CAS Profile: Denise Olson

My name is Denise Olson. I currently work at Zurich North America as the Head of New Programs leading a cross functional due diligence team. I graduated from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (Go Big Red!) with a double major in Actuarial Science and Math. In my 30-year career, I’ve spent about 20 years as a pricing actuary. The other 10 years, I’ve been in multiple non-actuarial roles including underwriting, product development and leading a large systems project. I am a Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society (FCAS) and Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU).

Why would you recommend a career in the insurance industry to current college students?
Insurance is endlessly fascinating and constantly changing. During my career, I’ve worked on taxis, crop insurance, lawyers professional liability and entertainment insurance just to name a few. There is no end to the variety of roles and types of insurance to learn about.

Why did you become an actuary?
From a very early age, I knew that math was my strongest and favorite subject. As I entered high school, I really didn’t know what I could do with a math major, but knew it was my passion. I talked with my high school calculus teacher and told her I knew I didn’t want to teach. She suggested Actuarial Science. Since I grew up in Nebraska and UNL has such a strong Actuarial Science program, my future was decided. Talk about a life changing 10-minute conversation.

Why did you take a non-actuarial role?
I was fortunate to work with another actuary who moved into a business lead position and thought I’d really like to try that if the right opportunity came along. I was terrified to move into my first underwriting manager role, but knew that I could fall back on my actuarial background if it didn’t work out. Taking that risk has paid off in so many ways for me.

What drew you to a career in property and casualty insurance?
I had no idea that Property and Casualty Insurance even existed when I was in college. We had a very Life/Health heavy curriculum. When I interviewed on campus for full time positions (back before the days of lots of internships), I interviewed with CNA in Chicago. They had a life division and I asked to be placed there when they made me an offer, but they said the offer was only for P&C. My thinking was that at worst, I could switch to Life/Health later if I wanted to. My first pricing role was in Entertainment Insurance and I was hooked on day 1 when I read the underwriting guidelines.

What can students do now to prepare for a career in the industry?
First, be curious – what questions do you have about every situation? Ask. Ask more than one source. Meet people that aren’t like you to find out their perspective. Go deep on what interests you and never stop learning. Second, learn how to communicate in a simple, straightforward way without using technical jargon. I used to practice explaining concepts to my mother, who is a retired dental assistant. No one cares about all the hours you spent or the details of how you did something. They want to know what they should do with the information you’re providing. Finally, learn to fail. You will make mistakes. How will you learn from them? What can you do better next time? How resilient can you be?

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