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Joan Lamm-Tennant Shares Her Leadership Journey with Wisconsin MBA Students

By Clare Becker | Photography by Paul L. Newby II

December 2, 2022

Weikel speaker Joan Lamm-Tennant talks to MBA audience
A self-described "realistic dreamer," Lamm-Tennant harnessed the "power of partnerships" throughout her career to turn vision into reality.

The next time you encounter a roadblock on your professional journey, welcome it.

That was one of several key messages communicated by speaker Joan Lamm-Tennant. Lamm-Tennant is chair of the boards of directors at AllianceBernstein Holdings LP and Equitable Holdings, Inc., two companies that are signatories on the Principles for Responsible Investment. She is the founder and former CEO of Blue Marble Microinsurance and served as an adjunct professor of international business at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Lamm-Tennant is also a startup advisor for American Family Insurance and the Creative Destruction Lab (CDL–Wisconsin), which offers a specialized risk stream for new ventures.  

Lamm-Tennant shared her insights in conversation with Christy Kaufman (BBA ’97, MS ’00), vice president of Risk Management at Zillow, for an audience of Wisconsin MBA students, faculty, and alumni as part of the school’s M. Keith Weikel MBA Leadership Speaker Series held at the Wisconsin School of Business.

One day, while working globally with Blue Marble on a project to insure small coffee farmers, Lamm-Tennant was momentarily stumped. The regulator she was speaking with insisted on a physical address and zip code to insure the farmer in question, but most growers in the region didn’t have one. She gave him the latitude and longitude of the farm instead—which he promptly rejected.

In a moment of clarity, she realized she could give him the address for the coffee cooperative: It already advocated for the farmers and had cash mechanisms in place to pay them and to take their product to market.

“That’s exactly what happens along the way: you find these hurdles,” Lamm-Tennant said, who ended up writing a group policy for the co-op. “It actually led me to solve a bigger problem, where I could now do group sales as opposed to individual sales, hitting scale faster.”

“Even if you’re on a straight path, know that you will hit walls and get told ‘no.’ That’s just life. I think it takes a lot of tenacity in any career and for any person,” she said. “It’s important to almost prepare yourself for that and actually want it to happen, because by hitting a wall, if you learn from it and go back with that knowledge and just keep going, you’ll eventually succeed.”

Moving between worlds

Lamm-Tennant’s impressive multifaceted career—professor, intrapreneur, economist, founder, industry leader, and board director—started in academia, where she was a tenured professor of finance and economics at Villanova University.

“I had the good fortune during those years of publishing and teaching alongside of highly regarded economists and they greatly influenced my leadership side,” she said. Given her training as a financial economist and mathematician, she was drawn to modeling and measuring risk as well as equity market risk and interest rate structure in the capital markets.

Lamm-Tennant shared her insights with Zillow’s Christy Kaufman (BBA ’97, MS ’00).

Lamm-Tennant was also influenced by the work of financial economics scholar Stephen Ross. “[Ross] really challenged modern portfolio theory with the idea that systematic risk really can’t be captured by one single variable; there really could be something other than data that you should use for measuring risk. Today, we’re looking at multi-factor risk modeling, realizing that degrading the economy and behaving without a social conscience is risk. It needs to be quantified and it needs to be priced in the system.”

She started a doctoral program and focused on arbitrage pricing theory for her dissertation in the mid-1980s, before shifting into the field of insurance. “As a young professor, I wanted to understand risk—not just pricing risk and understanding returns for the sake of risk-adjusted returns, but I also wanted to understand the other liabilities associated with it.” She concentrated on mortality and morbidity, later expanding to issues around climate and then general insurance and malpractice.

Feeling she needed to better understand industry from the perspective of her graduates, she joined General Reinsurance Company (now Gen Re), eventually leaving academia to become an intrapreneur who managed asset and liability risk portfolios for the company’s insurance firm clients.

Impact insurance helps farmers thrive

Lamm-Tennant later became chief economist for the global risk firm Marsh McLennan and was excited to be working to open emerging markets in India, China, and other countries. She saw the potential that insurance had to be a gamechanger in the lives of so many.

“I began to really understand that it wasn’t the mathematics of risk that gave me purpose,” she said. “It was that if we could price and transfer risk to those who can best afford it, individuals will thrive, societies will thrive, and economies will grow. I questioned where would I be today if it wasn’t for being able to secure a loan to buy a home? And I realized that in order to secure financing, I had to be insurable.”

“I began to really understand that it wasn’t the mathematics of risk that gave me purpose. It was that if we could price and transfer risk to those who can best afford it, individuals will thrive, societies will thrive, and economies will grow.”

–Joan Lamm-Tennant

The answer was microinsurance, or as Lamm-Tennant referred to it, “impact insurance.” She founded Blue Marble Microinsurance, a global startup that provided a limited amount of insurance protection to farmers against environmental factors such as excess rain and drought.

“We realized that the answer to poverty was not insurance,” she said. “It was a very complex combination of access to health, access to education, and access to a livelihood. Insurance was just a part of it that allowed individuals to transfer the risk so that they would have more confidence in their lives and livelihoods, and then make decisions that were in their best interest, like with their families and their children’s schools.”

Her experiences with Blue Marble taught her a key lesson: Partnerships can sometimes take you farther than you could ever go alone.

“We were successful because we had partnerships,” she said. “I was told so often that I was a dreamer. And I said, ‘Yes, I am a dreamer, but if you don’t dream, then nothing’s going to come true.’ So, I was a realistic dreamer, understanding that not everything that I dreamed up would come true. But what really surprised me is lots did, and it was because of the power of partnerships.”

‘A barrel of things’

Taking questions from the audience, Lamm-Tennant reflected on how the many chapters and challenges she faced shaped the trajectory of her career. Lamm-Tennant said she is a veteran of numerous graduation ceremonies, but of all of these she’d witnessed, childhood storyteller and television personality Mr. Rogers (Fred McFeely Rogers) was her favorite speaker. At the ceremony she attended, Rogers told the assembled graduates and their families the story of how, early on, he’d written a song and thought he was really going places.

“But with the first song he wrote, he was told to go write a barrel of songs, then come back,” she said. “So that’s kind of how I looked at my career. I had to do a barrel of things, and just keep going and not change paths. My mission was to be relevant somehow, someway, and eventually you reach that by going back and learning from the walls that you hit.”

The M. Keith Weikel Leadership Speaker Series at the Wisconsin School of Business enables Wisconsin MBA students to interact with and learn from accomplished business leaders and alumni. Executives from both the private and public sectors are invited to campus to address students.

The series was established in 2004 with a gift by John J. Oros (BBA ’71) and his wife, Anne Wackman. Today, the series continues as the M. Keith Weikel MBA Leadership Speaker Series thanks to a gift by M. Keith Weikel (PhD ‘66) and his wife, Barbara.