Photo: Joel Maisonet
How did your upbringing influence your career choice?
My dad has a Ph.D. in economics, and my mom has a master’s degree in science education. They encouraged my siblings and me to excel in mathematics, because they believe mathematics is the foundation of all sciences. So, growing up, my dad used to make us solve math problems all the time. My dad even installed a giant chalkboard in one of our living rooms. I still remember spending hours solving math problems for fun on that chalkboard.
Math became a passion of mine at a very young age. Another amusing memory from when I was in elementary school was that I used to play with my younger sister and pretend I was the math teacher. She would sit down and listen to me teach her math. I am not sure if she enjoyed it then, but she eventually got a Ph.D. in statistics, so I think my lessons were somehow helpful!
The strong math foundation I had as a child greatly influenced my career choice. But that was not the only thing—I also loved business. I started my first popsicle business at age 10. I created the mix of water with syrup and sugar, and I had my siblings and cousins work for me for free to help me sell the popsicles in our neighborhood. My business skills were not sharp then, but I knew early on that I wanted to work with numbers in a business setting.
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Why and how did you become an advocate for diversity in STEM fields?
I was about 12 years old when I realized there was a diversity gap in STEM fields. I grew up in a predominantly black suburb of Paris. The schools in my neighborhood were known to always be on strike and had a poor level of STEM education. My parents, who were firm believers in STEM education, paid for my siblings and me to attend a private school in downtown Paris with a strong science track. We were some of the few black students in the school. By the time I got to high school, I was admitted into the science track, and I was the only black student on that track for three full years. The [demographic] statistics were not any different when I moved to Chicago for college to study actuarial science, or when I started working as an actuary. It seemed this was the norm—but I knew I would one day do something about it. It was clear to me that if my neighborhood friends had the same STEM career exposure, mentorship and opportunities I had, they would have succeeded in STEM fields.
In college, I was a champion for diversity as I tutored middle school students in math in Austin, a Chicago neighborhood traditionally underrepresented in STEM. Fast-forward to 2018, and I was leading multiple initiatives as an actuary at my company to recruit more black actuarial talent. I introduced the International Association of Black Actuaries (IABA) to actuarial leaders and recruiters, and I made sure we attended the IABA Annual Meeting both in 2018 and 2019. I also reached out to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with actuarial science programs to assess if we could partner with them. We decided to focus our efforts on Morgan State University due to the larger actuarial student pool. I also connected actuarial leaders with key partners in my company’s Diversity and Inclusion team, and we partnered with them at multiple STEM events targeted to public high school students in Chicago. Currently, I mentor high school and college students to encourage and inspire them to pursue careers in STEM, and I am very engaged as an advocate for diversity.
Who has inspired you in your career?
The people who have inspired me the most are those who have believed in me. That includes my parents, siblings, family, close friends, high school principal, university professors and mentors (both professional and personal).
I recall a time as a teenager when I wanted to drop out of high school. I think I was suffering from an identity issue (part of it was that I did not like being the only black woman in my class), so I wanted to attend one of my neighborhood schools instead. The principal called me to her office and, instead of scolding me, she encouraged me. She told me that I was very smart and that if I persevered and worked hard enough, I would be able to inspire others through my success. I never forgot the words she spoke to me. Even in my actuarial career, there were many times when I wanted to give up—especially due to the exam process—but the words of encouragement from those who believed in me echoed in my head, telling me to keep pushing and to press on. That is why I believe so strongly in mentorship, and that is why I am trying to be a mentor to other students.
What excites you about your job?
My current actuarial rotation at Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC) is within the Provider Data Science team. What excites me the most is that we are solving real problems, and I can clearly see the impact of my work. Currently, I am working with doctors to create an emergency room (ER) predictive model for accountable care organizations (ACOs) that will help them better manage the health of patients who are most likely to end up in the ER. Managing ER patients has been a real cost challenge for many provider groups, and my team is building a solution to help them. I use my knowledge of health insurance (learned through past actuarial rotations and exams), data analytics and now machine learning (ML) to build valuable tools for our customers. That is very exciting!
What innovative techniques make you look forward to changes in the actuarial profession?
I think it is important that actuaries learn the benefits of ML and familiarize themselves with the different types of ML models (supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning). ML is not for every use case, but when applied correctly, it has great predictive power due to its ability to more accurately learn from data compared to traditional actuarial models.
The Society of Actuaries (SOA) added a Predictive Analytics exam, which is a plus for actuarial students. An actuary colleague and I started an “Automation & Machine Learning” group at our company. We periodically invite employees to present on how they automate their work using tools such as Python, and share how they successfully built ML algorithms to solve health care problems. I look forward to seeing more actuaries use ML for their predictive work and tools such as Python to more effectively automate their work processes.
What would you say to encourage anyone interested in becoming an actuary?
Perseverance is an important virtue! Becoming an actuary requires a lot of perseverance, mostly due to the rigorous exam process. Nevertheless, looking back, with one exam left to get my fellowship, I can truly say it was all worth it. I learned so much through these exams, and they helped me build confidence as an analytical professional. I am not afraid to tackle some of the most challenging work problems because I keep telling myself that they cannot be harder than actuarial exams. So, if you are discouraged because you failed an exam, do not give up! Get up and try again! Learn from those who were able to pass successfully and restrategize.
I also think it is important to educate yourself about the different tracks an actuary can pursue. As a freshman in college, I read the entire beanactuary.org website. I took two actuarial exams my sophomore year and obtained an actuarial internship my junior year. During my time at DePaul University in Chicago, I founded the Actuarial Club and invited speakers from different companies, and I held actuarial study sessions. I was creating opportunities around me to ensure that I would secure a job and pass the exams.
I also attended actuarial conferences and events to network with professionals in the field, which provided me with opportunities to ask them a lot of questions. During my internship at Allstate Financial, I scheduled lunches with all of the actuarial directors in the company—no one rejected my invitation; they were all willing to give me professional advice.
Preparation was key for me, and I was determined to learn and get inspired. I encourage every actuarial student to reach out to actuaries. Do not be afraid to attend actuarial events and conferences, and network with other professionals. It will help you build your confidence and grow your communication skills, which helps tremendously when interviewing for jobs.
What attributes make a good leader?
There are many attributes that make a good leader, such as communication, confidence, commitment, accountability and creativity. But my top characteristics are integrity and the ability to inspire others.
Former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower once said, “The supreme quality of leadership is unquestionably integrity.” I think it is important—whether in the workplace or wherever one leads—that people can trust their leader’s judgment, actions and guidance. To me, integrity means that we act—even when no one is watching—the same way we tell others we are acting when they are not watching. This applies to an organization, as well. Do the employees feel the leaders are truly abiding by the corporate values, as marketed to external stakeholders? This is a critical question that addresses corporate integrity. It is important for good leaders to question the impact of their actions before making any critical decision, and to assess whether their decisions are aligned with the values of the organization.
Another important attribute of a good leader is the ability to inspire others. We all have been inspired by someone who took the time to mentor and invest in us. A good leader should inspire others to believe in themselves and in their ability to reach their own goals and aspirations and achieve excellence in all that they do. Great leaders make themselves available for others to learn from their experience and open doors of opportunity for others whenever they can.
What is your definition of success?
Success is the journey of the discovery of one’s purpose—as it aligns with one’s skills and interests—and the ability to take critical steps toward achieving that purpose.
Copyright © 2020 by the Society of Actuaries, Schaumburg, Illinois.