Carnegie Mellon University

Integrated Innovation Institute

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Alumni Spotlight - Pivoting from Data Expert to Innovation Leader

Kavi Pather (MIIPS '20) left Ernst & Young as an actuary and returned as a innovation leader in artificial intelligence.

"I've yet to meet someone who wanted to be an actuary at five-years-old," said Kavi Pather.

Pather didn't either. Yet, his inclination for math and statistics led him down that career path while his passion for technology compelled him to change course.

Pather double majored in Mathematical Statistics and Actuarial Science as an undergraduate at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

"After finding out a little bit more about the different programs, I chose actuarial science because it sounded super interesting. I grew to like it more and more as I progressed because it combines technical application to real world business environments," said Pather.

Actuaries analyze and manage risk and uncertainty for insurance companies, advising how much they should charge their policyholders, for example, or how much capital they should hold to remain solvent over extended periods of time.

Achieving partnership status at Ernst & Young, a major career milestone, triggered a sense of accomplishment and pride but also something unexpected.

"There was this moment where I reflected back on my career and on the path that I was on, and something didn't quite sit right. I realized that my passion was in technology so I started looking for potential career avenues I could go down," said Pather.

Having made partner early in his career, Pather felt he could afford to take a risk and decided to take a career break.

"I knew I didn't want to do an MBA because I felt it was too generic and too well trodden. Something called back to me from my childhood, if you like, that said, 'Well, there's more to my career than the actuarial route that I am headed down.' That's what gave me the push to take the risk and to do something completely different."

Pather was born in Port Elizabeth, a small rural town on South Africa's southern coast.

"Growing up, even in Africa, my entire childhood was American TV, and so I was always curious and wanted to live in America," said Pather.

"With South Africa being an ex-British colony, I felt that going to Europe was somewhat close to home. So coming to the US felt like a bit more of an adventure. I really wanted to have an experience as well as further my academic studies."

The Master of Integrated Innovation Products & Services degree program appealed to Pather because it combined technical and business skills with design and creativity, all mapped into one program.

Enrolling in the 16-month MIIPS Advanced Study Program allowed Pather to not only extend his US adventure but also to lean into his passion for technology with his Masters Thesis, "Innovating with Artificial Intelligence".

"A big part of an adventure is not knowing where you're going to end up at the other end. There was no obligation for me to return to EY. However, when I got to the end of my studies, I realized that consulting is a great place to do a career pivot," said Pather.

Pather's thesis became the fulcrum of his career pivot: He rejoined EY as the Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Analytics Leader for Africa.

"Now, I'm involved in enterprise technology transformation projects. My clients have this drive to become digital organizations, but they don't really know where to start in terms of using this technology."

"Often my clients are starting from a position where they haven't quite defined who the user is, and they don't really have a real direction where to go. So it's actually an innovation problem," said Pather.

Pather has continued his thesis research since rejoining EY, adapting and enhancing the methodology he learned in MIIPS to develop products unique to his clients' needs.

"Eventually, new products will be brought to market as a direct result of that project. What has given some of the work that I've done an edge is innovating with data science and AI. It has a few more challenges beyond 'standard design thinking'."

Pather believes design thinking is essential to every profession.

"This skillset is a very powerful one. Understanding the creative process and how you can bring that to bear within a team to solve a problem is the heart of what I got out of my MIIPS degree," said Pather.

"The world is changing, and the actuarial profession, just like every profession, is changing. Actuaries are very much involved in the product development processes for insurance companies and banks. Having seen the processes of many in this country and around the world, the deep dive into the user – that first phrase of the innovation process around empathizing with who your end user is and understanding them – isn’t widely practiced. Even just incorporating that element of the innovation process would result in way better insurance products on the market," said Pather. 

An actuary may not have been the typical applicant profile for the MIIPS degree program previously, but Pather is an excellent example of perhaps why they should be.

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