Arrow Benefits Group’s Rosario Avila 2024 Advisor of the Year Finalist

While sitting in on benefits presentations 20 years ago, Rosario Avila noticed that the information provided to Spanish-speaking employees was often lost in translation.

​“I would listen to translators from carriers and think, ‘You’re just saying what the word is, but not what it actually means,’” she says. “In Mexico, Latin America and Central America, there is nothing like insurance. You go to the nearest clinic and you pay a copay. They tell you to go to the pharmacy next door and pick up your medication and that’s it. There’s nothing like in-network and out-of-network.”

​That key realization sparked a passion in Avila around which she has built a unique career in the benefits space.

​Career growth
​In 2002, Avila got her start in employee benefits after she answered an ad for an administrative assistant at a small broker in Sonoma, California. Operating in the heart of Northern California’s winemaking region, the firm serviced many blue-collar clients, including vineyard management companies and landscaping operations, that tended to have a large population of Spanish-speaking employees.

​Her job was to answer phones and transfer calls to the account manager or producer, but she frequently found herself stepping in to help translate conversations with Spanish-speaking callers.

​“I realized that was a niche for me,” Avila says. “I was able to easily explain the benefits and how insurance affects people.”

​She obtained her insurance license and started going along on benefits presentations instead of having carriers send a translator. Avila quickly realized she has a knack for engaging with employees and earning their trust.

​“It became my passion because I was helping my community,” says Avila, the youngest of eight children born to parents who emigrated from Mexico. “There were not a lot of people who knew about the industry or who could explain it.”

​Looking for new growth opportunities, Avila joined Arrow Benefits Group in 2016, drawn to the firm’s outside-the-box approach. Today, Avila is a senior benefits advisor at the firm.

​In 2017, she started Alianza, the Spanish language division at Arrow, incorporating multiple bilingual account managers who not only maintain their own book of business but also help others in the company with Spanish communications.

​Avila began to push back on requests to participate in client and prospect meetings that would go back and forth between English and Spanish. Instead, she insisted there was value in providing a separate presentation geared toward Spanish-speaking employees.

​“When I have clients that have people who prefer to speak Spanish, I’ll ask Rosario to come out with me,” says Mariah Shields, senior benefits advisor at Arrow. “And I try not to get jealous that my meeting with people who prefer speaking English lasts for 30 to 45 minutes, but her meeting lasts an hour and a half! They’re laughing; they’re cracking jokes; she’s giving people high fives. And I’m like, ‘Did we just give the same presentation?’ We’re both talking about benefits, but after the fact, there’s a line of people waiting to talk to her individually. Many of these people have never had the opportunity to ask the questions they need to ask. That is, unfortunately, a huge gap in our industry.”

​Building engagement and trust means really understanding the needs of clients, Avila says.

​“I wanted to formulate something unique and make sure we were not only engaging, but that we were consistent,” she says. “We started using our own email address and phone number so that when someone calls, they don’t have to push a button to get a Spanish speaker.”

​Alianza also recognized that it needed to have early and late hours and be available on the weekends to effectively service workers who spend their days outdoors and often can’t engage with their benefits professional during normal business hours.

​Arrow is one of the only brokers in California to have a Spanish language division, a distinction that has brought the company an influx of clients who need not only technical translation, but also interpretation of benefits.

Early translations
​Avila was well-versed in the nuances of translating both words and concepts by the time she found a need for those skills in the insurance industry. She was frequently asked to translate for her parents at parent-teacher conferences, doctor appointments and bank interactions when she was a child. Sometimes, she didn’t understand the concepts she was translating – like what an interest rate is – and had to figure out ways to explain those concepts without relying on word-for-word exchanges.

​“There were times I didn’t know what I was saying, but I got my point across by giving examples,” she recalls.

​That strategy is something she continues to incorporate into her presentations today. The trust fostered by these interactions often results in employees and clients asking other questions outside the health benefits scope: “What do you know about wills?” “What do I need to know about 401(k)s?”

​Her bilingual skills have also helped her break down barriers as a woman in insurance. Avila targeted companies with Spanish speakers and talked to benefits managers about the importance of making sure employees understood the benefits available to them so they could make the most of them. Her message resonated and doors started to open.

​“They were used to talking about how to save money, and that’s not necessarily where I was coming from,” says Avila. “It felt really good, because I knew I was helping my community. It felt like I was talking to my parents.”

​Power of two
​Avila has broken down barriers in the benefits space in other ways, as well. When she started at Arrow, she was an account manager and would often attend meetings with one of the company’s producers, Andrew McNeil. When she began to move into the sales space, the duo continued to work together, bucking the more competitive norms within the industry. Many doubted the concept of partnership and didn’t like the idea of sharing clients and profits, but Avila and McNeil persisted with an idea they have come to call the Power of Two.

​“We are two completely different people,” says Avila. “He’s Anglo, young, married, and has two small children. I’m Latina, Mexican, older, single and have grown kids.”

​Or as McNeil puts it: “She’s Gen X, I’m a millennial. She’s a woman. I’m not. She’s Latina. I am a white guy.”

​“We had very different backgrounds, and we bring that to our meetings,” says Avila. “It was like a puzzle that we had to put together. We found we were more successful when we were working together. It’s not just about closing the deal, it’s about finding what is best for the client.”

​McNeil says Avila is one of the smartest people he knows.

​“She brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the table,” he says. “There’s a difference between the benefits listed on a page and the culture of the person receiving the information. You sometimes need to toggle between American culture and Latin culture and determine how this person is going to best understand the information. It’s not just translating – it’s communicating effectively to the audience that you have. She does a fantastic job at that, not just on the Spanish side, but all around.”

​Client ACORE Capital considers Avila an integral part of its HR team and says she consistently goes above and beyond to collaborate on projects, regardless of their scope, even when a task falls outside of a traditional broker’s responsibilities.

​“Her proactive attitude consistently surpasses our expectations,” says ACORE Capital chief people officer, Jamie Fullbright. “But what truly sets her apart is her personality; she’s someone you genuinely enjoy working with. Rosario is the kind of person you’d want to spend time with outside of work, which makes partnering with her a seamless and enjoyable experience.”

Reaching out

The successful partnership between Avila and McNeil has generated a growing list of outreach projects. Realizing that many people need simple explanations about insurance concepts, the pair set out to make short, digestible videos to help answer questions like: “What is an HSA?” and “What is the difference between a PPO and an HMO?”

BenefitsTV, as the project came to be known, started pre-pandemic and proved to be hugely valuable for continuing to engage and communicate with clients when in-person meetings were not possible. The team recorded videos for clients to post on their company intranets or play in their breakrooms, and clients reported that the videos were so effective that they started getting fewer basic questions about benefits.

Last year, the video project morphed into a podcast that Avila and McNeil host every other week, where they endeavor to make the sometimes-boring topic of insurance as interesting as possible.

McNeil and Avila also write a monthly column called “The Power of Two” for the
North Bay Business Journal where they discuss insurance issues, company culture and leadership.

Starting with ‘Why

Avila says the advice she would give to a young person starting their career is to be genuine.

​“Start from your ‘Why,’” she says. “Why are you doing something? Why do you like something? Why do you want to grow in that space? That will take you further and help you grow more than just trying to make money or find an easy route. If you’re really genuinely learning, and if you’re really putting an emphasis on your Why, that’s where you’re going to grow and have success.”

For Avila, her Why is her two daughters.

“They make me want to strive for more, not only because I’m a woman, I’m Latina, and I’m in the insurance business,” says Avila. “I also want to make sure I show them that as long as you’re doing something for the right reasons, you can excel and stand out.”