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Changing Direction

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Like many first-generation Canadians, Jaqui Parchment (BMath ’87) and her parents struggled financially when they moved here from Jamaica. “My parents couldn’t find work in their field,” she shared. “At the time, if you studied actuarial science, you were guaranteed a job because the demand was so high.” Parchment had a natural aptitude for mathematics, so she enrolled in the actuarial science program at the University of Waterloo's Faculty of Mathematics.

As one of the only Black women in her program, there were times when Parchment felt like a “fish out of water,” she remembered. “The great thing about Waterloo, though, was that, in a way, most students felt like fish out of water in our society because they were such an intelligent, nerdy group.”

While she felt intimidated at times, Parchment looks back with gratitude at the opportunity to build close relationships with like-minded peers. “More than 30 years after graduating, the people I met at Waterloo are still my best friends,” she expressed. “My Waterloo education was rigorous; it pushed me out into the world with intellectual strength. Just as importantly, it taught me the value of building a team of people who will cheer you on through thick and thin.”

Parchment relied on her team of cheerleaders for support and counsel as she changed career direction halfway through taking her actuarial exams. “I felt pressured to emerge with a degree that would lead to success, but I soon discovered that I didn’t like or excel at the technical work,” she said. “What I was really great at was conveying complex information to clients in a way that was meaningful to them.”

Parchment spent the first decade of her career making lateral moves. At Mercer Canada, a global leader in human resources consulting, she moved vertically until she reached the top. After 20 years of leading investment teams at Mercer Canada, she became CEO of the company in 2018. Today, she leads 1,100 employees across the country.

“I would have told you with great conviction I never wanted to lead an organization of this size,” she admitted. “As a member of an underrepresented group, it doesn’t feel logical to go for leadership positions when you don’t see anyone in these roles who looks like you.” More than once, she turned down a promotion, only accepting the job once it became evident she was the only one around who was qualified to fill it. “I was fortunate to have some very good mentors who pushed me to do more than I thought I could do,” she remembered, “and eventually, I developed the muscle to really believe in myself.”

When asked about her path to success, Parchment has a clear piece of advice for the next generation of students at the Faculty of Mathematics: “Be open to changing direction. You never know where life will take you.”

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