Arta Team Spotlight
Q&A with Samita "Sam" Malik—Head of Insurance at Arta
Arta Team Spotlight
October 14, 2022
Sam is an insurance and financial services executive with over 20 years of experience spanning Asia, Europe, and the United States. She’s been the Head of Business Development and Innovation at Aegon Asia, the Chief Distribution Officer at MetLife, a consultant at Bain and Company, and an insurtech entrepreneur. She’s currently a board member of One Degree, one of Hong Kong’s first virtual general insurers. A bit of Sam’s advice just might change your life (just ask her colleagues that finally secured life insurance after one of her talks). Currently, Sam is the resident insurance expert at Arta.
You have a wealth of experience in insurance and financial services. Can you tell us how you first got started? Take us back to the beginning - where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in India. My dad was in the army and my mom was an Olympian sharpshooter, not the typical career for most Indian moms.
I lost my dad when I was 12 years old. Luckily, he had life insurance that the Indian Army provided. I know that played a big part in keeping the family stable until my mom could get her bearings. I wouldn't say this experience was the reason I got into the insurance industry but it certainly shaped my understanding of how important it is to be covered in worst-case scenarios. At 18, I left India for the United States. For Indian kids in the 90s, it was the ultimate dream to come to America and make something of yourself. I was on my way!
During our talk, you mentioned that you started in insurance after grad school. Later on, you tried something else but ultimately went back to insurance. Can you walk me through your career progression and what you learned along the way about insurance? What brought you back after you tried something else?
I was in an economics PhD program and realized I didn’t want to be an academic. So after my masters, I took a role with an insurance company. I enjoyed it - it’s an intellectually stimulating topic with lots of numbers and analytics. From there, I decided to get an MBA and wanted to explore other industries so joined Bain consulting. But I kept getting staffed on insurance cases and ended up becoming an insurance expert on a wider range of topics. MetLife recruited me from Bain and I spent more than six years with them across New York and Hong Kong. I also worked with Aviva and Aegon while I was in Hong Kong. I learned to appreciate the vital role that insurance plays in people's lives and in the economy at large. And to recognize the large opportunity that lies in providing people unbiased and simple to understand advice about insurance.
Can you tell me what the insurance industry is like? What do you find fascinating about it? How has it changed over your career?
The insurance industry is vast - just in the US, it's more than $2T. I’m personally fascinated by how actuaries take uncertain future risks and convert them, using math, into certain small payments in the near term. But the industry has been slow to respond to technology-led shifts in consumer behavior over the last two decades. In my roles at MetLife, Aviva and Aegon, I was an internal advocate for digital adoption and data led product development, and while I had some success with partners like Tencent and Flipkart, overall, I felt that incumbent insurer incentives and culture are misaligned to manage disruptive levels of change.
You have a masters in economics from the University of Virginia and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business. That’s quite a lot of financial education! How did you first learn about personal finance?
One of my earliest memories was going to the bank with my dad. He opened an account for me. Back in the day, you got a booklet with your account and balances. I was fascinated by the concept that there was this institution that keeps your money for you and helps you grow it. My parents taught me to save, but not much beyond that.
I gained a true awareness of personal finance while in business school. My education opened my eyes to the world of venture capital and private equity. That’s where I learned how people use capital to make more money. As part of my work, I learned a lot about insurance too.
When my husband and I finally earned enough money to have some savings after our MBAs, we decided to learn more about investing in the stock market. We started with 401ks and IRAs and then moved into picking individual stocks. My husband worked in marketing and predicted Facebook and Google would be marketing machines. So, we started with those. If we used a product or service that we loved, we considered investing in that company’s stock. That was our approach and how we started learning the basics. Over time, we diversified with real estate but still have a lot to learn there.
In 2008, we created a personalized balance sheet and goal tracker using Excel. We affectionately named it “the trackonator” and we’ve been using it ever since.
My husband and I usually kick off the New Year with a financial planning session using the trackonator. It’s how we track everything in one place, from goals to investment returns. We set time aside to focus on it and try to make it fun by including it in the New Year’s festivities. One year we planned a retreat with the core purpose of updating the trackonator.
First, we review how our investments performed against our projections from the previous year. Then we think through our goals and vision for the upcoming year. Next, we think through how our finances fit into the plan. Finally, we update it all with new projections in the trackonater.
We think about how we can do better moving forward. Are we on the right trajectory? Are we setting up our kids in the best way possible? Are we on track for retirement? Are there any new goals or dreams we want to pursue? We make our plan on New Year’s and then execute it over the year. A couple of years back, while updating the trackonator, we realized we were in a position to follow our dreams and we both took the plunge into start-ups!
One of your main goals for the trackonator is to set up your children for the future. How are you teaching them about personal finance?
We talk to our children about finance and investing as much as we can. The world of stocks, entrepreneurship, and loans are all concepts we talk about at the finance table.
We also coach them on topics that are relevant to their specific interests so it “sticks” with them. For example, my son is musical so we talk about finances as it relates to his passion. He’s a DJ and when he started making money doing gigs, we used that as an opportunity to talk to him about finances as a small business owner.
When you run a business and earn money, what can you do with that money? The first option is simple: you can save it and put it in the bank. The next option is more advanced: you can borrow money, buy better equipment and then use it to earn more money, when it makes financial sense to do so, of course. A slightly more advanced option: you can give people equity in your future earnings and take some capital now to grow your business.
We try to teach beyond the basics so they get exposed to many concepts. And just to be clear, he’s going the simple route and just putting what he earns in the bank right now. :-)
We didn't get a proper financial education from our parents so we feel it's our responsibility to give it to our kids. Finance is something to teach them, just like nutrition, health, or anything else. We’re grateful for the knowledge we’ve gained in personal finance and want to make sure we pass that knowledge to our children.
When I ask your colleagues what they wish they learned sooner about personal finance, everyone says insurance and points to your company presentation. Why is insurance so important? Aside from basic life insurance, are there other forms of insurance that people are surprised (and thankful) to learn about?
Because of the prevalence of “pushy” commission based intermediaries, I think a lot of people have put-off getting good advice about insurance. Insurance protection is a vital part of a financial plan - whether you’re just starting out building your wealth or you already have a nest-egg and are in estate planning mode. And most people don’t realize how incredibly simple and affordable it is. Aside from life insurance, which anyone with dependents should have, disability and umbrella are two other forms of insurance that people are very often thankful to learn about, particularly in the US.
As a mother and a finance professional, what’s your perspective on the role women play in family finances?
Many of the women I know take charge of their finances. We run our financial lives. There is so much talk in the media that women take a back seat in household finances. How much of that is myth or reality?
In dual-career households, I see a lot of joint decisions happen between couples, at least among my network of friends and acquaintances. My little data subset suggests that it's quite evenly split. In some instances, it may be one part of the couple executing the decisions ultimately, because they may have more knowledge based on working in finance, or may just enjoy it more. In the professional sphere, research shows that women make better portfolio managers and investors. So for me, it's important to bring this perspective to the forefront when it comes to women and finance.