STEM courses lead to London Stock Exchange
By Bryan Demchinsky
How does a woman from a tiny village in Quebec’s Charlevoix region end up in a power position in “the City” of London, Europe’s financial capital? For Diane Côté, chief risk officer at London Stock Exchange Group, it took grit and hard work.
But what she learned at the University of Ottawa was also hugely important. And despite an exceptionally busy life, she is happy to acknowledge that debt by serving as an ambassador for her alma mater. As president of uOttawa’s London Regional Council, she helps to keep uOttawa alumni in touch with each other and engaged in the University’s activities.
Côté grew up in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François, a village on the north shore of the St. Lawrence she describes as one of the most beautiful in Quebec. It would have been tempting to find a career nearby. Indeed, a passion for music drew her to the Conservatory of Music in Quebec City. But she had a change of heart and decided to go for a “liberal profession” in a bilingual university. She graduated from the University of Ottawa with a bachelor of commerce (accounting) in 1989.
Accounting, finance and computer studies at uOttawa’s Telfer School of Management led to jobs in audit and risk management. She worked for Canadian insurance firm Standard Life, including at its Scottish headquarters. She then moved to Aviva PLC in London, which led to her present position at the London Stock Exchange Group (LSEG). Côté is also on the board of the Société Générale, one of the largest banks in Europe, with headquarters in Paris.
It is no exaggeration to say LSEG is near the pinnacle of the global financial industry. With 4,700 people employed around the world, it owns, besides the London Stock Exchange, Borsa Italiana, FTSE Russell and a host of other financial services companies.
As chief risk officer, Côté is an executive committee member and reports directly to her company’s CEO and board. Her role is to determine, by means of data analysis, the company’s risk exposure. So, a big and challenging job, made yet more complex by Brexit, Britain’s impending departure from the European Union.
But Côté credits her experience at uOttawa with preparing her for this demanding role. She recalls “the excellence of the teaching and quality of the professors — their availability, their desire to help you go a step further.”
She also appreciated that she could mix with students from all over, from different faculties and cultures. “It opened your mind to other possibilities.”
Côté offers particular praise for two of her professors, Fodil Adjaoud in finance and Daniel Zeghal in applied accounting. For his part, Adjaoud said Côté’s rise has been amazing, and that she is a shining example of what uOttawa students can achieve.
A key part of Côté’s experience at Telfer was hands-on learning through the CO-OP program. Côté’s placement was with Marcil Lavallée, a regional accounting firm whose culture was a major plus for her.
“They put me on complex mandates right away and gave me an opportunity way beyond my expectations,” she said. “It made it possible for me to perform at a more senior level as soon as I left university.”
Also important was Côté’s decision to make computer science a part of her studies. Data analytics was new at the time, and her studies gave her a distinct advantage. She strongly recommends that finance students take courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), especially women.
“We know there is a shortage of women studying in these fields,” she said. “But, as a woman, I believe we are missing out on an opportunity if we don’t direct ourselves more toward STEM degrees."
As a woman in a highly competitive, male-dominated field (even more so when she started), she faced challenges moving up the ladder, chiefly that of being a mother and wanting to have a career. “Some people were quite judgmental about me wanting to have both. I had to build some strong resilience to keep going.”
The daunting experience of often being the only woman in the room has made Côté a strong supporter of gender diversity in the workplace. She became one of the founders of her company’s Women Inspired Network, in recognition of which LSEG won a 2016 Women of the Future award.
This year, Côté was named one of the 100 most influential women in finance by London’s Financial News.
When we spoke, Côté was on vacation with her family in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François. But as much as she is drawn to her roots, the energizing challenges of her job will keep her in Europe, at least for now.
And why not? With the bustle of London and the beauty of Charlevoix, she can enjoy the best of both worlds.