Northwestern Mutual Drives Data Science Culture with Academic Partners

Hamilton Faris, VP Data and Analytics, Northwestern Mutual, discusses Northwestern Mutual’s partnership with UWM and Marquette University to found the Northwestern Data Science Institute.

(Image source: Northwestern Mutual.)

Earlier this summer, Northwestern Mutual (Milwaukee, Wisc.) announced a partnership with  Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) to found the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute in the insurer’s headquarters city. The partnership, which involves an investment of approximately $15 million on the part of Northwestern Mutual, is a reflection of the company’s place in Milwaukee and Wisconsin society, of the insurer’s recognition of the importance of data science to the city’s future, and to the importance of data science to Northwestern Mutual itself, as a leading company in a data-driven industry.

Northwestern Mutual reported at the time of its announcement of the partnership that its investment aims at fostering mastery in the advanced statistical methods, algorithms and technology data scientists use with large data sets to support decision-making, develop strategies, and create new products aimed at giving companies a competitive advantage. To dive a little deeper into the origins and intentions of the partnership and the purpose of the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute, Insurance Innovation Reporter had an exchange with Hamilton Faris, VP Data and Analytics, Northwestern Mutual.

Insurance Innovation Reporter: The announcement of the partnership between Northwestern Mutual, Marquette and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee stressed the role that Northwestern Mutual plays in the city. Please expand a little on the importance of Northwestern Mutual to the economy of Milwaukee.

Hamilton Faris, VP Data and Analytics, Northwestern Mutual.

Hamilton Faris, VP Data and Analytics, Northwestern Mutual: Northwestern Mutual is one of the largest employers in Milwaukee, with approximately 5,000 local employees. Southeastern Wisconsin has been our home for more than 160 years and we are dedicated to supporting the economic vibrancy of Milwaukee. Each year in July we hold our Annual Meeting in Milwaukee which gathers more than 10,000 of our financial advisors from around the country and their families. We recently held our 2018 Annual Meeting, which had an economic impact of approximately $12.9 million.

Last year, we opened our new $450 million, 32-story office tower located at our downtown Milwaukee headquarters. The building has reshaped the city skyline and has been followed by other major multi-million-dollar construction projects in the city, including hotels, apartment towers, corporate headquarters and the new Milwaukee Bucks’ arena.

As part of our commitment to Milwaukee, we’re focused on attracting and retaining tech talent to help drive the future growth of our city and have been increasing our investments in local startups. Last fall we launched Cream City Venture Capital, a $5 million venture fund for startups based in Milwaukee. Since the fund launched, we have made four investments. Additionally, since the inception of our Foundation more than 25 years ago, we have been dedicated to improving education, revitalizing neighborhoods and spotlighting premier destinations. We have given approximately $202 million locally and in 2017 alone, more than 1,500 Northwestern Mutual employees volunteered over 27,000 hours.

IIR: When did the idea for the Data Science Institute come about, and how did the discussion develop?

HF: In late 2017, Northwestern Mutual approached both Marquette University and University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM) to explore the potential of expanding their existing data science programs with support and collaboration with our industry expertise in this emerging field.

Marquette and UWM are two leading universities in Milwaukee and we have great relationships with both schools. Marquette and UWM have strong data science programs and classes that we can build upon through the Institute.

Leveraging the strengths of the three institutions, this partnership will help build a technology ecosystem and advance southeastern Wisconsin as a national hub for technology, research, business and talent development, while creating an organic pipeline of tech talent in the area.

IIR: What kind of ongoing relationship will NWM have with the Institute?

HF: Over the next five years, Northwestern Mutual and its Foundation will contribute $15 million to support an endowed professorship at each university, research projects, new data science faculty, development of expanded curriculum, K-12 STEM learning opportunities, and pre-college programming.

In addition to classes held at both university campuses, there will be additional programming at Northwestern Mutual’s innovation lab, Cream City Labs, which is set to open in our downtown Milwaukee campus this fall.

Our technology leaders will also partner with the universities on teaching opportunities, internship programs and shaping curriculum around real-world business opportunities. The first academic classes in the Institute will be available in the fall semester of the 2019-2020 academic year.

IIR: How important is data science to NWM’s strategy, and how that influenced the Data endeavor?

HF: Data science has become a competitive differentiator that allows companies across many industries to examine patterns in data to help make decisions, develop strategies and create new products.

Our data and analytics teams take action on the insights we get from data to streamline and find new ways to solve business challenges and identify new business opportunities. For example, we’ve leveraged data science to generate insights to streamline our internal processes, assist in our underwriting, create a financial wellness score and develop a tool to pair prospective clients with an advisor best suited to meet their individual needs.

Data science is important to how we operate our business, so the goal is to develop a talent pipeline with skills and passion in business, mathematics, behavioral sciences, process design and industrial engineering, as well as introduce them to the data science careers available to them here in Milwaukee.

IIR: What are some areas of study that the Institute will support? What are some of the emerging data science topics that will feature in the Institute’s curriculum?

HF: One of the immediate priorities for the Northwestern Mutual Data Science Institute is curriculum planning. We’re working closely with both universities to enhance their data science curriculum and leverage their existing programs and classes. This includes addition of faculty and classes at both institutions.

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Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For nearly two decades, he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at or (503) 936-2803.

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