Five Illinois State University graduates are among the young professionals “creating a brighter future for the US insurance industry,” according to an article published in Insurance Business America.

Vanessa Contreras ‘09, Doug Johnson ‘10, Lauren Melzer ‘08, Jon Perry ‘09 and Jake Timmins ‘11 were among 85 insurance professionals highlighted in the publication’s Rising Stars 2020 list comprised of leaders who were nominated by their peers and selected by a panel of industry advisors.

“These young professionals deserve all the credit for their personal and professional successes after putting in years of relentless hard work,” said Dr. Kevin Ahlgrim, chair of the Department of Finance, Insurance and Law. “It is with great pride to see recent and familiar faces being honored by their peers for their impact on the insurance industry and their respective organizations.”

Insurance Business America applauded the rising stars – “all 35 years old or younger and all making noteworthy contributions to their respective niches of the insurance world” – for bringing “fresh perspectives, leadership, energy and visions of change” to the industry.

As evidenced by the following biographical sketches, the alumni’s accomplishments reveal their commitment to success and excellence in the workplace:

  • Contreras works with professional lines at SCOR Reinsurance Company. She is a senior vice president and US deputy team leader. Formerly, she served on the board for Reinsurance Under 40s and currently is a member of the Association of Professional Insurance Women and the Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS).
  • Johnson is a senior vice president at Munich Re US. In his role as a property underwriting team lead, his duties include strategy development and execution, team training and working with a wide range of clients. When speaking of his job, he stresses the importance of proactive risk mitigation, making good on promises to clients and the value of collaborating with his team members to complete large goals.
  • Melzer is a senior manager with Gallagher’s national market relations team and manages its US branch programs. During her previous role as the director of technology insurance for The Hanover’s Midwest region, she co-founded the company’s Women’s Networking Group. She also received the Community Hero Award in recognition of her efforts with the Junior League of Kane and DuPage counties. 
  • Perry works at Beazley as an underwriter for the US executive risk team. He is also on the board of trustees for Gamma Iota Sigma and was the Katie School Young Leader in 2018 and Gamma Iota Sigma Alumnus of the Year. He has a passion for mentoring students and provides young talent with networking opportunities.
  • Timmins is a senior vice president at RT Specialty. He established his own property team in 2018. That first year, the team wrote more than $14 million in premium. He expects to have nearly $50 million in premium in his book by the end of 2020.

In addition to their hard work in the classroom, all of these Redbirds made campus involvement in co-curricular activities a priority during their time at ISU, and each of them was actively engaged in the Katie School of Insurance and Risk Management and the College of Business’ chapter of the registered student organization (RSO) Gamma Iota Sigma.

“They are tremendous role models for our students by taking their experiences while at the Katie School along with their strong work ethic, a passion for the industry and a desire to excel to propel them into their careers with the tools for advancement,” observed Debbie Babcock, associate director of the Katie School. “As students, they were involved in many personal growth opportunities, including intensive industry engagement, professional development tutelage and community service involvement. They were well prepared for leadership roles in their organizations.”

Ahlgrim added that the alumni continue to be “generous with their time” and “recognize their roots at Illinois State and the Katie School.”

“They pay it forward through active participation in the Risk Management and Insurance program and the RSO Gamma Iota Sigma, whether it be through class presentations, panel discussions or participation in campus activities that continue to develop new generations of students,” he continued.

Jim Jones, executive director of the Katie School, sees the recognition of the Redbird rising stars as evidence of the high caliber of talent graduating from the ISU program.

“We are not the largest program,” he observed, “but our approach of focusing on industry engagement has been successful both in helping to attract talent, develop them while they are here and provide (them) with the networking opportunities and skills to successfully navigate their career.”

Describing how industry executives come to campus to present workshops and interact with students, Jones explained how these visits help students to grow their networks and become more comfortable speaking with people in the higher echelons of corporate leadership.

“They have a big network,” he said of students involved in the Katie School. ”That’s one critical thing to anybody that is going into a leadership role because that network enables you two things. It enables you the opportunity to see a broader picture than what you would just get in your own narrow role in your job, and it also enables you to see opportunities that may exist where you can navigate in your career. If you look at those rising stars, many of them have done that; they have navigated around to different roles.”

Additionally, the Katie School places a strong emphasis on professional development and seeks to equip students with the traits people in the industry are looking for in new hires.

“They do want people who can work collaboratively … (and) have the ability to listen to others and understand the needs of others and then figure out how they can meet those needs,” said Jones.

Networking, communication and the ability to motivate others toward a shared goal are also important. To help develop this skillset, students can complete a Certificate in Leadership and Business Acumen that challenges them to deep dive into a technical aspect of risk management or insurance, develop a big picture perspective of the industry and hone their soft skills.

Babcock pointed out the Katie School also organizes a mentorship program with alumni to give students industry connections and help them “make an easy transition from the classroom to the workplace.”

Jones also noted that the ISU Rising Stars all held “significant leadership roles” in Gamma Iota Sigma during their time in the COB and described how the experience “provided them with the stem cells of leadership that could be activated once they entered the industry.”

Gamma Iota Sigma continues to give current students a strong foundation that prepares them for their future careers. During a typical semester the RSO holds 40 events, and even during this fall’s virtual format, it hosted almost 30 activities, including speaker panels, workshops and outdoor community service activities, such as gardening, community cleanups and aiding a food bank.

To view the Rising Stars article in Insurance Business America, visit