Expanding Your Comfort Zone

A conversation with Jason Zwanch, FSA, MAAA, managing director at Ernst & Young LLP Interview by Jing Lang

Photo: Sammi Marie Photography

“Where’s Jason?” Twenty minutes after a company-sponsored Diwali celebration was due to start, the organizer, dressed in an embroidered golden sari, was frantically looking for Jason Zwanch, then chief pricing officer for a digital InsurTech. Normally, one would not think a White male could hold up a celebration of the Hindu festival of lights, but in this case, unbeknown to most of those involved, his role was pivotal.

Along the side of the event space, people were lining up for vegetable samosas and tandoori chicken wings. Someone brought jugs of heavy milk and mango puree from home to blend mango lassi on the spot. A DJ played Bollywood tunes in the background. For days leading up to the event, employees of Indian heritage had been hauling their wardrobes from home to the office, turning the space into a sea of color. Everyone—Indian or not—was encouraged to change into traditional clothing for the celebration.

When Jason finally arrived in a gray Nehru jacket, apologetically explaining that a call ran late, he stood center stage among six women dressed in a rainbow of saris—one of a seven-person dance troupe that would perform during the celebration. Samosas and chicken wings in hand, people beamed at this development with intrigue and amusement. (If you’re curious, you can watch the performance.)

In this interview, Jason (forgoing a plausible career as a Bollywood dancer?) shares insights into his actuarial journey, which has led him to his current role as managing director with Ernst & Young LLP (EY US).

Tell us about your actuarial career in 30 seconds.

I first heard about what an actuary does in college. I liked math and business, and pursuing an actuarial career seemed like a rewarding path. I started my career in a traditional actuarial role for an insurance carrier doing financial modeling. I eventually moved to product and pricing, which gave me a strong technical foundation.

My intellectual curiosity drew me to roles that continued to diversify my skills: focusing on international product development; leading mergers and acquisition (M&A) teams; overseeing pricing of life and health products; leading business units; joining an insurance startup to build the product, pricing and underwriting area from scratch; and now consulting. Over time, leveraging my skill set and curiosity has enabled me to grow and expand my comfort zone, which has led me to where I am today at EY US.

You completed an MBA at New York University’s Stern School of Business on weekends while working full time as an actuary. What led you to take on an MBA, and what is one valuable lesson you’ve learned from that experience?

I decided to pursue an MBA just after finishing my actuarial exams. My actuarial work and attaining my FSA gave me a strong technical foundation, and I did the MBA to further my professional growth and develop a broader and more well-rounded business perspective.

Through my MBA, I gained many valuable lessons, but there are two that have stuck with me.

  1. Time management—initially, it was a struggle to balance my personal life, a full-time job and classes on the weekend, but this led me to be much more intentional about how I spend my time. Specifically, being focused and intentional about goals and what I accomplish is important not only in my personal life but also in business.
  2. My MBA gave me insights into the broader aspects of how to build and run a business across different industries. This has been helpful, particularly with my focus on product and pricing, as it shows me how the work I do fits into the broader picture. Whether it’s marketing and distribution or the downstream financial impacts, these are all important for building a product or business.

You have had a lot of international exposure throughout your career. How has that shaped you as a professional?

I’ve been fortunate and have enjoyed opportunities to work internationally throughout my career. I oversaw international life pricing across South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, and in another role, I was the interim chief underwriting officer globally. These experiences taught me about the global industry and the many differences among geographies. Whether it was going to China and developing a product through a partnership with a local Chinese carrier, multiple trips to South America to support the growth of that business through partnerships with retail stores and telecommunications companies, or some of the more comprehensive products we developed in Japan and Korea, working internationally shaped how I approach problem-solving and developing insurance products. It brought out my creative side, as the products developed were meant to meet the needs of the individuals in those markets.

It also pushed me to understand the need for insurance products and how they fit into social, government and regulatory frameworks. Ultimately, products must meet the needs of the people who buy them, so it is important to better understand the full landscape.

Lastly, through these experiences, I became more comfortable making decisions with imperfect information. For example, mortality statistics are evolving rapidly or based on unreliable sources in developing markets, so building products based on the available information and realizing the risks associated is something that I’ve gained more comfort with.

Beyond the professional benefits, my international experiences have also aligned with my personal interests. My wife and I are passionate travelers who have explored the globe, whether learning about ancient history in Peru or hiking in the Himalayas. Through my work, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit incredible places and experience new cultures. My international exposure has been a formative experience that has shaped me personally and professionally.

Would you say the insurance business is more transaction-driven or relationship-driven, and why?

I would 100% say insurance is more driven by relationships. This goes not only for the insurance business but for any business. One of the things I’ve learned and observed in working globally and in the United States is the importance of trust, and trust is gained through building relationships. Successful teams and relationships are built on trust. That’s true whether I’ve been working with my actuarial team in the United States or a distribution partner halfway around the world. Particularly in our industry where we sell a promise, trust is so important to our end customers and distributors—especially in the consulting arena.

EY US has a strong presence in the actuarial and auditing spaces but is less known in the products space. As a managing director looking to build a product practice, what are the thrills and challenges of this task?

It’s not the first time I’ve joined a startup area, as I also had the opportunity with two prior carriers. Doing so presents both thrills and challenges. It’s great to shape the products and offerings and take part in the building of a new venture. You have white space and few limitations. The challenge is remaining focused, gaining a deep understanding of the customer’s problem and taking a systematic approach to test and learn to ultimately find a product-market fit. That’s the goal for any new venture.

I’ve enjoyed the EY team with whom I work and the breadth of experience we bring to our clients. We offer a large actuarial practice across actuarial transformation, modeling, financial reporting, experience studies, transaction support, reinsurance and product. I’ve been focused on helping carriers develop, price and bring insurance products to market faster and more successfully. That can mean more innovative products or more efficient processes and a better customer experience.

We see an opportunity to help carriers in the accelerated underwriting space. With the move toward fast turnaround times in underwriting and the use of various health data sources, such as medical claims data and electronic health records, there is a big transition in how carriers are designing their products and new business processes that we can support. EY US also has invested in technology, operations, underwriting and data analytics capabilities that offer a wealth of knowledge and industry experience.

Who, if anyone, do you model yourself after?

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work with many brilliant people who have influenced my approach as a leader, but none have been as impactful as my father. He is a machine trades instructor and one of the hardest-working individuals I have ever known. Despite long hours, he always took the time to be involved in my life and activities. This taught me the importance of leading by example and putting in the necessary work while also recognizing the value of family in my life.

How has running refined your identity as a professional?

I’ve always been into staying active and playing sports, and in the last 15 years, I have focused on running. There are a lot of parallels in running to my professional career. When you go for a run, sometimes you feel great and sometimes it’s a struggle. Regardless of how you feel, you just need to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. There will be obstacles and challenges, but perseverance and grit help pull you through. It’s no different than a few projects or challenges I’ve faced in my career. It may be daunting or difficult, but you must keep forward momentum, trust your preparation and get support when needed from the team around you.

What does success and fulfillment mean to you?

This is something I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about over the past several years, particularly with our move to Florida (my wife and I moved from New York to Miami coming out of COVID-19). For me, success and fulfillment mean being able to work on challenging and difficult problems that allow me to continually learn and help make the world a better place. That’s one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed my time working as an actuary so much. Every day I get to work on difficult problems that contribute to the betterment of society. There is so much change going on in the life, health and annuity spaces right now, with data reducing underwriting times, regulatory changes, inflation and an unprecedented transfer of wealth. There is an opportunity for me to contribute to solutions that help people in their everyday lives. That’s what gets me up every day.

As a leader, what is most important to you?

To me, the most important aspect of being a leader is to focus on the success and well-being of the team. A manager told me early in my career, “You are only as successful as the people you put around you, so make sure you have a strong team and treat them well so that they want to continue working with you.” I see my role as a leader to set a clear vision, provide the necessary resources and support, remove obstacles and empower team members to achieve goals. I also find that focusing on the relationship with my team leads to a more collaborative approach and fosters an environment where team members feel empowered to share ideas and make the collective effort bigger and better.

What’s also important to me is to always follow through with my commitment. Funny story, the real reason why I was part of the Diwali dance troupe was that I said yes to the event organizer without knowing what I said yes to. It was not until I was pulled into the rehearsal that I realized what I’d gotten myself into. Well, I was not going to back out!

Jason Zwanch, FSA, MAAA, is a managing director at Ernst & Young LLP. He is based in Miami, Florida.
Jing Lang, FSA, FCIA, FLMI, MAAA, is vice president, product and pricing, at Insurance Supermarket Inc. She is also a contributing editor for The Actuary.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.

Copyright © 2023 by the Society of Actuaries, Chicago, Illinois.