Sogelife Conference Dialogue 2021: Innovation, Women in Tech and Future Challenges

Michaël Renotte I 6:24 pm, 26th October

Sogelife's 6th annual Conference Dialogue took place on 21 October in a 100% digital format. Moderated by Jean Elia, CEO of Sogelife, the event was followed on line by an audience of customers, partners and professionals from the financial industry. The conference welcomed three prominent keynote speakers: Luc Julia, Siri's co-creator and current Chief Scientific Officer of Renault, Claire Calmejane, Chief Innovation Officer at Société Générale, and Fleur Pellerin, former French Minister of Digital Economy and founder of Korelya Capital, an investment platform dedicated to the emergence of global digital champions from Europe. 

It's all about education

"Deploying AI in the financial sector is very easy and really difficult at the same time", said Luc Julia. "The kinds of AIs that began appearing after 2000, Machine Learning and Deep Learning, were based on data", he explained. "While it is easy to find data, making sure that you have the right information -  the one you need to build your models - is challenging. The problem with data is that it is historical by essence and therefore you cannot be certain that they respond properly to the needs of today's society. And this is true not only for banks and insurance companies but for every single domain", he noted.

Most life insurers operate in niche markets with small numbers of customers, small data sets, a lot of tailor made solutions, and less industrialized processes than in the retail market. Yet AI systems are meant to use huge quantities of data. "When you only have small quantities of data, you must deal with it", said Luc Julia. "For instance by creating 'fake' data based on what you think your perfect customer would be and use this information to create models applicable to your industry", he explained. "What is most important in this context, however, is the quality of the people" he added. "You must capture the knowledge of your specialists and make sure to encapsulate this expertise in your models in order to use it as rules. This way, even with small quantities of data, and provided you have injected your specialists' knowledge into your model, you are able to create a very usable hybrid AI system", he affirmed.

Innovating is difficult for both small businesses and large corporates. According to Luc Julia, leading companies attempting to adopt more innovative approaches can make it in two main ways. "They can look for inventive startups to get innovation from the outside", he said. But integrating small, nimble players into large corporates is very hard. Another way is to do it by creating a startup-like innovation atmosphere inside the organization. "However you still have to convince the company's top management of the value of what you did", he underlined.

"Generally speaking, unless you are a true visionary of the same calibre as Steve Jobs", stated Siri's creator, "you must educate the market about the relevance of your innovative breakthroughs because you have to create the need. It works the same way inside a large organization: you have to educate the decision-makers. It's all about education at the end of the day", he said

There is still a long journey to go for women 

"While things are getting better, there are still many hurdles for women who intend to build a career in the tech industry", stated Fleur Pellerin. One of them is limited access to company creation since most startup founders are STEM degree holders. "And higher education in these fields is dominated by men", she pointed out.

"I believe that, as parents, we have a strong responsibility to encourage our daughters – and girls and young women in general - to enter science and engineering studies", she added. Another problem is that access to capital is more challenging for women. "Venture capitalists and investment fund managers should adopt a more open attitude towards female entrepreneurship. Consistent and systemic efforts to improve access of women to tech studies and careers have to be made", she advised. 

"At Société Générale", explained Claire Calmejane, "we took several initiatives like code schools, hackathons, to raise awareness and actively engage girls and young women in choosing science faculties and high-tech professions". Promoting positive images and role models is also essential to inspire and motivate potential future female tech leaders and entrepreneurs. "But there is still a long journey to go for women and under no circumstances should we forget that our efforts must continue", she said. 

Dealing with the innovation challenge

"Newcomers may be seen by incumbents as boosters or threats depending on the way established companies react to the emergence of new players", underlined Fleur Pellerin. "Large corporates can integrate innovations created by startups by investing in their ideas or even acquiring them", she said. This way of working is called Open Innovation, a model for innovation that promotes collaboration with people and organizations outside the company. "On the other hand", the former minister added, "looking at recent history we see that many incumbents didn't realize the threat that was coming, like what happened in the retail, hospitality or music industries. They were simply unable to adapt their business models to these upcoming transformations. I believe that the right attitude for large traditional players is to stay open-minded and put in place mechanisms to interpret the signals indicating short term changes in market conditions", she said. 

Claire Calmejane thinks that innovation is much about execution, about finding the best solutions even if it means opening the door to new players. "What we are going through is not a technical but a cultural revolution", she said. "And this is not going to stop there", she added. According to the Chief Innovation Officer, the next foreseeable transformational wave will be the one imposed by the CSR agenda, where companies will have to integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and interactions with their stakeholders. "This shift will be even bigger than the one caused by the digital revolution. These two disruptive forces are different in nature but they share the some codes, the same necessity for deep cultural changes", she concluded.

Should you wish to view the Conference Dialogue 2021, the replay is available here

Michaël Renotte

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