The University of Iowa

Tidjo Thierry Kuagbenu (BS actuarial science ’04) reflects on his memories from the University of Iowa

April 30th, 2021

Tidjo Thierry Kuagbenu (BS actuarial science ’04) has enjoyed a successful career in a variety of corporations and locations across the world. He has fond memories of his time at the University of Iowa, including professors that had an impact on his educational experience. Read more below.

Image of Tidjo Thierry Kuagbenu

Tidjo Thierry Kuagbenu

Can you tell us a little about your current career ?

I work for Aviva Investors and I am based in their Paris office. As head of investment solutions at Aviva Investors France, I am responsible for finding the best outcome-oriented solutions to our institutional clients while considering their investment goals and constraints. To be more precise, the team mission is to work closely with insurance companies and pension funds to better understand their unique needs and expectations, and then respond to those with appropriate investment solutions.  

It is worth pointing out that the effectiveness of our investment solutions requires a detailed knowledge, not only of our clients’ financial objectives, but also of several other factors related to the environment in which they operate. My years of study at the University of Iowa provided me with tools and techniques, and this knowledge has enriched my professional days. I still have good memories of my actuarial classes where I learnt the fundamentals of risk pricing, and risk management. Later, I discovered through my career that those risk concepts, taught at the University of Iowa, are not only applicable to insurance companies, but also to banks, asset management, end even to corporate industries.  

My university training at Iowa was definitely one of the most formative experiences. For example, I have been able to apply these core concepts to address our clients’ fundamental requests:

  • Search for a better investment return, especially in these challenging market conditions
  • Search for a solution that optimises their risk-return profile
  • Search for an asset portfolio, ether strategic or tactical, that matches a pension fund liability, or suitable for an insurance product
  • Recently, we have been observing a strong appetite for integration of sustainable investing criteria into our clients’ portfolios. 

The implementation of each proposal listed above also allows me to work with different services across the organisation, thereby giving me a unique opportunity to learn new additional skills.  Those benefitted me in many ways when I decided to change roles either within the same organisation, or outside of the insurance sectors. From this year onwards, I also added another challenge to my busy family and professional life, by giving away some of my time by lecturing students that are in their last year of their graduate program about the concrete application of the core principles learnt at universities. 

Please provide a brief timeline of your career development before your current position.

  • University of Iowa, Bachelor of Actuarial Science, May 2004
  • Cornell University, Master of Financial Engineering, May 2005
  • Professional Certificates
    • Financial Risk Management (FRM), 2007
    • Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) Charter Holder, 2009
    • Fellow Society of Actuaries (FSA), 2009
  • Actuary Associate - August 2005 - January 2008, Risk Department, Aegon, KY, USA
  • Quantitative Analyst— January 2008 - February 2011, ALM Department, Allstate, IL, SA
  • Senior Risk Manager— February 2011 – May 2012, Finance Department, Aviva France, Paris, France
  • Quantitative Analysis Expert— May 2012 – July 2015, Investment Department, Aviva France, Paris, France
  • Head of Investment Solutions— July 2015 – Present, Global Investment Solutions, Aviva Investors, Paris, France (Current position)
  • Lecturer of Advanced Asset Management / Multi-Asset Solutions – March 2020 – Present, Quantitative Finance Master Program, University of Paris Dauphine, Paris, France

How did the actuarial science education you received at Iowa prepare you to succeed?

At the University of Iowa, I was an actuarial student. There I was exposed to courses such as:

  • Mathematics courses which help me to better analyse problems and solve them. The experience gained from analytical thinking has never left me. I use it when looking for fundamental principles that connect various situations. It has also shaped my character, especially my attitude when solving real life difficult problems.  
  • Probability and Statistics – at the University of Iowa, I haven’t only learnt the theories, but also the philosophies behind Probabilities & Statistics. My professors opened my eyes to the beauties of different schools of thought in their fields, then I became a firm follower of Bayesian Theorem (Bayes' theorem allows you to update predicted probabilities of an event by incorporating new information). The latter serves me well in my professional life (when updating the likelihood of the occurrence of a risk event) or during my own decision-making process (when I must select a course of action when facing uncertainty). For information, Bayesian Theorem is heavily used in Artificial Intelligence nowadays (parts of my training have prepared me for this new discipline too).
  • Actuarial training – if I become the go-to-person for the questions related to insurance sectors for my employer, it has to do with my academic training at the University of Iowa. There, I learned the core services provided by insurers, how to price their products, to set aside a reserve in order to have a strong balance sheet, and more importantly the types of actions available to reduce the inherent risks.    

What is your favorite memory from your time at Iowa?

Reading and practicing along the river. Such wonderful scenery!

During your time at Iowa, was there anyone or anything that inspired you?

There were a lot of bright professors:

  • Richard Dykstra – as an international student, there was time when I stayed on the campus during school breaks. I often ran to Professor Richard Dykstra’s office for guidance on some of my toughest homework. Besides giving me his time, he showed me the most “elegant” way of addressing the problem at hand. I have never forgotten his word “elegant,” and it is my turn to encourage my team to pursue the same approach when addressing our clients‘ needs.
  • Joseph Lang – is a person who is passionate about his work. He is a professor who I call a true teacher. His communication skills allow him to transfer his knowledge to any kind of student. He is a philosopher, too, a good one! He expressed freely all schools of thought in the course Statistics and Probability. Thanks to him, I became a follower of Bayesian concept, a principle I used for my professional projects and in my day-to-day decision-making process. It is the same principle that is heavily used today by Machine Learning algorithms.   
  • Elias Shiu – he is among the people that have inspired me a lot. He is bright, motivated, caring, and funny. Bright because he was a big help to us to master our actuarial studies, and then successfully pass our actuarial exams. I really love our exchanges during his classes. Motivated because he was devoted to give his time, even on Saturday so that we finished the program on time before our SOA exams sittings. Caring because of his open-door policies. I have never forgotten his letter; a letter I used along with other documents when applying for Cornell University. I never knew the content of his letter, but I was accepted into Cornell.
  • Charles Frohman – I have learnt a lot of topology principles with professor Charles. He also encouraged me to take part in national mathematics competitions. Other academic problems looked so simple after going through topology chapters. Professor Charles was there especially when I needed a hand during my first year.  

Many thanks to all professors, especially those four who have helped me go further.

How do you stay connected with your alma mater and with other UI alumni in your area?

LinkedIn

Do you have any advice for recent UI graduates entering the early stages of their career?

  • Look for a mentor / sponsor / coach within or outside of your organization
  • Have a good understanding of what is expected from you, and how you can contribute more to your department, and company
  • Look for the broad picture of your organization
  • Be open and flexible to changes
  • In a corporate setting, you will be asked not only to produce analyses, but also be challenged from times to times. Practice active listening, and always choose the positive attitude

What does the future look like for you?

There is a lot of uncertainty because of the pandemic. However, the financial market environment and our clients’ needs will certainly undergo transformations and new opportunities may present themselves.

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