An All-Female Hackathon Shines a Light on the Need for Diversity in Insurance and Technology

Attracting women from a variety of backgrounds, the two-day event sought to spark innovation and provide support for the next generation of female technology leaders.
By: | June 20, 2019

Diversity and inclusion have become a top priority for the insurance industry, where only 11% of C-suite positions are held by women and even fewer by women of color. The picture looks very similar in technology.

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In 2018, only 20% of chief information officers at Fortune 500 companies were women. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 26% of the entire computing workforce in the U.S. is comprised of women.

“It’s a dual challenge: the lack of women in insurance and in technology. We are at the nexus of both,” said Sastry Durvasula, chief digital officer and chief data & analytics officer for Marsh.

In an effort to bridge the diversity gap while also driving its own efforts at innovation and digital transformation, Marsh launched its first-ever all-women “hackathon” in April of this year in New York City and Phoenix. Dubbed #ReWRITE — for women, risk, insurance, technology and empowerment — the event drew 60 women from a variety of professional and cultural backgrounds and challenged them to design a new solution addressing a common pain point in the insurance process.

THE WINNERS. Team Breeze (l to r): Xinyi Qian, Jing Li, and Paulina Barragán

The winners and runners-up not only won prizes of $25,000 and $15,000, respectively, but also got the opportunity to continue working on their ideas with Marsh Digital Labs.

“We wanted to create opportunities for learning, networking and empowerment,” Durvasula said. “The hackathon shows we’re serious about putting our agenda into action.”

Bridging the Diversity Gap

Many of the hackers were college students, recruited to the hackathon via Marsh’s partnerships with several universities, including Princeton, Stanford and Columbia. Others were professionals working for big tech companies and startups alike. Some were solo coders looking to participate in something bigger.

“One woman flew up to New York from Atlanta by herself, because she has never heard of an all-female hackathon and was intrigued,” Durvasula said.

Valeria Torres-Olivares, a rising sophomore at Princeton University, participated alongside her younger sister, still a high school student. She said that even at her young age, the lack of minority women in technology is evident.

“Usually at tech events, I am one of the only Latinas there. There are very few women of color in this field,” she said. “Initiatives like this one are great opportunities to learn but also to meet other women like ourselves and empower each other.”

Torres-Olivares and her team built a digital ecosystem to help small business owners manage all of their insurance policies in one place.

“We wanted to create opportunities for learning, networking and empowerment. The hackathon shows we’re serious about putting our agenda into action.” — Sastry Durvasula, chief digital officer and chief data & analytics officer, Marsh

“They could create a profile on the app and upload all of their data. As they input new data, it is aggregated so that they don’t have to fill out the same forms over and over again. It gets pulled into the right spot. They can manage everything from their homeowner’s insurance to the employee benefits for their workers in one place,” she said.

The app also included an AI-driven chatbot that would recommend actions designed to help lower their premiums.

Jing Li, a data science major at Columbia University, said she had never seen an event with so much support and resources available for women hackers.

Sastry Durvasula, Chief Digital Officer and Chief Data & Analytics Officer, Marsh

“The whole floor was dedicated to us,” she said. Li believes that a social bias in education has traditionally pushed more men into STEM majors, while women are nudged towards liberal arts. As that bias fades, however, “you’re going to start seeing more women in technology.”

Li’s team built a platform to help small business owners shop for insurance. The AI-driven algorithm takes the organization’s data and real-time marketplace data to match the business to the best solutions available for them.

A Blank Slate and Freedom to Experiment

Fed a steady stream of pizza and coffee, the hackers wrote code late into the night. Because many participants had no background in insurance, they spent the first portion of the two-day event getting a crash course in insurance and risk management.

“Teams from Marsh Digital Labs created videos and other materials so they could familiarize themselves with the industry on a macro level,” Durvasula said. “They were presented with examples of real-life challenges that Insurtech is trying to solve, but ultimately [the participants] were able to devise their own problem statements. They were given a blank slate.”

They were also given access to Bluestream, Marsh’s digital broking platform, and a ledger in an IBM blockchain, so that they had some infrastructure to work with. The solutions created generally fell into three buckets: digital broking and distribution, real-time risk management, and machine-learning-driven recommendations.

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“I was surprised by the level of code produced,” Durvasula said.

Encouraged by the event’s success, Durvasula said there are plans to replicate the hackathons across the globe, beginning in Europe, with the help of global nonprofit Girls in Tech. Marsh is also staying connected with participants to help them flesh out their ideas and turn them into marketable products.

“We are actively working with them and their universities to forge internship opportunities so they can take their ideas to the next level,” he said. “I think that’s the real prize from this competition — getting access to our infrastructure and the insight of our experts, and also some room to experiment.” &

Katie Dwyer is a freelance editor and writer based out of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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