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Bringing Innovation to Hartford’s Thriving Ecosystem with Laura Dinan Haber and Paul Tyler

Attracted by the city’s educated workforce and growing reputation as a hub for tech and entrepreneurship, many innovative companies have made Hartford their home. With the city’s rich insurance history and a center for many resources, how can a new generation of insurtech talent find the best resources, mentorship, and networking opportunities to thrive in the city?

In this episode, Jack talks with Laura Dinan Haber, Innovation Program Manager at Nassau Financial Group, and Paul Tyler, Chief Marketing Officer at Nassau Financial Group. In their roles, Laura and Paul work with startups and scale-ups worldwide. They help foster connections, make introductions, and open doors for the new generation of insurtech talent to the city and state.

Dedicated to accelerating insurtech innovation, Laura and Paul talk with Jack about Hartford as a hub for innovation, the exciting projects they are working on, and where the world is going regarding technology and solutions.

What Laura has to say

“Whatever place you’re at in business or life, surround yourself with a community, whether online or in person, were you can be authentic, engage, and share messages.”

– Laura Dinan Haber, Innovation Program Manager, Nassau Financial Group

Read the full transcript

Jack Sharry: Hello, everyone. Welcome to WealthTech on Deck. Thanks for joining us. Each week I have the privilege of speaking with industry leaders about issues that move our industry forward. We talk about financial advice, wealth and asset management, retirement, insurance and annuities, and technology. Our guests are working on ways to help advisors, investors, participants, and firms enjoy better financial outcomes all around the confluence of digital and human advice. Today we’re speaking with Laura Dinan Haber, who is the Innovation Program manager at Nassau Financial Group and Paul Tyler is the chief marketing officer there. They are working on some very interesting and exciting and very innovative stuff, which I’m very pleased to hear more about that. I’ve checked them out online and encourage you to do the same. But, Laura and Paul, welcome to WealthTech on Deck. Great to have you here.

Laura Dinan Haber: Thanks for having us. We’re excited to be here with you, Jack.

Paul Tyler: It’s a pleasure.

Jack Sharry: Terrific, terrific. So Laura, why don’t you kick it off? Let’s start with you telling our audience about Nassau Re/, and your role there. I know you’re doing some, a lot around innovation, from what I can gather. So tell us more about what you do. Then, after Laura goes, Paul, if you’d give your version of events, that’d be great.

Laura Dinan Haber: Yeah, happy to do so. So, I’m so happy to be here, Innovation Program manager for Nassau Re/Imagine. So we are an insurtech and retiretech incubator located in Nassau Financial Group. And what that means is we work with startups and scale ups from around the world. We help foster connections, make introductions, and open doors that enable them to have faster progress. So when they come into Hartford, Connecticut, New England even, they may know or they may not know who they would want to speak with. And we can help foster those connections through them. We also have a great community that we’ve built over the years here. We’re about three years old, with the investor network, with other corporates, with people around the community who really just want to help entrepreneurs be successful. So I’m very excited that I have the opportunity to do that within Nassau Financial Group, and you know, excited to help others doing great work within the ecosystem. So that’s my role. And I’ve been with the company now just about three years.

Jack Sharry: That’s great. There’s more to be said there. I’m going to come back to you on it. But let’s hear from Paul. Paul, tell us what you do at Nassau Re/.

Paul Tyler: Yeah. Jack, thanks for having us on. I am the chief marketing officer at Nassau. Nassau is a six year old company at this point, founded in 2015. But we’re fortunate enough to buy some companies with very long, rich histories, Phoenix Life Insurance Company, and, you know, a couple out in the Midwest. And so we’ve inherited a rich history, and I’ve had the opportunity to help create a new brand that, you know, continues the legacy of innovation and, you know, positions us to grow into the future. And I actually founded this incubator about six months before Laura came in, I managed to talk her into jumping on our crazy train. And we’ve had an interesting adventure building, building our brand, and, you know, creating new connections inside the Hartford community as well as within the retirement and sort of senior healthcare space.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, so I want to hear some more about all this. Full disclosure, I used to work at the, what was known as Phoenix Life, way back when, and also Phoenix Investment Partners, which is now Virtus Investment Partners. So I was there for 15 or so years, had a similar role to yours, Paul, way back when. And, among others, had a distribution on the asset management side. But I tend not to put Hartford and innovation together. So, Laura, tell us about that.

Paul Tyler: Jack, those are fighting words. Let me just tell you…

Laura Dinan Haber: No, it’s like an invitation in. I appreciate the opportunity. Yes, absolutely. So you know, Hartford and innovation, do they go together? Some would argue yes, some will be sold on it. So yes, we have a very vibrant ecosystem in downtown Hartford and the expanded reach. We have organizations such as ours and others. Techstars has been down there with Stanley Black and Decker, we have Devra over at Makerspace. We have Reset, which is a social entrepreneur and trust area. We have a lot of organizations who are helping entrepreneurs really bring all different types of innovation. So where we focus in on, you know, insurtech and the retirement space. We have others focusing in on cannabis, on food, on retail, etc. So Hartford is not only is the insurance capital of the world, which lends itself well to that type of innovation. But we have a lot of ecosystem partners, state government, local officials, in addition to the education system, with the colleges and universities, really getting on board and having these fruitful conversations around, what can Hartford be? How can we use our local assets such as the talent coming out of our pipelines? And how can we put that talent but not only locally, but also globally? So what we’ve seen, you know, during the pandemic in the last few years is the conversation is not just how can we bring people into downtown Hartford and show them what kind of a vibrant ecosystem we have and the progress we’re making. But why don’t we take that talent and put it across the world. So there are a merry group of us in the band, you know, playing as loud as we can as we’re marching down the streets. But we’re gonna continue to do that work and bring innovation not only to Hartford, but do a stronger job telling our story, because I think there’s so much activity that goes on. And, you know, Jack, you said that you’re well aware of Phoenix, and you’re, you know, familiar with the area, but you’ve never necessarily thought about Hartford and innovation. So it’s a good opportunity for me to maybe get on some of the social media later and create some more pieces to get that story out there.

Jack Sharry: That’s great. That’s why I’m glad you’re here to talk about that. Now, Paul, you came up with the idea originally. Why did you come up with the idea? How did you come up with the idea? How’s it going? Talk about how it’s played out in terms of your business.

Paul Tyler: Sure. Yeah. Backstory really is, there really are a couple threads. So I think if you go back to 2015-16, insurtech had been a word, if you looked it up, for about two years on Google. And we had a number of people inside the community, our mayor, CT Innovations, our venture capital arm, some educators saying, wait a second, we see what Iowa has done, we see what’s taking place out in Silicon Valley, why aren’t we doing this here? You know, we have all the ingredients to launch an innovation in the insurance sector. So 2016, I was part of a group of people who came together and actually put a proposal, actually, the state actually had a request for proposals for innovation places, so cities and regions could come in and actually present a proposal, get matching funds, matching funds meaning the state will give us $1 If we get $1 from the private sector. So we worked for about six months to put a proposal together for the Hartford community that would fund innovation insurtech, Laura you’re gonna have to help me, insurance in… innovation in insurance, innovation in healthcare, and innovation in advanced manufacturing, you know, because people are aware, we, you know, Pratt & Whitney has a very big presence in the area, Black and Decker has tremendous presence in the area. And they also have leaders that wanted to invest back in so we basically won a proposal to fund innovation in those three sectors. And, you know, now we all collectively decided we needed a accelerator come in here how to bake off, select a startup bootcamp. You know, what we saw, though, as a company was, a lot of these programs and other carriers were doing a great job attracting startups from around the world doing some really interesting things. Most of the programs only ran three months or six months. Well, Jack, as you know, try to get a contract, even if you’re an established company, with insurance carrier in six months, you just can’t do it.

Jack Sharry: Yeah.

Paul Tyler: So what happened there? Same time, as you know, our building, we have a beautiful building in the heart of the insurance activity. We had a lot of empty space, we’ve gone through and restacked our buildings, what do you do with the space? So our CEO and general counsel said, you know, Paul, why don’t you try and bring some startups into some of the empty space we have? Okay. Talk to a lot of people and, Jack, the gap that we could fill really was leveraging all those, that great energy brought into the state and giving people who actually wanted to invest more time, more energy in the Hartford community, a place they could call home, set up shop, have offices, and more importantly, network, plug into that community that Laura mentioned.

Jack Sharry: So let me share with you both and our audience, I happen to be a bit of a historian on the Hartford area, because I grew up in West Hartford, went to the University of Connecticut, so I’m a kind of born and bred Connecticut guy, spent many years at Phoenix, prior company to Nassau. Here’s something you may not know, In the Industrial Revolution, the late 1800s, Samuel Colt was at that point, like Steve Jobs was to Silicon Valley and started Colt Firearms. He had a couple of people working for him, Gatling brothers, you may have heard of the Gatling gun. A guy named Pratt and a guy named Read, Pratt and Read, which is now United Technologies and airplane parts over time, but it was a machining center back in the day. And It started with Colt firearms. That was the original. And actually the first female CEO of any company of size was Samuel Colt’s widow. He passed away when he was in his mid 40s. So a woman CEO running Colt firearms, which was one of the largest companies in the United States at the time. So arguably, and I’ve heard this said, that Hartford was the Silicon Valley of its day, it was a hotbed of, a hub of innovation. And over time, the way the insurance industry started, you may know this, but the Connecticut River Valley is among the richest farmland. And so the port of consequence was Hartford. Just because the way the river runs, you can’t get much further north with what have you in terms of foodstuffs or what have you. So very popular port, which they had a couple of fires. That’s how the insurance industry started. The companies mutually agreed that they would cover one another. And that’s why Hartford is the capital of insurance in the world. And so some of the names people will know are Aetna and Cigna, and… all started there. And Phoenix. By the way, speaking of innovation, Phoenix has first among the few that are two sided buildings, same architects that did the United Nations building, so it was really ahead of its time. So what you’re describing is really reemergence, and Laura, in your case, you’re really in the middle of all that, working day to day on innovation with, not only in the insurance space, I’m sure that’s your primary focus, but making sure there’s a culture of innovation and a culture of venture capital chasing new, wonderful ideas, so talk a little about that. What are some of the things you’re working on now, some of the things you’re excited about? Now that you know all this stuff, as you were nodding as I was speaking, I assume you knew a lot of that, but Hartford was, and is, sounds like, an innovation hotbed.

Laura Dinan Haber: Yeah, absolutely. And we’re working on a lot of exciting things. You know, I love Hartford, you know, my past is also Connecticut born, bred. Went to University of Hartford. So, much like you, I have a lot of roots around here. But one of the things that I’m very excited about is a partnership we have with UConn and UHart, and they have an Insurtech Fellows Program. So we’re on our third round of that program. And what it does is it pairs local, high quality collegiate talent with startups and business leaders. We’re taking it to the next level this year and, you know, we’re looking at an insurtech bridge, as we’re calling it. So we want to take that educational experience for those students, and the value that the startups receive. And we want to pair mentorship on top of that with businesses that we’re partnering with on the effort. So really, it’s taking a look at, you know, what are the colleges and universities doing? How can we partner with them, not only to provide these experiences, but really learn from those students who are out there, getting that firsthand knowledge, providing those startups with that type of talent asset, and then utilizing the local networks, whether it’s mentor networks that have been around for years, or creating new networks with those who are interested and potentially new to the area. So we’re kind of putting down roots in a lot of different ways, and utilizing our networks to say, you know, “Hey, Doug Roth over at CT Innovations, you know, can you meet with so and so to learn more about…?” Or, “This individual is looking to learn more about the investing field. Can you provide some of your knowledge and your expertise to them?” So really, it’s looking at the whole picture, instead of just what you know, Nassau is focused on, which is obviously number one and very important, but how can we be the best community player that we can potentially be? And how can we continue to wave those flags and to just create a culture where people know that they can come to our building? They know that they can come to us and say, “Hey, can you lend me an introduction to…,” or, “I have an idea,” or “What do you think about this?” And we want to be a place for people to come with their ideas, with their stories, and we want to help tell those things. And kind of, you know, as I used to refer to it, I like to think of us as day 91. So for those who came out of those accelerator programs, who had those 90 days of intense information and connections and meetings, and then they’re on their own, but there’s still a community around them, but it’s “Oh, sugar, where do I go?” You know, I like for us to be that day 91 place where we can help you figure out what’s next and be there for you. And kind of a community we’ve put up around that and we’re continuing to grow. And during the pandemic, we saw the expansion of the community virtually, which at first, we were a little worried, you know, how is it going to feel? Is it going to feel as authentic, but we found that, yes, in fact, it does. And it’s a way for us to continue those ties. So very excited about all of those things, and many more, but it’s a great thing that we’ve built, and I’m excited to keep it going.

Jack Sharry: That’s great. So Paul, talk a little bit about some of the results. What’s come out of this? It sounds like the community is strong and well formed and continues to thrive, but how has it played out in terms of your business, other businesses? How’s that working out?

Paul Tyler: Sure. I spoke to somebody actually, just a couple of days ago who said, I think he was quoting from somebody else but, “You attract what you celebrate.”

Jack Sharry: Yeah.

Paul Tyler: It’s true, Jack. You know, through, you know, what we’ve been doing, you know, with the program Laura’s running, with some of our more I would say “out there” efforts like podcasts, you were guest of ours a couple years ago, we’ve had some really interesting success, you know, pulling in some very talented companies and been lucky enough to get them seated inside our company working for us right now. You know, Laura organized, you know, our tech event, your team came there as well. I think we have maybe four or five companies with contracts at this point. Startups with our company, in various stages, Jack, of it’s a POC to it’s a pay contract to, you know, they’re actually, I have almost turned into a core vendor in the last, you know, six to eight months.

Jack Sharry: That’s great.

Paul Tyler: So for a smaller company like us, that’s a significant level of engagement. I think on the distribution side, just kind of being out there has helped us attract and build stronger relationships with some of our more successful agents. You know, Jack, my experience has been that agents who are really experimenting with new ways to connect with consumers, run their business tend to be the better ones.

Jack Sharry: Always looking for that new thing.

Paul Tyler: And it’s opened the doors for some really interesting partnerships with some distributors. We’ve got one in the works, we really haven’t announced it yet with a company who described themselves as a FinTech company doing some very interesting work helping people earn higher interest on their savings. You know, and no surprise, you know, annuity isn’t… Fixed annuities are kind of an interesting product to plug into that mix.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, yeah. And Laura, talk a little bit, some of the things you’re excited about, things that are working well, successes that are underway, some of the work that you’re doing with some of the companies, some of the startups.

Laura Dinan Haber: Sure. So one of the things that actually happened recently, we had a startup who’s based primarily in Germany, they’ve now set up an office out of our building, it’s great when we have the opportunity to find partners who have connections within Connecticut already or within the ecosystem, and kind of bring them closer to the action. So what started as a relationship, we worked with this gentleman, John Thomson, he was Assistant Dean of the Barney School of Business, we’ve done a lot of work with him, and he kind of comes over to us because we like to be the place for ideas. And he says, “You know, I have this company I’m working with, he’s out of Germany, he’s doing great work in the captive space, we’d love for him to be able to come into Hartford and set up a place for his team to work, to be able to work those connections and get in there.” So you know, bringing his local team closer, I think has been great for us. It brings, you know, the captives into the conversation as well. So like I said, even when it’s not necessarily core to the business that Nassau does, it’s being within that community and providing that place for those startups to come in and really kind of put their feet down and get a sense of, you know, who is Hartford? What is Hartford? What do we have here for assets? We have, you know, partners that we’ve worked with for a few years now that have been really exciting. Spyglaz is one of them with Neeraja Rasmussen. And Neeraja, you know, she was in the first cohort, Paul, right, she came in, and you know, tracted her in from California. So West Coast startup, and she’s really become more and more integrated as the relationship has gone on. And it’s been wonderful to watch Neeraja kind of grow within herself, within the company, and then how what Spyglaz has been doing is really kind of integrating further into our business. So watching people progress, not only as founders, as leaders themselves, but then watching their work become more fundamental to our bottom line and helping our team out has been really exciting. And it’s, it’s fun to see what we can find next, right. So we’re getting ready to go to InsurTech Connect in a few weeks here. And part of our mission, while we’re down there is to explore and to meet new startups and hear what they’re doing. And that, for me, is fun. I’m a very curious human being. And I love to see what people create as solutions. So for me going down there and seeing what someone has cooked up that we’ve never considered is one of the fun things I get to do.

Jack Sharry: That’s great. Good for you. I love it. So, Paul, where does all this lead? What’s next? What’s down the road? Where do you see this all going?

Paul Tyler: You know, who knows? I, I think you know, where I’d like to see us go is really, you know, position our company, as a leader in the retirement and senior space. Listen, we’d love to do more work with your company with some of our advisors. It’s interesting, the problems don’t change, right? It’s, I’m gonna get older. I’m gonna eventually stop working. I will have to take Social Security. When do I do that? How do I manage my finances? I mean, we could have pulled the book, Jack, out, right, twenty years ago, there’d still be the same question. But how are you doing it today? You know, what are the tools? How are you creating dynamic plans for individuals, and who’s actually going to be doing this with them? So I think we’re really at a pivotal place in our business where you know, the baby boomers are sort of coming through that whole phase. And that whole cohort has just redefined everything in society, or, you know, it was our music. It was our movies. It was the houses we bought. And now I think it’s going to be how do you manage and live a second chapter successfully and comfortably in life, and that’s exciting.

Jack Sharry: Yep. One of things I’ve observed about Phoenix, having worked there and also knowing its history, as well as what’s happened since I’ve not been there, since I left, is the company really has a great, rich history of innovation. You’ve been an innovator in distribution, innovator in product. And now with technology, I know you’re working on a bunch of things around combining technology and distribution and product. And that solutions orientation, it seems to be where the world is going. And I imagine, Laura, that you’re working with… some of the firms that you’re working, some of the startups, that’s sort of the… some of the things that they’re working on, maybe talk about where you see the world going from a product and tech and solution standpoint.

Laura Dinan Haber: Sure. So, you know, it’s interesting, where, where I sit, and Paul just mentioned, you know, the baby boomer generation going through and getting ready to, you know, be the next cohort into retirement, if not so already. For me, I’m looking a little bit past that, and wondering, how will tech play a role even more so than now. So when the millennials are starting to take care of the boomer parents, how much of the tech solutions and that in home offerings are no longer going to be conversation but reality? And where are we going to be dreaming towards next? But also, you know, what are we going to learn over the next five to eight years, as tech becomes closely integrated into these retirement solutions, and planning, and advisor services, and product placement. You know, how will AI, for example, help us make decisions differently about how and where to put, you know, funds for retirement, let’s say. And how can that tech start to look backwards to say, hey, millennial generation, or younger cohort who are not yet retiring, how can you change your activities now, and then change those activities for your children and those that come behind? So I think it’s really fun and interesting to watch how tech is evolving things today. But my brain is dreaming towards where are we going to be and the next level, and how will things like, you know, the metaverse for example, play a role in what people are doing. Or maybe it’s simply how, how will that play a role in how people will learn and communicate about these things. Where money used to be something that was taboo, like, “Oh, we don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about money.” And now it’s, “Well, we better talk about money because we need to plan for retirement.” And then it becomes, “Well, since we’re talking about this, what else can we be teaching others around us?” in that financial education component. And one thing that we’ve been doing on the marketing team here at Nassau is putting together, you know, some short form video content on the site, really helping to explain some of these things. And getting that information out there and making it more of an easy to understand regular conversation. So for me, it’s, you know, where will it be in the home? Where will it be in the conversation at work? And how can we use AI and other pieces of technology to make things clear, unbiased and easy for everyone to understand?

Jack Sharry: That’s great. That’s great. Well, we’re gonna start to head toward our half hour mark, in terms of wrapping up our conversation for today. Paul, what are some key takeaways you’d like to share with the group, and, Laura, I’m gonna ask you the same in a moment.

Paul Tyler: I would say, we’re so lucky to be working in this industry today. There are some big moments in time or you want to be part of the business. Jack, you mentioned some of them, you know, the start of insurance. Back when ships were coming up to the Connecticut River, imagine that. Imagine be the first person to build something like that. I think we’re right there on that cusp. My biggest message to anybody who listens is now’s the time, we’ve got to get out and experiment and try things, try different things. And third, recognize this is our business, you know, there’s a lot of inertia, persistence pays, and, you know, we’ve got to be good at it. And this is a business where, wow, you have to just keep grinding to make change. But I think if we get enough people, you know, pushing the rocks in same direction, we’ll make a lot of progress.

Jack Sharry: It sounds like you’re doing that. Laura, how about you? What are some key takeaways you’d like to share with our audience?

Laura Dinan Haber: Sure. So I would say in whatever place you know, you’re at, in business or life, I think, you know, community, surrounding yourself with a community, whether it’s online or in person, that you can be authentic with, engage with, to share messages, for example, like we’ve been doing, you know. And then once you’ve created that community, or found that community, continue to communicate and engage with them, you know, provide value where you can, actively listen, take value from them. So everyone’s kind of moving forward together. And then, you know, use stories to amplify the work that you and others are doing around you, in places that people expect it or they don’t expect it. You know, for one example, we, you know, started a TikTok account a few months back. Why, why are we on TikTok? I don’t know, go check it out and, you know, understand why but, you know, create the community or find your community, engage with them, and then amplify the work that you’re doing. Because if you don’t celebrate it, then no one’s going to know about it. And you know, the more we celebrate what we’re doing, the fewer times people ask, “What do you mean innovation in Hartford?” So it’s, it’s important for us, I think, to do that.

Jack Sharry: I have to say I love the way you’re breaking the mold, this is great. I’ve always been a soft spot for Hartford, just because it’s a wonderful community. I don’t know if you’re aware of this. I know too much about the past, I suppose. But Hartford was the second richest city in the United States back in the heyday of Samuel Colt, Mark Twain, Pratt and Read, and all the rest of them. It was a very wealthy community. Actually, it’s where JP Morgan was born. And he went on to do a few things in New York later on, but it’s quite interesting. Frederick Law Olmsted… lot, it’s a very rich community. And all those people I just mentioned were innovators in their field. And it’s wonderful to see that that tradition is carrying on because it’s needed. And with tech, kind of be anywhere, it sounds like you’re attracting people to Hartford, which is a great thing as well. So the other fun thing that we do on WealthTech on Deck, always my favorite question is, what do you do outside of work that people might find interesting or surprising? So Paul, what do you do outside of work that you’re particularly passionate about or excited about that people may find to be a little bit of a surprise?

Paul Tyler: Sure. I swim, bike, and I run, Jack. So, you know comes in handy if you’re gonna do a triathlon. It’s also just a great way to find a community, like Laura said, you know…

Jack Sharry: Yeah.

Paul Tyler: You know, I got a bunch of friends, we go out, ride 50 miles to get coffee, and come back.

Jack Sharry: Great. It’s a long way to get coffee. But…

Paul Tyler: It is a long way, it’s got to be good. The coffee has got to be good.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, totally, totally. How about you, Laura?

Laura Dinan Haber: I am co-founder and co-organizer of TEDx Hartford. So the TED talks, bringing it local with the TEDx brand, and we’re in our sixth year. So it’s an awesome opportunity to hear a ton of stories and put some people up on stage that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.

Jack Sharry: I’m a huge proponent, in fact, wrote a book on the topic about, it’s called Authentic and Ethical Persuasion. It’s about listening and telling compelling stories. Actually, I’ve started writing a series now on LinkedIn. I just started literally a week or so ago. But it’s actually from the book, just different aspects. And one of the things you mentioned earlier that I’m quite interested in, we’ll have to continue the discussion offline. And that is this whole notion of community and belonging, and how important that is, especially in this more online world, where sometimes a lot of people are wondering if they’re ever gonna go back to the office. It’s no less important to belong. And so we’ll have to continue that conversation elsewhere. So I applaud your efforts across the board. So, for our WealthTech on Deck audience, thank you for listening. This has been a lot of fun to get to know Laura and Paul and all that they’re doing. I really appreciate the time you guys have spent. And for our audience, if you’ve enjoyed our podcast, please rate, review, subscribe, and share what we’re doing here at WealthTech on Deck. We’re available wherever you get your podcasts. And thanks again, Laura and Paul. This was a lot of fun. I look forward to our next conversation.

Laura Dinan Haber: Thanks.

Paul Tyler: Thanks.