Nelle Vander Starr only intended to have a short visit in China with her nephew, Cornelius Vander Starr (known as “Neil”), the founder of an insurance agency there to which AIG traces its roots.
But the visit proved to be transformative for Aunt Nelle, who stayed in China for more than a decade, nurturing Neil’s nascent insurance ventures in the Far East. In fact, Nelle became the first woman executive in the company’s history.
Nelle’s niece, Marion Breen, recalled how her aunt came to be involved in the business. Neil’s father had died young, leaving his mother with three small sons. Aunt Nelle became a supportive fixture of their family.
In 1921, Neil invited his aunt to China for a visit, which in those days typically meant a year. “When you're going on a three weeks’ ship journey, well you might just as well stay for a while,” Breen recalled.
After successfully launching his first insurance business in China, Neil started another one. He asked Nelle, who had worked as an office manager in Chicago, to manage the office in Beijing (then called Peking).
Nelle ran a tight ship, according to Mansfield Freeman, who was in charge of the business there.
“I can remember fighting with her over expense accounts from travelling staff,” Freeman said. “If they said they had had any drinks, she would immediately cut that amount out of the reimbursement. The Chinese respected her, and she was a fine influence in the office.”
It proved to be a new and exciting chapter for Nelle. She remained in China for more than 10 years, with only a few brief trips back to the United States.
For much of her time in China, she worked in Shanghai, sharing an apartment with her nephew on the top floor of the North China Daily News Building. The eight-story building, which also housed the insurance offices, was the tallest building in the city at that time, but the Starrs’ apartment was fairly modest.
During those years, Nelle had many opportunities to live out her love for adventure, Breen said.
“Those days, you know, it was really something for a person—especially a single woman—to go off to a place as far away and remote as China,” Breen said.
It wasn’t uncommon for women to work at insurance companies at the time, but it was rare for one to hold a leadership position. Nelle rose through the ranks to become a vice president and director of the life insurance business. Indeed, she is regarded as one of the company’s pioneers demonstrating the hard work and values that made it successful.
In honor of Nelle’s accomplishments, a memorial fund in her name was planned to support women’s education. “I do think it is a great and beautiful tribute to Miss Vander Starr,” an employee wrote in a 1941 letter to Cornelius Vander Starr,“ and I am sure she would be pleased with this decision.”