What does it take to be a Woman of Influence?

CMP’s annual Women of Influence list is back for 2022 – but what does it take to be an influential woman leader and role model in the mortgage industry? We spoke with top executives Josie Milanetti (Canadian Mortgages Inc.), Rejean Roberge (CWB Optimum Bank), and Lesley Chen (Equitable Bank) on their journeys in the industry and how women can be trailblazers in their professional journeys.

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Fergal: [00:00:28] Hello again and thanks for joining us on another edition of CMP TV. I'm Fergal McAlinden, news editor for Canadian Mortgage Professional. It's that time of year again when CMP pays tribute to the mortgage industry's women of influence, recognizing the woman in the mortgage space that have emerged as outstanding role models and trailblazers for women throughout their careers. I'm very pleased to be joined on today's show by three women who have emerged as some of the most prominent executives in the Canadian mortgage industry. With me today to discuss their own careers did why it's so important to have women represented in the industry and what needs to be done to ensure greater equality of opportunity in the mortgage space. With me today are Josie Milanetti, director of Underwriting for Canadian Mortgages, Inc. Rejean Roberge, vice president of CWB Optimum Mortgage. And Lesley Chen, regional director of Commercial Originations for Equitable Bank. Thanks to you all for joining me today. So Josie, I'd like to start with you. How in your view, does the mortgage industry benefit from having women in prominent leadership positions?

Josie: [00:01:29] Absolutely. So I think we bring great things to the table. This industry is always changing and there's always great challenges, especially in the last couple of years, be it during the pandemic and now with the new market changes that are coming, that have been coming across everyone's desk or that we're all facing, I think men and women both approach challenges and we approach the way we handle things very differently and having a different point of view and a different perspective on how on how we handle things or how we look at things definitely is something that we should have within the mortgage industry.

Fergal: [00:02:10] And Rejean, when it comes to women in prominent leadership positions, what are your thoughts on the mortgage industry benefits? 

Rejean: [00:02:16] Well, something I've always loved about this industry is that it is always changing and there's always new challenges to solve. This year is another year of unprecedented changes that we've seen, at least in the residential mortgage industry, which I work in. And I don't necessarily think that it's about how many women and how many men you have sitting around your table to solve those problems. But it's ensuring that you have that diversity in the thought and experience at that leadership level so that you can find the best solution for your customers and for your business. It's really important to have that distribution of men and women because there's a ton of even physiological and neurological evidence why that a man's brain and a woman's brain actually respond to the same stimulus in different ways. So by making sure you have that distribution of the genders, you naturally will have different perspectives and different ways of processing and looking at a problem to bring that best solution to our customers. 

Fergal: [00:03:19] And Lesley, have you got any thoughts yourself about how the industry benefits from having women in those prominent roles that Rejean and Josie mentioned? 

Lesley: [00:03:26] Yes, I mean, women are 50% of the workforce, right? I don't believe the industry can grow if it continues to perform in a monoculture where it only appears to have of the workforce only when any industry or organizations purposefully expand the talent pool to include diverse ways of thinking viewing experience. It will inspire female employees that their voices are welcomed and they too can be leaders. So one issue that I think is worth pointing out is not only we need more female leaders, more importantly, we need more female representation. Studies have found that unless you have 30% of the female representation, there isn't really no major impact to have more senior female leaders. So the changes really need to be drive from all levels of industry. 

Fergal: [00:04:30] And on the subject of the mortgage industry. Josie, obviously it's sometimes been or traditionally it's been perceived as quite male dominated. How did you yourself establish yourself as a leader in that type of environment? 

Josie: [00:04:44] I've always gone by the four rules, let's say, of of my career. The first thing is always been to ask questions, ask questions and listen and actually digest the answers that are coming from anyone that I'm asking the questions of. And I've never been afraid to put in my $0.02 worth. So I will, I'll ask the questions. I'll come back with my responses to them. If I see something that I don't think is right or I see something that we can be doing differently. I know sometimes it wasn't always appreciated or I believe it was labeled as being a little bit difficult because I was always challenging or questioning a process or a procedure or mindset. But I want it to be heard and I want to continue to be heard. I've also worked very hard at my career. I've never shied away from a task or responsibility that was given to me, and I've never said it's not part of my job. In fact, my response has always been, How can I help? And by doing that, I was able to and I continue to learn and evolve in my career. I've also never been afraid to leave an organization where I didn't feel that I was being valued. I refused to be pigeonholed into one position or to be continuously overlooked when it came to promotions. I wanted to, and I continue to align myself with an organization that not only values me as an employee and as a leader, but also as an individual. The other thing that I've always done in any position that I held, regardless if I was in a leadership position or if my goal was to become or to get into that leader ship position. I always tried to hit the ground running and I always try to be a role model for other people that were on the team so that they would respect what I was doing and they would understand that I actually know how the job works or exactly what the job entails. 

Fergal: [00:06:41] Thanks for that, Josie and Lesley. Obviously, you're each quite prominent executives in an industry that's often viewed as being dominated by males. Is there any way that you've established yourself as a leader in that climate? 

Lesley: [00:06:51] I mean, I didn't mean to be. I always say to my friends, I didn't mean to be one of the only females in my field. I think it requires two factors for myself. First is an internal factor. I think leadership is a mindset. It doesn't just turn itself on one way, the office and turn itself back. When we go home at the end of the day, whether it is advocating for redesigning the parental leave system to enhance gender equality or go for this position, that usually it will go towards the old male counter parties. The drive need to come from within and as women we need to continue stepping out of our comfort zone to advocate for ourselves to drive the changes. The other factors that is, is support. I'm so thankful to be in a position where I have a boss that is willing to recognize my skill set and to support my desire of advancing my career. Also being employee, equitable bank, a challenger bank, it provides me the platform to push for changes and stifle bias. So without any of those factors, I don't think I'll be here today. 

Fergal: [00:08:11] Thanks. Lesley and Rejean, what are your own thoughts anyway, that you've established yourself as a leader in that kind of male dominated environment? 

Rejean: [00:08:18] Yeah. So for me, it kind of when I think back. On my career progression, it kind of came down to three well, maybe four things. First, I was always curious and not afraid to ask why, even if it risked me looking and experienced. And I think sometimes, maybe particularly for women, we often can suffer or have experienced imposter syndrome and I would say have be courageous and ask be curious and ask why. Second I. I like Lesley, had the benefit of an amazing mentor and leader who truly championed my career. He always gave me all the time in the world for all of those questions I might have as to why why we do something a certain way or why things couldn't be a different way, which helped me really learn about the business. Third, during all those curious conversations with my mentor, I would ask, Can I help with that? And I think that's really important, is that you can step into that, step into the gap and take stretch assignments and stretch goals. And because there's a tremendous learning opportunity when you're willing to kind of take a risk and put yourself out there, even if you don't necessarily know the answer or what the end solution is going to look like. But take a risk and ask questions along the way so that you can get the job done. And then the fourth thing and it's last but not least, but I think it's really important because sometimes I feel like it is something that's undervalued these days and we're often something we don't take enough pride in. I worked my butt off like you had to put the job in. And I like what Lesley said about, you know, a leadership as a mindset, because I think that's a great way of putting it, because the day never ends at 5:00, right? Like there's always the ideas or something might come to you. The weirdest times of the day, and I think that's something you just have to have to own and be proud of. 

Fergal: [00:10:17] Absolutely. Fantastic answer. And one thing that CMP is doing through the woman of influence list is recognizing the careers of prominent women in the industry, but also their achievements and specific things that they've achieved as a woman of influence and as a leader. Is there one achievement that you could say you're most proud of?

Josie: [00:10:35] There are so many achievements that I'm proud I'm proud of. During the course of my career, I did not set out to be in my current role all those years ago, over 25 years ago, when I started in this position. In fact, when I started in this position, 95% of the people in leadership that I was dealing with, it was a male dominant role. So I was happy to or I was aspiring to be the assistant to someone that currently holds my position. But today I am holding that position and I, I'm so proud of myself for having done that. The other achievement that I've always been very proud of, whether in my current organization or any organization I've been in, is that I have been able to not only excel in my career, but to help others excel in their career and to be a mentor for them. I'm proud of the fact that I've been able to help people get to the positions that they currently hold. And I believe that a great leader is someone that not only puts in a lot of hard work into the job that they're doing, but also into the individuals or the people that they are nurturing and teaching and training and being an example so that one day they can reach their highest goals and their highest achievements. 

Fergal: [00:11:51] And Lesley, as a woman that have influenced yourself, is there an achievement that you could say you're most proud of? 

Lesley: [00:11:56] Yes, actually, I love this question, and it's kind of close to my heart. I think for me, a woman of color, a first generation immigrant who speaks English with an accent. Right. So a lot of jobs in the industry I have witnessed over the years that require someone who speaks perfect English or able to write with perfect grammar. Those jobs can be quite intimidating for people like myself. So again, it's something that you have to we just have to keep fighting for ourselves. Just because it's a sales role traditionally goes towards someone who and you know as a usually a Caucasian male in my industry. That's something that we just have to fight for. So it's time for change. The world is changing and we need to go with it. But like I said previously, we really want to want it right? The desire, the needs need to come from within. And it's at the end of the day, it's up to us to go for it. It's up to us to pick up the phone, to knock on some door and put ourselves out there. 

Fergal: [00:13:17] And Rejean, how about for you as a woman of influence, is there anything that particularly stands out from your career that you're especially proud of? 

Rejean: [00:13:23] Yeah, sure. I well, earning the seat I hold today as vice president of Optimum Mortgage, but I'm really competitive. So even more so the day that I surpassed my predecessors growth and profitability achievements running the business, I think that's probably that was that was something I was aiming for. So I was proud when I achieved it.

Fergal: [00:13:43] Well, that's a really interesting point because one thing that we hear from a lot of women of influence is the importance of both having a role model and being a role model for other women. Is there anybody either inside or outside the industry or both, who has actually inspired you to be a leader? 

Josie: [00:13:59] This is a great question, and it wasn't an easy question for me to really contemplate and think about, because I think as I as my career and as my as as my career has grown and evolved, the the inspiration to my being a leader has changed. When I first started in this career or in any career that I was going to be getting into. My inspiration to being a leader or to being at the top of my game were my parents because they came to this country. I'm first born generation Canadian. They came to this country to get a better life for themselves and to ensure that their children excelled in life and in work. And they were happy and they were successful. As I worked through my career, I was inspired by these great bosses, be it male or female, that I've had in my lifetime that believed in me and that helped me to become a leader. Also, the junior my junior team, the people that I helped again foster and help grow in their positions. Today has also been an inspiration for me right now in my life, where I am today or where I am in my career, my biggest inspiration are my daughters. I have two daughters and I want to be a role model for them. So I believe that by working hard and by taking on the responsibilities that I take on and by showing them my own work ethic and my desire to be a leader or in a leadership role that gives me the ability to be the best mom and the best leader for my daughters so that they will aspire to be the best that they can possibly be. 

Fergal: [00:15:36] Is there anybody, Lesley, that has inspired you to become a leader, either inside or outside the industry? 

Lesley: [00:15:41] I think inspiration come from all directions. For me, it's not only I was inspired by my previous managers and my current boss and how supportive they are, but also comes from my friends outside the work circle. So these days we often even do outside of business hours. We often have conversations. We ask ourselves, why are we the default choice or why are we the ones that always stay over at the kitchen table? So those conversations truly make me think about what my positions are on a personal level as well as career, right? So when, when I was talking to some of my female coworkers and they oftentimes, especially during pandemic, they all burned out. I'm burnt out. I'm sure you guys are all burnt out. But the women employees, actually, we have the rate of our mental health. We really suffered during the pandemic because not only were we need to hold down a full time job, we also need also are the default choice for the full caregivers at home. I have two kids myself and I would say most of the time 60 to 70% of the time it was me who who were having meetings with kids running around at the background. So those are the those are the situations and the incidents that made me really question why are we doing these things instead of our partners, right? So for me, the inspiration. It's from everyday day to day life. It's not just happening at the workplace. 

Fergal: [00:17:38] And Rejean, how about for you, anybody that you could say has definitely inspired you to become a leader? 

Rejean: [00:17:43] Well, I certainly had people who helped my career along the way and who were supportive and champions or gave great advice. But I think in terms of my desire to be a leader, it came from those that I was maybe leading or coaching or who you watched them exceed based on how you supported them. That was you learned that was actually the most the most the funnest part of the job when you got to inspire somebody else or, you know, plant a seed of of an idea and then watch them take off and run with it in a completely wilder and better way that you ever imagined. And this little idea you had just blew up and became something so much more beneficial to your customers or to the your processes or something like that. So I think the inspiration piece comes from when you actually do the work of being a leader and coaching others. 

Fergal: [00:18:33] And so, Josie, what steps can those in positions of influence take to ensure equality of opportunity for everybody in the industry?

Josie: [00:18:40] Yeah, I think what we need to do is sometimes we need to look outside of the experience that people have within there, within the mortgage industry. I think sometimes we have to think outside of the box and we need to bring on people that have different perspectives or different viewpoints, either culturally, gender wise, educational wise, where they've been in life and where they're hoping to go in life. I think if we as leaders, we keep doing things same old, same old, same old, we're always going to come up with the same result. So I think one of the things that we need to do to ensure equality of opportunity across the board is to open our minds, look outside of the box and really bring in people that are going to be influential and people that are really going to step up and be part of the whole process. 

Fergal: [00:19:28] Lesley, is there anything that stands out for you that people who are influential or people who are prominent in the industry can do to ensure that there is equality of opportunity for everybody in the industry?

Josie: [00:19:38] I think historically companies tend to hire people based on their experience and the history, right? So but when it comes to that for women or other minority groups, they might be just equally talented for the job, but come from a different culture or background or experience. So in my opinion, I think a company should maybe considering the implement and way to test each applicant skill set, considering their mindset or work assets, as opposed to just relying on their resume, for example. And the other thing that we all have witness, that is women always get assigned those harmony or social tasks. Whether is to help out with the Christmas potluck or to take notes at a conference meeting, it seems always the woman is the default choices. So these tasks really should be made official and to the appropriate party so that women are not left to do all those invisible work all the time. 

Fergal: [00:20:56] And raising anything that you think that needs to be done by people who are in prominent positions in the industry to level the playing field a bit?

Rejean: [00:21:04] Well, I absolutely love Lesley's answer. It was inspiring for me, Lesley. So thank you. But I think it is just, you know, how you're in this position. Ask those questions when you see something where you experience it yourself or you see someone else experiencing it that, you know, that's just not right. Why? Why do we do it that way? We should change that. And I think as Lesley touched on some of those external factors in your career that might help you move forward in a leader into a leadership position if your organization has some of those in place, show your support for them and as if you're leading others lead from the front and show that you're taking advantage of some of them and that it's important for those and that it's okay, right? It isn't something where it's just because you're a leader that you you can't also be a mom and you can't also have your child crying in the background, which you might hear mine right now because he's homesick. But so those are some of the things I think as you lead by example and you lead by the lead from the front so people can see that they can appreciate, wow, I can see myself in that position not just because I look like that person, but they're going through the same things that I'm going through. 

Fergal: [00:22:20] And where the mortgage industry specifically is concerned to see, is there anything that you think should be done, any further steps that are required to ensure a more level playing field? 

Josie: [00:22:30] So I think what we need to do is we need to provide opportunities within normal business hours for for. Individuals to be able to connect and network during those hours. We also need to listen to the needs of people, of our of our peers and the people that we work with. What is going to help them to grow and to become leaders in this industry? We also need to put an end to the stigma or the guilt that we feel when we have to decline an event or an opportunity because we're choosing our outside obligations or our family life or our caregiver life over an event that's taking place. I recently was asked point blank if I was ever going to accept or make an effort to attend an event that was being held after hours. And at first I started apologizing and making excuses and saying, well, you know, I have this or I'm taking care of that or whatever. But then I had to stop myself and just remind myself that I am a leader in my own right. And if one of the leaderships I'm going to take is to be able to say, I can't attend that particular event, I need to have the confidence in knowing that I'll make it up at another event. So we also have to stop feeling guilty when we can't attend any of these events or just can't be included for because we've chosen family or other responsibilities over work. 

Fergal: [00:23:55] And Lesley, when it comes to the mortgage industry more generally, is there anything that you think can be done to ensure that the playing field becomes more level? 

Lesley: [00:24:04] So I think every mortgage loan is a story, right? So it's we all need to tell a story when you include a staff or pool staff, come from a diverse background or experience then. Then you get a little bit better understanding of the story because some of us might have walked a path that our clients are on. And just because historically we have been viewing this story as they were. But doesn't mean that we cannot introduce new way of thinking and new perspective how to understand those stories. 

Fergal: [00:24:43] Would you like to see the mortgage industry taking any further steps to ensure a more level playing field? 

Rejean: [00:24:48] I think let's make sure we remember what we learned during the pandemic. What I experienced as a parent with a young family was the pandemic sort of leveled the playing field a little bit, where you could be present at the networking events, at the meetings, at the conversations where maybe important connections or important decisions are made versus having all of those important agenda items happen at networking events or at golf games or things that happen after hours that wouldn't allow people with household responsibilities or caregiver responsibilities to participate. That's something, you know, it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean don't have golf tournaments and don't have fun. I can't wait to see people again. Absolutely. But there's times they're intentionally plan when those connections and decisions are going to happen so that people so that it can be inclusive for different groups, such as women who often hold the responsibilities of their household can be present. And I think that comes back to the power of that diversity and inclusion brings to an industry and to an organization. So we have to be careful as an industry not to fall back on some of our previous tendencies and lose some of what we've learned over the past two and a half years. 

Fergal: [00:26:07] Absolutely. That issue of post work events is one that's come up time and time again. I've heard people talking about it. So it'll be really interesting to see what what happens in that regard. Just before I let you go, I wanted to ask one question about women who may be aspiring to positions of leadership in the industry themselves. You've obviously had a fantastic career and you're in that position now. But is there anything that you would say or anything that you would recommend to those women who might be looking at you and thinking that they want to get to that position themselves? 

Josie: [00:26:35] Absolutely. Don't be afraid to bring a uniqueness to your role and to ensure that you are being seen for who you are. Don't try to become someone else. Don't try to mimic someone else. You need to be your own person. Need to represent who you truly are in this industry. You also have to align yourself with mentors and leaders that encourage and inspire you. Those that are looking out for your best interests and only want the best for you and are here to help you grow. You also need to be ready to work and to work hard and not to be afraid to ask questions and most importantly, champion for yourself. You make a point of going to your current leaders, to your current management, and letting them know this is the growth path I would like to go to. Are you here to support me with that? 

Fergal: [00:27:23] Thanks for that, Josie. And Lesley, what about for you? What advice would you provide to women in the industry who might aspire to prominent executive roles in the future? 

Lesley: [00:27:31] Yes, I think it's going to be a lot of hard work, but we need to keep going and support the women around us. We can achieve that by mentoring each other and fill the position we leave behind with a diverse of talents. And the second is be ourselves. You know, embrace your national leadership style in the past to compete with men. Women are expected to behave like men. But we're here today because our own strength and our own perspective is the last, is we just need to remind ourselves to the individual work is never done. We need to keep learning and keep getting better so that we can uncover our own bias and allow everybody to be empowered, thrive and grow the industry. 

Fergal: [00:28:23] Rejean Is there anything that you would say to women in the industry who want to reach the level that you have? 

Rejean: [00:28:29] Yeah, I guess. Don't be afraid to ask somebody in the industry to be a mentor for you or a champion for your career. I think we you know, even if we do have a long ways to go in certain aspects of an industry, it is a great industry and I have had nothing but really positive mentors and throughout my career in different through different working relationships in the mortgage industry. So, you know, be bold enough to ask somebody for that cup of coffee and get to know them and then ask that question. And then, yeah, as Lesley said, you're going to have to work your butt off. Be prepared to step into the gap. Ask, can I help with that and put in the work. 

Fergal: [00:29:12] That just about does it for today's show. I'd like to once again thank Josie Milanetti of CMI, Rejean Roberge of CWB Optimum Mortgage and Lesley Chen of Equitable Bank for joining me today. 

Rejean: [00:29:22] Thank you for having us. 

Lesley: [00:29:23] Thank you. 

Fergal: [00:29:24] Thanks to you for watching. And we'll see you next time on CMP TV.