Spotlight on Marsha Bera-Morris

By Efua Mantey

During the recent Annual Meeting of the International Association of Black Actuaries (IABA) held in D.C., I had the honor of meeting with Marsha Bera-Morris, the first black woman to become a fellow of the Society of Actuaries in 1978. Below is a summary of the conversation that ensued between us.

From left to right: Ollie Sherman, First African American Fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society, Tenesia McGruder, FSA, Current President of the International Association of Black Actuaries, Marsha Bera-Morris, first African American female Fellow of the Society  of Actuaries.

Tell us a little about your background and the path you took to your current position.

Marsha Bera-Morris (MBM): I am retired as an actuary.  My last positions included some self-employment work, work as a consulting actuary for Watson Wyatt Worldwide (now known as Willis Towers Watson), and part time work for the Department of Defense.  The last work mentioned resulted from an appointment by President W. J. Clinton to the three-person Military Retirement Board of Actuaries, with an accompanying appointment by Secretary of Defense Perry to the three-person Military Education Benefits Board of Actuaries.  Both boards, later combined into one, were oversight boards.

I grew up in a small town on the Jersey shore.  I always liked math and found it relatively easy.  So I majored in math and got a B.A. in Math from Swarthmore College (PA).  I took some graduate-level Math and Math-education courses at the University of Chicago, and taught high school Math in and for the city of Chicago for about four and a half years.  I then decided to look at other math-related fields for a possible, different career.

Why did you decide to become an actuary?

MBM: I decided to try the actuarial field after some exploration, after an aptitude/career counseling test, and after a warm, welcoming conversation with an HR representative at John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company.  I was attracted by the idea of making progress through exams, mostly without human intervention.  My time at John Hancock, with its rotations, gave me a better idea of what an actuary does.  I was most interested in pensions.

If you weren’t an actuary, what else could you see yourself doing?

MBM: I’d probably have remained in teaching – – somewhere.

What are some of the more interesting assignments you’ve worked on?

MBM: I enjoyed working on all aspects of defined benefit pension plans – – funding, plan design, administration (including QDROs, or Qualified Domestic Relations Orders) – – both private and governmental.

What would you say is your biggest achievement?

MBM: I don’t know.  The most unusual work, highly enjoyable, was the work with DOD Boards of Actuaries, with its periodic reports to the Congress and to the President.  I also enjoyed setting up, doing, and supervising QDRO work.  Not an achievement of mine, I was informed that I was the first black female to attain fellowship in any of the actuarial bodies in the U.S.  I did work thereafter on the SOA’s Subcommittee on Minority Recruiting.  I was also one of the co-founders of NABA (now known as IABA).

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received during your career?

MBM: Stay focused; don’t let yourself be distracted or discouraged.

What are some of the difficulties you met during your exam taking process/ in your career and how did you overcome?

MBM: I just kept on going.  Every once in a while, early in my experience, I wondered if my clients were pre-selected for me to some extent for their liberalness/ their willingness to see what a black female could do.  Because there were very few black actuaries, and not that many female consulting actuaries, I think I was kept away from some of the tougher clients, some unions for example.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I sometimes had that feeling.

If you could do anything throughout your profession differently, what would it be and why?

MBM: When I started out, I did not anticipate the downturn in defined benefit pension plans.  I might have sought broader actuarial experience.

What is your message to young up and coming black actuarial students who are looking to move forward in their careers?

MBM: Seek broader actuarial experience, network and try to find a mentor who is helpful and in whom you have confidence.

How did you become a successful actuary?

MBM: I don’t know that I feel that successful but… it took a lot of time, work, studying, a lot of keeping at it kind of thing. And I was good at math.

What do you like doing in your free time?

MBM: Although I am retired, I don’t feel like I have a lot of free time.  I like to sing (in choirs) and play the piano.  I was a choir director/accompanist for a small church choir for about 12 years.  At present, I sing in – – and play a little for – – three choirs.  I am an assistant to the director of one of the three choirs.  And I am a member of the local branch of the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM), which organization is open to professional and amateur musicians and to music lovers.

 

Efua Mantey is a Senior Actuarial Analyst at Liberty Mutual Insurance in Boston.  Efua attended Ball State University and obtained her ACAS designation in 2017. 

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