Yemi Salami : Actuary and Senior Manager

Written by
Lauryn Mwale
Last Updated
Mar 1, 2023 22:02

Name : Yemi Salami

Job : Actuary and Senior Manager
Company: PwC
Location: London, England
Education: Joint BSc (Hons.) in Actuarial Science & Mathematics

What’s your educational background?

I’ve always been super keen about everything. Of course, I studied Maths at school but I was also really into languages. My three A levels were Maths, Italian and English Literature. I then went to the University of Manchester and studied Actuarial Science & Mathematics for three years. Straight after uni, I got a job at PwC and began my Actuarial qualifications. That took about 3 years to complete. 

Can you explain the qualification pathway for actuaries? 

Sure! There's 15 exams. I would say that the first eight of my exams were mainly applied math. To make sure that you develop the core actuarial skills. Then the latter exams focus on what you're specializing in. I personally specialized in pensions and so did exams that are more around pensions and how to apply academic and qualification learnings to the day to day job. We studied regulations and did some presentation skills training. This was to make sure that you knew how to present to clients. It’s about being able to communicate complicated issues such that non-experts can understand you. My employer was super supportive! I got a day off each week to study and they sponsored my tutorials. I was basically going to college haha. We got to meet other actuaries from other firms and study together with the support of a formal tutor. We also got exam prep. My employer didn’t deduct my study time from my time off and each time you passed an exam, you got a pay raise. So that incentivised people to pass exams and get through them quickly.

Wow! 15 exams is a lot! 

Yeah. It’s 15 hard exams and the pass rates average between 20 and 40%. So it was a lot of pressure.

How would you explain what you do in simple terms?

It’s all about risk. So essentially when things go pretty wrong, we are the ones that have to try and create some solutions using maths.  It involves a lot of numbers and thinking about what could happen in the future. We advise our clients based on what we think is gonna happen in the future, what they should or shouldn't do. Given that I'm in pensions, I'll try and explain that. I work with loads of different big companies that have massive pension funds and I make sure that these companies are able to pay their ex-employees, who are now retired, a pension. There are loads of factors to consider. For example, what is the likelihood of their population dying? This then determines how long they'd have to pay streams of income for. And by knowing that I'm able to explain to them, how much they should be paying into their pension fund, how much they should be investing and what they should be investing in to ensure that they can make sure that all of their employees and their future employees can receive this pension once they retire and continue doing so until they die.

Why did you decide to become an actuary?

Similar to you, I really, really enjoyed math. So I knew from the age of 16 that I wanted to be an actuary. I was sitting in a math class one day and my teacher told me about it. They said it was super, super tough because you had to pass some tough exams and then you got paid really well because it was a rare job. After class, I did some research on it and there wasn’t much info online. Regardless, I thought it would be good to have studied something maths heavy at uni, even if I didn’t end up an actuary. 

What does an average week look like for you?

In an average week, I have loads of client meetings. I’ll visit their offices and speak to them about where their pension funds are, how the markets may have affected their pension funds, whether they have any projects at hand and recommending innovative solutions to them. The other side of my job is writing and reviewing papers. As a business, we are writing papers for our clients to explain complex issues to them. And then I'm reviewing my papers and those written by junior teammates before sending them off or presenting them to clients. 

My job also involves training and coaching juniors as well as being very much a team player to ensure that my team is moving smoothly. I have more of a leadership role in terms of client acquisition. So winning new business while also making sure that people are happy in terms of the kind of projects they're on. So I'll be having meetings with juniors here and there just to see how they're doing and how their goals are going and their objective setting is going and if they feel like they're in the right portfolio in order to progress in their careers, and if not, what can we do to change that? So my role is quite vast in that sense. It's not just work, work, work, it's also kind of the softer skills, which is something I really enjoy.

What is your favourite part of all of that?

It has to be the innovative solutions part of my job where we're trying to think of cool things that the client could do to their pension fund and then getting on board with it. That's like the best feeling because by the time we’re explaining to clients why something is such a good idea for them, it's actually gone really far. I think the other favorite part I would mention is being able to invest in people. Looking at the generation just behind me and just trying to give them a kind of steer as to what they need to be doing and how to progress in their career and stuff like that, I think is really, really fun for me and really important that people are happy in what they're doing and where they're working.


What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

One challenge that I faced was trying to get into the culture of my workplace, I would say. When I joined my team, I was the only Black woman in my team. There was one other Black man at the time who was at senior manager level when I joined as an associate. So there's two of us. And I just really struggled finding my voice. It was a complete culture shock for many reasons, including joining the adult world. Suddenly you've got real responsibilities and this is the world of work. But then there’s also trying to not feel intimidated about being the only Black woman in a room and feeling like they don't really care what you have to say or you don't understand their jokes and you are struggling to get their banter. In the end, they just label you as the quiet one that doesn't really say much and unfortunately that was my life for the first two years or so. That really affected me in a negative way in my first year because I think I was put in a box where it was like, you don't say much, You don't really brag about yourself. What can we really say about you? No one really knows you. And that was a struggle for me because my peers at the time were very loud, boisterous. They got the culture, a few of them had done internships there already, so they fit in so well. 

To overcome the challenge of being the quiet black girl, I found sponsorship and mentorship in the Black senior manager. He made sure to get his credentials and gain the respect of other senior people. He identified that I was struggling and started breaking down to me what the game was and how he played this game. He saw something in me, he believed in me and that just ignited a different type of drive. There's something about someone that's in a senior position in leadership and recognizes the greatness in you which will completely change your mindset and it would make you wanna work 10 times harder because it's like, oh, I'm not like what everyone else thinks of me. Someone actually sees who I am for who I really am. And I'm not sure if it's because, you know, he's also a Black person but I could open up and be more vulnerable about my struggles and that's why it worked so well. There is something super valuable about  being honest and truthful about where you are. In fact, I think it might have had the same effect if it was a white person that had decided to invest in me in the way he did. It was really about finally being seen as somebody that actually has a lot to bring to the table which definitely helped. So I always encourage people to find that person that's gonna sponsor and mentor you. And it worked and has continued to work very well for me my entire career. 

I'm sorry to hear that. How can someone go about getting a mentor/sponsor or being more vulnerable in the workplace?

I shared my thoughts on George Floyd with my team. I remember when that happened, I sent an email to my entire team and explained what my experience is and how I feel about the whole situation. And it's annoying that that is what sparked this influx of additional support and sponsorship. But I have to be honest that it did. But I don't think it was necessarily like a thing of them realizing, oh she's been going through unconscious bias and racism in the workplace. We've gotta do something and I wanna be her white saviour or anything like that because a lot of the help didn't come until maybe a year after that event occurred and so a year after I'd been vulnerable. But I think when you are true and vulnerable about your experiences and how you feel, that at times can trigger people to want to do more. And I think not enough people are vulnerable and honest in the workplace. Some people think they just need to get over it. Or even us, as Black people, we just kind of say, “Oh, I'm just gonna stick to myself and just get what I need to do done so that I can leave”. But really sometimes it's having lunch with a colleague and just explaining some of your experiences or saying, “I just wanna chat with you. Like, I'm really struggling in finding my voice” and this person can then begin to champion you because they understand you. A lot of people are unlikely to say no when you ask for help, but I think sometimes we just don't do it enough. Like we don't call on or use our circle enough to kind of say, “I feel stuck in my career, I need help”. That kind of genuine approach yields a lot and that's what has worked for me.


How has the job itself differed from your expectations?

I thought it would become a lot more challenging as I reached senior levels. It is more difficult for sure but then it got to a point where it's not as challenging as I thought it would be. I feel it's gotten a bit easier now than it was in the grinding years of trying to make it and get to this level. Those years were tough and those were as I expected, but I thought that it would be even tougher at the more senior level. And it's not that it's not tougher, but I think maybe what it is really is that I've become more resilient because I've developed more skills and I'm able to handle things a bit better.

How long were the grinding years?

These were the years when I was fighting for promotion. So, 2 or 3 years of effort and one year which was specifically tough. I was really putting in sweat, blood and tears then. I had already been working for 8 years then and it was time to start playing the game better. I feel like when you don't know how you're playing the game, it is so much harder. Whereas a lot of your white counterparts will know how the game goes quite quickly and quite easily, some of us, I think due to lack of knowledge and that was actually my case, not knowing how the game was being played made winning 10 times harder. 

What kind of person succeeds as an actuary?

So we're known for being like really geeky introverts that are just really analytical and calculated. But I think the profession is definitely changing and a lot of people I'm around certainly are not like that. To be a successful actuary, you have to pay attention to detail, be analytical and have great communication skills. A lot of actuaries can be labeled as just nerds, but you have to be able to communicate really complex things in a really straightforward and understandable way because of the nature of what we do and that is a next level skill. I think also being quite open minded because there are so many things that have changed in my profession in the last eight years. Regulation is changing, markets are changing, things are always changing. You have to be open-minded and you have to be able to adapt to the changing world around you.

What is the best advice you've ever gotten?

This is cliche but the best advice I've ever gotten is work smarter, not harder. For example, sometimes someone gets a promotion and you’ll be sat wondering how they got that opportunity before you. Assess the situation. What did you think working those long hours was going to do? Because you can work really long hours and make no impact and I can work way less hours and make a bigger impact. So I think people are not realizing that the game is the game. Like there is a game that's being played and some people are playing it so well and they're not even like working half as hard as you are. And it's because they just know how to work smarter.

This is making me think of quiet quitting a bit haha

I think if you ask different generations they'll have very different opinions on quiet quitting. But I think there can be a positive take from it. People are still getting the work done, but they're just trying to do it in a way that's healthy and fulfilling to them. They're not just looking at it from the lens of their career but they're looking at it from the lens of their life as a whole. And then you start to ask yourself what do I really need to be doing, what projects should I work on, who I'm working with, because that's probably gonna be the driver of getting the higher bonus and more visibility, et cetera.

What would you do differently if you could start over? Be it academic or like general life skills?

If I could start over,  I would not be so naive. As I said, the first couple of years of my career were really tough and I think they were tough because I wasn't street smart enough. Like I was always very book smart but lacking street smarts worked against me. When you get to any organization, ask yourself, how does this actually work? What is the thing that they're looking at? Who are my key stakeholders? Who are the people that I need to be impressing? Not just get there and be quiet and just go with the flow. I think a lot of people are afraid to ask those questions, but that would've saved me so much confusion. 



Lauryn is the founder of Project Ignite Her.

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