Hello everyone, and welcome to our third episode of Risk Playbook. I'm Mike Mitchell, Vice Chairman of Graham Company, and today I'm joined by Dr. Lee Nunery, Founder and Principal of Plūs Ultré.
Prior to starting his strategic advisory firm, Dr. Nunery has spent time in corporate banking, higher education, and with the NBA. Today, Dr. Nunery is actively engaged as a Diversity,
Equity and Inclusion executive and consultant within the insurance industry, working with insurance carriers, agencies and trade associations, including our own team at Graham
Company. Personally, I've had the chance to get to know Lee over the years and really admire the work he does and the kind of business leader he is.
Lee, it's a pleasure to have you as our guest on Risk Playbook.
Mike, it's a pleasure to be with you, as always. Really quite an honor.
Well, I'm looking forward to our conversation, Lee.
But before we do that, I just want to take a moment to say that the work you do is incredibly important, the work that you've done for us—and listen, we're just beginning our journey here—we've been at it for about a year and a half. But you've already made us a better company, and you've strengthened our culture.
For the audience, I know sometimes these can be difficult conversations. But what I admire about Lee is the style that he brings to it: unbelievably professional, very respectful, obviously knowledgeable. He has a commonsense approach to it, and it all starts with a conversation made easy. I know that DEI is on the forefront as a top priority for many organizations, and I don't think there's anybody better that can share some ideas and insights with you today than Lee.
So, Lee, thank you again for joining us.
Lee, let's get right into it. I always like to start with the career journey. You have your doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania, and you have over 40 years of experience in corporate banking, capital markets, higher education, professional sports, charter school management and public education. What I've found and gotten to know from you is I think it all started with two major influencers in your life: your mother was an educator and your father was an entrepreneur. You combined education and business acumen and that got you where you are today. Tell us a little bit about that journey and that influence and how that all happened?
Well, Mitch, already you’ve got me verklempt here because I consider myself to be a multi-generational entrepreneur. And it wasn't until I had one of those early morning awakening moments where I'm like, “Wait a minute, what am I?,” that I decided to start out on my own. My parents, my father was the last of twelve kids, grew up in the South—the segregated part of the South, if you will—and moved north to pursue a profession as an electrician. My mother was a teacher, as you mentioned, and education was at the pinnacle of everything we did, but also hard work. We even have a family saying that “Nunery’s work.” That's on our t-shirts.
And I think when you have that sense of diligence, responsibility, care and concern for others, that it's embedded in you, it's genetically wired. My multi-glut of experiences in different industries isn't because I'm a gadfly. It's because I'm keenly interested in reinventing myself and figuring out what works for me. And I've been very fortunate to move through different experiences, culminating in now being with insurance companies, talking about and working on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. These collective experiences really have helped, and it's why I approach it the way I do. People, I believe, want something better, but you've got to meet people where they are. So that's been my kind of asset-based approach to the entire body of work.
Obviously, all of our parents always have a major influence on us, and yours did for sure.
So fast forward to 2007—15 years ago—after all the various experiences you had, you decided to go out on your own. You started your consulting firm, Plūs Ultré. I never took Latin, but I'm assuming that's a Latin word, and you can tell us what that means. But, what led you to take the risk of saying, “You know what, I'm going out on my own, and I'm going to do something different?” And what lessons can our audience learn from the risk and reward of betting on yourself and doing something different?
Mitch, the thing that's so fascinating is that yes, I took Latin. I was a Catholic school kid from first grade to 12th grade and Latin—I was an altar boy, we learned the mass in Latin, for example, way back when—so I'm that old. But because of the study of words, etymology, and because I had a mom who was a teacher, you know, for me, exploration of different worlds was natural.
I got remarried—my first wife passed away from lung cancer, and I was left with two kids one seven, one seventeen years old—our world was hurt, it was destroyed. But I was fortunate enough to meet Gina, who also had a daughter. We blended families. And on our honeymoon, we went to the Alhambra in Spain, it's the Moorish Castle, this huge expanse. And on one of the mosaics was this slogan, “Ne Plus Ultra,” which means “there's nothing higher, that's the pinnacle.”
When I started my business, Mike, I realized that's really what I wanted to be able to display—that there was, if you engage me, you're going to get more than you paid for, you're going to have excellent work, we are going to be diligent. And I guess that's kind of the words of wisdom to anybody who's listening, anybody who is tied in, that you have to be strategic, you have to be opportunistic—but dedicate yourself to your craft, be excellent at it, so that you are known for your expertise. I'm still learning, but I'm getting better every day while I do it. And the proof of it is fifteen years later, I'm still out here doing my thing.
Well, that ties into “Nunery’s Work Hard,” right?
I probably shouldn't say this, because it would let you know that I'm not a very good negotiator. But so far, we've gotten more than we paid for from you.
It’s all good! It’s all good!
So, Graham Company, we're in the insurance industry and it's all about risk management. I think I probably understand how you gravitated to consulting on DEI within the insurance space, after spending time with education and commercial businesses, government nonprofits. It's probably because—and I, listen, I can see it, and I've been in the business for 35 years—we are just not a very diverse industry.
Is that what you saw? Is that what led you to the insurance industry? And along the way, do you feel that our industry is making strides in the right direction as it relates to inclusion and diversity?
That's a really packed question. I think—I basically relied on my lived experiences, what I went through in my own career. When I was asked by the National African American Insurance Association to write the study called The Journey of African-American Insurance Professionals—that was in 2017, it was published in 2018—and by the end of 2021, I will have presented well over one hundred times to trade associations, carriers, small groups, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
So, this issue of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion—and insurance—is inextricably now tied together because the industry has been so much described by or dominated by, you know, not so much even folks who are white and male and straight or whatever, but also because it's an unknown set of opportunities. And yet, what I found in my research, Mike, was that in the 1930s, there were fifty-two African American-owned mutual insurance companies. There were more African Americans who held insurance in the 1920s, than you would expect—well over 80% of those who were working in the factories in Chicago. Now, they were all burial policies, but insurance is not foreign.
Yet somehow, this whole Diversity, Equity, Inclusion thing has become like unpacking a box of mysteries, and I'm trying to make sure people understand the history, connect to it, but also drive their businesses based on the good things that DEI can do—for their brands, for revenue generation, for market penetration. It all kind of fits to me—maybe because of my unique perspective. But I'm not the only one. There are several people out there who are trying to do the same thing. It's just that it's taking a while to evolve. And there's a lot to consider, given the conditions that we've been under over the last couple of years.
Lee, what I've learned from you is, you don't make it just about People of Color, right? You make it about people with disabilities, different sexual orientations, different ethnic backgrounds—you cover the gamut, right?
Yeah, because Mike, the high school I went to up in North Jersey—Bergen Catholic—was very much like Roman Catholic here in Philly: Christian Brothers of Ireland. But I got there in 1969, so if anybody has any sense of history, you know what a pivotal time in American history that was. There were four black kids out of a thousand. And, I had to defend myself from some really interesting and very insidious comments—not just from students—but from teachers.
But that gave me a deep, deep appreciation for those who may be underdogs, those who are underappreciated. While I also understood I had to live in not only the mainstream, but a lot of my friends were from every different stripe. And I've tried to teach my kids the same thing. That's how I approached this, Mike: If we're going to have inclusion, and we live in a world that is interdependent, then we've got to figure out what's different about each other, appreciate that, but also try to find commonalities. And let's go do good business. If we can do well, by doing good, then I think we've got the right remedy, the right formula.
Well, you know, good business. This discussion is about risk and opportunity. So, let's take a broader business approach to DEI. What's the risk of doing nothing?
I have a construction company client, who's become a near, dear friend—very, very successful, known him for 30 plus years. One of their customers is a nationally known higher education institution, who has recently established DEI criteria that a construction company must meet to qualify for working on their campuses—something they never had to deal with before.
Now, all of a sudden, it's front and center. And they're not alone. It's not just government agencies that have these kinds of criteria. There's real business reasons—first off, it's the right thing to do, right? But there's business reasons for people to embrace this.
I've got two poignant Philadelphia examples, and they're both personal. One was at University of Pennsylvania—that's what brought me to Philly in 1999. I was Vice President of Business Services, running all of the campuses’ housing, dining, mail, marketing. I had twenty-one different enterprises under me and took on, under Dr. Judy Rodin, and John Fry, who's now President of Drexel, West Philadelphia—our inclusion initiatives.
Part of that was economic inclusion—increasing the supply of local and West Philadelphia, 191 zip code businesses in Penn's activities, in our spend. We were spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year. We measured how many laborers that were on our construction sites, we measured how much money we were spending with those different businesses, and not only reported it to the university audience, but also to trustees and to the public.
And so, the risk of not doing something is being left behind, number one. But more importantly, recognizing that these entities—and some of them you have to coach along, but others are ready to take on a bigger stage—can add to your pricing scheme, they can bring new ideas.
The other example is at the School District of Philadelphia when I was acting superintendent. And there you’re spending public money and are more or less mandated to try to increase the amount of spend. What did we do? We engaged architects, lawyers. We tried to do as much as we possibly could to direct money to businesses who would employ locally and help students who ultimately may become some of those employees and business owners—to understand that there's an ecosystem there.
So I look at this as, it's not riskless, that is for sure. But it is as close to being riskless as possible because you can fish where you are, you can do it in so many different ways—through supplier diversity, through hiring, through sponsorship of different organizations. There's no one size that will fit all. But to do nothing, I think, opens you to some exposure that is unmeasurable, because your brand will become known as one that is not favorable to a changing demographic and with, you know, more enlightened consumers.
Interesting. I read somewhere, according to McKinsey—a well-respected organization, obviously—they say companies that embrace diversity are outperforming their peers.
So, your thoughts? I mean, why does a more diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce lead to greater business success?
I'm familiar with a series of studies McKinsey has done—BCG and other consulting firms have done it on the side of looking at the perspective of innovation. And companies that are more diverse, depending on how you define diversity tend to be more innovative. They get more of their new revenue from innovative sources.
All of that says to me that when you bring in individuals not just in terms of hiring—but do business with communities, and with folks who have either different languages or different perspectives—you're going to get ideas that are vastly different than the norm. And because insurance tends to be very pattern sequential and linear—risk averse, in many ways—there's a propensity to not diversify. And yet where you're seeing the energy right now, because I'm talking to trade associations and carriers, etc., is all around saying, “Look, we've got to change, because otherwise, we end up being stagnant and left behind.”
If you think about it, Mike, even technology enablement is a diversity strategy, because it opens the door. You're agnostic as to who your client is, because as long as they can reach you, and you can reach them, you'll do business with them. So, it is emerging right now. It's nowhere near where it can be, but there's a lot of good energy out there.
It's probably an overused term, but I think you're describing the old concept of “diversity of thought,” right?
That's right. That's the way I've even tried to approach my own, not just my career, but my own personal pursuits. I remember falling in love with the term being a “Renaissance Man.” I always thought that was really cool. And so why don't we use and take advantage of neuroplasticity—of being malleable, of being adaptable? Why must we think that success can only be defined in a couple of ways?
I think if we are really thinking forward and looking at some of the challenges we have from, you know, viral diseases, to climate change to social conditions, closing the gaps of inequity, we need as many voices and creative approaches as possible.
What I'm trying to do is encourage that, but also taking, my friend, an operator's point of view. This is not just about philosophy or charity. This is about saying, “Look, let's put something at stake, and let's go at it, and let's see if it can generate and sustain itself over time.” There's good business practice behind this.
Hey, listen, since COVID, a lot of people are working from home. If you would have asked me two years ago, would we have a work from home policy? I would have said “absolutely not.”
Today we embrace it, because the thought is, it can't be 100% remote, there's got to be some middle ground, I believe. Because if you don't—especially the next generation of people, they expect it, and if you don't provide it and you don't embrace it, you're going to lose talent and you're not going to be able to attract new talent.
What we're finding out today, Lee, is that, guess what? New people that come in to interview for our company, the two main questions they ask: They ask about our ESOP, right? We're an employee-owned business. The other question they ask? What are we doing about DEI?
If you don't embrace it, that's important to especially, the next generation of people. I mean, you and I are the old guys, but am I right about that? That's a risk of a business if they don't get it.
You are so spot on. If you remember in our early conversations—even into what we reported out after we got engaged with Graham: a phenomenal group of people, who even though it's all been mostly virtual, just people I consider to be great colleagues—not just clients—that “Actions Matter.®” That's your logo, and we put it first, right up front, because you are implementing as you go, and have been willing to say, “Look, there are things that we don't know, but we'll figure it out.”
So yeah, a few years ago, you say, “Working from home, it won't work, there's all kinds of security issues, I may lose track of you.” But now what we're finding is again, the conditions have forced us to adapt, we have to evolve. And so, you start to figure out what kind of managerial skills do you need to keep motivating the people who are working from home? What kind of flexibility can you build in?
Beyond days off or that kind of thing. How far can you stretch people?
I'm finding more people digging into different skill sets that were dormant, because they are now in these environments, where they are still connected every day, they're working hard, but they feel more energized, because they don't have to always be in one mode.
Now, there’s all kinds of downstream costs, right? The cost of real estate going empty, etc. Everybody's figuring this thing out. But I do think this is an important time for business leaders—those who are listening, and are your clients—to think about how they will retain and build talent. Because without that, the game's over, no matter what kind of business you're in.
And we're finding that if you don't have DEI as part of your culture, you're not going to be able to attract people and you're going to lose some people. Because, again, they expect that—just like they expect the opportunity to maybe work from home a couple days a week.
By the way, Lee, you really have kept it simple for us. It's not about metrics. It's not only about hiring. It's many other things. So, for the benefit of our audience, if somebody wants to begin implementing DEI initiatives, what are some of the first steps they should take?
To be fully aware of what diversity means to them. I remember our first conversation, and we talked about not only the definition of diversity—and it wasn't all about appearance, or race or ethnicity—but also what's possible within the context and confines of the culture.
If you'll remember—in addition to “Actions Matter.®”—we said that this was an opportunity for Graham to really take advantage of its employee ownership structure and infuse this energy.
I compliment Graham a lot—because you started maybe not from zero, but close to it. Maybe the five-yard line. Now, you're down midfield and you're moving the ball. I think the key is, it's the commitment, Mike, of you and Ken and Peter and Karen and others—the leadership of the company deciding that this is going to be something that you're going to do. That we're going to do it from a practical standpoint, that we're going to take a survey of how people think and feel about these issues. You recall we did surveys and then we also did deep interviews with each of your folks. Then when we brought back our findings, you listened. And I think that probably was the greatest signal of potential success.
I have other DEI clients, Mike—major global insurance companies—when you do the exact same process of gathering information, doing interviews, you report back and “Oh, well, we do this already, we do that already.” They almost find ways to say no. And that's why I've said, quite frankly, “You won't get it.” And, what's interesting is they’ve started to lose talent.
So, the mere fact that not just Graham, but others are saying, “Wait a minute, okay, what's in there for us? What can we do?” And it may not be zero to one hundred, but it doesn't have to be that. It's got to fit within the culture of the company if it's going to take hold. It can't be ornamental. It has to be instrumental if it's going to work.
Well, I think I heard somewhere in there, a compliment. I would thank you for that, but we got a good coach. You made the football analogy—we're on the 50 yard line, I hope we just don't fumble from this point forward. You know what I mean?
Well, we also can't go three downs and punt. We know we got to keep moving that ball. We will. We will indeed.
Maybe that's a good way to end the conversation here and talk about some sports analogies.
So—fascinating. You worked with the NBA—
—in the 90s. And I've heard you say that the NBA has grown in popularity, largely because of their diversity efforts.
Explain that to our audience. And what can we all learn from that?
I joined the NBA about six months after the Dream Team had won the gold in Barcelona. And if everybody knows—even that phrase, Dream Team, which is word marked—meant Michael, and Magic, and Larry, and Chris. I don't even have to give you the last names. People immediately pull up the image. That's how powerful that team was, and what it meant for USA Basketball, what it meant for the NBA, because it was one of the first times the NBA players were playing to represent their country. But it's also at the point at which David Stern, God rest his soul, the Commissioner said, “We're going to globalize this game.”
I came on as the league's first Vice President of HR and IT—so I ran the human resources and the information technology sides of the shop—and started hiring people for the Latin American office, for Tokyo, for Paris, for London, for Toronto, because the goal was to put beachheads in these different places, make sure our licensing and access to licensed gear and sponsorship was there, and then started to move the game to those different sites.
You fast forward twenty-five years: Twenty-some odd percent of the league, every team in the NBA has at least two international players: Joel Embiid from the Cameroon, Matisse Thybulle, even Ben Simmons from Australia.
The point is, he did it intentionally, and Mike, here's the business link: If you look at the value of an NBA team, even over the last five years, it's gone up like two to three hundred percent. And that's because there's more sponsorship, advertising, marketing—not just because of the game, the game is beautiful—but because remember, now, in basketball, unlike football, you can see every facial expression, you can see every player, their color, their size. The camera angles are there to project on their names as they're running down the court. All of that has built value.
The analogy I try to bring is if you're smart and aware, and think that DEI can work for you, think about the NBA as a good example. It is a way to build brand value, stickiness with customers, but it also creates interest—so much so that there's going to be an NBA Africa, there is NBA Europe about to come, NBA Mexico coming. All of that is really good stuff for a league that still competes with the NFL for television viewership, but in its own way has created enormous value.
It's fascinating. I've known that the NBA, and basketball, has become a worldwide sport, and never quite connected the dots and tied it to all the international players that are in the NBA so people can identify, right?
That's where, you know, even my mom who didn't follow basketball at all, knew who Michael Jordan was, knew who Spud Webb was, knew who Shaquille O'Neal was. She could now identify with a Joel Embiid, or Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is Nigerian and Greek. That shows you—and this is what the league wants to do under Commissioner Adam Silver, is to be known as a place with a sport where you have to cooperate in order to win. And you have to also figure out ways to counter your competition. And the best way to do that is through Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. They're putting it into practice.
Well, Lee—tremendous discussion.
Thank you, sir.
I want to thank you so much for joining me today.
And as always, thank you to our listeners for tuning in. To our listeners who want to get in touch with Lee, please visit PlusUltreLLC.net. And let me spell that for you: P-L-U-S-U-L-T-R-E-L-L-C dot net. Until next time, I'm Mike Mitchell, and this is Risk Playbook.