Amalgamated Life Insurance’s CRO Ellen Dunkin Talks About What It Takes to Get Risk Management a Seat at the Table

2021 RIMS President Ellen Dunkin of Amalgamated Life Insurance shares her story and how she worked to get risk management face time with upper management.
By: | May 7, 2021

R&I: What was your first job?

My first job was in high school. I worked at the local board of elections registering voters. I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I rode my bicycle the eight miles each way to get there. It gave me a whole new appreciation for voter registration.

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R&I: How did you come to your current position? 

I began my career as a corporate attorney in a large Wall Street law firm doing corporate deals. One of my biggest clients was Marsh & McLennan. When I left my law firm, I went to work for Marsh and that was my first exposure to risk management. There, the risk management department was part of the legal department, and we all reported to the general counsel. When I left Marsh, I joined RIMS as RIMS’ general counsel.  That opened the doors to future jobs in risk management.

My employer after RIMS was purchased and when I was looking for a job I got a phone call from the Association of Corporate Counsel, of which I am a member, saying that somebody was trying to get a hold of me.

The caller said he was the president of an insurance company and the Association employee though he might be trying to sell me life insurance. I said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe he wants to offer me a job.’ And that’s precisely what it was. I went in for an interview, and here I am.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in risk management and the insurance industry since you’ve been in it?

When I was first exposed to risk management, risk managers, in most people’s minds, were insurance buyers. The job description really wasn’t much broader than that.

Now, the industry has really expanded and people view risk managers more as risk professionals who can be strategic partners, involved in enterprise risk management, or involved in technology or data and benchmarking.

Many more of us have a seat at the management table than we did in the 90s, 20-25 years ago. And, you have more and more programs at the university level that actually help people learn a profession.

R&I: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career? 

My biggest challenge has been getting to the table and being included as part of senior management. When I began at my current job, the CEO used to have weekly senior management meetings. While, I was hired in a dual role as general counsel and chief risk officer, I wasn’t included in those senior management meetings.

I went into the CEO’s office very shortly thereafter and I said, I’m the general counsel. I’m the chief risk officer. If I don’t know what’s going on in the company, I can’t help you manage your risks and I can’t do what I need to do.’ And he said, ‘you’re right.’ I guess he never really thought of it like that before.

This is why, to me, it’s very, very important that risk professionals learn to be assertive and to speak up. Because sometimes people just don’t think to include the risk professional in the broader conversation.

R&I: Who has been your mentor(s) and why?

My first mentor was actually my dad. He was a judge, and he certainly was influential in leading to my legal path.

It was always important to him that we – my sister and I – had a profession where we could support ourselves and that we could be out there as professionals. Although maybe the being able to support yourself piece of it came from my mother, but they both believed in it. My father was definitely there for me in the beginning days of my career.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

I think we’re providing solutions. We’re not naysayers. We believe in innovation and growth. We’ve definitely broken down silos, especially with enterprise risk management and strategic risk management. We’ve been proactive with data and technology. Those are some good things that have come about in the community.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

Being indispensable. We need to be able to communicate and demonstrate our value. It’s better now, but I don’t think it’s good enough. So, we have to remind people and make sure we’re linking risk management with organizational success.

R&I: How would you say technology has impacted the risk management profession?

I think there’s some great technology out there which helps people identify and manage their risks. There is better forecasting and it is allowing us to be more interconnected with improved communications. But on the flip side of that, I think they’re still a little way off from finding affordable solutions for smaller companies.

If you’re a one-person risk management department, it’s very hard for you to justify the cost of some technologies, even though they will probably help you do your job more efficiently.

R&I: As the 2021 RIMS president, what are you most excited for this year?

Well, it’s a year like no other, although last year was a year like no other.

I’m excited to help build strategies for RIMS to help them adapt, one being RIMS LIVE 2021 – and it’s all virtual. We’re going to be networking virtually, we’re going to be engaging and learning virtually. So I’m really excited about that.

And then just the new risks that have come out in the past year. With the pandemic, there’s been a lot of issues arising out of business interruption. There have been businesses that have shut down and are now reopening. There’s a lot of litigation in the business interruption area and policies related to business interruption.

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We have data security issues because everybody’s interacting virtually. Lastly, I’m excited to learn from all of the risk professionals who routinely share their experiences, challenges, strategies and success stories with RIMS.

R&I: What’s your favorite book or movie?

My favorite book is The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.

R&I: What is your favorite drink?

I really like spiced apple cider.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

Professionally, I have to say that I’m proudest of being able to bring a non-existing ERM program into a robust ERM program. I’ve done that now in two companies, my current position and my prior position. It’s always nice to see the fruits of your labors pan out.

Personally, I think I’m proudest of my three sons.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you’ve ever engaged in?

This is, without a doubt, the easiest question. Whitewater rafting on a class three river in an inflatable kayak that had a leak. It wrapped itself around a rock and I had to be rescued. &

Courtney DuChene is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]