Episode 2

The big bets MassMutual has made to disrupt life insurance distribution

A 170-year old life insurance institution operating like a highly innovative startup? That’s exactly how MassMutual is disrupting the distribution game. This week on the Life Accelerated Podcast, Head of Platform Transformation at MassMutual Sherriff Balogun Jr. shares his 3 pillars for digital transformation, and how they’ve created their successful B2C distribution channel, Haven Life.

Listen on your favorite platform

We take your privacy seriously so in order to view the video content, please accept all cookies

Share on Social Media

Time Stamps

  • 06:45 Managing legacy infrastructure while innovating
  • 13:14 The evolution and importance of Haven Life
  • 20:45 How MassMutual embraces iteration while mitigating risks
  • 21:54 Sherriff’s 3 pillars for digital transformation


If your goal is market disruption, you need the right technology. This is Sherriff Balogun Jr.’s takeaway after his team at MassMutual successfully launched their B2C distribution channel, Haven Life. Sheriff–Head of Platform Transformation–shares his team’s 3 core pillars for digital transformation; learnings they gleaned directly from their success with Haven Life. He and host Anthony O’Donnell discuss how MassMutual has pulled off feats of innovation, while also remaining true to their core values.

In this episode, you’ll learn how Sherriff and his team approach data, how to manage your technology during bursts of innovation, and successfully managing legacy infrastructure while also having an eye on the future.

Key Takeaways:

    • In order to disrupt the market, you need the right technology

    • You can maintain your legacy infrastructure while prioritizing innovation–it’s a careful balance, but it’s possible

    • For best-in-class customer experiences, draw inspiration from industries outside of life insurance alone

We set out to really disrupt the life insurance market on the distribution side. And I think what we quickly realized is in order to do that, you need the right underpinning technology.

Sherriff Balogun Jr

Head of Platform Transformation, MassMutual

Our Guest

Sherriff Balogun Jr.

LinkedIn Website

Sherriff serves as Head of Platform Transformation at MassMutual where he supports digital transformation through migration to strategic technologies, platform innovation, and integration across user experiences. Previously, he worked at Haven Life as Head of Risk Solutions where he led the actuarial, analytics, reinsurance, and underwriting functions while collaborating across the team to prioritize product development and platform expansion. Prior roles for Sherriff include Chief of Staff MassMutual’s Technology and Experience, as well as numerous roles in data science consulting, business intelligence, and leadership in analytics at MassMutual.

Technology and Experience, as well as numerous roles in data science consulting, business intelligence, and leadership in analytics at MassMutual. Sherriff is a graduate of Springfield College, has an MS in Economics from DePaul University, and a JD from the University of Connecticut Law School.


Sherriff: I think startups in other industries, whether it's e-commerce banking, et cetera, have shown us the way in some ways that if you can have processes that are largely tech and data-driven, you can find not only amazing efficiencies, but you can create better experiences for users and clients.

Anthony: I'm Anthony O'Donnell editor of insurance innovation reporter, and this is life accelerated a podcast for life insurers who want to achieve digital transformation. You just heard Sherriff Balogun at the top of the episode, Sherriff is head of platform transformation at MassMutual, a 170 year old life insurance company that is changing the way consumers are interacting with life insurance through its successful startup distribution company, Haven life.

Sherriff: My journey so far has been uptake non-linear. I spent some time at law school and just sort of fell into tech. Almost by accident. I got recruited by, by MassMutual and started in this data science consulting role. And it was just fascinating to me to see an older company. Really just trying to adopt data science as a function and as a capability and being able to be on the ground floor.

That was really exciting Sherriff.

Anthony: has focused on modernization in three core areas, legacy transformation, data and analytics, and digital customer experience in our conversation. Sherriff shares how Haven life has served as a kind of innovation lab or incubator for MassMutual. And he talks about how data transformation is taking place daily and how the.

Prioritizing his three core pillars. Let's talk about where the life insurance industry is today in general, with regard to digital transformation and about what the industry needs to get done and what has gotten done, where it stands in its

Sherriff: progress. One of the driving factors that have pushed the industry beyond, you know, some of its previous boundaries has been just expectations of customers, big tech companies, the startup and VC world has really introduced so much kind of just speed and ease of buying.

Ease of learning, ease. You know, access to services and products. And I think the insurance industry is, has historically kind of been this more kind of people, centric, intermediary centric. And frankly, it's just slower process. That is a heavily regulated industry, not driven by tech and data, but all these things have changed as customer expectations have changed.

And now. You know, to a certain extent, people just expect things to be faster and easier, and that sort of created this need for the industry to shift. And I think that shift has taken a number of turns, right? I think, um, a lot of it is tech driven. So you see over the last five to 10 years, just this insurgent.

InsureTech providers, startups that are biting off pieces of the value chain to try to solve some problem in a unique way and in a way that that adds some value to larger providers, but then you also see larger legacy carriers really try to transform from the inside. And that's looked like, you know, a lot of commitment, not only new markets and new distribution channels and trying to reach customers in different ways, but also leveraging technology and data to really transform the legacy infrastructure that a lot of these carriers are challenged with.

But also improve the experience for clients and for the people that are selling this business. And so it's, it's really, I think, started with just changing expectations, changing markets and, and really speed and other industries that have just changed, you know, sort of what you need. To be, uh, effective in any market.

Um, and then there was COVID right. So if you think about, you know, our, our typical model of, of selling insurance with, uh, with an advisor or financial professional, kind of being the intermediary, that's a. When you're doing that in a virtual environment. And so speed of, of different parts of the underwriting process speed and in the buying process, um, you know, speed in the servicing process was all required, um, and became frankly, just table stakes, which, which was sort of just another iteration of accelerating that transformation across the industry.

So it's, it's certainly been interesting and I would say kind of a winding road over the last, uh, 10 to 15 years, but you would say the

Anthony: pandemic sped up the transformation.

Sherriff: I think it had to, it's a fair question to ask if we, if we hadn't sort of sped up and figured out how to digitize and figured out how to use data to drive decision-making and drive processes, could we have even survived as an industry?

I'm not sure. And certainly, um, would have been. Very difficult to kind of sustain what you expect as, as the typical sort of financial and economic benefits as an organization of being a big insurer, it was going to be difficult when you just didn't have access to people the same way you did pre.

Anthony: I wanted to add that you had mentioned that historically the industry has been people-centric including intermediary centric.

And I wonder whether in, in a lot of ways, technology helps to preserve that that legacy as technology becomes more people-centric. But what would you say then about how MassMutual has been working to.

Sherriff: Yeah, I definitely think technology has helped. And, you know, one example for us in particular has just been the digital tools and capabilities we've been able to put into the hands of our financial professionals, right?

So even if they are, especially as we get to, uh, fingers crossed, knock on wood, all the things, hopefully on the back end of this pandemic, people are starting to interact more in person and our financial professionals are really getting out there, but we're trying to. Different tools and capabilities in their hands to enable them to provide their services any more efficient and sort of modern way to their clients.

And so it's definitely a marriage between those two things. I don't think it's an either or we've discovered some different ways to do that, but broadly speaking, you know, you said it were 170 plus years old now, and I think we are. Much like a lot of the other legacy carriers feeling the pressure of the external market, the pressure of margins being sort of pressed down and trying to find ways to become more efficient and more dynamic as an organization.

And so for us, I would say what we've done is two things. So one we've, we've doubled down on the things we do really well and that's build great products for the core insurance market. And we introduced. A pretty significant number of new products or iterations on existing products every year in response to the changing market, in response to the changing needs of our policy holders and of prospective customers.

And the other way we've kind of doubled down as is through our, our financial professional. Network. We continue to invest in that network and really have kind of expanded from just an insurance focus to really a broad kind of wealth management focus. And that is something that just heavily aligned to who we are and roots that MassMutual was founded on.

The second thing that we've done broadly is make some big bets we've been committed as an organization to provide. Our products and services to all markets, all demographics, all income levels, et cetera. And so we found some different ways to do that, that align with the emerging needs of the markets.

And so, um, we have things like MassMutual ventures, which is, I would say an arm that we, that allows us to sort of stay on the leading edge of different technology and capabilities that are being introduced in the market. And maintain a stake in them, uh, Haven life, which is now, you know, I think going on four or five years as a direct to consumer transformed into a B2B B2B to C diversified distribution channel for us to really drive in access to these new markets, whether it's millennials, whether it's people who want to buy differently, um, whether it's different demographics, et cetera.

And so we've married those two things to. Right. So just really doubling down on what we do well, and then have some places where we're making some big bets and let's Haven life has evolved. We've also taken the underpinning technology and spun that out into Haven tech, which is a full subsidiary MassMutual providing software services to the industry broadly.

I think we've, we found a good balance and a good diversified method for making sure that we've got the things that we do well and do them better, but also taking some risks on some things that we think could hit big later

Anthony: on Haven. Life is very much in the spirit of MassMutual ventures, but it's also, you could say a dual success because it's succeeding as an insurance distribution company, but also now as a technology.

Sherriff: Absolutely. Yeah. And it's funny. I think, you know, we set out to really disrupt the life insurance market on the distribution side, but I think what we quickly realized is in order to do that, you need the right underpinning technology. And this sort of goes back to the earlier point on, you know, I think big tech, I think startups and other industries, whether it's e-commerce banking, et cetera.

Showing us the way in some ways that if you can have processes that are largely tech and data-driven, you can find not only amazing efficiencies, but you can create better experiences for users and clients. What we discovered is in order to get this distribution thing, Or to disrupt the way that we wanted to eat.

You need the underlying tech and in the process, discover that that tech scales pretty well and helps solve some of our legacy and older challenges as well. And so we did definitely get sort of a lot of leverage out of that initiative. And it's now grown into, um, to something much bigger.

Anthony: I wanted to address your job title because it implies fundamental changes in MassMutual's enterprise technology.

Let's take a little deeper into the nature of your job.

Sherriff: Platform transformation. It does kind of speak for itself. So as I've, as I've said, and we've discussed, you know, we're 170 plus year old organization, we've got plenty of just call it legacy infrastructure and you can define legacy wherever you want.

And it could just mean old. It could mean, you know, not in the cloud, it could, you know, can mean any number of things. And it will be true for all of

Anthony: those

Sherriff: definitions. Exactly, exactly. So my role is, is really just been focused on how do we help manage that legacy infrastructure and in the process focus on, I think just sort of three core pillars that are outcomes that are important to us.

So one is, is really legacy transformation. Which is almost explicitly built into the, to the name of my role, but how do we depreciate legacy systems? How do we manage legacy systems to reduce their costs? How do we reduce our reliance on them? Minimize the different sorts of risks that come with and limitations that come with, um, legacy infrastructure.

The second is technology and data. So I think data as an asset. It's sort of something that, you know, the insurance industry was a little bit behind them, but is rapidly kind of close the gap on. And now realize is that an insurance company is really just a big data company. Every time a person comes in or applies.

There's a data point that's created when you generate a lead or a prospect, that's a data point that's created when you go through this whole process from quote to claim. Hundreds of thousands, probably millions of data points that are generated that can give you insight into behavior that can give you insight into decisions that you need to make or highlight decisions that you're not making that you should be focused on.

So I think looking at technology and data, sort of a key differentiator and asset for us has been key to drive our decision making internally. And then also the way that we use. With our various constituencies, uh, externally. And then the third is digital experience. You know, as I said, we've had the bar set by other industries in terms of ease of buying and having, you know, a mobile experience having a website.

That is delightful and enjoyable and easy and seamless. And so we've spent a lot of time and effort and focus on ensuring that we can compete and not only be the best in our industry, but also start to compete with some of the experiences that we see in some of those other industries that are a little more mature on that.

Anthony: The digital experience, pillar, you know, customer digital customer experience pillar kind of brings us back to Haven life, which as we discussed has been a very successful startup. So I wonder how we should understand Haven life as an experiment in customer experience and what that means for the enterprise in the long run.

You suggested some of that earlier. Maybe you can elaborate a little bit.

Sherriff: Haven life has gone from an experiment to an imperative to compete. And I think if you look at competitors that you could have really started to see some of the opportunity in rethinking the way that insurance gets into the hands of clients.

And then you see that Haven life has really sort of, kind of led the way and was, was first to market in, in doing that and exploring that. And now there's an absolute race to see who can really crack the nut on this and unlock sort of the under-insured population. That we know, is there even just within our country domestically and what are the needs of those markets?

And so I'm in terms of customer experience, I think Haven life has just been a great bed for learning the different needs of the market. The different approaches that we can take with product. With capabilities with experience to reach a broader market, whether that is on the vector, along the vector of income, along the vector of demographics, et cetera, life stage, um, and beyond.

And I think, you know, Haven life has just been. Almost like a little bit of an incubator for us to explore and try some of these new ways to get to different markets. And a lot of those learnings can, um, can be leveraged through Haven life and through, you know, other parts of our core business, as we learn more about those markets in those, uh, potential customers.

Anthony: So with regard to the, the pillar of data and analytics, how was MassMutual looking at data sources, data analytics, and data science, generally as compared to say 10 or 15 years ago.

Sherriff: I think time flies now, it didn't always, it was, it was really, really slow. And I honestly, I think when I started then this road is probably, you know, 2015 as I think data science was relatively new to MassMutual and we had some, some great visionary leaders in the organization that just knew we were sitting on a gold mine and then.

I hadn't really realized all the value that we could. And so we rapidly hired best in class talent on the data science front and the technology front, and took a concerted focus and effort to get buy-in organizationally to try some things on the data science front. And, um, since then now, you know, we have a really robust data science function.

I think it's just really progressed in a way that. Might've been hard to predict, but it's just become very powerful. And I think you see it both within our organization, but across the industry. Now, you know, most companies have some sort of morals making some sorts of decisions, whether, whether they're in the space of marketing or sales or financial forecast or underwriting or fraud, the list can go on and I think are sort of fundamental.

Guiding principle is every decision in the organization. Let's make it our goal to have it driven by data somehow, right. It can either be a fully sort of automated decision that is made algorithmically. It can be a decision that's augmented with some sort of specified human expertise, um, and everything in between.

And I think, uh, it's been a really exciting journey to see the progress that we've made. I can

Anthony: envision you sitting by the fire some years from now telling your grandkids. When I started at MassMutual around oh 2015, data science was relatively new and they're listening with bated breath, stories of

Sherriff: lower, good to be riveting stuff, riveting stuff for them.

It truly is, is an exciting journey. And I think going back to our earlier conversation, it's now become an imperative. If you're not doing this. You're probably not competing and you probably won't be around long. And that's just the reality of the market now. Yeah,

Anthony: I, I kid, but you know, my, my joke is, is meant to point out that these things are moving very fast and what's what seemed new.

I mean, I remember those times what seems very new then and very awkward in the way that insurance companies were, were talking about it and dealing with it is now so much further advanced and 10 years from now, it'll be a very different.

Sherriff: Absolutely. And I think that point was very starkly made to me when we started to have discussions with regulators about, about modeling and data science.

And I realized at first you could tell, he didn't really know what was going on and. Weren't really asking the right questions. And then now you, you talk with them and it's like, oh, okay. You know, this has been around, you've seen it, you understand it. You've gotten exposure to it. And, um, for better or worse, they know exactly what to ask now and, can get to the bottom of, uh, just thinking about the governance and the compliance of the models, which is great.

I would say it's made a lot of progress in the industry.

Anthony: So your first pillar was legacy transformation and of course, life insurance legacy system burden is legendary. And, uh, one would expect a significant complement of legacy core systems at a leading incumbent, such as mass.

Sherriff: There's a vast legacy footprint that we have to manage.

And I would say point A is clear. We've got, we've got all the systems. We need a plan. Point B is clear. We have less of those systems or none of those systems. And, and we can, we can build strategically on modern techniques. I think the magic in the real work is, is how do you get from a to B? And how do you manage your technology?

How do you manage your tech? How do you manage your data and your experience in the interim? And so that has been really what the transformation for us is, is about. I think we've spent. The right amount of energy and the appropriate amount of focus to identify what the right approach is for managing that and understanding it might not be a linear path from point a to point B, but that transition state doesn't have to be terrible.

You can create a great experience along the way for your customers and for your advisors in other constituencies. And I think that's something that we've learned and are continuing to embrace as we, uh, as we go along this.

Anthony: So Sherriff, when we take the three pillars together, it implies as does your title, a new overall environment or platform.

Could you explain what that will look like as all these initiatives reach mature?

Sherriff: Transformation Vision: We would have a minimal if any legacy footprint, and also all of our legacy systems are, are depreciated or at least being managed very efficiently. And at the same time, we've got most of our core business and processes driven through modern technologies that we've invested in, in modern products, improving our speed to market.

So we can respond to changes. Faster and cheaper while offering a great experience to our external constituents and users, whether they be customers, advisors, brokers, et cetera, and then internally having more and more of our processes driven by clean data from clean systems and from modern systems and having our decision-making heavily supported, augmented complimented with data science and analytics along the way.

Anthony: We talked about the preservation of the legacy of 170 plus year old company. But conserving that precious legacy doesn't necessarily mean that there won't be important changes. Culturally, particularly as processes need to be reordered in a customer centric manner.

Sherriff: Um, and totally agreement there. And I think one iteration of what that change can look like is the idea of agile versus waterfall.

Right? I think thinking about making progress, iteratively, thinking about failing quickly, thinking about embracing mistakes as learning opportunities, whereas historically it might've been. Bill bill, bill, bill to the spec and release it and everything goes perfectly. And then you just figure it out if it doesn't.

I think, you know, having that commitment to that change from a top down a level, and then also making sure that again, that there's a clear purpose and a why behind what we're driving towards and that people can understand their place in. It makes it a little bit easier as the change happens. And there's that friction that, that can exist going through that change of people.

know, why we're doing it and they know how they fit into it. I think it makes it a lot more manageable and even enjoyable for most.

Anthony: So, one last question, Sherriff, as you look over the range of transformation initiatives, what would you regard as the three initiatives[AH2] that are indispensable? The three that you could not cut from your transformation?

Sherriff: I'm going to cheat a little bit, cause I'm just going to go back to the pillars. But I think the first is doing what we can to manage our legacy infrastructure. And I think whether it's migrating from legacy platforms to strategic platforms, And depreciating those old systems, but that that's a must because you get so much leverage from a, an efficiency and an economic point of view, but also just the benefits that come from speed to market and offering a great experience and great products to our, to our clients is critical.

The second I would say is continuing. Just proliferation of data and analytics. Again, so many decisions we make every day. So many processes every day that that are taking place in a company as complex as ours. So as much as we can leverage data algorithms, data science to drive those processes, augment those processes, make us smarter about decisions, make us more efficient about decisions, help us, you know, rule out some decisions that we don't need to use energy.

Whatever it might be. I think that's critical for us both in terms of being an efficient organization and productive organization, but also knowing where our next opportunities are and where to sort of get the most bang for our buck.

And then lastly, it truly is the digital experience for our customers and for our financial professionals. You know, we need that to compete. But it's also just a better way to work. It's a, it's a more productive way to work. It's a better way to reach customers. And if we can offer a great experience and really build that engagement with clients, even if they don't need or want our products today, if we have the right brand and the right digital experience that they can connect with and, you know, eventually are there, their knees will align to our services and we'll be able to form a really healthy and productive relationship.

Anthony: I was fascinated by Sherriff's perspective on approaching innovation through the lens of a tech company. One gets a sense of MassMutuals shifting to a software as a service approach to technology and with the success of Haven life, both as an insurance distribution company and a technology vendor with the launch of Haven tech and its strategic engagement with technology change through the work of MassMutual ventures, anybody exploring the Haven life website, we'll see what Sherriff was describing.

And find a modern, sleek user interface and a user-friendly approach that extends to the language, driving a consumer's interaction with the site. You can see how that informs MassMutual's main website and other digital properties of the. It's clear that the company has prioritized customer experience as a major area of innovation.

We also learned from Sherriff how much back-office initiatives matter in making that experience a reality while also driving greater operational efficiency. Thank you for joining us for the life accelerated podcast, undertaken by insurance innovation reporter in partnership with Equisoft for more relevant content, to help you achieve digital transformation, please visit equisoft.com/life accelerated.

[AH1]People + intermediaries – role in a transforming industry? As complexity increases legacy approaches are still required. Tech and data, today, can strip complexity from tech and business processes – introducing simplicity and increasing velocity of business

[AH2]Compare to Richard answer to same question: could be follow-up article after 3 guests


Get new episodes directly in your inbox

Don't miss out on powerful insights from some of the top executives in life insurance. Sign up and get notified whenever a new episode comes out.

Have a question for us?

Contact Us!