February is Black History Month! Every year our nation celebrates the achievements of Black Americans and recognizes our significant role in U.S. history. While Black history is created all year long, Black History Month is a special time of acknowledgement, reflection, and inspiration. This important observance is an opportunity to honor the past, celebrate the present, and create a new vision for the future.
To honor our past, we take a look back at three African-American trailblazers who made an impact in the financial services industry. In 1905, Alonzo Herndon founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which is still one of the largest Black financial institutions in the United States. A former slave and sharecropper, he became a barber and eventually opened his own elite barbershop called the Crystal Palace. History chronicles that Herndon owned three barbershops and one hundred properties in Atlanta. He became Atlanta’s first African American millionaire.
Millionaire entrepreneur A. G. Gaston was born on July 4, 1892, in Demopolis, Alabama. He graduated from the Tuggle Institute in Birmingham. In 1923, he started the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. with $500. Building on the insurance company, Gaston developed a business empire estimated at more than $30 million, which included a funeral home, hotel, and a bank.
In 1953, Ernesta Procope founded E.G. Bowman Co., Inc. an insurance broker in Brooklyn, N.Y. She became known as the “The First Lady of Wall Street” after she relocated the business to Wall Street in 1979. That historic move made her insurance brokerage firm the first and largest Black-owned and woman-owned business on Wall Street. Her company grew to become the largest minority-owned insurance company in the United States and is still in business. E.G. Bowman Company, Inc. assembled a corporate client base that included American Express Co., Philip Morris Cos., Tiffany & Co., Avon Products Inc., and RJR Nabisco Inc. She recently died on November 30, 2021 at the age of ninety-eight.
We celebrate our present by introducing Blacks United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a National Life Group community committed to business equity and empowering the underserved and underrepresented. National Life is a mission-driven and purpose-filled business whose mission extends well beyond the insurance and annuities policies that they offer. The National Life cause is a very simple one: Do good within our industry, in our communities, and with the individual families we serve. 
BUILD launched on June 16, 2021 and includes over 1,830 financial services professionals from around the United States. This dynamic community includes a majority of Black men and women and racially diverse allies who are working together to create access for leadership and development for Black agents and communities. BUILD’s goal is to create a home at National Life Group for the ongoing leadership development of Black financial services agents as part of their commitment to positively impact the Black community.
BUILD was chartered to commit to the increase of Black agents and leaders in the financial services industry. According to Marsh, only 4% of independent agencies have an African-American principal or senior manager.  This lack of representation can interfere with their ability to effectively reach and create connections with a diverse and growing prospective audience. Every month, the BUILD community connects virtually to participate in professional development, receive mentorship from successful Black financial services professionals, and network. BUILD is also creating resources to educate and advance the African American community, through Black agents and non-Black agents, on the value of life insurance with living benefits.
As we look towards the future, there is much more work to be done to create a more equitable future for Black financial services professionals and the communities they serve. Our committed BUILD founders, NeAndre’ Broussard and James Q. Dean, have come together from both sides of National Life’s distribution channels to make this dream a reality. They are supported by a Leadership Council of national financial services and philanthropy professionals who volunteer countless hours to ensure the BUILD mission moves forward.
Future plans include the August 2022 BUILD Summit that will celebrate Black Excellence in a groundbreaking way at National Life Group. New opportunities to gain access to professional licenses and designations will be made available this year. This month, BUILD, in partnership with the National Life Group Foundation, will launch a philanthropic initiative that benefits Black-led/Black-serving nonprofit organizations. Our future is bright as BUILD blazes new trails that make a positive, lasting impact on the financial services industry and local communities.
“Keep the light on inside of you, stay inspired,
know that what you do makes a difference.” – Sol Hicks
Founder and CEO of Solomon Hicks Financial Services, Inc.
Lifetime and Top of the Table of MDRT
Join us as a catalyst of change and become a BUILD member today
 New Georgia Encyclopedia, “Alonzo Herndon,” by Alexa Henderson, modified July 14, 2020.
 The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, “Gaston, Arthur George,” Martin Luther King, Jr. Encyclopedia, 2022.
 Bloomberg, “Ernesta Procope, the “First Lady of Wall Street” Dies as 98,” by Laurence Arnold, December 9, 2021.
 Blacks Uplifted In Leadership Development, a National Life Group Community, 2021.
 Marsh, “The Journey of African-American Insurance Professionals,” study conducted by Dr. Leroy Nunery III, 2018.