“Today, more women who have made it to the top are very conscious about creating an “abundance” mentality” with Kirstin Marr & Tyler Gallagher

First, it’s taken brave, powerful women who refuse to take no for an answer, and persevere the same way Jackie Robinson did in baseball, to get the industry where it is today. Some of the first women business pioneers paved a path based on a “scarcity mentality”, where they saw room only for one woman […]

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First, it’s taken brave, powerful women who refuse to take no for an answer, and persevere the same way Jackie Robinson did in baseball, to get the industry where it is today. Some of the first women business pioneers paved a path based on a “scarcity mentality”, where they saw room only for one woman in male-dominated teams. Others have done this with grace, while paving a path for other women. Today, more women who have made it to the top are very conscious about creating an “abundance” mentality.

As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kirstin Marr, who is President of Valen Analytics and oversees all aspects of the company. Prior to becoming president, Marr served as Valen’s Chief Marketing Officer. For six years, she fostered top-of-mind brand awareness and innovative thought leadership to complement Valen’s reputation of going the extra mile for its customers. Her efforts helped grow the company, establishing Valen as a pioneer in predictive analytics for insurers focused on meeting customer demands for transparency, responsiveness and fairness in risk management and business operations. The company consistently grew more than 50% YoY prior to being acquired by Insurity. Marr was also founding member of the Insurance Careers Movement, a grassroots organization that’s grown to include more than 1,000 companies globally. In previous roles, she ran business-to-business marketing for internet technology pioneer, ServiceMagic.com (now HomeAdvisor), and launched a consumer brand that promoted energy-efficient products for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Additionally, Kirstin has a long-standing commitment to philanthropy and community leadership. She currently serves on the board of the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. She was also the Board President for Colorado MESA, a non-profit that serves underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students pursuing careers in STEM. Kirstin also co-founded a non-profit to benefit the Teen Lounge at Children’s Hospital Colorado, which helps teens enjoy a fun and relaxing space to spend their time while seeking medical treatment. Kirstin is past-president for American Society for Training & Development — Rocky Mountain Chapter (now Association for Talent Development), and has volunteered as a mentor for I Have a Dream Foundation as well as several other organizations. Kirstin earned her Master’s degree in Communication from the University of Denver and her Bachelor’s degree in English from California State University, Chico.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance/Insurance field?

I have always been inspired by the idea of being a part of change, and my road to insurance is reflective of that.

After obtaining my degree in communications, I worked with different traditional media and publishing houses, academic organizations and as book and magazine editors. This led me to join Colorado-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory, where I helped institute the media brand, Smart Energy Living as well as helped launch the lab’s first-ever energy makeover contest in partnership with Xcel Energy, inspired by the then-popular show, Extreme Home Makeover.

Following these successful media operations, I chose to work with HomeAdvisor (ServiceMagic at that time), where I was tasked with giving the company a reputational makeover with local service providers. Where earlier, customers would initiate contact with service providers’ using tools like the Yellow Pages and local ads, now service providers would initiate contact after being matched with homeowners based on certain algorithms. This didn’t sit well with the local contractors, and my job was to make them love the Internet and help them see that HomeAdvisor was a force for good.

Five years later, Valen reached out and presented me with a similar opportunity of making a tech-averse industry like insurance love data and analytics. Being a part of an Internet company, I had already witnessed first-hand how data-driven, real-time decision making can be a gamechanger, so I jumped on the opportunity to educate others about data’s value. From traditional media to Internet and e-commerce to data-driven predictive analytics, the whole progression for me has been natural with the idea of creating and being part of change being the one constant.

Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I think it’s interesting that ideas initially considered unreliable are later perceived as complete game-changers.

It was at HomeAdvisor that I first tried to get traditional data players to use highly valuable, transactional data. Unlike other e-commerce companies that had limited customer information, such as zip codes and email addresses, we had databases with customer-specific home improvement needs matched to the appropriate contractors doing the work. Being able to deliver insights from both buyer and seller — at the exact moment they were in a transaction — was unprecedented at that time. We saw an opportunity for traditional listing services and national advertisers to collaborate with us through our real-time matching platform. While they had a hard time taking the leap to partner with us back then, today advertisers recognize the value of collaborating with ecommerce companies.

When I first joined Valen, we had a similar challenge of not only selling our product but also needing to educate insurers about the value of data and predictive analytics in commercial insurance. It was a hard sell initially, but today, insurers are more data savvy than ever and value sources that offer them the most predictive insights.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Valen, we’re building the next generation of our company with solutions that truly help insurers become analytically driven. Our ultimate goal is to democratize how insurance is priced and sold. We take bringing fairness and transparency to the industry seriously because the more reliable, objective facts insurers have in real-time, the lesser the cost of insurance for low-risk businesses and individuals. Right now, they are paying too much to subsidize high risk policyholders.

For Valen, this is a particularly exciting time because we’re practicing what we preach. Unlike several tech giants, who are under the gun for their secretive policies, by opening up the kimono and being more transparent with our own customers and insurers, we are helping them understand how data analytics work and how to incorporate data holistically into their decision-making. Through leading by example, we are allowing our customers to participate in the development of analytics and “see behind the curtain”. We hope to inspire other companies with this type of leadership and accountability.

Additionally, this is happening at the right time for our target market as insurers are ramping up their investment and commitment to data analytics. Our client relationships are deepening and becoming more strategic as a result.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

In an industry that remains steeped in tradition in many ways, we talk, act and behave differently from most other providers. It’s in our DNA to be true partners of our clients, and to be passionate about helping them win.

We recently transitioned from our founding team, who left Valen in our capable hands just over a year ago. What’s telling is that our reputation and client experience is strengthening through this critical period of change. So many of our client CEOs remark to me personally about the strength of our team, the power of our new product vision, our direction. It is a testament to our strong work culture and ethics that our clients are excited about partnering with us into the future.

It goes to show that culture matters, that having a customer-centric philosophy endures and gets infused into new team members. It also bodes well for our ability to thrive in times of adversity.

Valen’s annual Summit is a great example of what makes us different. “The best conference I attend each year,” is a common piece of feedback we receive. Year after year, our attendees tell us that this event is unique in that it creates a safe place for insurers who are normally competitors to interact as peers and share ideas that foster innovation and a new way of thinking. The event is not only informative but also interactive and FUN, which many find to be a refreshing change from most industry events.

Wall Street, Finance and Insurance used to be an “all-white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

There are two main reasons for this change.

First, it’s taken brave, powerful women who refuse to take no for an answer, and persevere the same way Jackie Robinson did in baseball, to get the industry where it is today. Some of the first women business pioneers paved a path based on a “scarcity mentality”, where they saw room only for one woman in male-dominated teams. Others have done this with grace, while paving a path for other women. Today, more women who have made it to the top are very conscious about creating an “abundance” mentality.

Second, women have continued to prove their effectiveness and productivity. Multiple reports show how women continue to generate great results. Fortunately, today, we are being appropriately recognized for our stellar performance and bottom line results. While research is just at its infancy, we continue to see reports on how effective and productive women in Congress are for example, or how having multiple women on corporate boards leads to superior financial performance.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

It is important to keep the momentum going and keep the loud choir alive. Our silence has been our biggest downfall. This happens in every facet, personal, business, church and community. We have to speak up and speak out both individually and in groups.

Men have an enormous role to play. There is nothing more powerful than male leaders and influencers — executives, athletes, actors, etc. — speaking out and taking definitive actions within their sphere of influence to address the continuing disparity — and to declare that this is far from resolved.

It is equally important to drive a change in senior leadership positions. To do this, we can get more women on corporate boards.

You are an “insurance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.

We continue to function within some archaic financial and insurance systems that have traditionally been confusing and complicated. To navigate through these systems, my key pieces of advice are:

If you own your own home, know that many homeowners are underinsured, and their policy won’t pay to rebuild their homes and replace all the contents. Update your insurer with improvements to your home and your valuables. The small amount you’ll pay in additional premium is so worth it in the case of a devastating loss.

If you own your own business, know that most small businesses overpay for their insurance. That’s because insurers still price to the average because many of them are behind on using sophisticated data and analytics to assess how risky your business is. So, know more about how the system works and how you are evaluated. Learn through your broker/agent and it will serve you well into the future.

Relationships matter. As much as it’s an app-driven world, having a personal relationship with a banker, loan officer and insurance broker, goes a long way. You will get better products, services and rates through personal connections. Learn as much from these people as you can now, before financial services are truly automated.

Finally, your online behavior will dictate your insurance and financial terms. It’s already begun. These industries are getting more sophisticated in tracking social media data, as well as everything with sensors (wearables, home sensors, work, etc.).

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

I wouldn’t be where I am today without a number of mentors who have given very generously of their time over the years. But no question it all started with my dad and the example he set as a risk taker, someone who knows how to reinvent himself when the time calls for it, and someone who pays it forward. He began his career at the very start of Silicon Valley and has had an incredible ride of ups and downs as an entrepreneur. His story is inspiring. Particularly how he came to be at the heart of the tech hub of the world. It all started when he failed an eye exam. His goal at the age of 15 was to be an astronaut. He researched it, found out what schools he needed to get accepted to, how to create a path to becoming an officer in the Air Force, and all the other requirements he needed to meet. He went to Purdue, excelled in school and in the Air Force and was ready to realize his dreams. Then, he failed the eye exam portion of his physical because he needed glasses to see 20/20. Disqualifier. Turned his life upside down. So, he licked his wounds for a short time and then recovered and reinvented himself, moved to the Bay Area, and created a new, exciting life path. That example taught me the value of focus, passion, purpose, dedication and hard work.

Then, when I was graduating high school and getting ready for college, we had a long walk and talk about life and my future. And, he made a contract with me, handed down from his father. He said, “My dad paid for my college education and just asked one thing of me. That I use that opportunity to find enough success that I’d be able to do the same for my children. As my oldest daughter, I now want to make the same deal with you.” I never forgot that conversation and have made good on that with my kids. More than just funding their college education, it instilled in me the value of paying it forward in all areas of life.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One of my favorite quotes has to be this one from the famous Australian author Miles Franklin — “It’s a sign of your own worth sometimes if you are hated by the right people.”

As a woman in business, I like most others, have had to fight harder to get heard. Along the way, I have encountered supporters and nay-sayers alike. I always took stock of who these people are and how their ideals, ethics, life philosophies and integrity compared to mine. In the end, I always felt good about where I was because these weren’t the people whose criticisms mattered.

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

I have always felt passionately about raising the next generation of innovators, which primarily demands young people to stick with STEM education. As a result, in the past, I have led the Insurance Careers Movement, an initiative created to inspire young professionals to choose insurance as a career. I’ve also dedicated my time to a variety of STEM non-profits to help young people become the next generation of innovators.

In addition, I strongly believe that most of the world problems today can be attributed to a lack of communication and misunderstanding. I see true power instrong communication skills and the art of interpersonal dialogue in resolving most conflicts and gridlock.

For example, in business, we are more motivated to find common ground and mutual gain and incorporate ways to build a respectful dialogue. We have to be more effective communicators in our negotiations than we see in our political and societal (social media) discourse. If there was a way to translate the same communication paradigm over to politics and personal aspects of our lives, it could have a larger impact.

Given an opportunity, I would start a movement to empower individuals, communities and businesses to find better ways to communicate with mutual understanding and respect to achieve what they set out to do.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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