Life is … an opportunity for empathy

Jennifer Smith

I was raised from the age of 6 by a single mother after my father passed away in a tragic accident. After more than 20 years as a stay-at home mother and homemaker, my mother struggled, as many women did, to learn office skills and earn a good enough salary to take care of my sister and me in a male dominated corporate world.

Eventually she found an opportunity as a clerk in the personnel department of a municipal government company and public service where employees were also unionized. She quickly discovered that not only was she good at it, but she enjoyed it as well. As a result, she decided to go to night school and take courses in human behavior and human resource management.

My mother graduated from college in a few short years as a specialist in Human Resource Management, and in the 15 years that she worked in that department, eventually earned her way to becoming a manager.

I watched her deal with people of all races, classes, genders and backgrounds, and respect everyone as individuals. She had overcome all sorts of adversity in her life, and so could they with some help and encouragement, compassion and empathy.

My mom had always been a bit of a “bra-burner” and independent thinker very tuned in to the social justice movements of the day – especially women’s issues, having protested a medical clinic in 1970’s Los Angeles that kicked her out for breastfeeding in the waiting room, and boycotting a well-known baby formula company for encouraging communities in Africa to use their formula (with polluted water) rather than breastfeeding. But one thing she didn’t do was discriminate, so I’m going to re-phrase that and call it “people issues” instead of women’s issues. I think that is why she excelled at working in human resources. She paid attention to people, their needs and their strengths. She treated everyone as an individual rather than broad stroke groupings.

One day my mom was upset and trying to sort out a problem. I was in my teens and fancied myself a bit of a freedom fighter as well, but also was not one to ruffle feathers. I flew under the radar at that age and just watched. I observed and learned.

What struck me during this particular time in the 80’s and with this particular problem was my moms’ innate need to help a coworker maintain their respect and dignity at work when they were dealing with personal discrimination as well as a disease that was highly misunderstood and discriminated against. The disease was AIDS.

This person who my mother considered an amazing worker and individual was unable to take public transit to work and had no other way of getting there. As a result, the employee was facing termination. My mother was saddened by the discrimination and the unfairness of this since the job could still be performed well once overcoming the transit challenges. She took the time to understand the disease (rather than be afraid of it as many others were) and to learn the limitations and capabilities that the employee was experiencing. She fought for a new benefit to be provided to help the employee with costs to get to and from work in a private taxi service , and she helped educate people on this viral illness. She helped the employee continue to work until he could no longer due to the illness.

He died a year or so afterward, but everyone, including me, learned so much from her and the way she handled that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “it takes a village” and how important it is that we all work together and find solutions together to problems that need time, thought, education and understanding. No two people are the same and we need to find ways to accept our differences and help each other overcome challenges for the betterment of us all.

It’s a challenge in this age of misinformation, opinion, bias and capitalism, and “Corporate America” has definitely not helped. Neither has the emergence of the “Me Culture” that many of our kids, grandkids, and friends have grown up with.

How do we navigate this and help everyone understand the other side of the argument and value everyone’s opinion and experiences, and how to we consider how that affects us emotionally, mentally and physically?

The fact is we have seen a decline in compassion and empathy with the increase in technology. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for technology. Not only am I a fan professionally as a leader in the insurance technology space, but in my personal life as well. In fact, the more technology the better as I personally prefer to spend time with my iPhone, laptop and e-reader than with people a lot of the time.

So how do we bring compassion and empathy into our everyday lives as we navigate life, work, COVID, lockdowns, child rearing as well as our very important relationships with family, friends and colleagues? I’m perplexed at this today. I feel this is something greatly missing today with the spread of misinformation by radical groups, corporate and government bias, and a general lack of caring for one another.

Jen's family

But equally, and my focus on the morning of my first workday in 2022, is how do we account for the need to involve these two key characteristics in technology in our insurance industry – especially in underwriting and claims processing? Too far of a jump from my story? Not really….
We all watched Star Trek growing up (yes, a broad generalization but I actually think most of us did) and marveled when Spock occasionally showed what appeared to be some emotion. How was that possible as he was not supposed to feel, and yet, he grew and developed some emotion, and I dare say, compassion and empathy.

Can AI include these elements as well?

Perhaps compassion and empathy, both very needed in life insurance, isn’t capable of being included into the algorithms but is more in the engagement that companies have with their customers. We need to account for data points that aren’t static and can be different among people who appear to be the same. How do we do that?

In the Life insurance world, we have an NAIC committee to ensure that AI is not being used to evaluate underwriting risk that is discriminating against people for various reasons.  It is making it hard to scale up the effort to help individuals of all races, financial classes and genders to protect themselves and their families quickly, easily and comprehensively with insurance products.  The life insurance buying process is so far behind other industries, in and out of insurance, and we need to act now.  That has been a strong focus for me in my role in the last couple of years, and continues in 2022.

How do we harness AI and technology without bias, while still maintaining fairness and equality and evaluating the specifics of each case when assessing the mortality and risk of insuring the life (and profitability) of each customer? This is not achievable without technology and the advancement that AI and data bring to us.

Being in the technology industry while also having a strong foundation of what is fair and just as an individual is fascinating.  I, personally, will continue in 2022 to help our customers navigate regulations, while continuing to ensure that we are acting in everyone’s best interest by providing software solutions to help us continue to grow and develop our “village” so that we can help one another in this world we call home.

  • life
  • Sapiens
Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith Jennifer is Sapiens VP of Life Product Strategy, responsible for the direction and roadmap of Sapiens digital suite of core solutions and eco-partners that support L&A insurers in the North American market. She started her career working for a large life carrier for several years and then moved into the software side. Jennifer held positions, prior to Sapiens, at EDS SOLCORP (now DXC Technology), SunGard, and Majesco, focusing on life insurance systems transformations and business process optimization for nearly 25 years.