Share your Story Part I: Beginnings – Olga Jacobs

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This week’s Share your Story features Olga Jacobs, 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 Olga Jacobs to discuss her uniquely reluctant & kismet path to fellowship, as well as the beginnings of her actuarial career.

Cynthia and I had a blast speaking with Olga as we were struck by her vivacity. We are excited to share Olga’s story and perspective.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started with actuarial science?

A: I just kind of fell into this career. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was a girl that was good at math and science. People told me “You should be an engineer.” So off I go to major in engineering. And I remember being at the end of my sophomore year and looking at some fluid in a tube in a lab and asking myself “what am I doing here?” So, I started reading all the requirements of all the other majors to see what I could transfer into that would take all the math, science, chem and physics that I had completed. I settled on math because everything could transfer over, and I could graduate on time.

I also thought that math would give me a foundation in logical thinking that I could apply to anything. At this point, I still had never heard the words “actuarial science.” When it came time to look for an internship for the summer after my junior year, I sent my resume to every company that was coming to my college looking for math majors.

One company replied back and it was The Travelers. I interviewed and got an offer for their summer actuarial internship program. I had no idea what that was. I’m surprised I didn’t go look up “actuarial” in a dictionary – too much effort? If it was today, I could have and would have simply googled it on my phone! At the end of that summer, I got a job offer. But I still wasn’t convinced that actuarial science was for me. At that time in the United States many companies had these entry level management development programs. So, I went back my senior year and I applied to those at different companies. I thought I wanted to do Wall Street, but after a few rounds there my hopes got crushed. So, I’m like, you know, I got this job at the Travelers, I guess I’ll take it. I was lucky that during that time in the U.S. the actuarial student supply was low, and demand was high. Companies were willing to give offers to people like me that had never sat for an actuarial exam.

Off I go, accepting that full time job. I graduated in May, sat for my first exam in July and passed. Took the second exam and passed. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t really commit myself to this career until I got my FSA. Because once I got my FSA, I literally said to myself, “You know what? I think I’m going to be an actuary.” And here I am! Looks like it turned out okay!

Q: Do you think some of it was protectionism out of the fear that you wouldn’t get your FSA?

A: Yeah, probably. When I went in for that first job with Travelers, I had no idea what the actuarial exams were about and whether I could pass them. I kept saying, if I don’t pass, I’m going back to school and I’m going to get my MBA. That was my failsafe. I see now how actuarial fits even with my major which was a B.S. in math with a business option. Which meant that for your electives you took accounting, marketing, management, finance, and economics. The actuarial profession ended up being this fit of being a business leader who just happens to have a background and training in how to identify and manage financial risk.

Q: What were some of your favorite moments early on in your career? Some highlights of your time becoming an actuary or reaching your FSA?

A: Well, I think I was really lucky with starting out at a great company like The Travelers that had an established actuarial program which included rotations. The highlight, though I didn’t realize this at the time, was “Okay Olga you’ve been here for 18 months tell us what your top three rotation choices are, you’re going to go and rotate.” And every time I was scared. I loved my team, and I loved my boss, I thought the team and the work I was doing was the best ever. But at the end of each rotation, I would feel exactly the same way. Being part of a rotational program I had the opportunity to work on so many different things. In one rotation I’m learning technical skills on how to code in APL. In another rotation I’m learning how to give a presentation to a client. I had the opportunity to learn all the good, the bad and the ugly from different management styles, different team dynamics, different leadership lessons.

These are valuable things I may not have been conscious of in the beginning, but when I started to move through my career, I looked back and went wow, was I lucky. I was lucky that I had all that opportunity and – even though you would say forced – I took advantage of it. Today I see so much hesitation and resistance from those early in their careers to rotations and the opportunity to move to different teams and learning different things.

There’s a quote that I love by Susan Wojcicki, and it says, “Rarely are opportunities presented to you in a perfect way. In a nice little box with a yellow bow on top. Here, open it, it’s perfect. You’ll love it. Opportunities – the good ones – are messy, confusing, and hard to recognize. They’re risky. They challenge you.”

I bring up that quote because I see rotational programs as those rare opportunities presented to you with that yellow ribbon on top. They are also messy and confusing, and they will challenge you, but they are gift wrapped and presented to you.

Q: What made you decide to go the SOA route?

A: When I was starting out, those first few exams were the same for the Society of Actuaries and the Casualty Actuarial Society. So, you didn’t have to make your decision early. Also, in my generation, we didn’t come out of college with four or five exams. It was zero or one, so you had an opportunity to go through a company, be exposed to different products, lines of business, actuarial disciplines all while taking exams. And the word luck comes up again for me because The Travelers was a multi-line company, which we don’t have today.

We don’t have companies that do property/casualty and health and life. I never did a rotation in property/casualty to experience it to make my decision of one actuarial society over the other. I probably had some sort of basic thinking where I thought that one day that they’re going to build an indestructible car. So, boom you’re not going to need car insurance anymore. But are we ever going to build an indestructible human being? No, people are still going to die, people are still going to get sick. And those morbidity and mortality risks are what you find in the SOA vs CAS. So, SOA it was.

Q: Did you fail any exams at all? What would you say was the hardest part of exams for you?

A: I went through the system that the SOA moved to after decades of just having 10 exams. When I first started taking exams it was that system where they took exam three and turned it into three small exams. I think I passed like 30 exams to get my FSA! I did really well on my exams, I passed almost every single one on my first try. But I went slower than expected because I had a lack of confidence in sitting and passing 3 exams at the same time. I would be fearful that I would spread myself really thin and get three fives, so I would take one part and get a 10.

I remember failing what might have been called exam 135 Numerical Analysis. But I failed it because I didn’t know how to use the SOA calculator. I loved this calculator called the HP-35-C, which uses this notation where you don’t enter two, then plus, then two and then it gives you four. You do two enter, two enter, plus enter and that gives four. So, I would do practice problems for the exam using this calculator. I then got into the exam, and I kept punching in the number hitting equal and then trying to punch in the other number and I didn’t know how to use the calculator.

I learned a lesson: practice using the calculator that you can only use for your exam. I love learning and didn’t mind studying. But at the end of taking all those actuarial exams I said I’m never taking a test again!


Article written by Marilyn Simpson; transcribed & edited by Cynthia Perez.
Keep your eye for Part II of Olga Jacob’s blog where we take a deeper dive into remote work, being a woman in the actuarial field and more…

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