After 24 years in the insurance industry, Karen S. Lynch’s enthusiasm and passion for health care have never waned. “Quite honestly, what gets me up every single morning is the fact that I know I have the ability to affect someone’s life as they go through their journey of health care,” Lynch says.

This January, Lynch — née Rohan, after being married this summer — became the first woman to serve as president of Aetna in the company’s 160-year history.

Originally from tiny Ware, Mass. (Lynch joked that she’s spent her entire life answering the question, “Where’s Ware?”), her interest in finance and accounting started in high school when a CPA visited her class. “I always knew you could rely on a technical skill,” she says.

 With an insight not typical of many teenagers, she believed accounting would open a wide range of career options—and it has. After earning an accounting degree at Boston College, Lynch pursued her CPA. She started her career in the Boston office of Ernst & Young where she specialized in insurance.

About 10 years into her career, Lynch decided to go back to school while working full-time to earn her MBA at Boston University. “I wanted to broaden my financial background to have more exposure to the business aspects of running a company,” she says. “It really was part of my jump start to get me into running businesses.”

Following her time at Ernst & Young, Lynch spent 18 years at Cigna, where she held a number of roles, including president of the group disability, dental, and vision care businesses. Because  Lynch specialized in insurance at Ernst & Young, working for Cigna felt like a natural fit. Lynch also has personal reasons why she felt drawn to the health insurance industry. In her early 20s, her aunt had breast and lung cancer and passed away as a result. “She smoked her entire life,” Lynch says.

Her aunt’s death made her realize that health is one of the most important things anyone can possess. “I have a pretty strong passion around health and wellness from that experience,” Lynch says.

That passion has extended to philanthropic work. Lynch is an honorary co-chair of the Komen Connecticut Race for the Cure. This year more than 600 Aetna employees participated in the race, she says. After leaving Cigna, Lynch served as president of Magellan Health Services.

Then, three years ago, she was recruited by Aetna. And since joining, it’s been a historic and volatile time, Lynch says. One of her first big challenges occurred approximately three months after joining the company when she led the integration of Coventry Health Care. “At the time, it was the largest health care acquisition in decades,” she says.

Lynch has led Aetna through the transformation to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA)exchange-based market, which the company entered in early 2014.

“We’re seeing a bigger change and bigger disruption in health care than we’ve ever seen before with the advent of the ACA,” Lynch says. “It’s become much more consumer-driven.” According to the company, Aetna is the largest provider of on-exchange insurance coverage in the country.

It’s ambitious, but Lynch also says she is determined to simplify the healthcare system. “It couldn’t be more of an exciting time to be the president of a company leading 50,000 employees through that kind of transformation,” she says.

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