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By: Megan Nash

Ask most people working in risk management and insurance (RMI) how they found their way to the industry, and they’ll probably say something to the effect of “I just kind of fell into it.”

Soon, responses to that same question may be very different.

Early morning on March 20, the Country Club of Virginia welcomed nearly 100 RMI area employers, donors, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Business students and VCU Risk Management and Insurance Program advisory council members at the annual Spencer Educational Foundation Risk Manager on Campus breakfast.

After welcoming remarks from VCU Business’ Robert Taylor, executive director for the Risk Management and Insurance Program, and Interim Dean Brian Brown, Ph.D., attendees were primed for what Dean Brown described as “a real show” when introducing the keynote speaker – Danny Holtsclaw.

Working at Zoos, an Aquarium and for Conservation Programs in More than 50 Countries

Holtsclaw, who serves as the executive director of risk management and insurance at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, N.Y., has over 25 years of risk management experience in the non-profit sector specializing in emergency preparedness and crisis management. This morning, he describes the many responsibilities he has managing the organizational risks for a system of five wildlife parks in New York City (Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, and New York Aquarium) and wildlife conservation programs in more than 50 countries.

Holtsclaw’s risk management philosophy focuses on two key beliefs. The first, this is a job that requires dedication, and the second, the risk function is the office of KNOW and not NO:

“If you’re doing your job correctly, you should know more about the entire organization than everyone else in the organization,” said Holtsclaw.

As the scope of risk has changed in many organizations, Holtsclaw has had to pivot and change with that: “You get a lot of things that people never experience in risk management,” said Holtsclaw. “There’s always situations that can go sideways.”

The zoo and aquarium operations present some unique safety risks. “It is important for risk managers to gain a deeper understanding of organizational risks, especially as it relates to any unique aspects of workplace safety,” said Holtsclaw.

Having no zoo or aquarium experience when he joined WCS, Holtsclaw quickly found that “Trying to gain a better understanding of how keepers interact with the animals under their care was an important objective after joining WCS.” He enrolled in introductory and advanced courses in animal training techniques and safety and observed colleagues in the animal department working with certain species to help facilitate their care.

From a risk management standpoint, Holtsclaw made it a point to understand how animal teams use techniques to interact with the animals in a way that reduced animal stress and created safer engagements for the keepers. Holtsclaw explained, “I now make sure that our underwriters understand how animal training techniques can be a very effective loss control strategy.”

WCS Global Conservation Program staff work around the world helping protect the habitats for more than 40% of Earth’s biodiversity. These operations take place in some of the more remote areas of the world. Delivering a meaningful and professional duty of care to staff working in these areas requires careful planning and coordination.

Part of Holtsclaw’s risk management role with WCS is managing the response of the global crisis management team. Holtsclaw shared some of the challenges international organizations encounter when managing a crisis in remote environments. Holtsclaw shared, “Risk managers cannot rely on insurance alone for resolving these types of emergencies. We need to make sure the broadest possible insurance protection is in place and be able to manage the organization’s response to these emergencies, as insurance alone is not a solution.”

While occurrences like this are rare, Holtsclaw also highlighted various aspects of his role to provide insight to students in the audience how they factor in. He discussed essential components such as claims management, risk finance and accounting, emergency preparedness and workplace safety, demonstrating how each contributes to effective risk management and conservation practices.

As the role of a risk manager is less transactional, and far more about being able to look at the entire aggregation of risks and being able to make timely and effective decisions, risk management teams are challenged every day to find new solutions. Bringing his presentation to a close, Holtsclaw left the audience with a simple yet important message: “You can’t do this job in risk management if you don’t care.”

From classroom to the real world

The emergence of RMI programs has largely been driven by the job market in certain regions. VCU Business’ undergraduate Risk Management and Insurance Program is home to a nationally recognized program that prepares students for high-demand careers in risk management, financial services and other areas of the insurance industry.

“It can be tough to inspire college students to consider a career in risk management,” said Taylor. “Our partnership with the Spencer Educational Foundation and the Risk Manager on Campus Program gives a personal introduction to the industry and what it has to offer. We’re fortunate to have a speaker like Danny [Holtsclaw] who brings a wide range of experience and knowledge that will be helpful to our students.”

High-paying jobs in finance, consulting and investment banking can be quite appealing, and students may completely overlook what the risk and insurance sector has to offer, “We’re approaching talent in a new way,” shared Stephen Fier, associate professor of Risk Management and Insurance at VCU Business. “Our goal is to give students a career guide, not just help them find their first or next job. Sharing stories like Danny’s gives students a different view of what risk management and insurance can offer, showing them there’s more to it than they might think.”

Maggie Gill ‘24, a VCU Business student majoring in Finance with a concentration in Risk Management and Insurance, Economics minor, and recipient of the 2024 Davis Ratcliffe Award at the Risk Manager on Campus breakfast, shared her perspective on the presentation:

“Learning from Mr. Holtsclaw was enlightening. It reaffirmed the lessons my peers and I have been learning in the RMI program and demonstrates that risk management and insurance are much more than just financials and policies. Spending time alongside Mr. Holtsclaw and getting to hear these thrilling stories has confirmed for me how exciting this industry can be and makes me even more excited to enter the field and make a difference myself, similarly to how Mr. Holtsclaw has for so many. We are very lucky and grateful to Mr. Holtsclaw for sharing some of his time with us to share these insights.”

To learn more about VCU Business’ Risk Management and Insurance Program, visit their website or follow on LinkedIn.

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