Diverse techies thrive in the insurance industry
“When associates mirror our member population, they understand that population’s unique challenges.” – Tracy Edmonds, WellPoint
“The best ideas come from challenging and testing current mindsets.” – Marlene Reisman, Verisk
By Angela M. Hutchinson
Diversity is part of the business mindset among leading insurance providers. Today, insurance firms, like most service-providing companies, are striving to create diverse workplaces that match their diverse customers.
The insurance industry is a broad one. Firms insure everything from restaurants to rocket launches; specialized suppliers provide sophisticated information analysis, or support groups of insurers with a similar focus. Health insurance has been in the spotlight in recent months, and has some unique requirements.
“Because of the diverse needs of our member population, we believe it’s a business advantage for us to have associates who not only mirror our diverse member population, but also understand that population’s unique needs and preferences around healthcare,” says Tracy Edmonds, director of human resources and diversity for health insurance company WellPoint (Indianapolis, IN).
“Healthcare informatics is a field of technology that is growing by leaps and bounds and having a major impact on all aspects of healthcare,” she adds. Moving forward, health informatics and related technology, and people with skills in those areas, will be crucial for companies like WellPoint. Edmonds says, “Whether it’s for selecting a provider, pricing a procedure, managing a disease or maintaining a healthy lifestyle, our technology team drives the availability of meaningful data and information.”
Nikita James enjoys versatile work as project director at the BCBS Association
Nikita James has been an employee of the Blue and Cross Blue Shield health insurance system for seven years. Since September 2012, she’s been a project director in the Washington, DC office of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association (BCBSA, Chicago, IL). BCBSA is a national federation of thirty-eight Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance companies.
James’ daily responsibilities include managing a team of senior project managers who primarily support Federal Employee Program (FEP) projects. She ensures that the FEP projects are being managed efficiently, and that they meet project goals and expectations. The BCBS FEP division administers the government-wide service benefit plan for federal employees, retirees, and their families. The thirty-eight BCBS member companies participate as local points of contact.
“I enjoy the versatile nature of my workdays. There really are no two days where I have to focus on the same thing,” says James. However, she admits that it can be challenging to focus on several things at once and constantly manage changing priorities.
Embracing diversity and its benefits
James describes BCBSA as an organization that devotes time to celebrating the diversity of its associates. “We have gatherings where we can enjoy food of different cultures, guest speakers and training events, all related to supporting diversity,” she says. “It is important to value diversity within the technical industry because diversity brings variation in thinking and approach, which sparks creativity.”
In 1999, James earned her bachelors degree in management studies from the University of Maryland-College Park. In 2004, she earned her masters in information technology and information systems from Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD).
According to James, her diverse background of studies in art, science, business and ultimately IT, equipped her with the necessary skills to be an effective leader in tech industry. She explains, “Managing projects forces you to use soft skills like communicating verbally to stakeholders and working with diverse project teams, as well as analytical skills when reviewing project timings and financials.”
BCBSA is committed to creating a work environment that supports the diverse talents and experiences of its employees, and to equal opportunity in all aspects of recruiting and employment, notes William Colbourne, senior vice president of human resources and administration.
“We participate in diversity-focused job fairs and events. Specifically, we participate in NAACP, military and veteran career events,” he says. BCBSA also posts job openings with organizations such as the National Black MBA Association.
Jeffrey Taylor manages teams for the Principal
Jeffrey Taylor, a senior IT leader-analyst for The Principal Financial Group, has been with the company for seventeen years. Headquartered in Des Moines, IA, the Principal is an investment firm and provider of 401k plans, mutual funds, retirement plans, insurance and online banking.
Taylor manages two teams in the mainframe servers department. “The mainframe operating system team is responsible for installing and maintaining the OS for our mainframe servers. The automation team is responsible for creating automated solutions and processes to improve efficiencies, and alert technicians of problems or issues,” he explains.
Bridge to success: striving to be the best
Taylor was born and raised in Des Moines. Interestingly, Taylor is a high school dropout who later managed to earn five college degrees, including three masters degrees. “I dropped out of high school in my junior year, and started working at a variety of jobs including busboy, housekeeper and window washer. I even worked in a soybean factory for a number of years,” he says. “I learned to take pride in every job and to always strive to be the best.”
In 1986, Taylor received an AS degree in business from Des Moines Area Community College. Years later, in 2002, he graduated from Upper Iowa University (Fayette, IA) with a bachelors in technology and information management. Four years later, he was awarded a masters of public administration from Drake University (Des Moines). In 2009, Taylor earned his masters of business leadership from William Penn University (Oskaloosa, IA).
Ironically, one of the barriers Taylor has faced is differentiating himself from other talented individuals in leadership positions. “I have overcome that barrier by being myself and offering unique opinions and innovative solutions to problems,” he says.
Taylor takes pride in the Principal’s ability to leverage technologies and use innovative ideas to improve services to its customers. Taylor also speaks highly of the Principal’s excellent diversity resource groups as well as support and involvement from senior management.
“Diverse teams can take a good idea and transform it into a great idea, giving the business a competitive advantage in the products and services we provide,” says Taylor. “Our business is based on excellence, and diversity helps us deliver this to our customers.”
Diversity recruiting at the Principal
The continued evolution of social networking has changed recruiting strategies, according to Beth Raymond, vice president of human resources at the Principal. “Long gone are the days we could post a position on a general job board and assume we would successfully attract a quality, diverse candidate pool,” she says.
Raymond describes diversity as creating and maintaining a culture of inclusion that evolves over time. “Over several decades, our commitment to creating a welcoming environment for all employees across the world is what makes the Principal the world-class organization it is today,” she says.
Software engineer and immigrant Rocio Benites-Anca feels welcomed at Verisk
Software engineer Rocio Benites-Anca works at Verisk Analytics (Jersey City, NJ). Verisk provides information about risk to professionals in insurance, healthcare, financial services and risk management. Since 2008, Benites-Anca has served as the main support for a wording repository application, a repository system that allows customers to submit, review, approve and access wordings. “Wordings are documents that contain elements of insurance contracts used in the insurance world. They consist of various clauses and conditions,” she explains, and must be carefully preserved and maintained in their current forms. “I also maintain a couple of other applications that help insurers with the process of policy rate maintenance and management.”
Born in Lima, Peru, Benites-Anca came to the U.S. in September 2004 after finishing college. “My parents valued education and hard work. They encouraged me to study and strive to do my best always. In Peru, education is one of the ways to achieve a better life,” she says.
“After I arrived in the U.S., I took courses in English as a second language at a college to improve beyond the basic language level I arrived with. In the interim, I also had a job with FedEx Ground, where I worked as a package handler for a year.”
Benites-Anca had earned her bachelors degree in computer engineering in 2003 from Pontificia Universidad Catolica del Peru (Lima, Peru). Five years later, she earned a masters in management information systems from Kean University (Union, NJ).
Catching up with tech advances
“Because of immigrating to the U.S. and the associated transition, I was away from the world of programming and IT for a few years before I started at Verisk. Because this field changes so fast, it took a tremendous effort to catch up with all the new software development technologies,” she says.
Benites-Anca truly appreciates Verisk’s welcoming environment. “I have met people of many different backgrounds and countries while at Verisk, and I believe the company understands the importance and value that diversity brings,” she says.
“Because technology is continuously and rapidly changing, we welcome the perspective and value the experience of a diverse workforce,” says Marlene Reisman, assistant vice president of human resources at Verisk. “The type of technical education, training, and exposure varies across the globe, which means the diversity of our workforce broadens our business capabilities. And the best ideas come from challenging and testing current mindsets, adding what is new to known approaches. A diversity of ethnic groups represented by both genders expands our overall strategic capacity as an organization.”
IT manager Cardelle L. Banks ensures tech success at Highmark Inc
For the past seventeen years, Cardelle L. Banks has worked at Highmark Inc. Based in Pittsburgh, PA, Highmark is a national diversified health insurance and wellness company. Banks is manager of IT corporate and health initiatives; her responsibilities include IT program and project management and consumer and product initiatives.
“My daily activities include managing, coaching and developing Highmark’s IT program leadership department staff,” she explains. “I also collaborate with other departments in support of the critical success factors, goals and objectives of the IT project management office.”
Banks was born and raised in Pittsburgh. She earned her bachelors degree from Carlow University and in 2009, she received her masters in information technology project management with a concentration in information systems from Robert Morris University. Both schools are in Pittsburgh.
Beliefs deeply rooted in experience
As a woman in the technical workforce, Banks believes, “You often have to work harder at proving your ability and credibility. It is extremely important to build your skills through life-long learning.”
One aspect that Banks loves about her job is the opportunity to help others succeed in their professional lives. “Throughout my career, I have had the chance to mentor individuals and share my educational and professional experiences. I also enjoy professional networking and volunteering through community involvement,” she says.
At Highmark, Banks says, she’s worked with a wide range of diverse individuals. She believes that organizations should work hard to encourage diversity within the tech industry. “Technology is used differently by many groups of individuals. It provides value to the corporation to have as many innovative views as possible to help grow the company.”
In order to recruit diverse professionals, Highmark relies on its skilled group of talent acquisition specialists. “To supplement this effort, we have built external partnerships with various organizations to support our sourcing efforts,” says Sara Oliver-Carter, vice president of diversity and inclusion.
According to Oliver-Carter, affinity groups are a primary resource for its talent acquisition team. “A diverse workforce is critical for Highmark to remain competitive in the marketplace and to continue to attract top talent,” she says. “We are committed to creating an inclusive organization that reflects, embraces and leverages the diversity of our workplace, marketplace and community.”
AVP Gopika Kannan leads IT knowledge management at MassMutual
Gopika Kannan started working at Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual) two years ago. She is the assistant vice president of IT knowledge management in its enterprise technology organization. Headquartered in Springfield, MA, MassMutual offers a wide array of insurance products and services.
Kannan is part of the “transformative IT effectiveness” initiative. “I lead knowledge and people and culture change management for IT,” she says. Kannan is also accountable for designing and executing a knowledge enablement strategy to identify, manage and leverage individual and collective knowledge to give MassMutual a competitive edge.
Kannan’s family is of South Indian origin; she was born in New Delhi, India. “I lived in many parts of India during my formative years, including Assam in East India, Kerala and Tamil Nadu in Southern India and Punjab in North India,” says Kannan. “We are a multi-cultural family representing various language groups: Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Oriya, Kannada and English, from India and around the world. And in my family, higher education is an expectation.”
Kannan’s family is made up of policy makers, pilots, corporate leaders, scientists and educators. “The scientific and analytic rigor that I learned through my academic and professional research training has influenced both how I view a situation and my strategic thinking,” says Kannan.
She received her bachelors in psychology and cognitive science from Women’s Christian College in Chennai, India. She also has a masters in organizational behavior from the University of Madras and a PhD in management science from the Indian Institute of Science, India’s pre-eminent science and research university.
The power of diversity: both barrier and conduit
“Over the years, I have faced fewer barriers than most. I remember when I was working with a large European firm on a post-merger integration team. It was a multi-company, multi-country merger and I was the only South Asian on the team,” she says. “The challenges were less to do with my nationality and more to do with understanding the differences in culture and operating philosophies.”
Kannan’s department consists of people from multiple national, ethnic, educational and work backgrounds. They provide “diversity of thought,” which, she says, “makes for interesting discussions and learning experiences. It is very democratic, open and transparent.”
According to Kannan, MassMutual is committed to diversity through its resource groups, which provide a forum to meet and learn about what’s important to specific subcultures. “Diversity provides empathy for the user and brings us closer to the end users of our solutions, so we can design and implement better solutions that meet our customers’ needs,” she says.
MassMutual’s vice president and chief diversity officer Lorie Valle-Yañez says, “Workplace diversity in the broadest sense is important in all fields, and the technology field already has attracted a diverse group from various backgrounds and generations. As demographics change, globalization increases, and technology continues to grow and evolve, our company will need to attract the best technical people from every background.”
Leke Adesida is a VP of technology risk management for WellPoint
For the past three years, Leke Adesida has served as the staff vice president of technology risk management at WellPoint (Indianapolis, IN). Adesida is responsible for managing the risks associated with the company’s technology environment. “My team assists IT management in identifying risks and developing corrective action plans to mitigate the risks. We oversee compliance requirements for governmental regulations that impact the IT environment through targeted assessments and monitoring of issues,” he says.
Because his work environment is virtual, Adesida spends a significant amount of time on conference calls, coordinating his team’s activities, such as evaluation of the risks that a particular technology or vendor’s offering might introduce, or risk analysis of a technology change.
Adesida’s family is originally from Nigeria. In 1986, Adesida earned his bachelors in zoology from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.
“My background has had a tremendous impact on my current career path. Growing up in Nigeria, one of the things you are taught from birth is to be disciplined in all that you do,” he notes. “Not being disciplined may lead to results that are different from the expectations set by one’s parents.
“Similarly, in the corporate world there is the expectation to follow a disciplined approach to implement policies established by management to drive specific business results,” he says.
Finding ways to connect and collaborate
Working remotely from his home like many of his colleagues, Adesida likes the flexibility that comes with a virtual work environment, but there are also challenges. “Networking and building relationships with colleagues around the company can be more difficult without face-to-face interactions. I’ve overcome this by attending as many company functions as possible,” he says. “Those opportunities have helped me build and nurture a network of internal contacts who help me navigate the complex structure of our organization.”
Adesida finds it gratifying to attend meetings or other company functions and observe the company’s diverse workforce. According to Adesida, minority groups are represented throughout WellPoint’s hierarchy. “The company truly values diversity and it’s not just a slogan,” he says.
“We need diversity, because our background and where we come from and the people we interacted with growing up, all have a profound impact on our thinking process.”
WellPoint’s director of human resources and diversity Tracy Edmonds says, “Through partnerships with a broad variety of Internet job boards, websites, social media, publications and associations, including the technology-focused Black Data Processing Associates organization, we are able to cast a broad net to fill job openings. As one of the largest health benefits companies, it is a must for us to understand what drives the diverse needs of our members in order to offer solutions and services that are culturally sensitive and impactful.”
Hannah Ma: proud to be an IT manager at Philadelphia Insurance Companies
For the past seven years, Hannah Ma has been employed by Philadelphia Insurance Companies (PHLY), a niche provider of commercial property/casualty and professional liability insurance products and services. Ma is an IT manager working at PHLY’s headquarters in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.
She deals with software development and management, supporting the company’s policy administration, insurance accounting and billing as well as claims systems. She also manages a small development team, and works with customers on new developments, enhancements, system support and troubleshooting. She reviews and addresses customer inquiries and maintains documentations for application coding, audit compliance and disaster recovery functions.
Determination and a dream make adjustments to a new world easier
Originally from mainland China, Ma believes a dream can only come true if one is willing to work hard and wisely. “I came from China to the U.S. at the end of 1993. I faced many challenges, including language barriers, culture shock and financial difficulties. However, my mind was ready and I was able to adjust quickly,” she remembers.
In 1998, Ma graduated with a masters in computer science from the University of Bridgeport (CT). “Since then, I have worked in IT departments with different companies and have gradually taken on more senior positions with increasing responsibilities,” she says.
During her career, Ma has had to overcome the cultural differences between eastern and western cultures. “With the influence of eastern culture, I sometimes hesitated to ask questions when I needed to during my first few years in the U.S.,” she says. “However, western culture encourages people to ask questions whenever possible. I gradually learned the culture and was able to fit in.”
Ma believes that diversity enables colleagues to work as a team more effectively. “It drives innovative solutions to gain more diverse customers,” she says. “I am proud of being an employee at Philadelphia Insurance Companies. My company values people, encourages cultural diversity, and provides great opportunities for individual development.”
Assistant vice president of human resources Laura Boylan agrees. “This type of collaboration is particularly important in a technical field where cutting-edge and innovative technology is critical to remain competitive,” she says. “Philadelphia Insurance Companies continuously seeks to attract the most qualified, high-achieving employees regardless of individual differences. To that end we utilize a variety of recruiting resources to ensure our opportunities reach all audiences.”
Raghu Parthasarathy directs strategic resource management at Allstate
Positioning IT professionals and resources in the right areas can be critical to individual and overall success within an organization.
Since June 2012, Raghu Parthasarathy has served as director of strategic resource management for Allstate Technology and Operations (ATO). Allstate (Northbrook, IL) is an insurance company that provides auto, life, home and business insurance in addition to retirement and investment products.
“I work with our suppliers and IT organizations throughout Allstate to position resources, both employees and contractors, so we keep what’s important to us in house,” explains Parthasarathy. “I work with the Allstate delivery organizations to understand their resources and needs, and formulate a resource management strategy for all of ATO. We want to keep the key technical proficiencies inside of Allstate, and have the right people in the right places, all while increasing quality.”
Parthasarathy is originally from India and came to the United States in 1987. “I grew up in a technology-oriented household, surrounded by engineers: my great-grandfather, my uncles and my father, so that’s probably what put me in the technology field,” he says.
In 1981, Parthasarathy earned his bachelors in engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras. Several years later he went through a combined program with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school and its School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where he earned a 1999 masters degree in technology management.
Challenges of the job and the field
The global aspects of Parthasarathy’s position are what make his day-to-day work enjoyable. “The most challenging thing is, it’s all about positioning skills in the right places and doing it with an eye toward how we can best serve our customers,” he says.
One of the biggest career barriers that Parthasarathy has faced is the stereotype that people who are technically skilled cannot be managers who understand business. “Across the technology world, it’s difficult for technologists to break out of that mode and get into upper management,” he says.
Allstate, he reports, is different. The company creates a social environment where diversity is celebrated. “We have the Allstate Asian American network, just one of many employee resource groups,” says Parthasarathy. “We also have good programs for minority suppliers and programs that encourage minority and woman-owned businesses to become suppliers to Allstate.”
According to Michael Escobar, vice president and chief diversity and organization effectiveness officer at Allstate, “To maintain our status as a best company and insurance leader, we must stay ahead of the competition by creating an environment where all diverse employees are engaged and inspired to bring their ideas and perspectives to work.”
DIVERSITY-MINDED INSURANCE COMPANIES
Check websites for current listings.
|Company and location
|Allstate (Northbrook, IL)
|Auto, life, home and business insurance;
retirement and investment products
|Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association
|Trade association support and services for the thirty-eight independent and locally operated Blue Cross and Blue Shield companies across the U.S.
|The Hartford (Hartford, CT)
|Property/casualty insurance, group benefits and mutual funds
|Health Care Service Corporation (Chicago, IL)
|Blue Cross and Blue Shield health insurance in IL, NM, OK and TX
|Highmark Inc. (Pittsburgh, PA)
|Diversified health insurance and wellness
products and services
|Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company
|Life, disability income, long-term care insurance, retirement/401(k) plan services, annuities
|New York Life Insurance Company
(New York, NY) www.newyorklife.com
|Life insurance, retirement income,
investments and long-term care insurance
|Philadelphia Insurance Companies
(Bala Cynwyd, PA) www.phly.com
|Commercial property/casualty and
professional liability insurance
|The Principal Financial Group
(Des Moines, IA)
|Global investment management, retirement services, insurance solutions and asset
|Verisk Analytics (Jersey City, NJ)
|Provides information about risk to professionals in insurance, healthcare, financial services,
government, and risk management
|WellPoint (Indianapolis, IN)
|Health insurance company in the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association
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