Interview: Kara Owens, Global Executive Underwriting Officer — Cyber & ESG — New Energy Risk

We are inspired by people who are passionate about insurance and technology that solves pressing global challenges. In this interview series, our chief actuary, Sherry Huang, talks with friends of New Energy Risk whose work makes a difference, and whose journeys will inspire you, too.

A Conversation with Kara Owens, Global Executive Underwriting Officer — Cyber & ESG, Markel

By Sherry Huang, Chief Actuary
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

“You should meet Kara Owens,” my reinsurance broker friend suggested to me last summer. “She is a cyber risk underwriting executive and is heavily involved with Markel’s ESG initiatives.” I had mentioned to him that NER is refocusing on our own ESG efforts: the ways we engage in business that is positive for environmental, social, and governance goals. So, I reached out to Kara who shared the story of her career and her latest initiatives at Markel. Markel provides coverage for specialty insurance and reinsurance for commercial niche markets. Markel is one of the reinsurance partners of AXA XL that works with us at NER. Kara, tell us about how you get to where you are today, and some of the mentors who showed you the way.

It’s been quite the journey. I am one of those odd ducks that majored in Risk Management and Insurance rather than falling into the industry. I went to Temple University and had numerous insurance internships in college. After graduation, I accepted a role at Guy Carpenter. I decided after a couple of years that underwriting was more my passion, so I moved to TransRe. I spent eight years at TransRe, moving up from a line underwriter to a global P&L manager for Cyber before age 30. My role at TransRe took me all over the world — from South America to Europe to Asia doing presentations and helping insurance companies start cyber portfolios. I helped form the Women’s Group at TransRe and was on the Board of a project with the Singapore government. I was out of my comfort zone a lot. I truly think being outside of my comfort zone helped to shape my career.

I moved to Markel about three years ago and now I can work with all of the (re)insurance divisions, from fronting paper to Insurtech to alternative capital. I’m on the board of the Association of Professional Insurance Women (APIW), which helps me to give back while doing something I’m passionate about. I am also now engaged on the leadership team for the Markel Women’s Network. I recently became a strategic advisor to a start-up company that advises individuals and firms on how they can measure their impact in building a more sustainable world. When the role of global executive underwriting officer for ESG was established, Markel recognized my passion and I was graciously offered the position. I’m thrilled to continue this adventure!

I have been incredibly lucky with mentors throughout my career. I keep in touch with them all regularly and still need to seek advice to this day! I don’t think that will ever change. What has changed is that I am now acting as a mentor to several mentees. It’s important to me to give back to this industry.

What is your vision for Markel’s ESG practice?

My role is still very new and I’m so excited for what is to come! I think there’s a lot of work to be done in the industry that will really make a difference (while at the same time reducing risk). At Markel, we have always had a strong commitment to our communities and ESG is a natural fit with the culture. I’m in the process of working with colleagues to create an underwriting framework and strategy to allow Markel to better understand, prevent, and reduce ESG risks. There is also a lot of opportunity for product development by enhancing, creating, and supporting products that promote responsible environmental and social efforts.

I see a lot of ways for more collaboration in the insurance industry. We have seen examples already with the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative Insurance Working Group and Principles for Sustainable Insurance initiatives where insurers and stakeholders collaborated on the proposed ESG standards. In addition to the insurance space working together, [the industry can embrace] other partnership opportunities with other industries and initiatives.

What do you enjoy the most about your job? What is the most challenging aspect?

What I enjoy most and what is the most challenging is the same thing for me.

Being involved in two areas that touch nearly every product line provides me the opportunity to constantly be learning, which I really enjoy. But sometimes I feel like I’m drinking from a firehouse as I evaluate numerous products’ exposure to cyber and now ESG.

I really enjoy the concept of ‘round-table’ in underwriting, which describes the need to look at each transaction from many perspectives, including how current events might affect our business and how each transaction/risk might affect our portfolio. I also love the potential to really make a difference with the ESG role.

What is your advice for people entering the insurance industry today?

One piece of advice is to never stop taking advice! There’s always room to grow.

A few more takeaways that have really helped me:

  • Even with technology coming full-force at the insurance space, relationships are still the heart of the industry. Make sure to build a network and a support system including mentors.
  • Join organizations and take leadership roles within those groups. This will help to build your confidence while building a network!
  • Raise your hand when no one else wants to (this is what I did with cyber). Also: speak up. I always loved Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s quote, “Speak your mind even if your voice shakes.” Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone often.
  • Never stop learning-whether it’s taking classes or getting designations, going to conferences, taking a new job, or just reading the news and applying it to the insurance industry-there are always opportunities to grow.
  • Find your passion. My passion seemed to change over time, but I always let it guide me in my decision making.
  • Give back! This is an area where this industry never ceases to amaze me. I have met some of the most charitable people in insurance. Also, as you grow in your career, give your time to mentor and to organizations such as Gamma Iota Sigma or [elsewhere] such as universities to recruit talent into our amazing industry.
  • Take care of yourself. It’s often difficult to balance it all, but it’s more important now than ever! Meditation, building in small breaks to my workday and going for walks outdoors have really helped me.

Thank you, Kara, for this interview. You inspire me with your can-do attitude, your desire to give back, and your passion for insurance-related ESG potentials!

Editor’s note: This conversation continues when Kara chats with Sherry again in a live interview for the Association of of Professional Insurance Women. Join them for free on February 25, 9AM PT. Register here using the option for NER readers.

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Originally published at https://newenergyrisk.com on February 8, 2021.

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New Energy Risk helps insure technical risk for breakthrough tech to optimize cost of capital, accelerate time to market, and provide certainty of execution.

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New Energy Risk helps insure technical risk for breakthrough tech to optimize cost of capital, accelerate time to market, and provide certainty of execution.

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