Alumna and NYC Chief Actuary wins prestigious global award
Sherry S. Chan (BS, mathematics and actuarial science, 2001; Executive MBA, 2012) was appointed Chief Actuary for New York City in 2015, and has since provided technical expertise to the city’s five retirement systems and pension funds — the Board of Education, teacher, fire, police and public employees — with approximately 750,000 members and $190 billion of assets.
On June 6, Chan received the Young Consulting Actuary High Achievement Award (named the Geoffrey Heywood Award), from the International Association of Consulting Actuaries (IACA) in Berlin. She is the third-ever recipient of the award, which was established in 2015 and is given every two years to one actuary worldwide under the age of 40. She is the first recipient from the U.S.
In her short tenure, Chan has revitalized and digitized New York City's Office of the Actuary, reducing costs, increasing funding and improving efficiency. As one of the highest ranked Asian-American officials in the administration, Chan oversees a $7 million budget, certifies the City’s approximately $10 billion annual pension contribution and signs the actuarial section of all annual reports for the five systems, ensuring accuracy and attesting to the financial soundness of the City's retirement system.
Though dedicated to her career, she enjoys developing other skills outside of the office as a yoga instructor, intermediate golfer and professional cake decorator. Recently, Chan joined the advisory board for the Department of Mathematics.
For her work revitalizing @NYCActuary, math alum Sherry Chan received the Young Consulting Actuary High Achievement Award from @IntActuarial. #ASCDaily
Why did you choose Ohio State for your undergraduate and graduate education?
I was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, so I was a Buckeye even before I went to college. Not only do I believe in supporting my hometown, but I also believe that Ohio State has a wealth to offer. It’s one of the top ROI (return on investment) schools in the country, as has been reported in business publications.
How did you decide upon your undergraduate major (actuarial science)?
I originally wanted to major in astrophysics, marrying my love of math with my love of astronomy, but when I got to the summer orientation right before my freshmen year, I was told that Ohio State did not offer this as an undergraduate major. I declared mathematics as my major and figured it out from there.
During the middle of my freshman year, I was in the Math Building perusing pamphlets and that’s where I first heard about actuarial science. I very much liked the idea of being able to use my math skills in a business setting, so from then on, I dedicated the rest of my academics to this profession — from adding actuarial science as my second major, to campaigning to be the president of Ohio State’s actuarial club, to securing actuarial internships before graduation.
Do you have a favorite experience or memory from your time at Ohio State?
First, you’d have to understand that the culture was much more homogenous when I was growing up in Columbus, OH, a few decades ago – and I wasn’t afforded many opportunities to really explore the Asian side of my Asian-American lifestyle. When I got to Ohio State, I took full advantage of this opportunity. I got to know the international students and immersed myself in my heritage. I landed an actuarial internship in Hong Kong the summer between my junior and senior year, and the experience I gained from that translates well beyond the office! Also, the friends I made during this time in my life are some of my best friends to this day. Many of them have returned home, so it’s afforded me some great travel experiences around the world when I visit them.
A specific memorable experience: I took an actuarial math class taught by Richard “Rick” Evans. Toward the end of the quarter, he added up the scores from all of our assignments and wrote corresponding letter grade ranges on the board for our total score. If we were happy with our grade, we could skip the final exam and use this score as our final grade. My total score was toward the bottom of the A range, and I did not want to settle for an A minus, so I opted to take the exam and studied for it the entire weekend. Rick looked perplexed when I walked into the room to sit for the final. I let him know that I was there because I wanted an A and not an A minus, to which he informed me that everyone who was in the A range got an A, with no distinction between. That had never occurred to me! I had poured so many hours into studying that I felt it would be a waste not to take the final, so I did. Luckily, I ended up with an A on the final, or it would have put Rick in the very difficult position of having to lower my grade if I did poorly. Whenever I run into Rick now, he still reminds me that he thought I was crazy to take the final.
As the Chief Actuary for the City of New York, what does your ‘average’ day look like? What is it like to be a young alumna in charge of running these five huge retirement systems?
I report to five retirement systems’ boards of trustees (I have 58 bosses!), and each of these boards have two or three board meetings a month, so a large part of my time is spent preparing for or in board meetings. Between — or during, sometimes — the board meetings, I answer text messages, emails or voicemails from one of my bosses. Otherwise, I’m most likely attending to an issue at the office, as part of my responsibilities include running a City agency that serves the public. After work, it’s not unusual to find me at a work event at City Hall, Gracie Mansion, with one of the unions, or all of the above!
What is it like? It’s tiring – so I guess it’s a good thing I’m young! Kidding aside, it’s what I willingly signed up for, and the high concentration of experience in the few years I’ve been on the job is probably equivalent to decades elsewhere. I’m very passionate about my job, so despite the demanding schedule, I truly do enjoy it because it’s my opportunity help out and be there for all the public servants at the end of their career who have been there for us.
Why did you choose to join the Mathematics Advisory Board? What do you hope to accomplish as a member of the board?
I believe it’s important to give back. I certainly benefited from those that guided me, either directly by serving as a mentor, or indirectly by developing the actuarial curriculum at Ohio State. I feel like it’s my turn to take care of others. If we don’t step up to the plate, the next generation won’t have the same resources that I did and that’s not fair.
As a board member, I hope to, first and foremost, make students aware of and present them with the world’s ‘oysters’ and instill in them that these ‘oysters’ can be theirs. With this as my guiding principle, I hope to elevate the reputation of Ohio State’s Department of Mathematics by equipping them with the resources they need to attain their ‘oysters’ — whether that means more budget dollars, more industry contacts, more relevant curriculum, or something else.
What advice would you give to today’s students, especially those about to graduate and enter the job market?
If at first you do not succeed, then try, try, and try again! Also, it is worth your while to always continue learning (for example, read more, listen to that webcast, or sign up for that class you’ve always wanted to take!) and meeting new people. Remember that networking is a two-way street. Don’t just expect something from others, but try to offer others something in return as well, so that you become valuable, and perhaps even indispensable. If you think that someone seems light years ahead of you on the career spectrum and that you have nothing to offer, think again! You’d be surprised at how your ideas may spark a refreshing approach and help to solve a problem.
If you want to keep up with Sherry Chan and her agency, follow her on Twitter @NYCActuary.
Learn more about the Mathematics Advisory Board.