If you’ve even entertained the idea of referring to your younger self as precocious, you’ll reconsider after speaking to Manulife Financial Corporation’s Jennifer Mercanti, the financial-services company’s assistant VP and chief counsel for its investment division. At just 10 years old, she began to work for her father every weekend. At 14, Mercanti came to the conclusion that law was fascinating, so at 16 she began working at a local law firm, spending hours at the copy machine, but happy nonetheless. At 20, she had been attending Western University for one year when she took the LSAT and applied to law school. Despite being told it was a long shot to get accepted without a degree and after just two years of undergraduate studies, she was accepted, entering law school at the unprecedented age of 21. Now, as senior legal officer for investment products, Mercanti spends her days providing strategic legal advice for product oversight and wealth-management business leaders. As a leader, she sets the strategic direction for the legal department and fronts a team of lawyers and law clerks. Here, she talks to us about the source of her work ethic and her team-orientated leadership style.
Advantage: What do you think made you so motivated at such a young age?
Jennifer Mercanti: My father was an Italian immigrant and entrepreneur who built his life around a Canadian franchise to an American chain; he now has more than 165 locations in Canada. He instilled a work ethic in me that was influenced by his upbringing and by the challenges he faced as an immigrant. Looking back, I realize I was mature for my age, but at the time it was just a certainty I felt. As a teenager, I already knew I wanted a law degree. I think that kind of drive is less commonplace now.
What were some of the challenges of attending law school at the age of 21?
Walking up the steps of the University of Windsor Faculty of Law on my first day was very intimidating. I was nervous but excited. In Canada, law schools are very selective and not very many people attend each year. Initially, I had to prove myself to the faculty and my colleagues, but they treated me with respect once they became aware that I had integrity and the skills to perform at the same level.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Busy! I am responsible for the oversight of all legal issues for Manulife Investments, the investment division of Manulife Financial Corporation, including disclosure documentation for more than 135 investment funds and 155 segregated funds and insurance products. I have been involved in more than 40 new product launches and over 30 fund mergers and security holder meetings. I also regularly provide educational sessions to ensure that legal policies are understood by all. I am a member of the Manulife Investments Leadership Team and act as director, officer, audit committee member, and trustee of various companies. Outside of work, I am cochair of the Charity of Hope and a certified Yoga Alliance instructor.
Where does yoga come into play?
It helps me in my day-to-day job. Yoga teaches you to put things into perspective, and it gives you a calmer sense of being. I only discovered yoga a few years ago, but I decided to become certified earlier this year. It required over 200 hours of training over a period of three months.
How would you describe your management style?
I’m very team-orientated. Leadership begins in the heart; I truly value people and their contribution to the organization. I recognize the importance of empowering people by supporting and encouraging them to invest in their development, which will ultimately enhance their contribution to the organization.
Very few women make it to the level you have. Why do you think so few make it to the top in the financial industry?
It takes a lot of hard work, perseverance, and integrity, and in my particular case, it helped that I started so young. I am pleased to be in this position at Manulife and am encouraged to see more doors opening for women in senior positions in the finance industry.