Growing up in Ghana, Stephen Abrokwah, Ph.D., FSA, CERA, MAAA, had a natural inclination toward quantitative subjects. When he graduated from the University of Ghana with a double major in economics and statistics, he had three plausible career paths: He could become an accountant, economist or actuary. He chose accounting, partly because he already had a good offer to join PwC, one of the most recognized accounting firms.
But after one year on the accounting path, he felt something wasn’t quite right and reevaluated his career choice. In 2009, at age 24, Abrokwah uprooted himself from his homeland to pursue a Ph.D. in economics in the United States. At the time, he already had passed two Society of Actuaries (SOA) exams. But with fewer than five credentialed actuaries in Ghana at the time, he didn’t have a clear path of what pursuing the actuarial profession could look like.
Today, Abrokwah is senior vice president, key account manager, at Swiss Re; on the board of directors at the International Association of Black Actuaries (IABA); and an advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). In this interview, Abrokwah shares what his career journey has been like so far.
You completed a Ph.D. in economics before becoming an actuary. What inspired you to join the actuarial profession?
I first discovered the actuarial profession during a summer internship while in college, and I went on to pass two SOA exams before I graduated from college. At the time, there were fewer than five credentialed actuaries living and practicing in Ghana and very limited actuarial opportunities since the profession in Ghana was still in its infancy.
Once I decided to turn away from accounting and pursue my dream of becoming an actuary and economist, it became obvious that I needed to relocate to an advanced economy to further my studies. I needed to gain international experience with actuarial science and insight into how the global economy operates and is interconnected on both micro and macro levels.
What does DEI mean to you?
As a Black actuary who is part of the 2% (percentage of credentialed actuaries in the United States who are Black), I personally have felt the pressure that comes with being the only or one of few and having to represent other Black actuaries at various forums and industry events.
It is evident, however, that the sense of belonging and acceptance—but also of loneliness and rejection—are human experiences we all share, which in my view establishes the business case for DEI and why everyone should care about the topic. The desire to create a diverse, inclusive and equitable environment where everyone—especially the next generation of minority talent (Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc.)—not only exists, but also thrives, is what inspires me to volunteer my time in this area.
The business case for increased representation (diversity) at all organizational levels and creating an inclusive culture and equitable workplace is supported by many empirical studies that have presented evidence of improved outcomes when DEI is thriving. For example, a report from the International Labor Organization showed that companies that are more diverse and have inclusive cultures see about a 60% increase in innovation.
In your experience, what are the key ingredients in implementing a successful DEI strategy?
Three key ingredients come to mind:
- Ensuring all key stakeholders understand and embrace the why behind the commitment to the vision
- Establishing and supporting mentoring and sponsorship programs
- Setting specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound (SMART) goals that are actively monitored over time
You are currently the vice president and a member of the board of directors of the IABA. Why is that organization important to you?
I joined the IABA board of directors in 2017 and more recently was elected as the vice president, but I have volunteered with the organization for more than a decade now. My primary reasons for choosing to be an active volunteer were to help IABA advance its core mission of increasing the number of successful Black actuaries through strategic programs and partnerships that address underrepresentation in our profession and to give back to an organization that has invested in me. I feel the responsibility to pay it forward, to help lay the groundwork for the next generation of Black actuaries and to ensure attention is given to developing a diverse pipeline of actuarial talent.
A new dimension of IABA’s focus areas is to not only work on increasing the total percentage of Black actuaries in the actuarial profession, but also their representation across all levels of an organization—especially from middle management to senior leadership (including executive level roles). The number of Black actuaries at various levels of the organization gets significantly lower the higher you go in the organizational structure, so IABA leadership has an ongoing dialogue with our key stakeholders (e.g., the SOA, Casualty Actuarial Society [CAS] and Corporate Advisory Council) to work on addressing the existing gaps.
Have you had mentors and sponsors in your career? What has your experience with them been like?
I have had the privilege of working with several mentors and sponsors over the years, and their guidance and support has been instrumental in many of my personal and professional successes.
To distinguish between the two, I would describe a mentor as someone who talks with you by sharing their knowledge and providing guidance from their past experiences. A sponsor, on the other hand, is someone who talks about you, especially in rooms where you are not, is in a position of influence and usually not your boss. While they both have an objective to advance your career, each one approaches it differently.
After discovering the different roles mentors and sponsors play, I decided to build my own personal “board of directors” made up of a sponsor and several mentors for different topics and areas. An example of an area with which one of my mentors has helped me over the years is how to develop and execute successfully on a strategy—he shared his experiences and various case studies to provide context. Another one of my mentoring relationships developed organically into a sponsorship relationship when it became clear that this mentor was also an advocate for me and had begun introducing me to broader networks within the organization. This has helped widen my network across my organization and positively affected the work I do.
In addition to doing good work, these mentor and sponsor roles are key in career development. I encourage everyone to foster these relationships and leverage them strategically.
What kind of advice do you give to a mentee?
My primary advice is to work on developing yourself—on the technical side, but even more importantly on the soft skills. Once you have earned trust and consistently proven your value, your progress and advancement will be a natural result.
Whether you want more recognition, money or the big promotion, the point to remember is to continually work on developing yourself since that’s what attracts opportunities. This type of growth mindset will evolve your personal brand and capacity, which I have learned is a huge asset to any organization or team. Choosing to invest in personal development and being committed to evolving and improving your skill set naturally attracts new opportunities, some of which you never would have imagined. Opportunities come to those who have spent the time and put in the work.
What makes a good leader in your view, and how have the leadership qualities for a good leader evolved in recent years?
Good leadership is key to transforming any organization. I describe it as the ability to bring passion, purpose and performance to work in a manner that inspires action from your team. A good leader is one who can articulate a clear vision and can adapt dynamically to any environment to empower their team to win.
Nelson Mandela has always been a role model to me. He was purpose driven and led from his why—he saw the big picture and passionately focused on goals beyond himself. He led with compassion, and he sacrificed for his people.
It is important to note that leadership is not necessarily about titles. Many times, people miss this point and think that they need the title to be able to influence or lead, and that is a mistake. In fact, it’s those who demonstrate leadership and already are living it who eventually receive the title. Everyone is a leader in some respect (e.g., leader of their own life, household, etc.), and it’s therefore important for every organization to encourage the concept of “leadership from every seat.”
In recent years, I have seen many leaders focus on the area of emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy. These are aspects of leadership that desperately have been needed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which tested people’s personal resilience, mental health and work/life balance. Most people took the time to pause and reflect on the essence of life, and the response of leaders who showed empathy and support for their employees’ well-being helped ground most of their workforce, especially in a season of an ongoing, massive war for talent.
You work for a reinsurer, so you can see the macro-industry view. What are some of the recent trends, opportunities and challenges the life insurance industry faces today?
There is never a dull moment in the life insurance industry, especially with the influence of different external forces. A few trends worth highlighting are the ongoing COVID-19 impacts on mortality business, the war for talent, the impact of movements in the macroeconomic environment (interest rate swings and inflation) and regulatory changes (e.g., with respect to fairness in the use of data for protected classes).
Some of these trends presents opportunities, while others bring challenges. Here are a few highlights:
- COVID-19 pandemic: While the pandemic led to devastating outcomes of the loss of lives (more than 1 million deaths in the United States) and poor business results due to elevation in mortality experience for the life industry, it also created increased awareness of the need for life insurance (evidenced by LIMRA data) and an opportunity for the industry to dive into new risk pools within the middle market (e.g., underserved communities) to help make life insurance more available, accessible and affordable in the bid to close the mortality protection gap.
- War on talent: The Great Resignation phenomenon has created a big gap in the workforce, with companies scrambling to find top talent. In 2021 alone, about 48 million people quit their jobs in the United States, and 44% of the workforce is looking for new jobs, according to Willis Towers Watson’s 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes survey. Within the life insurance industry, many functional areas have been affected, but underwriting seems to top them all.
- Regulatory changes: Of the regulatory topics that are unfolding, the topic of fairness in the use of data and algorithms for risk selection—especially for protected classes—is one of the most prominent in my view. The topic has taken center stage and is likely to remain a headline. An increasing number of state regulators and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) have turned their attention to insurers’ and reinsurers’ use of new data sources and big data and artificial intelligence (AI) in underwriting, with a renewed and intensified aim of preventing unfair discrimination against protected classes of Americans. Various data sources like credit, five-digit ZIP code location data and driving records have been a few examples of input data that have been under scrutiny.
- Macroeconomic environment: After a protracted low interest rate environment, the new regime of Fed rate actions (rising interest rates) could lead to policy surrenders, especially on permanent products due to higher potential yields on other savings vehicles offered in the market. Additionally, due to rising inflation, insurers could be adversely affected with higher operating and labor costs if new products require higher upfront commission and administrative expenses, which could impact their earnings.
Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.
Copyright © 2022 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.