Take DEI to Heart

An actuary examines her experience with diversity, equity and inclusion in the actuarial profession Rolande Mbatchou Odeniyi

Photo: iStock.com/Julia Garan

I spent several hours meditating on how to properly frame the words to share my experience with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) over the past 13 years in the actuarial world. I am aware my experience is personal and may be different than that of other actuarial students and actuaries, and I also have perceived over the years that the topic of DEI is one that sometimes makes people uncomfortable.

For the past two years, I have organized DEI sessions with my team at work. Before starting our last session, I instructed everyone to take a deep breath to relax. I wanted them to go into our discussion with an open mind and an open heart. My goal was not to point fingers, but to bring light to a topic that could no longer be ignored and start a much-needed discussion to bring about positive changes in the workplace. As I write this article, my aim is the same: to have everyone relax and read with an open mind and heart.

My DEI Actuarial Student Experience

I grew up in a melting pot of cultures in Marseille and Paris, France. In fact, the neighborhoods where I have lived have always been diverse and have enabled me to become familiar with a wide range of cultures, traditions and languages. My move to Chicago also contributed to enriching my perspective on diversity, as I attended a culturally rich and ethnically diverse school: DePaul University.

Since childhood, I have been privileged to be surrounded by people with different backgrounds who have graciously shared their experiences with me. It has made it easy for me to relate to the concept of diversity, because diversity has become a part of me.

So, you can imagine the cultural shock when I entered the actuarial world. Why was I always the only Black actuarial woman in the classroom or in the workplace? Where was the representation I experienced in the communities in which I lived or interacted with daily? Why have I not had the privilege of working with another Black actuary to date? I believe the answers to these questions are not easy ones to tackle or solve, as they are rooted in decades of systematic issues that have perpetuated this problem.

On a positive note, I must highlight and appreciate the fact that my classmates, professors, mentors and colleagues have, for the most part, celebrated and encouraged me as a Black actuary. They set an atmosphere for success, without which I most likely would have abandoned my career as an actuary. Yet, I never told them I felt lonely and intimidated. I never told them I had a fear, despite being at the top of my classes, that I may not be good enough to be an actuary. I always felt I had to work harder to prove myself. I never told them it has been an uncomfortable journey for me to be (most of the time) the only Black actuary in the room.

That is why representation is everything! I recall the first time I attended the International Association of Black Actuaries (IABA) annual meeting in 2008 in Washington, D.C. I will never forget this event and its impact on my career path as an actuary. The IABA award dinner, where I saw everyone in the room cheering for the Black men and women who had become fellows of the Society of Actuaries (SOA), was like a dream to me. Why? Because I saw myself in them! Until that time, I probably had the brain power and grades to reach that level, but I lacked the inspiration. That night at the IABA award dinner changed everything for me. It no longer felt impossible to become a fellow actuary.

As I write this article, I have passed all of my fellowship exams and am completing the fellowship modules I have left. I know I will soon become a fellow, like these men and women who have inspired me over the years. I cannot thank IABA enough for igniting this dream.

My DEI Actuarial Mentor Experience

We often assume actuarial students seeking mentorship need academic help; but I think all they need is to be guided, inspired and encouraged. I have mentored actuarial students since my college years, and I have never had to tutor any of them. I truly believe they never needed me to pass the actuarial exams; they only needed someone to show them the way.

One time, a student I mentor reached out to me in haste for a mock interview. He had been interviewing for weeks but had not received any job offers, and it seemed like he was starting to have doubts about his interviewing skills. I was quite surprised because I knew he was a stellar actuarial student with an excellent track record of exams and experience. He shared with me, prior to our phone call, that an actuary had made a negative comment about his accent during his previous interview. The actuary told him they had a hard time understanding him, and he ended up not proceeding with his application.

So, prior to our mock interview and first catch-up call, I expected to hear a very strong accent—but I did not! On the contrary, I was quite surprised he had received negative feedback, because this actuarial student was very articulate. I encouraged him and told him that there was nothing wrong with his accent and that I did not think it was appropriate for anyone to discourage him because of it. I told him to stand tall and not to be afraid to speak.

He contacted me a couple of days later to tell me he received two full-time actuarial job offers. I knew his accent was not a problem. I did not tell him this, but I was upset that he had been discouraged by being culturally different. The problem was not with him, and I personally felt the actuary who had interviewed him lacked exposure.

As I share in my DEI sessions with my team, to make our workplace more inclusive, we must intentionally expose ourselves to cultures and people from a variety of backgrounds. It is up to us, not them, to adapt. We are by nature more likely to prefer people who share the same experiences as us, but it does not have to be the norm. In fact, if these biases are not addressed, they will constrain DEI efforts in recruiting and within organizations. I am confident that encouraging actuaries to mentor students from underrepresented groups will help break many unknown biases. I also encourage actuaries to attend and support events organized by IABA, the Organization of Latino Actuaries (OLA) or any other organization that celebrates DEI.

My DEI Actuarial Recruiting Experience

The key to meaningful and long-lasting DEI efforts starts with companies putting their money and actions where their mouth is. This is not just a one-time investment in DEI, but a true commitment until its purpose is fulfilled.

Over the past several years, I have led DEI strategy meetings as part of actuarial recruiting efforts. I was able to get representatives in actuarial leadership, human resources (HR) and the Diversity & Inclusion team to attend these meetings. The goal was to share the different ways we could get involved with DEI and formulate an action plan to bring more diverse actuaries into our organization. Prior to these meetings, I would connect with actuaries involved in DEI activities and contact actuarial professors to understand ways our organization could participate in what they were doing. These meetings were somewhat successful, as we were able to get some funding for outreach to help us build a more diverse talent pipeline.

Through our initial DEI efforts, I quickly realized the pipeline of actuarial students from underrepresented groups was very small because the opportunities to learn about, enter and remain in the actuarial profession were not equitable. In fact, we had to adapt our recruiting efforts (from interviewing to mentoring) at one school because we realized the students needed more mentoring and training to secure an actuarial job.

There are many socioeconomic factors that are not accounted for in actuarial recruiting, which contribute to a disproportionate representation in the profession. Nonetheless, are actuarial departments willing to commit to making long-lasting changes in DEI, or are they looking for a quick fix? I believe there is a need for outreach and mentoring of students as early as middle school if we truly are going to see the pipeline of actuarial students from underrepresented groups significantly increase in the next two decades. The best starting point to closing the DEI gap is for actuarial departments to establish an official DEI committee to assess where efforts must start.

I had an honest conversation with an experienced actuarial recruiter who knows my passion for advancing DEI in the actuarial profession. She told me with all seriousness: “Rolande, you want to change the world, but corporate America is not the place to do that.” I received her remarks with grace, because I knew it came from years of frustration trying to enact changes that seem, to her, to be “in vain.”

Some of us have felt this same frustration, but I want to encourage you that change is happening. The world is awakening to the need to take DEI to heart, and systematic changes are taking place that will make DEI goals easier to reach than before. It is now up to us as individual actuaries and leaders to educate ourselves about DEI and rise up to make our own contributions.

Rolande S. Mbatchou Odeniyi, ASA, MAAA, is managing actuary, Provider & Network Data Science, at Health Care Service Corporation. She is also a contributing editor for The Actuary.

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