Women in Insurance: Q&A with Innovation Broker Dr. Dina Belyayeva

Digital Transformation - April 8 2020

In this interview series, we profile women who are shaping the future of insurance. By highlighting their achievements and sharing their insights, we aim to have an open dialogue about what carriers, brokers and InsurTechs can do to promote greater gender parity and diversity in the world of insurance and increase the number of women in leadership positions. This week, we sit down with Dina V. Belyayeva, Ph.D of LINCX Consulting to talk about building a career in insurance and making the leap from insurer to Insurtech. Dina has fifteen years of commercial insurance industry experience, serves as a mentor for startups at Hartford Insurtech Hub accelerator, and has first-hand experience running a startup. 

Dina, tell us about your path to commercial insurance and then into Insurtech. What attracted you to the profession?

Hardly anyone is growing up dreaming to become an insurance professional. Insurance is typically perceived as a “necessary evil”, not an aspiration. I never imagined myself pursuing a career in insurance. Early on I was deeply interested in psychology and languages. But when as a newly minted Ph.D. I followed my husband to the Greater Hartford area, I realized that it wasn’t possible to have an academic career in my field without sacrificing my family life. A career in consulting was my plan B. I got an MBA and landed a consulting position with The Hartford. Back in the early 2000s, I found the industry in dire need for transformation. My non-insurance background was perfect for spotting opportunities and offering non-traditional solutions. So naturally, I gravitated towards projects and functional areas that addressed user experience, marketing, communications, technology, and innovation. After 15 years of working for a carrier, I saw an opportunity to work with the emerging insurtech segment and to help establish an innovation ecosystem as a way of promoting innovation and technological advances from the outside.

Large insurance companies and InsurTech startups can be strange bedfellows. You’ve had experience on both sides – as an innovation champion within an insurance company, an entrepreneur running a startup, and an Insurtech advisor. How can insurers and InsurTechs navigate the clash of organizational cultures, and what are the secrets to a successful partnership?

It would not be true to say that insurance companies don’t want to innovate. This is a mature industry ripe for disruption and carriers are acutely aware of that. High regulatory and capital reserve requirements make it very difficult for newcomers to disrupt the market. What we typically see is incremental innovation, which incumbents use to strengthen their competitive position, improve profitability and attract new customers. Of course, technology and the shifts in the consumer culture are the defining factors, but the shifts we are seeing now have been 10+ years in the making. 

Innovation assumes learning from failure and experimentation, but this requires conscious acceptance of failure and financial loss. This clashes with the risk-averse culture of financial accountability. By definition, insurance carriers are risk-averse, even those organizations that have innovation labs, still proceed with caution. Also, large organizations have a bureaucracy that is essentially a set of safeguards that ensure repeatable and verifiable performance free from disruption. As a result, innovation becomes, slow and incremental, but it is not impossible. In the current environment, it is very easy for the carriers to outsource the risk of product and service development by partnering with insurtechs. Insurtech startups also bring in unique talent, which is hard to attract and retain in the traditional carrier culture. Also, the rapid growth and maturation of the insurtech accelerator network provide a great way to vet out technology and business models with minimal risk and resource allocation. Carriers that do not take advantage of such opportunities will find themselves falling behind in their ability to stay competitive and relevant in the market.

On the other hand, insurtech startups need to learn to be patient. Carrier sales cycles are notoriously long and startups need to learn to manage their expectations and resources.  Whereas in other sectors startups are expected to move fast, in insurance they have to learn to persist. What they should train for is not a sprint, but a marathon with explosive sprints. The secret to success in working with carriers is the willingness to listen, learn and adapt. Many entrepreneurs turn to insurance with limited understanding of complexities that shaped up the industry, which undermines their credibility as a serious partner. It is important for them to learn from the industry experts, and partner with regulators to evaluate and anticipate adoption challenges for the tech solutions that they are developing. It is also very important to develop empathy for a complex organization, understand its challenges, become a thought partner, a problem solver, not a sales pusher.

If you look behind the curtain at the insurance back office, there is still an incredible amount of paper pushing and what Ryan Deeds, host of The Digital Broker podcast calls “soul-sucking” manual work. Why does digital transformation still seem so far off? What are the obstacles?

In the early 2000s carriers were ready to embrace digital transformation, but the tech wasn’t ready to embrace them. Obviously, there were great opportunities for automating paper, but that was just an expensive way to continue pushing paper instead of reinventing business models. As a result, millions of dollars in capital investments had to be written off. You probably heard stories about the platforms that became technically obsolete before their deployment. The current environment is far more promising due to a variety of service models that both established tech service providers and innovative insurtech startups bring to the market. The challenge is in figuring out what fits. With API and subscription models, the switching costs became very low. In this environment, it costs more to delay innovation than to weed out failed models. But the true challenge is in the human factor: fear of failure, job insecurity, and improperly set incentives often stall the pace of innovation. That’s where the company leadership and culture play the crucial role.

If you had to pick one technology trend that will fundamentally transform commercial insurance over the next 5-10 years, what would it be? 

The coronavirus pandemic disrupted economies, wiped out small businesses and changed the ways we communicate and transact. Right now, it is even hard to imagine the far-reaching consequences of the shakedown we are facing. Which markets survive, what new risks emerge, which factors need to be accounted for – all of it needs to be recalibrated. To evaluate the impact of the global crisis, we need to start with the data trend analysis. It will help to redefine markets, validate product coverages and pricing models. In this environment, advanced data science and analytics become essential for industry survival and transformation. Big Data has been among top trends for the past 10 years but has not generated a major breakthrough. It has been perceived as something nebulous and remote. Yet, we are finally seeing technologies that can actually deliver: AI, machine learning, computer vision, natural language processing, visualization, API and the sheer computing power are far more mature and accessible now. Plus, we are swimming in data. Insurance was the original analytics and data science industry since its inception. It needs to reclaim its position by embracing the advanced tech and testing new analytics models.

According to a 2017 study, just 12 percent of insurance companies’ top corporate officers are women. Why do you think there are so few women in senior leadership roles in the insurance industry? Do you see a similar situation in Insurtech with women in senior leadership?

It is not surprising that top corporate officers are still predominantly male. CEO, CFO, and CTO roles are often filled by candidates from predominantly male fields, such as accounting, actuarial and tech. Women used to rise through the ranks in service ops, marketing and underwriting tracks. However, I am surprised to see such low numbers. Based on my experience, I would expect to see at least a third of C-suit represented by women, but of course, the numbers are much lower when it comes to the CEO role.

Speaking of corporate leadership and gender, we cannot dismiss the old adage of balancing family and career responsibilities. It all comes down to biology and how supportive the society is to allow women to have both families and careers. It is not that women cannot have both, it’s all about the priority setting. Considering the fierce competition at the top, all things being equal, men inevitably win, because they don’t need to split their priorities. Am I upset about that? Not really. You cannot have a family without clearly defined gender roles and you need to learn to deal with requirements that those roles dictate. I chose family early on when I sacrificed my academic career. To me, my children, their health, happiness and future and my relationship with my husband are far more important than my self-actualization in one field or the other. Children grow up fast and there is always an opportunity to pick up the pace later. Of course, this won’t get you on a path to a corporate C-suit, but it won’t keep you from becoming a successful entrepreneur.

In fact, I believe that women are well-positioned to succeed as entrepreneurs. Startup founders wear multiple hats and should be highly flexible and tenacious. Tenacity and empathy are the traits that are essential for insurtech founders. Long sales cycle and multiple rejections are disheartening. Women, not being testosterone-driven “veni, vidi, vici” types, are more patient, they are better listeners, deal better with rejection and typically have more grit when it comes to pivoting and reinventing. Over the past three years, I met many remarkable women entrepreneurs in the insurtech sector. And I found it very rewarding helping them in their pursuit, not because of the “female solidarity”, but of the real value they bring to the market.

What advice would you give the next generation of women considering a career in insurance or Insurtech? 

I believe that both insurance and insurtech sectors offer women plenty of opportunities for a rewarding career. The industry is changing fast and it is looking for talent from multiple disciplines in business and technology. And insurance is still an industry where women can carve out a somewhat balanced existence. Logistically, it offers opportunities to work remotely and have a flexible work schedule, which is important not just in the times of the global crisis that we are going through now, but also when a woman needs to juggle daily career and family responsibilities.


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Dr. Dina Belyayeva has fifteen years of experience working in the insurance industry in a variety of roles focused on growth strategies. Her industry knowledge is drawn primarily from leading digital transformation initiatives.

As a consultant, she combines broad insurance industry knowledge, innovation management and marketing expertise with a passion for driving innovation and bringing ideas to reality. As an entrepreneur, she has genuine empathy for Insurtech startup founders and the first-hand experience of running a startup.

Dina has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Florida and an MBA from the University of Hartford. 

 

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