Pioneers: A Voice for Change

Pioneers: A Voice for Change

Anna Rappaport is well known and well respected in the actuarial profession and beyond. She has worked in the actuarial field for 47 years. Her list of awards, accolades and accomplishments is too extensive to reprint here. The Actuary asked Anna, one of the true pioneers of the actuary profession, some questions about her illustrious career.

Why did you choose to pursue a career in actuarial science? What influenced your decision to go into the field?

In 1958, when I started, it was very hard to earn a living in business with a mathematical background, and it was worse for a woman without a college degree. There was a shortage of actuaries, and if you could pass the exams, you could get a good job and good money. I had two years of college, with lots of math from the University of Chicago, and needed to earn a living. So I went for it.

Personally speaking, what do you feel is your greatest career-related achievement? What was the biggest work-related challenge you've ever faced?

Greatest achievement–President of the SOA. Biggest challenge–Getting people to focus on new ideas, particularly post-retirement risk.

What is the secret to your professional success?

My parents taught me to apply myself, and always to try to do a job that I could be proud off. I always tried to do my best. I had good mentors early in my career and a variety of job experiences that helped me to learn about the big picture. I also had good luck in getting connected to a company that grew and offered people very good opportunities. One of the great things about Mercer Human Resource Consulting was that you could define your own career path. They supported people in doing the things they were passionate about, even before the excellent career planning tools that they have today.

Do you have a favorite "on-the-job" memory you'd like to share?

For me, 1978 was a career-defining year. I had joined Mercer in 1976 and already was quite well known in the actuarial profession. In 1978, Congress passed a great deal of legislation including new age discrimination requirements (ADEA of 1978) and pregnancy disability legislation. Mercer decided to do a multi-part, big picture seminar on the implications of ADEA, and I did the opening overview presentation and helped manage the project. We did the presentation in 11 cities and it was my first big demographic presentation. Our region head was enthusiastic about taking a big picture approach, but many of my colleagues were concerned about all of this different and new stuff. How would clients react? Most liked it and this seminar got me a lot of visibility within Mercer and set me on a new path. Some, however, were quite hostile and did not like to hear about the bad news, as they saw it.

The story has an interesting follow-up. Nearly 20 years later, a senior benefit manager from a major food company told me that he heard me in Dayton, Ohio in 1978 and really did not like what I said. But he then went on to say that I was right and he invited me to address his benefits staff. I got many such invitations over the years.

Other memories include meeting really interesting people. I did a teleconference for Americans Discuss Social Security on Women and Social Security. The conference was co-chaired by Hillary Clinton and Jennifer Dunn, and my panel was chaired by Jane Bryant Quinn. I got to meet many interesting people, in North American and elsewhere.

Balancing off the good stories are some bad ones. I started at a time when women were not accepted in business. New York Life had a policy that pregnant women were not allowed to work beyond their fifth month and I got fired for being pregnant. Young women today find this hard to believe.

If you could turn the clock back, would you choose the same career path? Why?

Absolutely. It has offered me a chance to make a difference, good recognition and compensation, and the chance to do work that I liked with interesting people.

What are your personal career goals for the future? How are they different from objectives you established when you were first starting out in the profession?

I am in the process of setting new goals now. I have retired from full-time work with Mercer and am developing Anna Rappaport Consulting. It is clear that continuing to make a difference is one my goals. This is centered around creating a better world, particularly for older women. I am also interested in doing good keynote speeches for hire and in getting recognition for my artwork. Goals have varied over my life, and I will try to provide a little history.

When I first started in 1958, no one thought about career goals or planning very much. If you behaved well and work hard, things should be fine. I first remember being goal centered after I had worked about 10 years and was aspiring to be president of a smaller life insurance company. I recognized that this was a very unlikely role for a woman at that time, and then moved to more of a research role at the Equitable. After the Equitable, I decided that since I had done a lot in insurance and probably could not move into a very senior role, that I was interested in diversifying my experience. I moved over to Mercer at that time, and into benefits, primarily pensions. Effectively if we looked at this from a financial products perspective, I had moved over to the customer side.

Working for plan sponsors was much more satisfying. Things happened more quickly, and one actually got to see them implemented much more often. Within Mercer, I wanted to focus on the big picture and diversify experience, and I filled a number of roles. I was able to tailor my job over the last few years at Mercer to projects and activities that fit their needs and my interests.

In your opinion, what does the future of the actuarial field hold?Are there as many opportunities for actuaries now as there were 10 to 20 years ago?

I always, through the profession, had a great future and still do. There are more actuaries than 10 or 20 years ago and most of them are working, so there seems to be more opportunities. (I am not sure about the balance between supply and total opportunities.) Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, there are fewer defined benefit plans and the insurance industry has undergone consolidation, probably leaving fewer jobs. Many actuaries have moved into new and different roles. More are in investments, executive compensation, working with drug companies, supporting new health care risk takers and working in corporate risk management.

What career-enhancing advice would you give to other actuaries? Any hints as to what they should do to stand out from the rest of the crowd?

Network, network, network! Get a good mentor. Be sure that you have good speaking and writing skills to complement your technical knowledge. Focus on the big picture. Find a good place to work and stick it out. Moving around frequently often leads to poor results.

Hints to stand out include finding ways to get recognition for your work. If you are in a large firm, develop a network and stay in touch. Drop people notes about what you are doing. Publish if appropriate. Try to get on a professional or local business organization committee. Do presentations at appropriate meetings. When you are part of a team, always try to do 110 percent of your share. Communicate well with team members and show them consideration. Publicly recognize the contributions of others, but provide criticism in private. Volunteer selectively.

What advice can you give to women who are considering entering the actuarial field–a traditionally male-dominated profession?

Go for it! It has been an excellent field for women. The examinations are sex blind, although job opportunities are not. As with other fields today, women have a good chance of securing entry-level jobs, and if they find barriers, they are more likely to be mid-career. Younger women sometimes do not realize that women still have barriers and special issues to face, but they will as they go through their careers. The glass ceiling is still a reality. It is smart to look for firms that have promoted more women to higher-level positions. Some firms are much better for women than others.

Some special advice for women: Be careful not to get into compromising situations that require awkward responses. (For example, if you are going to take a male client out to dinner and you do not know him well, take a colleague along.) Form your own priorities about work and family and create the right balance in your life. Family is very important and it is a challenge to find the right mix. Pay attention to your image. It may well affect your opportunities and the comfort that your firm has with regard to bringing you to client meetings, introducing you to management people, etc.

Do you have additional sage advice you'd like to provide? Is there something you'd like to comment on that you weren't asked about?

Over a career, it occasionally happens that things are not going very well. There is a balance between stability, mobility and getting stale. In many respects, getting a variety of experience in a single organization that is doing very well seems to me to be a good choice. My advice is that when things are not going well, it is usually best to try and work things out where you are. If they don't work out, then you can move on, but have a little patience first. It is also important to learn when it is the time to move on.

Many young people today work only on computers and do not learn reasonable checking or how to get a feel for the numbers. It is very important to develop skills so that you can assess if answers appear right and do quality checks on them.

I have both an insurance and employee benefits background, and have found the combination is interesting. You can think well about different perspectives. It is always good in analyzing a problem to think about different perspectives on the issue.

How have you turned risk into opportunity throughout your career?

I have balanced different kinds of employment and sought out roles that would give me diverse opportunities. I have looked for ways to maximize my contribution to my clients and employers.

Figure out what is important and focus on that.

Keep scope. Take an inventory at least once a year on how you are doing with regard to your goals.

I have always tried to help others.

Anna Rappaport can be contacted at:

Sam Phillips is associate editor at the Society of Actuaries.