Alumni Profile

International Women's Day Interview: Alumna Erica Youra Lee '08

Erica Youra Lee ‘08 (Kayes), caught up with Rhodri Samuel and Harriet Klumper ‘09 (Renfrew) on zoom for an International Women’s Day Profile. Erica is currently working in Chicago, Illinois as an Associate Actuary for Milliman, an actuarial consulting firm where she has been since 2018. Erica studied chemical engineering at the University of Cambridge before transitioning to working for an insurance company, where she discovered the actuarial profession and subsequently achieved her Masters in Actuarial Science from the University of Waterloo.

At Shawnigan, Erica was the Kayes House Academic Captain–a house she loved to spend time with, was a coxswain in rowing, and participated in photography and many other parts of Shawnigan life.
HK: If you don’t mind I’d love to start off with you explaining a little bit about being an actuary, and what you do for work?

EYL: Actuaries are not very common. You can think about them as risk managers or accountants for insurance companies. It’s very specific for the insurance industry, where actuaries are responsible for making sure that there is enough money in the insurance company to cover all the liabilities they have from the policy holders. It is a very important role to make sure that we evaluate the risk associated with all of the insurance products, and make sure that they invest it correctly or well enough, so that if anything happens like COVID hits, and the stock market falls, that they will be able to make up for all the money losses. It’s an interesting job, it’s a lot of responsibility. If you like math and finance, and want to apply it to a business industry, it’s a great role.

For my role in particular, I work at an actuarial consulting firm. So like any other consulting firms, we have a lot of clients but all of the clients are insurance companies. My company is specified in the financial market. So we help them to hedge against financial risks, and help them to come up with financial strategy.

RS: So what did you study at Cambridge then, was it mathematics?

EYL: I studied chemical engineering, so my job actually has nothing to do with my background. After graduating from Cambridge, I actually joined a P&C [property & casualty] insurance company, and as an engineer we help companies to analyze risk associated with petrochemical companies and processes. So they actually needed someone with an engineering background. Then when I was working for this company, I learned about the actuarial position, and then I went to Waterloo for a year to do an Actuarial Science Masters degree, and then I switched my career.

RS: You were probably in the minority at Cambridge doing Chemical Engineering? That has typically been a male dominated course. Were there many women in your program?

EYL: Chemical engineering has more female percentage than any other engineering. So I would say one third was women, but you’re right that with mechanical or electrical engineering, it is probably less than 5%. 

RS: Then you switched and you found your way into P&C, did you go there based on advice or did you find your way there yourself?

EYL: I just went that route myself. I wanted to do a different thing that wasn’t chemical engineering-specific. Typical jobs that you would get with a chemical engineering background would be going to petrochemical or pharmaceutical companies, or working with supply chain management. I didn’t want to go into any of these traditional roles. I had always had an interest in financial markets, and insurance is sort of the middle, where it’s finance related but you also need an engineering background, especially for P&C.
What’s funny is that if I had gone to Waterloo straight after Shawnigan, I would have found this Actuarial Science degree because it’s one of their main programs, but I really don’t regret going to Cambridge. It was great to be in Europe for four years and trying different things, but because I have that engineering background I think it really helped me shape into a more technical person, which will help me throughout my life.

HK: Do you have a favourite memory of Shawnigan that sticks out?
EYL: There are a lot. I loved Ski Week, I loved Snowfest, which I think started my first year. In spite of all that, I think that my favourite was the EDGE trip to Thailand. 
The reason it is my favourite memory, was not only because it was a great group of people; but also because I went there in Grade 11, and you think you’re all grown up, but actually your perspective is so limited. So going to Thailand, and building the learning centre for them, it helped me appreciate how we took everything for granted and how privileged we were. You really appreciate what you have, and it makes you really humble. It made me realize I should be helping other people, if it’s a small change you're making, it helps. It was a program that helped shape who I am.
HK: Who was your most influential teacher at Shawnigan?
EYL: Mr. [Stephen] Lane. He was my advisor and my physics teacher for Grade 11 and 12. He was really my father at Shawnigan, he didn’t just shape me academically but also personally. I remember being really stressed out in Grade 11 and 12 because of university: needing to get good grades and good personal statements. I would usually talk to him when I was stressed out and he would always give me great advice like “It’s not the end of the world, you need to think long term.” Now that I think about it later, I’m like “Oh, that’s what he meant!” Because, you think that university is the thing that is going to dictate your life forever, but in the long run it really doesn’t matter. He helped me not stress out too much.
He was also a great teacher, he was the reason why I went into chemical engineering because I loved physics. It can be a really influential thing for what you want to study; it can really matter what kind of teacher you have.
HK: What has your experience been as a woman in your field of work? 
EYL: I don’t think there are that many women in this field, it’s similar to engineering where it can be very mathematically focused. I’ll be honest I join team meetings and there will be ten guys and I’m the only girl. 
But I never feel like “Oh, I’m the only woman,” the work culture is very supportive of women. We do an International Women’s Day dinner, and work with underprivileged girls and help them build business skills. Overall my company is very supportive of women, especially working moms. They really acknowledge being a woman or being a working mom, it’s a great work culture where they really promote women professionals.
HK: So your field as a whole may lack representation in women, but your company in particular is really supportive of them.
EYL: Yes!
HK: Is there a female role model who particularly influenced you at any point in your journey?
EYL: My mom. Partly because she’s the one who sent me to Shawnigan, and she’s always the one who is up for trying different things. She’s very encouraging, she’s like “you should do it!” Even if I have doubts, she could also have doubts, but she doesn’t show it. She's always there, always on my side. She’s the one who teaches me to be humble when I’m doing well. Because you can have good days and bad days; where if you do well, you can take a step back and stay humble, then when you have a bad day, you can be like “okay you failed once, but the next time you can do better, you can learn from your mistakes.” She’s always been my life mentor, showing how to love yourself and be down to earth. She was a working mom as well. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a working mom and a great mom, to be able to do all of that. It’s just amazing.
HK: On International Women’s Day, what would you share with young women thinking about their careers?
EYL: Try everything. Try to experience many different things until you find something you enjoy or you’re good at. It doesn’t matter what your past experience has been, you’ve got to explore. I never stuck to: “Oh I studied Chemical Engineering, so I have to do this.” I actually thought, “I can use this as a stepping stone.” I’m really glad I did that, because I’m very happy right now with the job I have. I would have never known about this job until I tried it. Don’t be afraid of trying new things.
The interview featured in this article has been shortened for clarity and brevity.
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