Written by Loretta L. Wurters, vice president, media relations, Triple-I
In celebration of the International Day of Women in the Navy – Observed May 18 each year – Triple-I interviews women who are making a difference in the maritime field. Last year, Triple-I focused on Isabelle TerrinSVP-Canada, Valvey Cargo Underwriting.
For as long as Anne Marie Elder can remember, she has loved the sea. Being the niece of a merchant marine officer, she had heard her uncle’s stories of the Merchant Marine’s role in World War II. I imagined what it felt like to stand on the surface of the water and watch the sun reflect on the surface of the water, breathe the salty air, and listen to the ocean waves. When she was in sixth grade, her Aunt Margaret told her about the first class with women graduating from the United States Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA or Kings Point) and encouraged her to consider USMMA as an option for college.
It was the only college that the college sheikh applied to. I entered in 1984 in a class of about 211 men and 28 women. When I graduated, there were only 16 women—a dropout rate of 43 percent.
As part of her education, she was required to serve two six-month terms as a midshipman aboard American merchant ships. A 20-year-old woman on a merchant ship with 25 men on board is not always well received. Within the first few hours on board one of the ships, the ship’s captain bluntly informed her that women did not belong at sea and that he did not want them on his ship.
“I had specific orders to leave the bridge any time the captain was there,” she recalls. “I was also not allowed to eat in the mess hall at the same time he was eating his meals. This continued the entire time I worked on that ship.”
She said, “The captain’s reaction was absolutely ridiculous and unprofessional. I decided to take the high road and refused to let him steal a wonderful educational and life experience.”
Elder noted that the first month on board could be difficult. “Some of the men had given me a hard time, but once they realized I was there to work and learn, they became more like brothers, looking out for me, making sure I was safe and watched on board and whenever I was in port.” For the first six months, Elder is the only woman on the ship.
“I went there to get an education,” she said, “and nothing will dissuade me.” “I was very serious, on the straight and narrow.”
By the age of 21, she had seen more of the world than anyone she knew.
“It was one of the greatest times in my life,” she said.
And the captain of that ship? He gave her one of the best reviews she got during her year at sea.
“He didn’t want me on his ship, but he clearly respected the job I did.”
Elder thought she would spend a few years at sea, but there weren’t many sailing jobs by the time she graduated. I thought of going to law school. But she had a wonderful mentor and mentor at Kings Point: Rich Roenbeck, also a former Kings Pointer who taught her about marine insurance.
“It was so good, such a great teacher, and it was so much fun,” she said, “so I decided to swallow anchor—let go of marine life—and try marine insurance.”
The elder’s aunt was encouraging again. “She was a teacher in New York City and a nurse at a Virginia hospital, an inspiration to me,” said Elder. “She was the number one reason I went to Kings Point and applied. When I started working, she took me out and bought me an entire wardrobe, so I would look and feel confident going into my new job.”
Her first job was with Continental Insurance/MOAC, which employed six marine apprentices in their New York office—five men and a senior—where she began writing hull and cargo insurance. She has also been heavily involved with the American Institute of Marine Insurance Agents (AIMU).
“AIMU is a very important part of marine insurance,” she said. “It’s been an amazing organization for about 125 years this year! They provide education in our industry and get involved in issues that matter to our industry.”
She is also involved with the International Federation of Marine Insurance (IUMI) and has focused on how the digitization of data can change marine underwriting.
Sheik lives by the King Point mantra she learned years ago – Acta non verba! Actions, not words! Today, as a result of her business, she is Chief Marine Underwriter of AXA XL, a division of AXA Corporation, where her job is to develop strategy and manage the company’s $1.1 billion portfolio of marine business book, one of the largest marine insurers in the world.
One of her biggest concerns is the talent gap the industry faces. Not only in the United States, but in the rest of the world as well.
“Companies need to be more creative about getting people into this industry,” she said. “They need to think differently, to assess the skill set, not necessarily insurance knowledge, but the overall skill set. Companies must adequately compensate them for those skills and rapidly develop them as underwriters.”
What brings the Sheikh the greatest joy is the development of people.
She said, “You must be the captain of your own ship.” “You can take that ship anywhere you want, but you have to have a plan and develop the skills you need to know where you are going. If you are not going in the direction of your dreams, you need to change the course of your ship.”
She noted that women can sometimes be less vocal about their aspirations.
“Women believe that if they work hard, they will get a fair salary and opportunities for advancement, but that is not necessarily the case. Women need to work hard and develop the skills to advance, but they also need to make sure that their managers know their short- and long-term career aspirations.”
“I spent three years in London reinsurance under the maritime treaty and I never would have had this opportunity if I hadn’t spoken up. It put me on people’s radar.” You have to be well-positioned and ready for opportunities. You have to communicate and express what you want. It also takes a good shepherd who is different from a mentor. A mentor guides you and helps you strategize, but a sponsor promotes you to other people to help you advance in your career. You need both. I had someone early on who was looking for me. was a man. “There were a few female leaders when I started,” she said. “There are still a lot of women in senior positions in marine insurance, but men do a better job of recognizing women’s assets.”
Elder noted that women and men can have very different leadership styles.
“We don’t always think the same way or manage the same way,” she said. “Having this diversity of thinking makes a company stronger. Studies have shown that more diversified companies have higher profits.”
“It’s a great time for a woman to be in this industry because of all the opportunities,” she said. “I tell women, ‘Take the lead and be that leader.’ I tell them, ‘Full speed forward, ladies, full speed forward!’”