This week’s Share your Story features Monique Hacker, FSA, MAAA. This interview will be released in two parts so be sure to keep your eye out for Part II!
Earlier this month, my colleague, Cynthia Perez, and I spoke with Monique Hacker to discuss the beginnings of her actuarial career as well as her involvement with the International Association of Black Actuaries (IABA), and actuarial community at large. Growing up as a Track & Field star championed Monique’s stamina & determination as she pursued a career in actuarial science and overcame the greatest obstacle for actuaries – exams. Her unique perspective and energy was felt from the moment the conversation began, as she highlights the importance of balance and prioritizing happiness within a highly competitive and ambitious industry.
Q: Monique, tell us a bit about yourself, where were you born? When did you first come to the states?
A: I was born in Jamaica and grew up there. I moved to the US when I was 17. I pretty much spent all my teenage years and childhood in Jamaica.
Q: So, when you first came to the States, I’m assuming that it had nothing to do with being an actuary?
A: That’s correct. I do know several people, including some friends, who migrated here because of school or to pursue a particular profession. I wasn’t one of them. My reasons were purely personal.
Q: How did you get started in Actuarial Science? And did you major in Actuarial science in college?
A: I was introduced briefly to the profession when I was about 12 years old. My friend and I were hanging out at school (in Jamaica), and we were trying to figure out what we were going to do as a profession, given the fact that we both loved math. At the time, the professions we were familiar with were teaching and researching Math. She mentioned that she had a cousin who works as something called an actuary. I immediately asked, “What’s that?” to which she replied, “Well, they make a lot of money.”
I said, “Okay, sign me up!!” That was how I got introduced to the profession. For college, I attended Binghamton University in upstate New York. Initially, Actuarial Science was not the profession or career I pursued. I tried accounting and business law, just trying to figure out what I was passionate about and what I wanted to do. I kept coming back to the fact that I liked math and analytical classes.
Junior year, I decided to look more into this actuarial science thing. Binghamton at the time, did not have an actuarial science major. I spoke to my professor, the head of the math department, and he recommended majoring in Math and Economics if I wanted to become an Actuary. I double majored in both and that was important to prepare me for the actuarial profession.
Q: Did you have any internships or exams before your first role?
A: No, I did not have any internships and nor did I have any actuarial exams. I didn’t know what I wanted to do until late. Because I made my decision so late, I knew I needed to make my resume stand out. Having some internship experience would help tremendously. I needed to be creative and proactive. I called around different local companies, that I thought having experience with them, would look impressive on my resume. I cold called several offices and spoke with someone there to ask about any opportunities in their office. I remember saying to them, ‘I just need to put something on my resume. You don’t need to pay me. I will come into your office. I will get coffee, file paperwork, whatever it is, just so I can put something on my resume.’ Begging definitely helped, ha. Even though I didn’t have an actuarial internship, I did get some exposure working in an office and was able to put that on my resume, and it paid off.
Q: Yeah, that definitely shows that you’re proactive. Expanding on that, what made you decide to join the SOA, and pursue a life insurance track?
My decision wasn’t based on deciding what track to pursue. I did not have the liberty of doing that, given I had no exams or internships. I would have taken any opportunity that presented itself to me. In retrospect, I didn’t choose the life insurance track, I would say it chose me. Out of college, my first actuarial job was pension consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). About 18 months into it, I realized that wasn’t what I was passionate about. A friend of mine that left PwC went to work for New York Life Insurance company. He and I talked about the differences between his experience working in an insurance company versus consulting. He had lots of positive things to say which led to my decision to apply for a job with New York Life. I would say most of us just take the opportunities presented to us, and if it’s a good experience, we often stay. If it’s not, then we move on to another company or another track.
Q: So, in terms of your personal journey with the exam process, I know you said you didn’t have exams while starting at your first job but did you feel like you completed the process fairly quickly? What was your experience with it?
A: I don’t know if I would say fairly quickly; I failed some along the way. I think it was a little over six years till I passed my last exam.
I was involved with track and field for a lot of years and doing that prepared me for the hard work that comes with taking the exams, the discipline needed, and the drive to never give up. When you fail an exam, it’s tough, especially if you studied hard for it. It’s not a fun journey, but it is very rewarding. There are some people that are really smart and can just pass the exams, with minimal effort, but the majority of us have to put in hours of studying and practice. My journey was not any different than the majority. But being an athlete has definitely helped me to persevere and just be willing to put in the extra effort that was needed.
Q: How have you seen the industry evolve as a whole since you first started or what are some main differences you see?
A: To me, the biggest thing that comes to mind is the number of times exams have changed. I’ve graded exams as a volunteer for over 13 years and there have been numerous times where I have had to educate myself on the new structure. I feel like it changes or gets tweaked every year. Understandably so, as we need to prepare future actuaries to compete against those in similar disciplines.
Advancements in technology have also grown over time. When I took exams, they were all administered as paper exams, and now there are so many electronic options. We also had to wait months to get all of our results, and now there are some with results that are immediate.
There has also been an increased focus on improving diversity within the profession. There have been lots of new partnerships with organizations like IABA.
Q: What is a lesson that you learned early on in your career and then a lesson that you learned later on?
A: Having mentors is crucial to navigating Corporate America. Be open to having mentors and networking as much as possible. I would encourage others to take advantage of mentoring opportunities. Get someone who has been where you want to be. Seek their advice and guidance while you’re on your journey and building your career. Don’t limit the number of mentors; everyone has unique perspectives and experiences that you can learn from. They will give varying advice and guidance; some will resonate, and others won’t.
The wider you cast your net, the better.
Lastly, it is important that you prioritize what’s important to you and being happy with your choices. Some people’s aspirations are becoming CEOs, Chief Actuaries or CFOs. Others’ aspirations might be having a good quality life without the burdens associated with leading an organization. So, accept the role that makes you happy.
For me, what makes me happiest is balancing work and family. I think everyone should map their own path to success and find where it merges with happiness. Don’t compare yourself to the successes of others as you may or may not match theirs. Instead, celebrate your own accomplishments, no matter how big or small because it belongs to you, and no one can take that away from you.
Article written by Marilyn Simpson; transcribed & edited by Cynthia Perez.
Keep your eye for Part II where we discuss the IABA and Monique’s community involvement. Interested in sharing your story or learning about a specific topic? Email us at –firstname.lastname@example.org