From the West Coast to Bay Street
How this UBC Sauder alum is leading the way for women in finance
Virginia Au chose to attend UBC Sauder School of Business in Vancouver for reasons beyond its reputation for academic rigour. “The school is recognized on an international level, and attracts global firms every year who visit its campus to recruit students,” she says. “It’s surreal because now I’m on the other side of the table, recruiting for my own team.” As the head of global equity at Leith Wheeler Investment Counsel, Au’s journey from the West Coast to Bay Street has been one with many challenges and triumphs. “Being a woman in finance, I’m somewhat of an outlier,” she says. “I see first-hand how underrepresented women are in the industry—especially as a female lead portfolio manager. I feel like a statistical anomaly.”
Though the financial sector’s gender gap remains, Au’s career journey is a sign of an industry in progress and a testament to the power of access and opportunity. For women entering the world of finance, it’s also a blueprint for pushing the needle when the odds aren’t necessarily in your favour.
“Entering UBC Sauder School of Business was a very important first step in my career,” says Au. “The UBC Portfolio Management Foundation (PMF) program was definitely a springboard for my future success as a portfolio manager, giving me the opportunity as a student to run an endowment fund and navigate the ups and downs of the market.” Au’s studies were also supplemented by Vancouver’s investment community, which provides students with a strong support system. “I would often schedule my classes from Monday to Thursday so that I could attend mentor visits on Friday with investors in the city that I had been in contact with through UBC Sauder,” she says. “It gave me a sharper image of what area of finance I felt most suited for and what type of role fit my personality.” Her own entrance into the Vancouver investment community came quickly post-graduation. She was catapultied, along her twenty-year journey, into roles in Montreal, at Pembroke Management, and in Toronto, the country’s financial capital, where she preceded her role at Leith Wheeler in a portfolio manager role at Invesco Canada.
Addressing gender parity in the financial sector
“Throughout all the incredible milestones of my career thus far, one of the most important things I’ve learnt along the way is to embrace my diversity and recognize its true value,” says Au. “Today, the people around me actually appreciate and see the benefit of having a different perspective on the team, and how it can make the investment process richer for everyone and lead to better decision-making across the board.”
Despite a growing acceptance of workplace diversity efforts, the percentage of female fund managers has consistently hovered around 12 per cent over the past two decades. As part of its mission to champion diversity and bring gender parity to the financial sector, UBC Sauder School of Business has launched the Sauder Women in Finance Training (SWIFT) program. As managing director of the UBC PMF program and creator of the UBC SWIFT program, Pennie George recognizes student and employer demand to empower, educate and enable women to build careers in the financial sector. “SWIFT’s mission is clear and as vital as ever before,” says George. “We aim to provide top quality training in finance to a diverse pipeline of talent within an internationally renowned Bachelor of Commerce program.” Through connections between academics and practitioners in finance, the program emphasizes female-led mentorship and community building alongside educating its cohort for global impact.
Beyond the direct training SWIFT provides its students, the program also presents opportunities for networking and peer support that cater to the specific challenges women in finance are facing today and fosters an aspirational image of what the future of the industry can look like. “There is a lot of value in peer support,” says Au. “I know during my time as a student, I would have benefitted from seeing women in the types of positions I was working toward.”
Young women enrolled in SWIFT receive guidance from female mentors who have worked their way to executive roles in finance. Powered by shared experiences, these relationships offer first-hand insight into how to best navigate a business world historically designed for men. Having served as a mentor herself, Au understands the value of relationship-building and just how eager students are to engage with the industry beyond classroom walls. “As a student, networking and mentorship is crucial,” says Au. “It offers more than simply an opportunity to meet like-minded people; it helps you envision what your future career can truly look like and, for women, provides the opportunity to ask questions to working professionals who understand your experience.”
Through its SWIFT program, UBC Sauder School of Business is doing more than championing the success of its female students: it’s spotlighting a conversation about the barriers women continue to face in the workplace, and how some of the most challenging sectors can improve. “Even as far as I’ve come, I’ve still been mistaken as an intern or assistant in the workplace,” says Au. “As someone who sticks out in an office surrounded by towering men, the perceptions around my presence in certain spaces are driven by outdated ideas of where women belong.”
Looking to the future
Women in finance still face a multitude of different barriers today, from large-scale structural issues and policy-making to childcare affordability and even criteria for promotion. Sometimes, these issues are very pervasive and carry cultural baggage as well, such as perceptions regarding female career commitment after significant life events like marriage or having children. As UBC Sauder looks forward and continues investing in gender parity within the financial sector, it bears asking the question: “What does this future look like?”
“On Bay Street, West Coast education can sometimes be overlooked,” says Au. “And while, for me, recruitment has never stopped at the Ontario border, I think programs like SWIFT will encourage more firms to recognize the value in schools that think outside the box and offer their teams a valuable diversity.” Over the years, Au has hired and worked with a long list of alumni from UBC Sauder School of Business and believes the newly launched SWIFT program will only further cement the university’s position as a hub for world-class talent that is both highly skilled and diverse. “My advice to students entering the program is that your diversity is an incredibly valuable asset,” says Au. “The future of Canada’s financial sector includes women, and it makes me proud to see that UBC Sauder is shaping that future.”
To learn more about UBC Sauder School of Business and SWIFT, visit sauder.ubc.ca.