“Finding Success Beyond the Confidence Interval”
by: Sophia He (The University of British Columbia)
Interviewee: Lisa Walsh (Swiss Re)
Lisa Walsh was considering whether to move from Saint Paul, Minnesota, the place where she had spent the last 10 years and had now established a career and life that she loved, and start over in the Caribbean island of Barbados, when she stopped to buy bread at a convenience store one Sunday morning. Behind the counter, two teenage boys were playing with coins in the cash register during their shift.
They pulled one out, and as she walked up to pay for the bread, they looked at the coin, looked at each other, and asked to themselves, “Where the heck is Barbados?”
They had pulled out a Barbadian coin. This coin had traveled 3,000 miles to be pulled from a cash register in a small-town convenience store, right when she was contemplating the most significant decision of her life. At that moment, Walsh knew that she would take the Barbados job offer.
“It was really, truly freaky. It had to travel all that way to be in that drawer, to be pulled out at that particular moment,” she recalls. “Probabilistically, the chance was probably one in millions.“
However, having worked as an actuary for eight years, assessing probabilities and quantifying uncertainty was nothing new to Walsh. Her decision has since taken her actuarial career from Barbados to Dublin in Ireland, Connecticut, New York, and, now, California, where she works at Swiss Re as Senior Vice President of Structured Solutions, a position she has held since 2006.
As a property and casualty reinsurance specialist, Walsh assesses how much risk her client needs to cede and constructs models that assist her in determining how much risk her firm should be willing to take. Then she finalizes an analysis and composes a package of financial tools that best meet both targets.
“Our clients are insurance companies. They’re pretty sophisticated,” she explains. She adds how property and casualty insurance companies in particular, which can insure catastrophes like fires, hurricanes, and social inflation in liability losses, complicate her task. She utilizes statistical and probabilistic tools to fill in critical missing numbers, compiling a dataset large enough to inform risk-taking on that scale.
For Walsh, the daily challenge of having a unique and complex problem to solve brings her both satisfaction and contentment, and she has enjoyed actuarial work and math overall for this reason.
“I love my job,” she explains. “I’m solving problems and playing with numbers, and it’s great. I really do love it, and I am now more than 30 years into it.”
Even in college, Walsh knew she wanted to pursue a career in mathematics. She was working on her mathematics degree, her psychology minor, and her certificate in French language when she learned about the path of becoming an actuary through a recent graduate of her college’s math program.
Walsh immediately began working on obtaining her certification with the Casualty Actuarial Society with the guidance of her mentor. She studied for the certification exams during her undergraduate studies and graduated with two exams completed. While the first exam had shocked her, Walsh adjusted to the new level of rigor. At age 25, she became the youngest woman to pass all ten required exams, which test knowledge in actuarial science, applied statistics, economics, corporate finance, and more, to become a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society. Normally, completing the exam track takes eight to ten years.
“You don’t get what the end result is without doing the work to get there,” she states. “I did work very hard for five years…but I was all-in.”
Walsh feels that her designation as a Fellow, which marks attainment of the highest level of actuarial education, has allowed her skills to become more immediately recognizable to her colleagues.
“Particularly when I was younger, I didn’t look like a math person, let alone an actuary. I literally was in situations where people assumed I was the secretary or something like that. You walk in a room, and, honestly, they just dismiss you,” she says. “And all of a sudden, they hear you’re an actuary. Everything’s different… I get respect. I get admiration. I don’t have to prove myself. I am by definition smart and deserving of my position. As a woman in a man’s world, that is everything.”
As a result of her personal experiences as the only woman in the meeting room, she regularly speaks to undergraduate students to discuss her career.
“I particularly want to encourage women to go into the job, as a math person,” she says. She cites that the respect the title garners and impartial, exam-based career advancement are great opportunities for women.
As I reflect on Walsh’s career journey, I am inspired not only by the happiness and success she has been able to find in a job that she loves, but also by the energy and passion she brings to all areas of her life. For one, she was never deterred by her late start to gymnastics, a sport she loved since she was little.
Unable to formally participate until high school due to her family situation, Walsh practiced on her own. She continued the sport during college and participated in fitness competitions after graduation. Despite the obstacles, she had continued to improve and follow her passion. Meanwhile, she has been raising two children, now aged 13 and 14.
“They’re the most important thing to me,” she says when I ask about her future plans.
There are probably multiple keys to Walsh’s success, from her initiative to pursue her goals to her passion for taking on challenges, but Walsh’s willingness to leave her comfort zone, whether that be taking a new position in Barbados or thriving in the alienating culture of her field, is especially astonishing.
That willingness is perhaps best symbolized by what Walsh does daily in her actuarial work, facing uncertainty and risk with the confidence, focus, and passion to create something that brings both herself and others success and contentment.