Google’s Champion of Holistic Insurance: Karna’s Journey Continues

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By Russ Banham

Carrier Management

Like many people who have met Dr. Henna Karna, Google’s general manager of Global Industry Solutions in Insurance, Reinsurance and Risk Management, it’s hard for a journalist not to be impelled by her mission. For nearly 25 years, since her work as an actuarial assistant at John Hancock Insurance, Karna has probed the insurance industry’s inherent inefficiencies, waste and lack of customer-centricity.

I first wrote about her in this magazine in 2018, having read several articles in the insurance trade press featuring her innovative ideas on how cloud computing, automation and artificial intelligence could change the industry for the betterment of carriers, reinsurers, brokers, policyholders and society at large.

Her vision was as sweeping as it was far-sighted. Unlike many InsurTech entrepreneurs focused on efficiency gains for a particular risk exposure or a specific line of insurance, Karna had bigger game: She wanted to design a way to pragmatically evolve the entire operation of an insurance company on an end-to-end basis, creating a means to share accurate risk exposure data across underwriting, pricing, risk management, reserving, claims management—the whole kit and kaboodle.

This radical concept aligned with Google’s corporate mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” prompting the tech giant to reach out to Karna in 2020. She left her role as global chief data officer at the large multinational insurer AXA Group to lead Google’s initiative to build solutions for the insurance industry. Her work since is praised today by many people across the industry who have partnered with Karna in multiple joint collaborations.

“Henna came to me with a very compelling vision,” said Aldo Monteforte, founder and CEO of the Netherlands-based The Floow, a global leader in telematics data management supporting the automotive industries. “She explained that insurance organizations manage information technology with a plethora of point solutions, a ‘death of a thousand cuts.’ Her vision was to leverage Google’s formidable arsenal of cloud solutions, software and analytics tools in the revolutionary development of a holistic solution entailing minimal change management. I was completely captivated, as I had similar thoughts and leanings.” Google Cloud and The Floow are engaged in a go-to-market partnership expected to culminate in a joint solution this year, Monteforte said.

Bill Devine, senior vice president, Business Capabilities, at Travelers Insurance (Business Insurance), came away from his first meeting with Karna feeling similar admiration. “Her vision, passion and unflagging energies are unreal,” said Devine. “Henna’s push to modernity has made her a driving force of change in the industry. She is literally reinventing how insurance gets transacted.”

Travelers announced in September 2022 that the company is collaborating with Google Cloud to create a cloud-based data ecosystem quickly synthesizing vast amounts of information to help the insurer’s underwriters more efficiently evaluate risks for large companies and middle-market businesses.

Formative Roadblocks

Friends were difficult to come by. In middle school, she was absorbed in reading epic fantasy books and Marvel comics, especially “The X-Men”; she related to the singularities that made them superheroes. She was stimulated by the life of Rani Lakshmibai, a young woman who led the first revolt against British rule in India in 1857. “She inspired me to find the good in all things and to never accept the status quo, always looking at everything with a fresh perspective—something I try to bring to work every day.”

Karna came out of her shell in high school, discovering a passion for mathematics, a subject at which she excelled. After-school hours were involved in woodworking, carving elaborate walking canes with rope-like handles she sold to a retailer for $30 each; the retailer subsequently sold them for $450 each. She carved each rope handle based on a mathematical proof. Not surprisingly, her later academic work focused on math. Karna earned both a master’s and a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from the University of Massachusetts, and a master’s in business administration from MIT.

At the time of writing the profile, Karna was the chief data officer at XL Group. Previously, she was actuarial chief information officer at AIG, and before that the president, Digital Services, at Verisk Analytics. At XL, she and her team built a one-of-a-kind platform architecture in which different risk exposure data could migrate in real time to containerized micro-databases.

The goal, she explained at the time, was to eventually provide the means for different functions like underwriting, claims and reserving to have instant access to the same data. By sharing this information, better pricing, reserving and other business decisions could be effected.

Two months after the article came out, AXA acquired XL for $15.3 billion. Karna’s work continued at AXA, culminating in the implementation of an award-winning data ecosystem called DEEP (Digital Ecosystem & Engagement Platform). When news broke that she would lead Google Cloud’s game-changing insurance initiative, Carrier Management reached out to discuss her strategy.

In an exclusive interview in January 2021, Karna presented her road map for insurance, drawing from the tech giant’s cloud-based data and analytics platform, leading cloud computing services, an estimable array of advanced data analytics, content delivery, AI and machine learning, video classification and recognition, 3D visualization, and other tools.

In the article, Karna explained that carriers have a treasure trove of internal risk exposure data that was stored away in discrete silos and data marts. The ability to access this data in real time to make business decisions in underwriting, pricing, risk mitigation and reserving was practically impossible.

It was the same problems that had guided her work to solve AXA’s operational inefficiencies. The difference was that Google Cloud presented the opportunity for all carriers to achieve similar ends. By partnering with Google, their data would become accessible in a secure cloud environment to all parts of the insurance enterprise. Various functions like underwriting and reserving could instantly access and share this information, leveraging Google’s suite of computing solutions in their analyses and decision-making.

As his comments suggest, the journey continues. Karna is reluctant to “give away the store,” she said, “before the door opens.” Rather, she prefers to discuss the quality of her collaborations throughout the industry. “The privilege of my role at Google has been the 600-plus companies around the world I have engaged with across all aspects of the industry, in property and casualty, life insurance, reinsurance, which is incredible,” she said. “Each day I learn from them, assembling a depth of information I can collate for the industry’s lasting transformation.”

Apprised of her comments, Monteforte said, “It is we who learn from her. Her profound understanding of actuarial sciences—the foundation of the industry—drives our conversations. Henna is that rare individual who absolutely nails the highly technical and complex actuarial elements, and then combines this skill with a deep engineering background and a ‘nuts and bolts’ understanding of modern software writing and architecture. She talks about the cloud as intelligently as she does about insurance in all its forms.”

He added, “Most important is that Henna cares deeply about policyholders and fairness; she believes in the societal importance of insurance helping the less fortunate members of society. She is extremely principled.”

Not much one can add to that. Except this: In 2020, upon the publication of my history of Harvard Business School, “Problem Solving: HBS Alumni Making a Difference in the World” (please excuse the shameless plug), I invited Henna, who lives in Boston, as my plus-one to the school’s celebration of the book’s launch. It was the first time we had met. She had decided to dress in a traditional Indian sari and wore a bindi mark on her forehead. It was an act of courage, she told me, as the initial profile of her in Carrier Management was a reminder to be fearless in her identity. “I am being who I am so others may have the courage to do the same,” she said that day, smiling.

I watched her move easily among dozens of HBS alumni, teachers and dignitaries. As she talked, they listened.

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