like me and come from the same place and I am a part of these networks — there goes your safety net and your reserves for how you
build yourself back up.”
On the other hand, Cruz was noticed and that was a good thing.
“There is a certain amount of clout that comes with it,” Cruz said. “You take this general stereotype that exists throughout life around people who are good at math.
You immediately sort of rise up in the esteem of the people around you. ‘He’s a tech guy. He’s a smart guy.’ So while within my tech function it might have been more
of a challenge, outside, it may have played to my advantage a little bit in that, especially coupled with some decent interpersonal communication skills, suddenly I
became, ‘Wow, this guy is good at tech. He’s Latino. And he can actually talk to people,’ while most actuaries may not have those skills.”
One of the most difficult things was picking up on and learning the business culture, which was foreign to Cruz having been raised in a working-poor household on
Madison’s south side.
“I’m a first-generation college student and my mother worked at K-Mart through most of her career for minimum wage,” Cruz said. “Not only was I missing this whole
sort of realm of cultural and social norms through color and race, I was also missing it through social status and social class. That created some very significant
barriers. How to have conversations on a golf course. Things to say to an executive. Things not to say to an executive. There is eye contact and mannerisms. All of
those things matter. It’s like this death by a thousand cuts. I still look around and when I look at my peers who come from middle class or upper-middle class
backgrounds and I think about the wealth of knowledge and influence and these tiny little factors they were exposed to throughout their lives that I was not exposed
In order to secure its future as a viable corporate enterprise, AmFam has to ensure that it is attracting the “best and the brightest” talent to come work for it.
“How long are we going to sit around and wait,” Cruz queried. “With that data science group I ran, we had a heck of a time not just finding candidates of color who
are from underrepresented groups — Latino and African American — but also females. We posted data scientist goals and out of 50 candidates, there might be three
females. Are we going to sit around and say, ‘Well, I can’t find any females for this job’ before we say, ‘Let’s start investing in these Girls Who Code programs that
are popping up all over the place and host Saturday boot camps?’ When will we send our IT people into a high school to mentor a handful of these girls, provide
projects for them to work on that are real-life business projects and partner with the teachers? Then maybe we could craft a Girls Who Code scholarship program
from AmFam where if you’re coming out of one of our Girls Who Code programs in any one of these four cities, you can compete for one of these 10 scholarships. And
then we stay in touch with them and get them to come to AmFam.”
The labor force is also undergoing a pretty rapid transformation. It seems that every new generation creates a fresh set of identities that creates a lot of
intersectionality of identities. In a labor market that is a seller’s market, for the most part, where do social science — making people comfortable and welcome in the
workplace — and the business of insurance begin and end?
“As an employer, sometimes you are sort of straddling the work world with the social world,” Cruz said. “What we try to do is ultimately our mission and vision is
focused on business. We want to optimize AmFam’s success. But we firmly believe that’s done when you have diverse teams working in an inclusive culture. That’s
the best way to empower the people who work for you, that they bring their all every day and there is no value left on the table, so to speak. When people are
empowered, they give their best. If people are suffering in the organization, the organization is suffering. Sometimes we hear about that. We’ll put an article out on our
intranet and get feedback about, ‘Why is AmFam getting into this anyway? We should just come here and work. AmFam shouldn’t get involved in people’s social
lives or what people do outside of the work world.’ We feel that for people to truly thrive in a work environment, we need to embrace their differences. Yeah, they
just had a fight with their spouse or their kid is struggling in school. It’s still a work environment and we are still here to get a job done. But to the extent that we can
leverage the diversity in their thoughts and their experience and their background so that it adds value to the product that we deliver, we want to focus on that.”
And the attitude that people have about work has changed. Especially the younger generation is not as interested in job security as their parents were. Again it’s a
“My daughter is 19-years-old and in Gen B, technically,” Cruz said. “She doesn’t stick. Even friends tend to be more fluid. Interests tend to be very fluid. I saw this in
the data science space in particular in tech, which is also predominantly young, the heart of the burgeoning tech revolution around AI and Big Data is definitely
younger than me, probably in that 30-35-year-old range. They don’t really have an interest in staying with one employer for more than 3-4 years. We probably had one
of the higher turnover rates in my old group and I was proud of it.”
There used to be the concept that you had to pay your dues and work your way up to a position of responsibility and impact. The timeline has been compressed.
“The technology revolution of the last 20 years has created this free-flow of information and immediate gratification expectation,” Cruz said. “Twenty plus years ago,
shopping for something meant putting a lot time in making phone calls and driving over to an office to sit with someone to buy something like insurance. Now you
pick up your phone and within two clicks, you’ve got 10 quotes. The recruitment industry has transformed. The ability to telecommute with today’s technologies, it’s a
lot easier to leave your job and go find something that makes you happy. Years ago, I think we used to focus on ‘you have to pay your dues,’ you have to be trained
for a long time, and ‘you have to work your way up.’ You apply something like that to one of these Ph.D. data scientists or data engineers coming out of wherever,
they’ll be gone before the ink dries on the employment offer. They want to come in and deliver value pretty immediately and feel empowered to contribute to the
organization in a meaningful way.”
The whole concept of diversity and inclusion is evolving and becoming more complex with every generation. And so, how does a company remain competitive in the
swiftly changing environment?
“It’s not an easy job because if you’re a Puerto Rican data scientist right now, you are getting heavily recruited,” Cruz said. “If you are a female Ph.D. electrical
engineer coming out of UW-Madison with a background in data science and statistics, you better get in line. Those people are really heavily coveted. You have to
have the right value proposition.”
One of the keys to attracting the best and the brightest is not only having a comfortable, welcoming environment, it is also about reflecting the values that the
perspective employees have. Is AmFam a “cool” place to work? Will working for AmFam increase one’s esteem amongst one’s peers?
“One of the things we hope sets AmFam apart is some of the community folks that we have. We have so many things going on in this company that are all geared
towards giving back and breaking down the silos between our internal company and the external environment and culture in our community, whether it is Milwaukee
of Madison, wherever we are operating. We do a lot of that through the Adopt-a-School program and some of the programs that my group is running, through our
community investments group that runs our Dreams Foundation.”
One other aspect of that corporate image is does the company have the same world view of its perspective employees.
“We now have what we call the Institute for Corporate and Social Impact,” Cruz said. “That started up about a year ago. That is social impact investing. They are
looking for start-up organizations. It’s like venture capital for start-ups that have a social focus. We’re working with a company out of New York, I think, that builds
technology that helps an organization that owns a building to manage their utilities more efficiently: their heating, cooling and electrical. If you think about the amount
of waste that a whole church, for example, experiences. What kind of resources do they have to be updating those utilities and getting annual maintenance and all of
those things even down to changing lightbulbs in difficult places and replacing them with more energy efficient bulbs or installing electronic devices that help
manage temperature control much more effectively. This company comes in and primarily through digital platforms helps organizations do that. We’re investing in that
company. That organization now is involved in social impact.”
And that world view also has to be reflected in what the company does internally. It
appears that each new generation has become more concerned with climate
change and sustainability if the recent Climate Change Strike and UN presentation
by Greta Thunberg are any indication. Again, does AmFam reflect those values?
“Our business and workplace services division, our facilities management, leads
our focus on sustainability here at AmFam,” Cruz said. “They have a zero waste
initiative. We’re not at zero waste yet. They tapped out all of the low-hanging fruit. I’
m not an expert in this space. That’s one of the things they are focused on.”
Organizations cannot take the future for granted and in an ever rapidly changing
world, it needs to recognize the trends and stay ahead of them. Diversity and
inclusion is no longer a matter of social justice. It’s a matter of ensuring the future
viability of organizations. And for AmFam, it falls on the shoulders of Justin Cruz,
their vice-president of inclusive excellence.