ASU math student wins national essay contest

Paper focused on how insurance industry can become a champion for climate change

June 23, 2017

An essay contest for math people? Sounded like an intriguing idea to Arizona State University student Zhihan Jennifer Zhang.

Zhang won this year’s annual White Paper Contest sponsored by the American Association of Managing General Agents (AAMGA), the nonprofit insurance trade association of the global wholesale distribution marketplace. The competition encourages actuarial and risk management students to research and write about a topic of current interest to the insurance marketplace. AAMGA White Paper Contest winner Zhihan Jennifer Zhang AAMGA White Paper Contest winner Zhihan Jennifer Zhang with Chip Pecchio, chair of the AAMGA Education Committee. Download Full Image

Zhang’s paper, “Climate Change: An Insurance Perspective,” was voted as one of the three winners of the national competition. She is a senior triple majoring in actuarial science, business global politics and business law, and looked at the contest as “a way to combine my love for math and writing in a competitive environment.”

This was the first time a student from Arizona State University entered the annual contest. She made a positive first impression.

“Her article was well written, well researched, and provided great insight into how the insurance industry can become a champion for climate change,” said Chip Pecchio, vice president and underwriting manager of RSUI Group, Inc. and chair of the AAMGA Education Committee.

Zhang’s paper details how the impacts of climate change, with more unpredictable and serious natural disasters, would directly lead to increased claims and ultimate losses for the insurance industry. Her paper explained how “climate change presents a unique opportunity for insurance companies to highlight their dedication to sustainability. Climate change is a global issue, and the insurance industry, as the largest industry in the world, can play a key role in advancing climate research and potential ‘green tech’ solutions.”

For her winning paper, Zhang received a $1,000 scholarship and an all-expenses-paid trip for her and a professor to AAMGA’s annual meeting in Orlando, which she attended with her co-advisor, John Zicarelli. Her paper was also published in the AAMGA’s Wholesale Insurance News quarterly magazine.

One of Zhang’s favorite perks of winning was the opportunity to shadow AAMGA board members at the conference and network with the 1,200 attendees from the U.S., Australia, Canada, Germany and England.

“I think I learned a lot just from being in the environment,” Zhang explained. “It is one thing to learn about the industry in a classroom, and another to hear it applied to real-world situations. Shadowing different mentors was definitely helpful as I got to meet and follow both MGAs and insurance companies' underwriters and see how they both approached the industry.”

“Jennifer was extremely engaged and professional at the AAMGA Annual Meeting, taking advantage of the opportunity to see the underwriting and marketing aspects of the industry,” Pecchio said. “I truly enjoyed meeting her, and my staff was very impressed with her as well.”

“These days the industry is interested in a 'well-rounded' actuary whose technical and analytical skills are matched with strong verbal and written communication abilities,” said Jelena Milovanovic, professor of practice and coordinator of the actuarial science program in the School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences at Arizona State University. 

“Opportunities like the AAMGA White Paper Competition provide a unique avenue for ASU actuarial science students to practice becoming prolific writers.”

“This year was the first time Arizona State participated in the competition, and Jennifer’s paper on climate change has set the bar exceptionally high for next year,” said Milovanovic, who served as Zhang’s co-advisor on the essay.

Zhang's winning essay published in AAMGA's WIN magazine

Zhang's winning essay, "Climate Change: An Insurance Perspective," as published in AAMGA's WIN magazine.

 Zhang was also recently honored as one of ASU’s best and brightest students and awarded the Nationwide E&S/Specialty Actuarial Science Scholarship. She is currently interning at Mercer and has another internship lined up at Nationwide for the fall semester.

Would Zhang encourage other students to enter AAMGA's White Paper competition next year? 

“Definitely,” Zhang said. “Even if students don't end up in insurance, it's still interesting to explore and research pressing current issues. They are, after all, important to everyone, and thinking through how various economic sectors are impacted is a good way to critically understand the topics.”

She also emphasized the great perks of winning: “The AAMGA annual meeting isn't generally opened to student participation, and it's a great way to network.”

Past winners of the national competition have all come from universities on the East Coast. Zhang’s winning paper served as an introduction of ASU’s actuarial science program to the industry. 

“I think it was a good way to get ASU's fairly new program on the radar of many Midwest/East Coast companies whom we don't see a lot and who may not have know about us,” Zhang said.

Ken Levine, chief financial officer and vice president, P&C Specialty Lines, Nationwide, is not surprised a student from ASU’s actuarial science program won.

“Despite being a new program, the caliber of the students is very high. These students are being encouraged and developed by extremely talented faculty members, as well as an actively engaged business community that supports the program,” he said. 

“The necessary pieces are in place to make ASU’s actuarial program a premier program in the nation.”

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences


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ASU program gives Native American entrepreneurs a boost

June 23, 2017

Aiming to create ripple effect of economic change in tribal communities, Inno-NATIONS initiative hosts its inaugural cohort

The presenter went around the conference room on Friday morning, asking participants if they thought of themselves as entrepreneurs.


Not one of them — eight Native American business owners — raised their hand or said yes.

“We’re taught to be humble in that sense, not to boast,” said Kelsey Haake, a Phoenix-based certified financial manager and estate planner. “We haven’t been ingrained to think ourselves of that way.”

Haake (pictured above, center), originally from the Inupiaq Tribe in northwestern Alaska, said humility is heavily emphasized in Indian Country and that Native Americans are taught not think of themselves as better than others or go out of their way to stand out from the crowd.

Host Traci Morris smiled knowingly, anticipating the reason. But she wanted everyone to give themselves a pat on the back for a job well done.

“I never called myself an entrepreneur either, but I would argue that you’re all innovators, business people and entrepreneurs,” said Morris, ASU’s American Indian Policy Institute director and Inno-NATIONS founder. “If we weren’t great innovators and adaptors, we wouldn’t have survived Colonialism. I think Native Americans are the greatest entrepreneurs of all.”

Looking to create opportunity, the American Indian Policy Institute in collaboration with ASU’s Entrepreneurship + Innovation has developed an intertribal initiative called Inno-NATIONS, which champions indigenous entrepreneurship and economic development across America.

The goal is to support up-and-coming Native American businesses and ignite their enterprises to fuel sustainable tribal economies by rejuvenating and modernizing traditional trade networks.

Morris said by spearheading innovative partnerships and leveraging resources from ASU, tribes and community organizations, she hopes that Inno-NATIONS will create a “collision community,” causing a ripple effect of economic change in tribal communities.

This year marks the inaugural cohort with Native entrepreneurs, which met from June 22-24. After an opening reception in downtown Phoenix, they got down to business. Through a learning lab, strategy discussions, multimedia presentations and mentorship, the eight participants worked on and learned about business pitches, storytelling, indigenous innovation principles, strategic planning sessions, startup models and business goals. They also read financial statements, took quizzes, watched videos and read several articles by ASU professors.

Morris said after this weekend, they’ll also receive six months of follow-up business counseling, webinars, membership in the Arizona American Indian Chamber of Commerce and a feature article in The Visionary magazine.

The information learned in these sessions was valuable, said Chickasaw Nation citizen Kristen Dorsey. She traveled from Los Angeles to participate.

“These activities were really helpful to me in defining markets and speaking to them effectively,” said Dorsey, who has a Southeastern-inspired line of jewelry. “It was definitely worth the trip.”

For Hopi Tribe member Delvan Polelonema, who owns Naqwatsveni Skateboarding, it was more about receiving confirmation that he was on the right track.

“It’s helpful to know someone else who's been there believes in what you’re doing,” said Polelonema. “I now have more confidence in myself and my product.”

So does Haake, who by the end of the session started to get used to the idea of calling herself an "entrepreneur.”

“I’m more open to the label of calling myself an entrepreneur after this formal business training,” Haake said. “I can say it now without feeling strange about it.”

The entire Inno-NATIONS Inaugural Community Cohort includes: Marian Declay, Native Organization Entertainment; Kristen Dorsey, Kristen Dorsey Designs; Adrian Dotson, ETD Inc; Kelsey Haake, Inuit Financial Services; Rykelle Kemp, Wooden Nickel Store; Candice Mendez, Salt V.Mo Consulting; Delvan Polelonema, Naqwatsveni Skateboarding and Asia Soleil Yazzie, Lady Yazzie.

Top photo: (From left) Delvan Polelonema, owner of Naqwatsveni Skateboarding; Kelsey Haake, a Phoenix-based certified financial manager and estate planner; and Rykelle Kemp, owner of the Wooden Nickel, listen during the Inno-NATIONS workshop Friday in Phoenix. by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now