Mathilda Strom on the extraordinary impact of life insurance: BIMA
April 26, 2017
We’re shining a light on Mathilda Strom, deputy CEO at BIMA, who reflects on memorable moments throughout her career, women who inspire her and the future of insurance in emerging markets.
Tell us about a typical day in your role (if there’s such a thing).
No two days are the same. Gustaf [Agartson, CEO of BIMA] and I often look at each other and say “it’s never boring at BIMA!”.
My day revolves around solving challenges, motivating a super smart and autonomous team, while keeping an eye on the horizon for what BIMA needs to accomplish in the long run to stay ahead. What this means is that for:
- 50 per cent to 75 per cent of the month I will be travelling to a prospective market or one of our operations to meet with partners, regulators or our team on the ground
- the time I’m in London, I will use the commute into work to check and respond to emails, read daily news updates on the sector, or join a weekly update call from one of our operations; the day is then spent in meetings (largely over Skype call) to discuss strategy and tactics of ongoing projects and prospects with my business development, marketing and communications and HR teams; and I’ll meet with potential partners, investors or board members while I’m in London and speak to Gustaf or other members of our senior management team
- any one week I will be interviewing candidates for roles at BIMA, having a media interview, or mentoring one of our women leaders from our women’s initiative, the RUN program; when I’m not on calls or in meetings I will be reviewing or writing PowerPoints, budgets and forecasts, or contracts: as you can tell, my day is busy, so I’ll typically have lunch at my desk.
What makes you so passionate about your work?
The people I work with, and the difference we are making to millions of people every day.
The people at BIMA are intimidatingly good and are so passionate about what we do. They are also fantastic people to be around; teaching me things and boosting my energy stores every day.
As a company, we make a real difference. I have seen first-hand the difference that an insurance policy can make to a family and I’ve also seen the impact that our work environment has on the agents we employ, who grow, develop and prosper within our unique company culture and training. So, in the midst of all the details of running a business, what keeps me going is the people around me and the impact we can have when we put our heads together.
What assignments or experiences have been most rewarding during your time at BIMA?
Making an impact on people’s lives on an individual level is the most rewarding thing of all.
I would say that the feeling of opening BIMA operations in a new market (which we have been fortunate to have done 16 times now) has to be up there with the best things I can do in my job. That feeling that many of the people in the country we are about to enter will get access to insurance and health services for the first time ever – and therefore what a difference we can make to the whole country. What makes it sweeter is that it will often have been many months, if not years, of hard work to get us there, starting as a single conversation or email. It will have involved getting to know a completely new culture, language, city and its people. There will often have been long contract, commercial and regulatory discussions and negotiations. Technical platforms will have been built with hundreds of scenarios thoroughly thought through.
And best of all, we will have hired a new Country Manager, and started to hire our agents – all raring to get started on introducing a whole new insurance and health experience to the country. It’s exhilarating!
Can you share a memorable moment where you saw impact on the ground, in market?
While visiting our operations in Bangladesh I travelled with the team to a training session in Chittagong, where we employ hundreds of agents, often young people in their early twenties, just starting out in their careers. There were two things that are etched onto my memory from this trip.
The first is seeing the impact that a year of working at BIMA had had on the agents who had been with us from the start. I had been part of their first training session one year earlier, when they were starting their first ever job at BIMA. Now, before me stood agents who demonstrated impressive business acumen and leadership skills, while maintaining BIMA’s signature humble and respectful presence.
The second was seeing and feeling the excruciating but positive impact that a life insurance policy can have on a family. At this training event, I handed over a claims cheque to a mother who had lost her son in a motorcycle accident. We cried together as we clung to each other’s arms in an embrace that lasted many silent minutes. The only words she uttered in English were “thank you”. Her other son, who was also present at the event, later told the agents how important this money was to the family, as a final gift from his cherished younger brother. I walked away knowing that we had to continue to do even better and reach more people.
As deputy CEO and Head of Business Development, you have a lot on your plate, and you’re also a new mother! How do you balance the demands of both work, travel, and life outside of work?
I became a mother on the 29th December 2016. But BIMA has always felt like my first baby in many ways. I love working here, so I never feel like work is something I want to get away from when the day is over. As a result, If I’m being honest, I don’t think I always do find the right balance between work, travel, family and friends. I am constantly working at it. I’ve found it takes a lot of discipline, efficiency and good communication with people to really get it right. Smaller examples of things I’ve started to do is to prioritise coming home for dinner with my husband and not staying weekends to explore new countries while I travel.
I have not yet had to make the transition to this new life with my daughter, Freya, in the picture, but I imagine it will be even more difficult!
What I find interesting is that if I were a man, about to become a father, it is unlikely I’d get asked the same question. Since becoming pregnant last year, I suddenly realised the stark differences between being a woman with a career and a man with a career, when you want to build a family. Biologically, there are things only I, as a woman, can do for my child – but sadly there are also legally and culturally certain things only I can really do (take extended maternity leave, for example). This can be detrimental to women’s careers but also sad for dads! I believe men who are fathers should also be asked how they balance everything and we should be considerate for their priorities at home.
Why is gender diversity so important for companies to get right?
There was a time when I didn’t believe that gender was a barrier. But over the years, my experience has shown me that there are many systemic and biological factors that result in very real differences between men and women as they build a career. I now believe that it’s essential that we identify the gaps between the genders, and work together positively to close them.
It’s also important that we understand that supporting women, doesn’t mean further alienating genders; it’s about equality and coming together. The human race wouldn’t survive without both genders, and neither can our business. For instance, a recent McKinsey study showed that gender-diverse companies are 15% more likely to outperform those who are uniformly one gender. So if we want BIMA to be successful, we need to embrace the opinions, passion and hard work of both men and women!
Which women leaders have you found inspiring?
There are many strong women in my life, and many strong men who support women to take the lead, and I believe both groups of people are equally inspiring and important. But I will mention two here.
Firstly, the founder and CEO of the consulting company (Spectrum Strategy Consultants) I used to work for, Janice Hughes. It was my first job after university and Janice made sure to meet and interview all of the people who worked in her company. I remember my meeting with her when she told me that the point of working there was not just to become a great consultant but to find your niche, find what drives you, what you are really good at. That way it didn’t matter if you were coming in as the most junior analyst, if you had something special to contribute, even the most senior partners would go to you for advice. I think that’s the best advice I got when starting out in my career and it applies anywhere!
Secondly, I have been inspired by Sheryl Sandberg since reading her book, Lean In. She is a woman in a very senior position who has been able to put into words the insecurities and vulnerabilities that many women feel in their jobs and pin-point ways to work through them and turn them into strengths. I think her book is a must read for men as well, in order to understand the psyche of the other half of the workforce.
As Head of Business Development, what’s your vision for insurance in emerging markets over the next five years?
All of our markets are in very different stages of development in that we cover Asia, Africa and Latin America (for example, today we have 20% smartphone penetration in some markets, and 50% in others). In five years they will still look very different, so some of the trends I mention below will be quicker or slower to emerge or might not emerge at all in certain countries.
Generally, I think that we will see insurance products bundled with related services in the health and financial services space. It just makes sense for these services to merge into one experience for the emerging consumer.
Mobile will still be the main delivery channel and we should see greater use of smartphone functionality as adoption and usage of more sophisticated digital experiences grows. I also expect that in some markets we will see social media channels becoming much more prominent in the end to end user experience.
Because adoption of smartphones doesn’t equal usage of data services, in most markets I don’t think we will get away from physical sales channels for first time buyers. But people who have bought one insurance are going to be using digital channels for after-sales support, claims and buying more services.
Overall, there is still so much to do and so many exciting opportunities ahead.