From Commerce Student to CEO: Pamela Allen's Journey

Join Pamela Allen, MD Financial Management CEO and Alberta School of Business alum, as she opens up about her inspiring journey from commerce student to becoming the first female CEO in the financial management industry.

In honour of International Women’s Day, Selin Simsek, ‘22 BCom, information and outreach coordinator in the Alberta School of Business, had a conversation with Pamela Allen ’91 BCom, CEO of MD Financial Management Inc. Allen became CEO at MD Financial Management Inc. (MD) on November 1, 2022, marking her as the first woman executive to hold this role, joining the 18 per cent of female chief executives at Canada’s largest financial institutions.

Selin spoke to Allen about her journey, her leadership philosophy and the significance she places on increasing the presence of women in leadership roles.

*This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. 


Educational Journey:

Can you share some highlights from your time as a commerce student in the Alberta School of Business? How did your education here contribute to your professional journey?

A: Something that really stood out for me was the unique opportunity to hear about, and take part in, interesting case studies and presentations from business people and leaders with their real-world experience. We heard from people like Peter Pocklington, the then owner of the Edmonton Oilers, who spoke to us a month after trading Wayne Gretzky (a LOT of questions about that decision!). He also spoke about being an entrepreneur and his journey in life – it was absolutely fascinating!

There’s something powerful about hearing from people who are out there, living the type of lessons you’re learning about. 

For me, it created a stronger connection to what I was studying, and their insights really inspired me to think both critically and creatively about issues. I still refer back to things I learned during those case studies and presentations.

I was also quite shy when I was in school. Group work gave me an opportunity to get to know people and taught me how to work with a team of different people with different perspectives. And doing presentations in a safe environment helped me to get out of my shell. Safe to say you can’t be too shy when you’re the CEO!


Career Path:

What inspired you to pursue a career in financial management, and how did you navigate your way to becoming the first female CEO of a financial management company?

A: When I first got to university, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. As I took business courses, I became interested in knowing more about finance and how the markets worked. My first “real job” was as a teller at a Credit Union and that really cemented my interest in the workings of the financial world. I decided to keep taking more courses to just absorb everything I could in the sector. To this day, I still take courses and learn new things as much as possible! I think my belief in the power of life-long learning is part of what got me here today.

The thing is, I never came to MD with the goal of becoming the CEO. I came because I saw it as a way to make a genuine difference in people’s lives.  I’m deeply passionate about that, and that passion and drive has led me here.


What leadership qualities do you believe are crucial for success in the financial management industry, and how do you incorporate them into your role as CEO?

A: Honesty and authenticity. Accountability and transparency. Valuing diversity and inclusion. I think there are a lot of companies that talk about these values, but talk is easy. You have to truly live them, especially as a leader. 

You also have to be decisive. I know that sounds obvious, but I think as a woman in leadership, there are still a lot of stereotypes around that aspect of things. Like, ‘women can’t make tough decisions’ or ‘women are too emotional.’ It’s sad that type of thinking still exists, but it does and as a woman in a leadership role specifically, you have to be prepared for it.

Also, being open to learning from others, at every level of your organization. Really listen and learn with empathy. Because no one person knows it all. And the fact is when you show people you care and are interested in what they do, they’re more satisfied in their work and inspired to do even better.

What is the impact of female leadership in large organizations?

A: Diversity, pure and simple. Diversity in leadership, diversity of thought. Everyone brings their own diverse perspectives to work. 

Think about it: today, more than 50 per cent of medical school graduates are women. So, we have to reflect that. We need to reflect our client base. We need to show our clients that we have many women with diverse backgrounds in senior roles and leadership. The same is true when it comes to those in visible minority groups.

When you see someone who reflects you, who represents you, in a leadership role, you also see someone who has overcome a lot of the same challenges you face. You believe you can do it too.

Can you share a specific moment or project in your career that you consider particularly impactful or transformative?

A: I’ve spent much of my career working to create greater opportunities for female leaders and investors. Studies have shown that men will apply for a job when they meet only 60 per cent of the qualifications, but women will only apply if they meet 100 per cent. I want to encourage women to go for it – what’s the worst thing that could happen? You don’t get the job? That’s ok! It’s not the end of the world. But be confident in yourself and your skill set and go for it.  You may not have all the answers but as long as you are committed to continuous learning, you will move forward in your career. 

That’s why I started the Women in Leadership Program, which provided the knowledge and tools for our women employees to drive long, successful careers as leaders. This program developed future leaders in finance by providing mentorship support, leadership-specific learnings, and unique strategic work rotations to help women fast-track to a leadership level. Today, half of our executive leadership table consists of women. Fifty-eight per cent of our employees are female. We also launched the Female Physician Initiative,  our first Visible Leadership Program, and most recently, the Women in Discretionary Wealth Management Leadership Program where we’re encouraging women to become Portfolio Managers, a role where the number of women has traditionally been lower. I’m proud of all of it.


As the first female CEO in your company, how do you approach promoting diversity and inclusion within your organization?

A: I place a high value on diversity and inclusion. My personal passion and support for women advancing in this and other industries is well-known.

One of the things we do is hold regular DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) updates at my leadership table, taking turns with different topics. I think that’s critical because things are always changing with new people, new voices. We’re looking for the best people, and you don’t find them by being exclusionary. Even things as seemingly simple as the language you use in job descriptions matter because it can cause people to self-select and opt out before ever applying. We are constantly looking at how we can attract and retain the best people and foster a positive, purpose-driven work culture.

Alberta School of Business Students:

What advice do you have for current business students or young professionals aspiring to make a mark in the financial sector?

A: This is for anyone starting out. Be an advocate for yourself. Really work on what you want to be known for, your personal brand and reputation. If you don’t see the job you want, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, make it happen for yourself. Be bold and look for every opportunity to go after what you want. Never wait for someone else to tap you on the shoulder about a job.

How can the Alberta School of Business better foster female leadership?


A: I’d say one of the most significant things is working with and hearing from more female leaders. Not just professors – though I have to say, I had many female professors at U of A who were amazing! But seeing and hearing from other female leaders, from the business community and even entirely different sectors – hearing their stories and their thoughts and getting to ask questions.

These are some universal experiences that create a bond of sorts and inspire people. Hearing from those women can help other women prepare for the realities of a leadership role beyond what’s on paper.


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