Women Leaders in Insurance | Elite Women 2023

Inspirational changemakers in the insurance industry

Insurance Business Canada recognizes 2023’s Elite Women as leaders, fostering meaningful change in the industry and setting an example for other aspiring female insurance leaders. Their professional accomplishments, industry contributions and eagerness to push against the status quo impressed an esteemed panel of judges, who ultimately selected 55 remarkable award recipients across Canada.

One of the panel, Rupinder Hayer, Armour Insurance Brokers’ president, noted that 2023’s Elite Women are breaking established barriers while empowering others.

“The women on the list were fighting the odds in some form and doing very well,” Hayer says. “I also looked beyond insurance. I wanted to know what else they’ve done, whether philanthropy, involvement in the community, or on boards, and how they are helping other people get into this industry.”

Fellow judge Ingrid Wilson, a senior human resources executive who also serves as the director of the Canadian Association of Black Insurance Professionals, says, “What stood out about the winners was their sponsorship initiatives in the industry and creating pathways for others.”


Melissa Bajwa
“We need to empower and lift each other up”
Melissa BajwaPROLINK



Courage drives the career growth of women insurance leaders

Christine Wilson learned from her breast cancer journey to make an impact on how insurance professionals discuss living benefits with clients. The assistant vice president of insurance inside sales at Canada Life was diagnosed when she was five months pregnant. As a financial adviser at the time, she initially resisted critical illness and disability insurance, but two years after purchasing the policies, she found herself drawing upon the benefits and becoming a staunch advocate of the coverage.

She shares that personal knowledge industry-wide on conference stages, inspiring colleagues globally on how to have those all-important client discussions that many shy away from.

“It’s helped my team in their business because they’re able to share a real-life story with clients rather than statistics,” Wilson says. “It’s interesting how my career has gone from talking about my story as a client and making a claim, to being an adviser that sold those policies, and now working for a carrier that offers them.”

Wilson’s accomplishments include:

  • being selected to speak at the 2021 Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) global conference in Singapore to share her story on critical conversations  

  • establishing Canada Life Comrades, a program pairing team members nationwide to share best practices, build engagement and drive workplace satisfaction 

  • providing instrumental leadership in the company’s Asian market distribution strategy and advocating for Chinese-speaking advisers and clients  


Top female insurance leaders pave the way
for the next generation

Putting a pause on her post-secondary education was a blessing in disguise for Christa O’Neil, chief operating officer at McFarlan Rowlands Insurance Brokers. Instead of returning to study kinesiology more than a decade ago, she acquired her broker’s license at a brokerage in her hometown of London, ON.

“Missing the university degree has been a motivator for me throughout my career,” says O’Neil, who has completed the CAIB and CIP and is pursuing her ACIP designation.

O’Neil’s notable accomplishments include:

  • winning the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario’s (IBAO) Brokerage of the Year award in 2022  

  • being director of the Insurance Institute of Ontario’s Southwestern chapter, planning symposiums, moderating webinars and hosting events  

  • being the former operations director of commercial lines, leading innovative projects such as the BrokerLift platform and completing three successful brokerage acquisition integrations 

  • leading the brokerage’s creation of a hybrid work model 

  • participating in the RIBO L1 competency profile review as a broker panel member  


The working parent knows how vital a flexible workplace is to providing equitable opportunities for women leaders in insurance.

“It is our responsibility as an organization and as female leaders to continue to pay that forward,” she says. “If we can help relieve the pressure of family responsibilities on female employees, it allows them to flourish in their roles.”

The organization comprises:

  • 68% women  

  • 66% of C-level positions are held by women  

  • 70% of the female leadership of the operations team  

O’Neil is mentoring three operations team members, all “very strong females with unique strengths.”

She says, “As they learn from me, I learn from them, strengthening us both. Those internal female mentorship arrangements are important to develop female leaders and shape the next generation of female leaders.”

In putting O’Neil forward as an Elite Woman, her nominator says:

“Christa began at McFarlan Rowlands as a commercial account manager (13 years ago) and has since built her way up to COO, an accomplishment in itself.”


Anita Swamy
“Achievement is when we share our successes, lessons learned and even our failures”
Anita SwamyMedavie Blue Cross


Breaking barriers leads to innovation for top women in insurance

Medavie Blue Cross senior vice president of operations Anita Swamy discovered inner strength over 20 years ago after confronting ageism and sexism in the IT sector.

“I feel like having experienced that early in my career helped me to find my voice and establish my confidence in knowing the homework to do before you come to the table,” says Swamy. “The biggest challenge is not letting those barriers get in the way of standing up for the right path forward.”

Swamy has a reputation for confronting systemic barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion. She recalls a debate around the organization’s approach to biological sex in the insurance industry. She raised the issue of intersex individuals and advocated for acknowledging all sexes, challenging the prevailing binary male and female system.

Despite initial resistance to breaking from mainstream policies, Swamy successfully influenced a shift that resulted in the organization adopting a more inclusive approach.

“That decision could have gone either way, but part of being an effective leader is bringing something to the table for due consideration, and if it doesn’t proceed, that’s fine, too,” she says. “The critical thing is questioning the concept of ‘why not’”.

Swamy’s outstanding achievements encompass:

  • teaching the youth program at Vedanta Ashram Society and being an active community booster of Feed Nova Scotia and United Way  

  • being the vice chairperson of the Canadian Association of Blue Cross Plans’ national benefit and claims committee  

  • being a 2022 Canadian delegate at the International Federation of Health Plans’ executive development program 

  • being an ally of the Connector program for newcomers and executives who relocate to Halifax and across Canada 

  • winning Insurance Business Canada’s 2022 Excellence Award for Claims Service  

In support of her Elite Woman recognition, Swamy’s nominator highlights:

“Anita spearheaded Medavie Benefits+, a unique walk-in health benefits and wellness resource centre, a Canadian insurance industry-first model in customer service.”

That industry-leading customer experience framework serves customers’ needs in person when many corporations are leaning into a digital environment.

“The next step is sharing that story so other insurers or even retail establishments can start to think about how things can be done differently,” says Swamy.


Christa O’Neil
“Don’t be afraid of self-promotion or stepping forward into roles you’re not sure you’re ready for; take that leap and believe in yourself”
Christa O’NeilMcFarlan Rowlands Insurance Brokers


Gender parity issues are a key concern for top female insurance leaders

Melissa Bajwa has witnessed an evolution in insurance brokerage over her nearly two decades of industry experience. But the vice president of compliance and broker network operations at PROLINK acknowledges that stubborn barriers remain for women in leadership.

“Just 26% of Ontario’s principal brokers are female, demonstrating much remains to be done to achieve gender parity,” says Bajwa, who devotes considerable time to mentoring and promoting the industry.

She prioritizes these issues in her role as PROLINK’s designated individual and principal broker and in her volunteer capacity with industry associations, such as the Registered Insurance Brokers of Ontario (RIBO) board.

Her nominator’s note of support mentions:

“Melissa’s RIBO appointment has not only given her a chance to be the voice of the modern broker, but it’s also allowed her to inspire other young women to be courageous, put themselves out there, and be a voice of influence.”

Bajwa’s range of accomplishments includes:

  • being an IBAO DEI committee member  

  • being the Insurance Institute of Canada’s career ambassador program volunteer  

  • being nominated as chairperson of RIBO’s personal development committee 

  • organizing an International Women’s Day 2022 event, highlighting work-life balance and breaking barriers that RIBO approved for its ethics continuing education programming 

  • being an awardee of IBC’s Elite Women 2022 and Women of Distinction 2022  

Of the more than 40 independent brokerages Bajwa supports in PROLINK’s broker network, 30% of the brokerage owners are women.

“I hope that by getting out there and speaking, I can inspire other women from diverse backgrounds to explore the opportunities that exist,” she says. “I want to encourage more women, young people and diverse voices at that table.”


Meet the judges



Women Leaders in Insurance | Elite Women 2023

  • Afifeh Daneshpanah
    Senior Commercial Line Underwriter
    CHES Special Risk
  • Alexandra Spence
    Vice President, Distribution
  • Amy Stiller
    Underwriting Specialist
    Northbridge Insurance
  • Aneeza Ahmad
    Marketing Manager
    KASE Insurance
  • Angel Yau-Vandenburg
    Chief Data and Technology Officer
    Équité Association
  • Ann Hildreth
    Vice President, Technical Risk and Renewable Energy
    HSB Canada
  • Asima Zahid
    Director of Market Development
  • Becci Taylor
    Executive Director
    Insurance Brokers Association of New Brunswick
  • Becky Cameron
    Head of Claims
  • Cara Stebbings
    Senior Vice President and Regional Leader – BC and Territories
    Liberty Mutual Canada
  • Cathy Prior
    Director – Marine
    Zurich Canada
  • Celyeste Power
    Chief Executive Officer and President
    Insurance Bureau of Canada
  • Daphne de Vitton
    Chief Executive Officer
    APRIL Canada Insurance
  • Darlene Schultz
    Executive Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer
  • Dionne Bowers
    Business Owner
    D.B. Solutions
  • Gillian Van Kempen
    Chief Operating Officer and President
    Best Buy Insurance Brokers
  • Helen Liu
    Manager, Legal Affairs
  • Jennifer Hamu
    Manager, TPA Commercial Claims
    Crawford & Company (Canada)
  • Joyce Usher-Mesiano
    Vice President – Business Development, Eastern Canada
    Westland Insurance
  • Julie Manske
    Head of Underwriting – Greater Toronto Branch
    Aviva Canada
  • Kari Davis
    Director of Surety
    Ai Insurance Organization
  • Kathy McCracken
    Central Agencies
  • Laura Jordan
    Corporate Specialist
  • Maria Jose Flores
    Chief Compliance Officer
    Carte Risk Management
  • Maureen Kurenoff
    Chief Executive Officer
    Growth Financial
  • Meagan Woensdregt
    Managing Director and Head of Underwriting
    Lions Gate Underwriting
  • Melanie Needham
    MRD Training & Consulting
  • Michelle Diniz
    Head of Global Operations
    BOXX Insurance
  • Monica Ningen
    Chief Executive Officer and President of Swiss Re Canada and English Caribbean
    Swiss Re
  • Robyn Young
    Chief Operating Officer and President
    Excel & Y Insurance Services
  • Rowena Chan
    President – Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) and Senior Vice President – Retail Advice and Solutions
    Sun Life
  • Ruby Kaliray
    Assistance Vice President Legal, Commercial and Technology
  • Shara Bierman
    Business Development Manager
    Tradition Mutual Insurance
  • Shirley Chisholm
    Senior Vice President, Financial Institutions and Professional Services Practice
  • Siham Alibux
    Senior Vice President, Agency
    APOLLO Insurance
  • Sukhdeep Kang
    Chief Executive Officer
    Armour Insurance Brokers
  • Susan Penwarden
    Managing Director, Personal Lines
    Aviva Canada
  • Suzanne Pountney
    Commercial Lines Manager
    Ontario West Insurance Brokers
  • Tanya Sinclair
    Partner and Senior Risk Advisor
    Lloyd Sadd
  • Traci Boland
    Partner and Manager
    Ontario West Insurance Brokers and Bill Blaney Insurance Brokers
  • Valérie Lavoie
    Chief Operating Officer and President
  • Victoria Stanhope
    Chief Executive Officer and President
    Stanhope Simpson Insurance
Applications are now open



Insurance Business invited industry professionals from across Canada to nominate exceptional female leaders for the annual Elite Women list. Nominators were asked to provide details of their nominee’s achievements and initiatives over the past 12 months, including specific examples of their professional accomplishments and contributions to the industry.

To select the winners, the IBC team relied on the help of an independent and esteemed panel of judges that included Celyeste Power of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, Ingrid Wilson of the Canadian Association of Black Insurance Professionals, Rowena Chan of Sun Life, Rupinder Hayer of Armour Insurance Brokers, and Vinita Jajware-Beatty of the Toronto Insurance Women’s Association.

The judges and the IBC team reviewed all nominations, examining how each individual had made a meaningful contribution to the industry, to whittle down the list to the final 55 Elite Women. To avoid conflicts of interest, self-voting and voting for relatives were prohibited.

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