Lifelong Chicago resident Char Schoenbach began her career in sales and worked for two insurance agents before opening her own Allstate agency 31 year ago.
"I have always believed in providing all people with quality insurance," said Schoenbach. "I wanted to be an insurance agent for a name brand, high quality insurance company. I reached out to Allstate and went on several interviews because back in those days it was most often a male career. When I grew up, people used to say 'the insurance man is coming' so I knew it was not going to be an easy task but, in fact, Allstate did hire me."
Schoenbach opened her agency in September 1989 in Edgewater, and stayed there for four years, telling Windy City Times that, almost immediately, she got calls from gay men living in what was then called Boystown (recently renamed Northalsted) who saw her ads in the Pink Pages and many other LGBTQ+ publications. They were looking for insurance and found that Schoenbach's agency appeared to be the only LGBTQ+-friendly agency in that part of Chicago at the time.
"In the early 1990s, there were no insurance agents in Boystown and I felt that this was where I should be," said Schoenbach. "So I moved to Halsted Street because I saw an opportunity to serve an underserved community. Back then, gay couples would call and say they wanted to buy insurance but they were timid. They would say 'would you be interested in helping me and my partner get insurance because we want to buy a house?' I dug into why many sounded that way and I learned that they were turned down by other local insurance agents because these agencies did not want gay customers. As I learned that, I wanted to be the welcoming door in the gay community for insurance.
"I am happy that I helped many gay and lesbian couples have a wonderful experience. They could come in my office, feel comfortable and openly discuss what they needed. I gave them professional advice based on what the laws were at the time. This was long before civil unions and gay marriage were legalized."
When asked what it means to be one of the first insurance agents in Chicago from a brand corporation who welcomed LGBTQ+ people and gay/lesbian couples to her agency, Schoenbach said "it feels amazing. I paved the way as time went on for more inclusion. I am so proud of that."
Schoenbach fully immersed herself in the Northalsted community. This included becoming a member of the Northalsted Business Alliance and the LGBT Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, having a booth right in front of her office during Northalsted Market Days for almost two decades and becoming the first insurance agency to participate in Chicago's Pride Parade in 2005 and the ensuing years.
"In 2004, I began knocking on the doors of our corporate offices about participating in the Chicago Pride Parade," said Schoenbach. "I showed them numbers and demographics and had people from corporate drive down to see the growth in Lake View/Boystown. I was able to get a bus through our marketing division and it was decorated by the LGBT employee's organization, and eventually Allstate had its own float.
"When some Allstate executives started marching in the parade in 2005 with that first bus, they were surprised by the many thousands of people who were out watching the parade. I think that is how I sold the whole concept of being a part of the community to our corporate leaders."
Additionally, Schoenbach worked with Allstate's marketing team to produce brochures exclusively for the LGBTQ+ community. Her goal was to be a "full resource center for my neighborhood."
Examples of the brochures were a lesbian couple holding their baby with life insurance in mind and a gay couple showcasing their possessions that focused on renters insurance.
"I was a pioneer in marketing that was focused on the [LGBTQ+] community," said Schoenbach. "I assured Allstate management based on my success, that this was a good business decision. They believed in me and saw my proven results and realized there was an untapped market that needed insurance. Until a few years ago, I was the only insurance agent with a booth at Market Days. I wanted to pave the way for the future."
By 2013, Schoenbach's agency was so involved with the LGBTQ+ community it led to Allstate creating an marketing department for that demographic. Schoenbach said she is "mostly responsible" for this development in the Chicago area.
Due to Schoenbach's business acumen her name has become very well-known in Chicago's LGBT community. Through the Allstate Foundation grant program for non-profit organizations, Schoenbach chose to give her grant money allocation to the Night Ministry, with a focus on The Crib shelter for 18-24 year olds. Each year, Schoenbach and other agent friends volunteered their time at The Crib. She was able to increase the amount of money donated to The Night Ministry by having those friends participate. Schoenbach said "this was just awesome."
"One of the greatest joys of going back to The Crib annually was seeing what The Night Ministry bought with the grant money they got the previous year," said Schoenbach. "This included desks, beds and other necessary things. I also attended their meetings and galas. It was so wonderful and rewarding to be a part of their organization."
Now Schoenbach is embarking on what she calls the next chapter of her life. She recently sold her agency to lifelong Lake View resident Steve Rosenberg. A lesbian couple Schoenbach hired many years ago has been retained by Rosenberg.
"I am sure customers will appreciate the continuity at the agency," said Schoenbach.
Selling the agency was a hard decision for Schoenbach, however, after over three decades she wanted to be able to enjoy her time more fully.
"I am thrilled to take over the successful agency Char built over the past 31 years and also serve the community I grew up in," said Rosenberg.
Schoenbach will be taking the next couple of months off to consider her next steps. She knows that the future has to include helping people.
"Do not be surprised if you see my name popping up somewhere," said Schoebach.