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

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 a year 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, Ross tells Insurance Networking News.

[Read more: Why The Biggest Insurers Are Going Back To School]

Katherine Rowe, Smith College provost, says that “this collaboration enables us to bring additional women to a very important field.” But beyond that, she says, MassMutual’s model serves the entire community of students and employees in helping transform the industry.

“It’s a tremendously exciting strategy [for a company] to build an entrepreneurial think tank inside itself, and make the curricula that students work available to the whole company,” she says. “As I talk with students about their paths into professional lives, there are rare opportunities where you get to forge a new sense of a professional role. MassMutual is offering that opportunity to rethink what it means to work in the insurance industry.”

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. “We built network effects to talk to professors at each of the schools, and I started to get inbound inquiries. It was a grassroots effort driven by this natural alignment between the skills and the industry.”

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.”

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