February 2017

Interview with Stephen Camilli

Carlos FuentesSteve Camilli

By Carlos Fuentes

This is the first in  the “Innovators and Entrepreneurs” series of interviews sponsored by the Entrepreneurial & Innovation Section of the Society of Actuaries. Each participant is an actuary who has chosen an unusual professional path, whether in an area where few actuaries have been before or in a traditional area, but with a new business model or in a novel role. What these actuaries have in common is their entrepreneurial and innovative spirit.

In this interview, Stephen Camilli shares with us highlights of his career that started as an actuarial assistant at Hewitt Associates. Little did he know then that his actuarial education was going to serve him well in a variety of roles that for most actuaries lie outside the boundaries of the possible. Stephen shares his views about the non-actuarial skills he developed along the way and discusses certain aspects of exam preparation. As a former literary agent, Camilli also recommends some of his favorite books including one written by a prisoner (a famous one) in a concentration camp.

Stephen, you have been director of international risk at an insurance company, literary agent, high school teacher, university professor, and president of Actex Publication among others. What aspects of your actuarial education have helped you succeed in non-actuarial roles?

The actuarial education process is a unique one. It taught me to self-teach, to manage my time, to be disciplined, to persevere, to push through difficult times, to study exam material even when it was not interesting. Any job has aspects that are interesting and others that are not. We sometimes have this fantastic idea that the job we love will be 100 percent wonderful, but this is not the case, so we need to persevere in it, just as we do with the actuarial exams. Other valuable aspects of the actuarial education are the analytical and curious mind that you sharpen through the math exams. You learn to look at the root causes of the problems, to get at the bottom of things rather than just find an answer without understanding it. Finally, the education process led me to seek excellence—I had to push myself hard to reach become a FSA.

What skills from the “school of life” have you acquired, and how have they helped you succeed in the positions you have held? Here are a few more: Partner in the Tea Importation Company, Founder of the Buenos Aires Food Bank.

This questions brings to mind a quote by Carl Sandberg: “Nearly all the best things that came to me in life have been unexpected and unplanned.” One skill I try to cultivate is to listen, to be attentive, internally and externally. Internally, to understand where my passions lie, what I am driven by, what I am excited by, what I’d like my next step to be. Externally, to scan opportunities that may present themselves or to look for them. For example, the Food Bank, a not-for-profit firm, started when I realized that large amounts of good food were going to waste. The Tea Importation Company started after noticing that there was no gourmet tea available in Argentina. Other skills are also important: interpersonal relations, networking—forming genuine relationships with people who share similar interests often leads to unexpected good things. Finally, boldness to do something different and follow what aligns with my passions and interests.

Do you think one of the reasons that limits entrepreneurship among actuaries is the specialized nature of their education and work? What can actuaries do to increase their chances to succeed as entrepreneurs?

In answering this question the following quote comes to mind: “what is most personal is most universal.” I believe that if you develop specialized skills in certain areas those skills can be transferred to others, but doing so requires effort. One aspect that has limited entrepreneurship is the lack of a fertile environment among actuaries and in the industry: many actuaries are risk averse and work in industries that are not rife with entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, we are at a historical moment with the growth of fintech and the disruptions experienced in many industries, although certainly the areas of actuarial work have been left relatively untouched. I think there are many opportunities for disruption and for actuaries to become entrepreneurs. Making it happen will require a cultural shift; actuaries will have to learn to sell themselves and their ideas.

In the past, exam preparation was based mostly on required reading, supplemental written material and seminars. Has the approach to taking exams changed? What is the most efficient method to prepare for exams? What do you foresee happening in the next 10 years?

Some things have changed and some have not. There is a greater variety of study aids available than in the past. In the past, the options were paper study guides and in person seminars. The menu was expanded with the inclusion of recorded seminars, first in VHS and then in DVDs. Currently, there are many on-line resources such as courses, seminars exam practices, and support communities. These modern resources are helpful, but none is a panacea nor necessarily more effective than traditional methods. The best method depends on personal preference and learning style. The problem with online learning tools is that they have an element of distraction. Furthermore, there are studies that show that we retain more when information is presented in paper than when it appears on a screen. We don’t know whether this result will hold for the newer generations which are more used to screens than to paper. But whether online or with paper and in person, students need to focus on first principles.

Are there any non-actuarial books that you recommend?

At a personal level I recommend:


  • Man’s Search for Meaning—Author Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist, shares his personal story about his confinement in a concentration camp. He developed a discipline of psychiatry focused on the human search for meaning. The book was relevant to me because I believe that it is important to find your passion and joy which, by the way, are linked to your professional success.

We actuaries need to read more general business books to understand the “big picture” and strengthen our weak areas. There are three books that I recommend:

  • 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a classic.
  • Getting the Yes, to enhance negotiation skills, understand interpersonal interactions and learn to navigate that difficult terrain more effectively.
  • The Speed of Trust, how to build trust in yourself, in your team, in your organization. Trust is important because it multiplies productivity.

Carlos Fuentes, FSA, FCA, MAAA, MS, MBA, is president of actuarial consulting. His professional interests include strategy, public policy and entrepreneurship. He can be reached at carlos-fuentes@axiom-actuarial.com.