We spoke to Meghan Anzelc, Chief Analytics Officer at Axis Capital about how she got her start in insurance and why women straight out of university should research and negotiate every offer. Meghan spoke at InsurTech Rising US on how to unlock the potential of data.
How did you start your career?
Most people pursue a PhD in physics because they want to be a professor. I pursued a PhD because I enjoyed the research internships I had in college (at Fermilab and Argonne) and I wanted to do a more in-depth research project with the intent of doing research full time after getting a PhD. While I was in graduate school, I realized two things:
- There are almost no pure research jobs anymore - almost everything is a combination of teaching and research. Additionally, I knew I could get a post-doc position after graduate school but wasn't sure I could get a full-time position even after a post-doc. Many of the DOE labs had been under hiring freezes for a few years and there were very few openings.
- Careers are different up close compared to what I thought it would be when I was an undergraduate. Not better or worse, but different. I realized there were only (maybe) a couple hundred people in the world who cared about my dissertation research, and any broader benefit of my work beyond basic science research wouldn't appear for decades, if ever. I wanted to do something more applied and where I could see the impact.
I decided there were probably a lot of physicists who had left academia and were both happy and successful. I set out to find some of them and do informational interviews - the results of many of those interviews can be found here. Eventually a friend of mind connected me to someone she knew working in insurance. My friend’s contact had a physics background and was working in their predictive modeling team, so he could explain how a physics background helped, what was challenging/interesting, what the job was like, etc. At the end of the informational interview, he said, “We're hiring. Would you be interested?" That turned into applying and interviewing for, and eventually accepting, a job with Travelers Insurance on its predictive modeling team.
What was your lightbulb moment?
I don’t think there was one. My first class in physics was in college, so I wouldn’t have believed you if you told me in high school I’d get a PhD in particle physics. I didn’t know anything about the insurance industry, or what the terms “predictive modeling” or “data science” meant until I started my professional career after graduate school. I enjoy learning and I enjoy doing things that are challenging; early on in my career, I enjoyed proving people wrong when they said I couldn’t do something, but now I don’t listen to those people or care what they think of me.
Why do we see so few women in tech? (or finance)
There isn’t one answer and this isn’t a simple problem – if it was, we would have solved it by now. It’s important to keep in mind that when we say “women in X” that includes white and non-white women, and that women from different groups have different experiences and unique needs.
Research shows there are a number of factors that contribute. There has been a lot in the news on unconscious bias, and Harvard’s “Project Implicit” is a great way to test your own unconscious biases. There are also more conscious effects through stereotypes and stereotype threat; Claude Steele’s book, “Whistling Vivaldi,” is a great introduction to the research on stereotype threat. We’ve also heard a lot about discrimination and harassment, which comes into play, and when you are the only or one of a small few, the effects of isolation can impact your experiences as well.
These are not just issues for women but for all under-represented groups. Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke a few years ago about his experiences as a black man in astrophysics and how we need to help level the playing field for all, which I agree is the key.
How can companies attract and retain more women to work for them?
Again, there isn’t one answer and this isn’t a simple problem. Women are not a monolith; they have different experiences, different priorities, different needs and wants. Research by firms such as Catalyst shows there are a number of factors that can make a difference. Companies can control and improve factors influencing turnover, such as: workplace environment, limited opportunities for advancement, excessive workloads and other demands that take time away from family life, as well as competitive recognition and compensation. Workplace flexibility can help retention for employees overall, and can incorporate things like sick leave, parental leave and flexibility around where and when to work.
What advice do you have for women starting their career in FinTech?
When I speak at universities and STEM conferences on career self-advocacy, most of my advice is the same for women and men: I encourage students to do their research on salary and compensation ranges for jobs they apply for, and to negotiate every offer – especially your first job out of school, because that determines a lot of your compensation path.
Many women haven’t experienced overt or unconscious sexism, which is great, but I think it’s important to educate yourself about issues other women have faced so that if it does happen to you, you are better prepared. I prefer having my eyes wide open when I go into something new, so I did (and still do) a lot of informational interviews, asking people about their experiences, what the challenges are, how they’ve been successful. It can be lonely being the “only” much of the time, but that wasn’t a surprise to me, and I take seriously the impact I can have on others coming up behind me.
Why is the #WomeninFinTech movement important?
It’s important for all of us to have people around us who are supportive, who understand what we’re experiencing, who you can be open and honest with. Movements like #WomeninFinTech can help provide a forum for that kind of support, as well as help share the experiences of all different kinds of women in FinTech with others – both women in other fields who may or may not have similar experiences and challenges, or men across all industries who may benefit from the perspectives of others.
What will the future of InsurTech look like?
Today, much of the InsurTech landscape is fragmented and there are many InsurTech firms with numerous competitors. I would expect in the future to see more coalescence across the landscape and more long-term collaborations and partnerships between InsurTech firms and established players.