by Neil Sharma
The financial space has a penchant for conservatism, but Kyra Wong is turning it on its head as she crusades for equality, diversity and inclusion.
The Vancouver-based Manulife district vice president began her career in the mortgage industry a quarter-century ago as a mortgage broker, however, only recently has she found her true purpose. As founder of the Magical Unicorn Project, Wong endeavours to help women and minorities plow through barriers and realize their untapped potential. Always socially conscious, Wong decided to actionably reverse what she describes as systemic impediments to the advancement of women and minorities, a problem she added is especially acute in the financial world. “Given that I’m in a highly male-dominated industry, I created the project with an original focus on women to tackle three specific glass ceilings I felt contributed to keeping women down: Corporate, social and emotional glass ceilings,” she said. “Most people are familiar with corporate glass ceilings – inequality, which sees fewer women than men in positions of power in the workplace. Social glass ceilings refer to acceptable behaviours and our ability to call others out when they make poor decisions, such as sexual harassment. And emotional glass ceilings transpire when we create limitations in our own minds.”
To Wong, the unicorn—“uni” is Latin for “one”— symbolizes unified humanity and social mores that celebrate, rather than mock, differences. Founded in 2017, Magical Unicorn Project will this year begin advocating for a more diverse minority population in addition to women, including the LGBTQ2+ and ethnic communities. “I have deliberately, intentionally and purposely set out to challenge everyone in the financial space by going out into the world with a unicorn alter-ego,” said Wong. “I knew I’d get judged, criticized and even made fun of for doing this, but I also knew that it would start conversations, provoke curiosity and give me the opportunity to address the bigger picture. In a world that preaches conformity and suspicion of variance, what other reaction could I expect? Unorthodoxy is how to disrupt the status quo and influence the world. You have to be a unicorn in a field of horses.”
To dismiss the concerns Magical Unicorn Project seeks to illuminate and rectify as political hysteria, as it often is, would be to ignore lived experience, especially from within the banking world, where so many mortgage professionals began their careers. In fact, Magical Unicorn Project shines a beacon on issues that cause so many women to leave the financial space in the first place. “Many women I’ve spoken with and interviewed for my project actually came from banking backgrounds, but left because of their experiences with corporate glass ceilings or sexual harassment,” said Wong. “As mortgage brokers, women are largely free from those barriers and they see opportunities to create better environments for themselves and to have additional success. When you see women going out there and successfully becoming independent, it encourages other women to try and do the same because they see what’s possible. Women bring different attributes to the table than men do, and blending the two creates better balance and outcomes.”
Indeed, when Wong began brokering at the age of 23, she recounts an all-boys club akin to a frat house. Today, the mortgage industry has become further advanced thanks to women who, like Wong, have worked relentlessly to have it all. And, it’s equally important to acknowledge the supporting men who help push progression and equality. But, the industry could do better. “I hope to show the next generation what’s possible for them. You can be a VP and you can be a unicorn too. Don’t let anyone’s narrow mind limit you. You can have serious, powerful jobs and you can still be playful and fun. You can put yourself out there in unique and interesting ways, and at the same time be a formidable force that commands respect and is taken seriously. I’m also happily married to a most wonderful man and I’m the mother of two beautiful boys. You don’t have to sacrifice a family for a career, nor do you have to sacrifice a career for a family. You can be and have whatever you want. Everything is possible and available to you, and for you, if you’re bold enough to go for it.”
While Magical Unicorn Project is Wong’s passion, she’s carved out an impressive career at Manulife overseeing the company’s insurance business for Dominion Lending Centres Group of Companies. Having started 13 years ago, Wong ensures that her mortgage broker partners are up to date on Manulife’s insurance products. “Given that life insurance is an ancillary product offering and secondary to their mortgage business, brokers as a whole actually require considerable support and training. We have a full service team that provides all of that, and as such, we’ve been leaders in our insurance space for as long as I can remember. My brokers trust me and I’ve been able to build tight relationships with people because what I do is born of out of a desire to be of service and help. No broker wants to see their client lose their home because of an unpredictable, unfortunate life event that they weren’t prepared for. If I can build awareness and help brokers better protect their clients and their financial futures, I’m happy.”
No detail is too trifling for Wong’s attention, and that kind of meticulousness defines her reputation in the broker community. Taking the time to understand the broker business—everything from how they behave to their daily operations—Wong, much like Magical Unicorn Project, is a pillar of support. “I approach mortgage brokers and agents as people who are doing their very best, whatever that may look like, and I try to support, encourage and help them in their business however I can so that they succeed.”
As for Wong’s future, she has no master plan because her free-spirited nature directs her to follow her heart, work hard and embrace opportunities as they present themselves. “I’m going to continue to grow and evolve in the organic way I always have. As long as I continue to move forward, stay true to myself and positively impact society, I’m confident my career will continue to take me to great places.
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