The financial services industry has a penchant for conservatism, but Kyra Wong is turning it on its head in her crusade for equality, diversity and inclusion. Wong, a Vancouver-based district vice-president at Manulife, began her career in the mortgage industry 25 years ago as a broker, but 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 take action to reverse what she describes as “systemic impediments to the advancement of women and minorities” – a problem, she adds, that’s 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,” she says. “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. Emotional glass ceilings transpire when we create limitations in our own minds.”
To Wong, the unicorn (whose name is derived from the Latin word for ‘one’) symbolizes unified humanity and social mores that celebrate, rather than disparage, differences. Founded in 2017, the Magical Unicorn Project began as a way to increase female representation in financial services but will begin advocating this year on behalf of a more diverse minority population, including 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,” Wong says. “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.”
Leading by example
To dismiss the concerns raised by the Magical Unicorn Project as political hysteria would be to ignore the experiences of women and minorities throughout the industry, especially within the banking world. The Magical Unicorn Project seeks to highlight issues that cause so many women to leave the financial space.
“Many women I’ve spoken with and interviewed for my project come from banking backgrounds but left because of their experiences with corporate glass ceilings or sexual harassment,” Wong says. “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.”
When Wong began brokering at the age of 23, she confronted an industry that was undeniably a boys’ club. In the ensuing years, though, the mortgage industry has advanced, and it now brims with women like Wong who have worked relentlessly to have it all. She says it’s important to acknowledge the supporting men who push for progress and equality, but she maintains that the industry can still do better.
“I hope to show the next generation what’s possible for them,” Wong says. “You can be a VP, and you can be a unicorn, too. Don’t let anyone’s narrow mind limit you. You can have a serious, powerful job, 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 who commands respect and is taken seriously.
“I’m happily married to a most wonderful man, and I’m the mother of two beautiful boys,” she adds. “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.”
A pillar of support
While Magical Unicorn Project is Wong’s passion, she’s also carved out an impressive career at Manulife, where she oversees the company’s insurance business for the DLC Group. Part of her responsibility is ensuring 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 require considerable support and training,” Wong says. “We have a full-service team that provides all of that, and 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. 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 small for Wong’s attention, and that kind of meticulousness defines her reputation in the broker community. Taking the time to understand brokers’ business – everything from how they behave to their daily operations – makes Wong, much like Magical Unicorn Project, a pillar of support.
“I approach mortgage brokers and agents as people who are doing their very best,” she says, “whatever that may look like, and I try to support, encourage and help them in their business however I can so that they succeed.”