Ailen Okharedia - Director of Actuarial Services, PwC

Ailen Okharedia - Director of Actuarial Services, PwC

How long have you worked as an actuary?

I’ve been working as an actuary for fifteen years. I can’t believe its been 15 years already. It feels like I only started my professional career yesterday.

Which markets have you worked in as an actuary?

I’ve worked in the South African market, other parts of Africa, and the United States. The bulk of my experience has been in the life insurance space but I have done general insurance work as well as pensions work in the past.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

Never having to diet and exercise and still maintain a low body fat percentage! 

What do you see as key characteristics of innovative actuaries?

There’s a saying that goes, ‘an actuary that’s only an actuary isn’t an actuary.’ I think that statement is really true for any actuary that wants to be perceived as an innovative actuary. You need to have a broad enough perspective, and be able to take learnings and principles from other fields of study and bring them to life in a way that’s relevant within an actuarial context. 

That broad perspective is really important because problems which require innovative solutions are often not actuarial only problems. They are problems which require skillsets from multiple teams and disciplines, from multiple areas of practice, etc. So if you try and be innovative by just looking for actuarial solutions for problems which require more than that, you’re not going to get the desired outcome. You must be a good actuary, but you must also be more than that. 

What factors do you believe influence the impact actuaries can have within their organizations?

It boils down to how an organization thinks of its actuaries. It’s a mindset. If an organization thinks of its actuaries as “human calculators”, then that’s what they’re going to get. They’re going to be very limited in terms of the value they can get out of their actuaries because they just see them as basically a cost center with “human calculators”. 

The biggest potential limitation, therefore, is how the organization views their actuaries. Do they see them as business leaders? Problem solvers? I think the onus is on us as actuaries to rebrand ourselves a little bit and show that we are more than a “human calculator”. We bring a lot more to the table than our mathematical abilities. It’s an important part of what we bring, but the kind of challenges we need to help organizations solve are not just mathematical.

What are some key ways you see the actuarial profession evolving in the next few years?

I think the biggest one is the profession challenging itself to get involved in areas where is hasn’t before. We have actuaries who are doing a lot in banking, where ten or twenty years ago actuaries didn’t do that much. We have actuaries getting involved in climate risk modeling, broader risk management solutions outside of insurance, things like that. 

I think challenging ourselves to move outside of the traditional actuarial role, that’s a great evolution that’s happening in the profession right now. 

Despite there being significant collaborative potential between data science and actuarial science, the two expert fields don’t always mesh in insurance. How do you believe they can work together more successfully?

Many people say that actuaries were the original data scientists. Actuaries have been working with data and analyzing data since the beginning of the profession. Understanding trends, developing assumptions for the future, predicting what will happen; we were the original data scientists. 

That being said, I think we missed out on an opportunity to adopt many of the techniques that data scientists are now bringing to the table. We could probably have adopted many of those techniques into our work, but we didn’t. At the same time, I don’t think actuaries should try and position themselves as data scientists. We should be positioned as business leaders with a strong data science background. Data science should be considered yet another tool actuaries can use to help businesses solve their problems. 

We should be open and collaborative with data scientists. We should educate ourselves so we can play the role of translators between business problems and the tools and techniques data scientists have which can be leveraged to solve those problems. We shouldn’t be scared of data science. We shouldn’t try and become data scientists. We should be strong in actuarial analysis and constantly work to expand our skills and tools through collaboration and learning.

What makes innovation impactful? 

Any innovation that solves important problems or makes important contributions to society and organizations. That is impactful innovation. 

As actuaries, we need to figure out the problems and challenges organizations have where we feel we can make a significant contribution, and really spend our time making an impact in those important areas. You can have innovation that’s not necessarily impactful, but I think to be impactful, innovation must address an important problem and achieve its desired outcomes. True impact means it matters in a sizable way.

What are some of the more impactful innovations in the actuarial field and why?

I grew up in South Africa, and many people reference the South African insurance company known as Discovery, which developed what’s known as the Vitality Model. 

This approach applies to preventative care strategies and feedback mechanisms which incentivize people to live healthier lives in order to reduce the cost of their insurance, whether it’s lower auto insurance for safe driving or lower life insurance premiums for exercising. I think that’s a very innovative model. 

I also think actuaries do try very hard to adopt new technologies as much as they can. Actuaries generally don’t shy away from technology, they are curious and motivated to learn new techniques. This obviously is tied to an organizations willingness to invest in these technologies, which is something I think actuaries could do a better job advocating for where it makes sense for their organization.

What is the best type of change actuaries can adopt to become more influential in the insurance industry?

I think actuaries need to have a better appreciation and get a lot closer to the end customer. The human aspect of insurance. At the end of the day, insurance is there to protect individuals and families, and as actuaries we are part of the insurance value chain that is there to serve the policyholder. The closer we can get to the customers we’re there to serve, the better. 

What advice would you give someone considering an actuarial career today?

Make sure you are good at what you do as an actuary, but don’t stop there. Don’t only be an actuary. Read widely. Whatever you read outside of the actuarial field, think about how it could be applied into becoming a better actuary. If you have the opportunity in school to take some electives, take marketing, take law, take psychology, take human resources. Don’t just stick to the mathematical; broaden your mindset. That’s the top advice I would give to someone considering an actuarial career. It’s a wonderful career to have, but the world is more complex than what actuaries can solve by themselves, so keep an open mind.