Under the Spotlight – Win-Li Toh (Board Member)

In the third and final Under the Spotlight profile on new Actuaries Institute Board Members, Win-Li Toh details how she was convinced within 24 hours to become an actuary, the role of creative thinking to help clients during the pandemic, and her fondness for two very unusual pets.

My interesting/quirky hobbies…Like many others, I’ve learnt how to make sourdough bread during the lockdowns and am now on loaf #100 (or thereabouts). Prior to this endeavor, even the dog wouldn’t eat my baking!

My favourite energetic pursuit…Playing tennis (natural talent -10%, competitive spirit 110%).

What gets my goat…People who aren’t open to change and cherry pick evidence to support their world view. I’m very happy changing my mind when faced with a good argument!

I’d like to be brave enough to…Follow through more often with the courage of my convictions – I do my bit but there’s always room for a bit more. I’m enormously inspired by people who make massive personal sacrifices to make real change in people’s lives, and often these are not grand gestures that make headlines.

Not many people know this but I…Own two 100 kilogram pigs, they’re ridiculously smart and hilarious – I wouldn’t dare eat them.

Short description of career…Superannuation at Clay & Partners (London), then Aon (NZ), a transition to general insurance (from which I’ve never looked back!) at PwC (Sydney) and then Taylor Fry (AUS & NZ). I’ve always been a consultant and love the variety, the clients and problem solving.

I became an actuary because…Actuarial work combines the two things I am most passionate about – maths and people. The first time I ever heard of the actuarial profession was at a careers fair in London, when I came across a couple of charismatic actuaries who regaled me with a variety of real world issues that maths can solve. Their passion for their craft was so infectious that within 24 hours I joined the profession!

Where I studied to become an actuary and qualifications obtained…I first did a pure maths degree at Oxford. What an amazing experience, I was constantly reminded of the great minds from history, like Oscar Wilde, who had likely sat on the very stool in the library I was studying from. Later, I studied in London for my actuarial fellowship while working in a superannuation consultancy.

My proudest career achievement to date is…Being entrusted to lead the firm by my peers, people who I value and respect, at Taylor Fry – it’s been a tremendous privilege.

Who has been the biggest influence on my career (and why)…The two people I am most grateful to in my career are Jenni Neary and Greg Taylor. Jenni in that she exposed me to the way our work influences how the world operates, with all the colour of politics, culture and people’s motivations. Greg showed by example his personal humility despite his great talent. They both have two things in common – they are very kind and always give their time generously. There’s a sense they’re never in a hurry, when in reality they would have enormous demands on their time.

Why I’m proud to be an actuary…We’re in a profession that values integrity and uses data and knowledge to counter bias, which is especially valuable at a time where misinformation is rife.

The most valuable skill an actuary can possess is …The ability to combine a deep understanding of an issue and our skills to distill often complex data or evidence, to provide pragmatic, workable solutions. Situations are rarely black and white, and it’s our ability to give clear insight to the different shades of grey that sets us apart.

At least once in their life, every actuary should…By profession, actuaries think very deeply and seriously about risk, so I would recommend doing something impulsive and possibly silly, without mentally calculating the risks beforehand – like jumping into an icy cold lake just because it’s blue and the idea is thrilling. It’s incredibly cathartic.

If I could travel back in time I would…Honestly? I wouldn’t go. Every choice I’ve made has led me to where I am now, and if I only get one life, I’m loving this one – hopefully there’s still a lot left!

When I retire, my legacy will be…Hopefully nothing! There is so much incredible young talent in the field. If I’ve done my job well, my exit won’t cause a ripple or leave a mark for anyone to feel bound by. If thinking of my enthusiasm for our profession makes you smile now and then, well, that’s something I wouldn’t mind at all!

One of the most creative applications of actuarial capabilities that I have used in my career…I’ve been asked a lot by clients for my counsel on ‘doing what’s right’, especially during the pandemic, which has brought constant change and high uncertainty. The answer has required some creative problem solving to help achieve the delicate balance between preserving funds to maintain solvency, providing refunds or ex gratia payments to customers in need, cutting staff or keeping staff, and spending to innovate or cutting the innovation budget. It’s surprising how well suited actuarial analyses and skills are in addressing many of the important ethical challenges the pandemic has created.

The most interesting or valuable job or project I have worked on in my career and why…My very first job. When the press baron Robert Maxwell fell to his death from his yacht in 1991, and a gaping hole was discovered in the company’s super fund, I got to pick up the pieces. Not only did I crunch the numbers, I also got to talk to pensioners whose lives had been ruined. I heard the emotion when they spoke, and that was when I realised that my work was not just statistics – it had a real-world and very human impact.

How my skill set evolved over my career…I started off with a focus on building a sound technical skillset, but over time as I gained life experience and matured, I learned to make better judgments and lead people. I’m also surrounded by amazing people at work, so I’m privileged to be constantly learning something new from their talents and innovative thinking.

The advice I would give aspiring actuaries to be able to do my job…Surround yourself with good people – people who care about what they do, take care in the quality of their work and care for the people around them. Take time to notice and value the different qualities each person brings and the rest looks after itself.

My view about the future of the Actuarial profession – in 10 years?…I’m very optimistic about our future – our skills are being applied in an increasingly broadening reach and areas of endeavour. And importantly, key to the actuarial brand is that we’re smart and trusted to do what’s right.

If I were President of the Institute, one thing I would improve is…I’ve only just joined Council and that’s more than enough to focus on right now! We have so many exciting things in the works, so watch this space….

My best advice for younger actuaries…If you love what you do, even the hard days don’t seem hard. Trust yourself to know what it is you’re passionate about, and put aside the ‘should do this or that’ just because it may open some unseen door. Your enthusiasm and love for what you do will draw the right opportunities and people to you.

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