by Suzanne Bowness. Photo credit: Sophia Stricker. Originally published in the Fall 2021 edition of Business Class magazine.
Few people can identify the eureka moment when they saw their career pathway unfold, but Alicia Armstrong, BCom ’20, is one of them. Now an associate in public markets for British Columbia Investment Management Corporation (BCI), Armstrong was at a networking event in her third year at Gustavson when she happened to sit at a table with senior analyst Johann Kuntze, and senior portfolio manager Kenton Freitag. Both work at BCI and are advisors for the Applied Portfolio Management Program (APMP), an investment program that offers a key experiential learning opportunity for UVic students interested in careers in finance.
Even though she did not yet know about APMP, they encouraged her to apply. “That’s how I got started in the Applied Investment Management Course, or AIMC, required as a first step,” recalls Armstrong.
That and a lot of hard work took her to where she is today.
By third year, Armstrong successfully applied and started the AIMC, a seven-part course held over eight months that’s designed to prepare students to be portfolio managers. A non-credit course for select UVic economics and BCom students, AIMC is held monthly and is taught entirely by industry professionals. Along the way, Armstrong was also completing the intensive third-year BCom core coursework, and taking the accounting, finance and HR courses required for her degree. She had also completed her first co-op term in the Ministry of International Trade.
Her AIMC experience put BCI on her radar, and she set her sights on serving her next co-op term there. But it wasn’t without challenges.
By her own admission, Armstrong bombed the first interview in the fall. Importantly, though, she didn’t give up—she not only asked for a follow-up interview but actually did the suggested reading and resume tweaking. By this time, her determination was apparent. “I got an interview in January. I called up the professor of the AIMC program, and then the week leading up to the interview I worked with him for suggestions on how to prep,” says Armstrong. “If you are interested and want to go that extra mile, you have a lot of people willing to help.”
The BCI interviewer also saw a big difference in her second interview and that effort got her into the co-op, working for the BCI Canadian small cap team for two semesters. She was then hired into BCI’s US small cap team before her last academic year, completing her degree via night courses. By that time, she had also been accepted as a student portfolio manager with the APMP, one of only nine students chosen. Student managers are responsible for a $1.2 million portfolio of stocks and bonds, originally funded by the UVic Foundation and private donors.
Now over three years into her role at BCI, Armstrong has confirmed the field is a great fit. “It’s a logic puzzle,” she says of her work. “A lot of it is taking 1,000 different pieces of information and trying to figure out what makes sense, what fits together, what doesn’t make sense and where could I be wrong? I do a lot of Excel modelling, but you have to understand what the numbers mean. It’s not purely theoretical.” Armstrong says she also loves her current role because she gets to look at companies across different sectors and evaluate them as a potential fit for BCI’s fund.
Armstrong now looks back to her time at Gustavson fondly. Besides her participation in APMP, she kept busy and developed her skills while serving as VP finance in the student-led UVic Investment Group, VP finance for the Economic Course Union, director-at-large for the University Student Society and as a student senator.
As a graduate, she encourages students to persist as she did. “I would say that the best thing to do would to not be contaminated by how much noise there is out there—about what you currently don’t know. If
you decide you want to try to do it, commit to learning a little bit more,” says Armstrong. “I find that the biggest barrier is when people think that if they just started finding out about finance in third year, it’s too late.”
In terms of her own future plans, Armstrong has completed the second level of the Chartered Financial Analyst exam and is planning to write the third level exam next year. She fields questions from current students, and advises networking as another best practice. “Put yourself out there. Try to learn from the people in the industry. Most of us are actually really nice,” she laughs.