By Laylan Copelin
Ashley Hunter is a woman on the go.
Before she started her insurance brokerage firm, HM Risk Group, in Austin, Hunter spent five years in the Middle East, insuring pipelines, aviation and large construction projects.
Being an American and a woman did not hold her back, Hunter said, though she didn’t like Saudi Arabia’s ban against women driving.
In many Middle Eastern countries, Hunter said, women hold important positions in government and industry.
Hunter said Southern hospitality goes a long way in opening doors, even in the Middle East. So it was a bit ironic when Hunter returned to Texas and found it a more difficult market for a woman than overseas.
No problem. Hunter re-invented herself.
Today, she can still write insurance for pipelines and construction, but she also has a global business providing insurance for the fertility industry.
“I’m the Queen of Sperm in the insurance industry,” Hunter said.
She’s also diving into micro-insurance — similar to micro-lending — in developing countries.
After a vacation to the California wine country, Hunter and some friends also created the Hill Country Bike and Wine bicycle touring company as an avocation.
Question: How did a Dallas Oak Cliff native end up in the Middle East?
Answer:I was asked, ‘You want to make a ton of money and move to the Mideast?’ I had never been there, which is kind of ironic that I even took Arabic in graduate school, because I had no connection to the Middle East at all. Zero connection.
Question: What did you do there?
Answer: I split my time between Dubai and Bahrain. I underwrote Islamic insurance.
Question: How is it different?
Answer: We were selling it to multinational corporations and local companies who specifically requested sharia compliant insurance, meaning we aren’t allowed to invest insurance reserves in certain industries, such as liquor.
Question: You worked for AIG Middle East/North Africa?
Answer: Yes. The way the business entities work in the Middle East, our U.S. or U.K. companies had to be partially owned by a national, which would make it a Middle Eastern company that needed to be sharia-compliant.
Question: What’s the biggest misconception about the Mideast?
Answer: That Middle Eastern men and the culture in general does not support women and women should be seen and not heard. Which was just the opposite. Women are in power. Women are in control. No one cared. I was the division manager during my tenure.
Question: That’s not true of all countries there, is it?
Answer: I wasn’t that fond of Saudi Arabia. I am a very independent woman and in Saudi Arabia you aren’t allowed to drive. It was very difficult to give up control of my vehicle and be driven and escorted around a country.
Question: So being an American woman didn’t hold you back?
Answer: I had no problems. I was like a movie star. Being an American does not hurt if you do not come in with that kind of I’m-going-to-show-you-how-I’m-better scenario. If you assimilate to the culture and try to be more of a help, it’s fine. You get a lot more done. All you have to do is show a little Southern hospitality.
Question: Why did you relocate to Austin?
Answer: I wanted to be in Texas because my family was still in Dallas and I love Texas, but at the time I didn’t think that Dallas could support my creativity and I had heard so many great things about Austin. I visited once, moved and haven’t looked back.
Question: What was your plan?
Answer: I was going to be Texas-bred selling to construction industry here. I had absolutely no problem getting billion-dollar deals done by myself overseas. It’s harder here. The institutionalized boy’s club is still around, but no need to worry, I am changing that every day.
Question: What’s the challenge?
Answer: I don’t look the part, number one. When people meet me, it’s like, ‘You’re an insurance agent?’
Question: How did you end up writing fertility insurance?
Answer: I had a friend who owned a surrogacy agency. She couldn’t find insurance. I was able to insure her business. The fertility industry is a very small world, and I have received the most of business by word of mouth.
Question: But it’s a global business?
Answer: Absolutely. I insure egg-donors, sperm banks, gestational carriers, physicians, agencies and hospitals. We have clients in United Arab Emirates, China, Hawaii, and the United Kingdom.
Answer: There’s a reproductive tourist industry there. Everybody just wants to go to Hawaii. It’s a nice location.
Question: There’s a need for insurance?
Answer: Just with any surgical procedure, there is a risk. You want to make sure that you have insurance in the event there is a catastrophic event. We insure egg donors and gestational carriers.
Question: But there’s no need to insure sperm, I suppose.
Answer: No. The Queen of Sperm is just what someone dubbed me. People giggle. They get it.
Question: And now you are pursuing micro-insurance?
Answer: It’s the same concept as micro-loans except it’s small insurance policies for micro-entrepreneurs in Third World countries.
Question: Is there much money in that?
Answer: It’s more or less philanthropic. Unlike your standard insurance policy, where the premiums are large, this is the opposite. It is based on volume. In the world of micro-insurance, you should not think you are going to make money on it, but rather you are going to change the way they view and purchase insurance globally. For the first two years, you hope to just break even. By 2020, the World Bank anticipates the industry will be $22 billion worldwide.
Question: After six years, Austin is home?
Answer: I love Austin. There’s an energy. It’s totally OK to create crazy ideas and you will find someone to support them. I don’t think I would be able to create the same life I have been able to carve out here in Austin and replicate it in Dallas or Houston.
Question: And the bike-and-wine tour?
Answer: I went on a tour in Sonoma and told the owner he should come to Austin. He said, ‘I’m not coming to Texas to deal with your yahoos and your bad wine. But I’ll give you the blueprint of how it’s done.’ So, I took his blueprint and the rest is history.