Power to the People

by Charmian Leong
Photography by Chino Sardea, assisted by Tracey Nguyen
Styling by CK Koo, Makeup and hair by Zoel Tee using Clarins and Kevin Murphy
29 Jun 2021

Insurance and wealth management has long and often been viewed as an overly complicated affair best handled (almost exclusively) by advisers. So Clarie Kwa is on a mission to make financial advice easy enough for grandma to understand.

Few other professions can elicit the same amount of suspicion and pity in equal measure as that of an insurance agent. Over the years they have, regrettably, gained a reputation for being largely self-serving, thanks to a work ethic incentivized by sales rather than a genuine desire to ensure people aren’t bankrupted by accidents.

Clarie Kwa is familiar with the stigma. After realizing she was far too restless a person to stay behind a desk as an analyst, she decided to try her hand at insurance sales in 2008. “My mother was so upset that, after spending so much money on tuition to get me my degree in economics and psychology, I wanted to become an agent. I think she wanted to disown me,” she laughs.

But now, as the co-founder and Director of Markets of 360F, an AI-driven financial advisory system that automates solutioning for insurance and wealth management companies and their agents, the tables have turned and clients are now falling over themselves to come to her.

360F’s technology and clear, concise interface enables distributors of advisory services — banks, insurers, wealth mangers, agents and advisers — to help their clients better understand the products they’re selling. Despite being only three-years-old, the company has already clinched a number of awards and nominations, including winner of the Insurance Vertical in Hong Kong Fintech Week’s Global Fast Track Programme 2020, and Top 3 Insurtech in last year’s Asia Insurance Review Awards.

But Kwa candidly admits that the company’s goals were vague at the beginning. When she launched 360F with co-founder and CEO Michael Gerber, with whom she had worked at Synpulse Management Consulting, they wanted to create a ‘financial GPS’. “There was a lot of trial and error, and we experimented with many different models, but we finally got it right last year.” Thanks to the pandemic, the team gained the clarity it needed to pivot 360F to its true calling: empowerment.

Knit dress by Boss Women

“Since the pandemic, people have found themselves with a lot more free-time, which explains all that bread baking and interest in master classes,” observes Kwa. “But the same thing was happening in the financial sector. People were starting to open their own trading accounts and do their own investing.” It was also around this time that one of the insurers 360F worked with suggested offering 360F as a pre-sale service, so that customers could see their options and then be linked to an adviser if they wanted to proceed.

“This use case opened our eyes. We used to think it was good enough for the agent to understand our dashboard, but now it’s the other way around. We want both parties to see and understand the same thing.” She offers an analogy by way of Google Maps and the way it transformed our taxi commute. “Before we had the app, we had to trust that our driver knew how to get to our destination. But thanks to Google Maps, both parties now have the same navigational tool, so we don’t have to worry about getting conned into taking a longer route. We didn’t see this empowerment in the advisory business.”

In the past, it was all too easy for people to claim that financial products were too difficult to understand, leading to all the responsibility and blame, should things go south, ending up on the shoulders of the adviser. But Kwa believes things are changing, and that this generation of twenty- to forty-somethings actually want to do their own homework before going to an adviser.

Based on 360F’s rapid growth, her intuition wasn’t wrong. Her team has grown from five to 50, and the company has recently partnered with Zurich International to expand into Dubai, with plans to move into Malaysia, the UK and Hong Kong next. But there’s still more to be done locally, as well. “We are a B2B facilitator between insurers and their customers, but from 2022 onwards, we want to be able to reach the end customer ourselves.”

That was how sister company Oma was conceptualized. “The word ‘oma’ means ‘grandmother’ in Bahasa Indonesia, German and Dutch, and the idea is to make financial advice so simple that even your grandma gets it,” explains Kwa. The plan is for Oma to leverage 360F’s technology to connect with non-financial industries. “We could, for example, work with a telecommunications partner that has a digitally savvy customer base. They can offer financial advice through Oma, and if the customers are interested in buying any products, they will be connected to our own advisers.”

Despite having built a career based on handling and growing wealth, Kwa isn’t actually motivated by money herself. “I don’t need to drive a BMW or a Mercedes Benz. In fact, I don’t even have or want a driver’s license. I’m more motivated by learning,” she says, and she is not afraid to admit that all her job changes — which included a brief stint as an English teacher at a secondary school and a gap year to pursue an MBA in Switzerland — were the result of boredom and a yearning for new challenges.

Dress by Boss Women

To sate her enterprising spirit and natural curiosity, Kwa even ran her own online jewelry business for almost two years back in 2009. It was a profitable hobby that allowed her to play around with various business strategies and learn about customer segmentation. While the disinterest invariably did creep in, this chapter of her life was perhaps a defining one for her ambitions. “I started to think, ‘So what if the world has one more piece of beautiful jewelry?’ Making them brought me joy, and I’m sure the pieces made someone happy, but that happiness was superficial and fleeting. I wasn’t adding much value to the world.”

But her work with 360F is. “I never doubted we were solving the right problem. We were getting recognition even when our product was still immature,” she says, referencing the firm’s early accolades. “And I love explaining what Oma stands for because when I see how people’s eyes light up, I know that this is it.”

Of course, Kwa isn’t above being driven by profit. “We are still responsible for our employee’s livelihoods,” she says. “But it’s the immaterial that keeps me going. I need to be fulfilled spiritually, because this is the one job that I can’t run away from.”