Last year, looking to ramp up its big data and analytics capabilities quickly, MassMutual hired seven graduates from an ambitious new program the insurer created in collaboration with several colleges in the Springfield, Mass., area. MassMutual executives, led by SVP of analytics and research Gareth Ross, worked with faculty and administration to combine extended coursework for graduate students with real-world projects at the company, including machine learning, lead scoring, and natural language processing.

“At their core, insurance companies are vast decision-making engines that take and manage risk. The inputs into this engine are data, and the capabilities created by the field of data science can and will impact every process in the company — from underwriting to claims management to security,” Ross explains. “Within a decade, I believe that this will be a core function of all insurers.”

Participants work in a startup-style office in Amherst, Mass., rather than at the company’s Springfield headquarters, to foster a more collaborative, startup-like environment. Now a year older and wiser, MassMutual is taking the program to another level. The life insurer announced earlier this year that through its program, it would work with Smith and Mount Holyoke colleges — traditionally women’s schools — to “support women in fields of science and engineering” even if they don’t go right to work for MassMutual.

And it’s not just the women’s colleges that are increasing their engagement with the program. Ross says that he has spent much of the time since the program started trying to engage professors at a higher level. (Other colleges involved in the program include Amherst College, Hampshire College, and UMass Amherst.) The company hosted a data science salon for professors to discuss major issues in the field and get more involved with helping develop the academic-corporate partnership.

“It’s a very collaborative field, and we wanted to have a close collaboration of the corporate goals and the body of knowledge represented by the academics in the area,” Ross says.

MassMutual says it will hire up to 10 students per year, and Ross said he had received about five times that many applications in February.

“It’s so hard to find to seasoned talent, but the first eight months were a resounding success,” Ross says. “This has proven itself to be valuable and we are scaling up. In fact, we recently launched Haven Life, an online insurance agency that uses an algorithmic underwriting tool and series of related decisions that was created in collaboration with our team of data scientists.”


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