Heather H. Wilson of CLARA Analytics: “AI is transformative”

We are on the cusp of a quantum leap in productivity that will be largely driven by AI. In fact, it’s already happening; we are seeing how companies are completely transforming entire business processes to produce better outcomes for their stakeholders, at significantly lower costs. As part of our series about the women leading the […]

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We are on the cusp of a quantum leap in productivity that will be largely driven by AI. In fact, it’s already happening; we are seeing how companies are completely transforming entire business processes to produce better outcomes for their stakeholders, at significantly lower costs.

As part of our series about the women leading the Artificial Intelligence industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Heather H. Wilson, CEO of CLARA Analytics.

Heather H. Wilson, Chief Executive Officer of CLARA Analytics, has more than a decade of executive experience and leadership in data, analytics, and artificial intelligence. She was Enterprise Chief Data Officer of AIG, Global Head of Innovation and Advanced Technology at Kaiser Permanente, and Enterprise Chief Data Officer of Citigroup. She currently sits on Equifax’s Board of Directors and is a member of the Audit and Technology Committees. While at AIG, she was named the Insurance Woman of the Year by the Insurance Technology Association for her data innovation work. Ms. Wilson is recognized as a world-class expert and pioneer in data, analytics and AI. She has been a steady supporter of diversity throughout her career. She launched the Kaiser Permanente Women in Technology group, focused on mentorship and retention for women in math, technology and science. She was an Executive Member of Citi4Women at Citigroup, leading predictive analytics around retention. At AIG, she launched Global Women in Technology and served as Executive Sponsor of Girls Who Code.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you share with us the “backstory” of how you decided to pursue this career path in AI?

I have always been drawn to creative problem-solving and business transformation. I spent the first 15 years of my professional career with Deloitte and Andersen, so I was constantly thinking about how to improve client service, how to help people work more efficiently, and how to create more value for the end customer. I have applied that transformative approach and analytical curiosity across several different industries, including healthcare, banking, insurance and retail.

This is an exciting time to be alive. There is enormous potential in this convergence of technologies that is taking place today. AI is a huge part of that, and we have only just begun to tap this opportunity. AI opens up an array of new opportunities to apply that kind of creative analytical thinking to solve problems and improve people’s lives.

New technologies tend to get the most traction when we begin with a deep understanding of the specific problems to be solved and then combine that with the tech expertise to develop better solutions. I’m fortunate to have had a view to both sides of that divide, having served in senior executive positions in the insurance industry, with a particular focus on data science.

At CLARA, we have that unique perspective as well. We are laser-focused on a specific set of problems around claims management. We bring deep industry knowledge together with powerful expertise in AI. That combination is considerably more valuable than the sum of its parts.

What lessons can others learn from your story?

First, don’t be afraid to seize an opportunity when you see it. My first entrepreneurial experience was starting an export-import business in Russia, just as the country was being westernized, with several consumer products during my senior year of college in 1993. I was able to buy my first car because of that venture. Never allow fear of failure to stop you from pursuing your dreams.

Second: Don’t let other people define you. I have forged a lot of new territory in my career, serving as the first Enterprise Chief Data Officer of AIG, the first female Enterprise Chief Data Officer of Citigroup, the first EVP Chief Data Scientist of L Brands, and Head of Innovation/Advanced Technology at Kaiser Permanente. That’s a lot of “firsts.” I’ve always been one to take things in a new direction when it made sense and not let conventional thinking define me.

Can you tell our readers about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

CLARA Analytics is an exciting place to be. We really have a unique position in the market; no one else is doing what we are doing. CLARA’s technology is transformative from a business perspective, but it also touches a lot of individual lives. We help injured workers to recover faster and get back on the job sooner. It’s a win-win for everyone.

There’s a lot happening in the AI space right now, but most of the organizations that are working on AI are approaching it from a generalist’s perspective. That can be useful, but it usually takes time to apply it successfully to specific business problems, and there’s a lot of trial and error involved.

At CLARA, we enable insurance companies to hit the ground running. We bring that unique combination of extensive insurance claims experience and technology leadership. So, we know the kinds of problems insurance companies face, and we’ve developed AI solutions to solve them.

We’re forging ahead full-speed. Within my first six weeks as CEO of CLARA Analytics, I worked with my team to create three new products that will be available in the near future. I love to get involved in the details by diving into the data, the data science models, and the engineering. We’re also doing some very forward-thinking work in regard to serverless architecture. That will produce benefits around agility, scalability, and pace of innovation, all of which will lead to better outcomes for our customers as well as for the businesses and individuals they serve.

I’m proud to say that we’re the best at what we do. The combination of deep domain experience and a mastery of the technology ultimately produces the best possible outcome. It delivers real-world benefits for our clients, for their customers, and for their customers’ employees.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I am a great admirer of Katherine Graham, who in 1972 became the first CEO of the Washington Post and the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She was never taken seriously by her colleagues, and in the beginning, she even doubted herself. Ultimately, she chose to not let other people define her. In many respects, she paved the way for other women and helped to advance gender equality in the workplace.

I am a strong advocate for women in the workforce and diversity, and I’ve appreciated the support and encouragement I received from colleagues who understood the value of looking beyond gender and focusing on maximizing the potential of each individual, helping to bring out the best in them. Don Callahan supported me in my career at Citigroup, as did George Halvorson at Kaiser Permanente.

I hope the examples I set with my leadership and collaborative approach inspire my team to set high goals and achieve them. I have also enjoyed mentoring many young executives and helping them to achieve their dreams. It’s important to pay it forward.

What are the five things that most excite you about the AI industry? Why?

  • AI is transformative.

We are on the cusp of a quantum leap in productivity that will be largely driven by AI. In fact, it’s already happening; we are seeing how companies are completely transforming entire business processes to produce better outcomes for their stakeholders, at significantly lower costs.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we started to see this massive boost in productivity as people started to move away from manual paper-based systems toward digital management. Today, the idea of keeping paper-based accounting records sounds absolutely primitive. In a few years, we’re going to look back at the way we do things today, and most of our current methods will seem archaic and grossly inefficient by tomorrow’s standards.

  • AI improves people’s lives.

AI has the potential to dramatically improve people’s lives, not just by improving the bottom line (although it does that) but also by creating more value for customers, helping us use our natural resources more efficiently, and even saving lives. (Here are a few examples.)

At CLARA Analytics, we aim to have a positive impact on everyone in our customer’s value chain. That includes the insurers who buy our product, the policyholders who rely on them, and injured employees. We shorten the time required to resolve claims. We match patients with the providers most likely to produce positive outcomes, getting them back to work and their normal lives faster. We make the claims process vastly more efficient. There’s an enormous amount of benefit there.

  • AI has the potential to generate very rapid ROI.

Our customers are seeing significant returns on their investments, often in a matter of months. Some of our customers are up and running in three months, and their savings begin right away. Within only six months of implementation, many see ROIs of 50% and higher, translating to millions in savings each year.

And these aren’t just our numbers. Many of our clients have conducted extensive ROI analyses themselves.

Not all AI projects perform as well as ours do, but the potential is there. We’ve seen it first-hand.

  • There is still a ton of opportunity ahead.

AI is still in its infancy. Right now, we’re seeing a convergence of affordable, scalable analytics with a rapid increase in the volume and velocity of data that is available for consumption. At CLARA, we do a lot with natural language processing (NLP), which can be especially tricky with documents like handwritten medical records. There’s an old joke about not being able to read a doctor’s handwriting. CLARA’s AI is doing that, and we’re applying that information to create better outcomes.

When you really think about all the opportunities to improve people’s lives with AI, it can make your head spin. As a creative thinker and inveterate problem solver, I love that.

  • … and the technology is getting better and better.

We’ve come a long way, but as the technology landscape evolves, there will be even more possibilities. As I said before, we are building our product on a serverless architecture that will provide greater agility, scalability and stability than traditional server-based approaches. It will also deliver better performance at a lower cost. The road ahead promises to be very exciting, especially for creative problem solvers.

What are the five things that concern you about the AI industry? Why?

  • We have a huge demand for artificial intelligence scientists but a labor shortage in the field. We have to think globally about this industry when it comes to talent and how to invest in future generations.
  • AI is still an emerging field with amazing opportunities for applications. Because it is new, it is important that we can show true evidence of how AI is delivering results in some way, be it around savings or costs, improving care outcomes, creating better consumer experiences, or assisting with human intelligence. Without having such measurement, it will be hard to substantiate and create confidence in the role AI plays across these applications.
  • AI needs to gain more public trust. With that, there is more to do proactively to ensure public confidence in what we do, especially when AI is trying to play the role of a beneficial “assistant” to those in professional roles.
  • AI applications require a lot of management across several functions within an organization, requiring even more collaboration and ensuring the appropriate governance is in place. I think a vast majority of companies will never get to productionized AI.
  • There is and will be for a long time a lot of swirl about AI, be it myths, misconceptions, or contrary and healthy conversations!

As you know, there is an ongoing debate between prominent scientists, (personified as a debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg,) about whether advanced AI has the future potential to pose a danger to humanity. What is your position about this?

There is an enormous difference between popular perceptions of AI and the real-world applications that exist today. It’s quite reasonable to express concern about future visions of AGI and ASI. That’s an important conversation that we need have during the coming years, and that needs to be an inclusive dialogue.

In CLARA’s case, we like to emphasize the fact that our technology is not replacing human judgment. On the contrary, it is helping claims managers to make better decisions. Our technology is able to notice relevant details that might otherwise fall through the cracks. CLARA’s products can rate the risk that an insurance claim might be going in the wrong direction, for example, and then bring that to the attention of an experienced professional who can do something about it. That’s runs contrary to the narrative that Elon Musk and others are focusing on. We see AI through a very human-centric lens.

What can be done to prevent such concerns from materializing? And what can be done to assure the public that there is nothing to be concerned about?

Even with machine learning (ML) applications, there are important discussions we need to have about governance. How are ML models making decisions that impact people’s lives? Are we treating people fairly? There’s a lot of attention being focused on those issues right now, and that’s a good thing.

The key word here is “assure.” There needs to be an ongoing dialogue about assurance. How do we assure the public? How do we create and maintain trust? What guardrails must we put in place? Transparency will be critically important as we move forward.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?

I strive to bring out the best in everyone I work with. That includes supporting underrepresented groups, especially women in STEM roles. In my previous positions, I launched the Women in Technology group at Kaiser Permanente, was an Executive Member of Citi4Women at Citigroup, and launched Global Women in Technology at AIG. I have also served as the first Executive Sponsor of Girls Who Code. No matter which organization I worked for, I always looked internally to mentor and advocate for more women to be promoted in the STEM fields.

As you know, there are not that many women in your industry. Can you share three things that you would advise to other women in the AI space to thrive?

First, I would reiterate the two points I mentioned earlier. Don’t be shy about stepping forward and seizing an opportunity when you see it. Get out there with your opinion and be willing to take charge.

Second, don’t let other people define you. Let your talent and performance speak for themselves. Don’t be afraid to shine.

My third piece of advice would be to seek out mentors and other colleagues who understand your talents and will support you in being the best you can be. I have worked with some great people over the years who clearly understood what I was capable of and fully supported me in my success.

Can you advise what is needed to engage more women in the AI industry?

Throughout my career, I’ve been a strong advocate for women, and I think it’s especially important that we support women and girls in STEM roles. That means having mentoring programs in place. It means proactively supporting workplace behaviors that reinforce opportunity and openness, with an appreciation of the unique contributions each person brings to the table. It means giving young women and girls the opportunity to explore a wide range of career options and to discover what inspires them the most.

At CLARA Analytics, we need the best people we can get in every role. To do that, we strive to eliminate preconceived notions about people; that includes looking beyond gender.

We have several women in key positions, such as CFO and VP of Data Science. If our work helps demonstrate to others that issues like gender are not relevant — that talent dominates — then all the better.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that had relevance to your own life?

I have lived my life with a fire in my belly of passion, kindness in my heart, and a mind that always craves to learn more. So both as a CEO and a human being, the following quotes are ones I live by professionally and personally.

I constantly encourage my team to embrace “lifelong learning.” Even Michelangelo at 87 years of age said, “I am still learning.” To do this well requires listening and reading. It is how I have always evolved myself, being in the field of analytics, AI, engineering and technology. Many times I will kick off meetings articulating to my team that I am the student, and my role is to listen and learn from them. Because I am an attentive listener, I am such a curious person. Albert Einstein said, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge,” and that is the essence of me as a leader and as a parent. I have always had this insatiable appetite of curiosity, which keeps me dynamic and relevant. I raise my twin sons with the same thinking.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊

I am a great believer that insurance is there when bad things happen personally or commercially. I also believe that insurance can play a bigger role in making the world safer — workplace safety, road safety, trucker safety, car safety, product safety, etc. The velocity and volume of claims data across the insurance industry can be highly predictable, helping identify patterns for prevention and safety for the greater good of people across so many environments. Trending millions and millions of aggregated, anonymized claims could make the world safer!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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