Risk Management

The Profession

The insurance director of Novartis Corp. talks about the heroic mission of teachers, swimming with sharks, and the most interesting place she ever visited.
By: | February 19, 2015

R&I: How did you come to work in risk management?

I was hired out of college to work as a liability representative for a medical malpractice insurance company. My job was to counsel their doctors — their insureds — about risk management: how to avoid claims, making sure medical records were well documented, etc. It was a great opportunity to learn about the business.

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

I think the risk management community is doing a lot right now. We’re doing a great job of communicating the value we can add to our organizations and are gaining recognition from the C-suite for the importance of our work. We’re also getting better at attracting students and young professionals early on by designing educational programs that meet their needs.

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

There are a number of industries that could probably be doing a better job of promoting women, including risk management and insurance. The majority of senior positions are filled by men.

There are opportunities out there. I certainly think at the board level we need to see more women in corporations and in senior positions. The responsibility falls on women just as much as men to promote themselves and their capabilities. With all the talented women I’ve met, this really shouldn’t still be a conversation or an issue.


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

The industry has evolved from straight-up insurance solutions as the primary way to transfer risk to more creative ways to deal with uncertainty.

We have expanded our thinking and responded with a variety of solutions, which in turn has created new jobs and degree programs in universities and a lot of academic research. It is an exciting time to be in this profession.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

Geopolitical conflict and modern-day terrorism.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

It’s hard to single out just one. I am a big proponent of mentors and coaches and sponsors and continue to look for these role models inside and outside of risk management and within my industry — health care and pharmaceuticals. Plus, I understand that it’s my turn to give back to the next generation of risk professionals. I’m always looking for ways to help out in that regard.

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

I feel very thankful for the opportunities I’ve had. I have clearly taken some risks with my career, taking leaps from the carrier side to risk management to broker and back to risk management. I have learned so much along the way about myself, about people in general and the business world. It’s all a journey.

I’m really proud of my current position as a risk professional at one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Our mission is caring and curing so I feel pretty good about what we do every day. Being named to the RIMS board of directors last year is also a great honor and accomplishment.

R&I: What were some of the places you worked?

Prior to Novartis, I was a global risk manager with Ingersoll Rand, a vice president at Arthur J Gallagher Risk Management Services and the director of insurance at NYU Medical Center. I think each position was a great building block for the next.

R&I: How many emails do you get in a day?

Probably 75 to 100 a day. Way too many.

R&I: How many do you answer?

That depends … whatever is on fire.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

Jennifer Santiago, director of insurance, Norvatis Corp.

Jennifer Santiago, director of insurance, Norvatis Corp.

The book I would say is called “Sophie’s World.” I was backpacking in Germany in the early ’90s when a stranger recommended it. There’s a surprise ending which creates kind of a mind shift. That’s all I’m going to say. … I don’t want to ruin it.

R&I: What is the most unusual/or interesting place you have ever visited?

On that same trip, I went to Prague — I think just a year after they had split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The government was obviously going through some major changes and it was really interesting to see it transpire.

R&I: What was it about Prague that impressed you most?

Prague is a beautiful city. At that time, you could still see and feel the darkness all around but there was so much light coming in from above the city. I stayed with a local family for a few days. We did not speak the same language but we seemed to understand each other.

R&I: What’s the best restaurant you’ve ever eaten at?

Not far from my home in Montclair, N.J., there is a restaurant called Fascino. They call it “Italian without borders.” It’s wonderful.

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

I did some scuba diving with sharks in the Bahamas before I was married. It sounds more dangerous than it was. It was all very calculated. They were Caribbean Reef Sharks so really not aggressive or interested in humans. I assessed the risk before agreeing to participate.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?

I would say teachers are our silent heroes. They have an awesome responsibility in our society to educate and inspire our children. We need to appreciate, recognize and reward them accordingly.

R&I: What was the best location and year for the RIMS conference and why?

I will never forget my first conference in Dallas in 1999. It was amazing to see so many risk management professionals in one place. I knew, from that experience, that this is something that I really wanted to be a part of.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

I find my work intellectually stimulating. I like the analytical aspects of it and the opportunity to teach others about risk and insurance.

R&I: What do your friends and family think you do?

I would say most are puzzled — but my 13 year-old daughter Ella is sure that having a mother who is focused on managing risk will ruin her teenage life!

Janet Aschkenasy is a freelance financial writer based in New York. She can be reached at [email protected].

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