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Jamaican born Diana Burke creating waves in Canada

Published:Sunday | May 1, 2016 | 12:00 AMKeisha Hill
Diana Burke with former prime minister of Jamaica Portia Simpson Miller.
Diana Burke
Diana Burke

The unique background and talents of Jamaica-born Diana Burke have served her well in establishing businesses and community endeavours across the region and the world. Arriving in Canada just over four decades ago, Burke took advantage of opportunities in her new environment to learn and grow professionally.

Burke migrated to Canada at the age of 21, and had a successful career with the Royal Bank Financial Group, culminating in a role as the bank's worldwide chief information security officer. However, she began her association with the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) as a teller straight out of The Queen's School in Jamaica, at age 16.

"There were many Canadians working with us at the time, and they encouraged me to visit Canada and explore my options. Back then, many persons were not travelling to Canada. I visited Montreal and fell in love with the city. It is very friendly, like Jamaica, and there were many places to go and I felt comfortable," Burke said.

When Burke went to Canada in 1972, the bank hired her, and she rose from an entry-level position to become senior vice-president and chief information security officer. "When I started at RBC in Canada, they were just setting up the technology department. They offered me a job in technology and I decided to take on the position," Burke told Outlook.




During her career, she worked on and led many of the bank's technological innovations, such as banking machines, debit and credit card systems, Internet banking, the SWIFT, INTERAC and PLUS networks.

"Not long ago tellers had to calculate interest on your savings account using tables on sheets of paper, and write it into your passbook by hand," Burke said.

"Early in my career, I started working on posting machines in a branch, converting customer paper records to mainframe databases, posting cheques in batches and printing statements. I trained the first data entry clerks in head office on online payments system to replace the telex payment system," Burke added.

When she became chief information security officer, her role was to protect all these systems, and to set the strategic direction globally for information security, working with other banks and companies like Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, and others.

"It's hard to imagine, but none of the speedy and convenient financial transactions we take for granted today would be possible if we were still dealing with the limitations of paper-based systems being handled at the branch level," she pointed out.

All these technological changes she led, allowing her team to be integrated seamlessly and efficiently, with minimal inconvenience to the bank's customers and staff. The volume of transactions increased significantly and technology jobs multiplied from 200 to more than 3,000 in her former organisation alone.

Because of her wealth of experience, Microsoft named her to its global advisory body on information security and she became a co-founder of RBC's Cyberlab, in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University.




In addition to her professional career, Burke has championed and supported several community and charitable causes, including early childhood education, poverty reduction, women's leadership, health and rehabilitation, employment opportunities for disabled people, and seniors' quality of life.

A former Toronto Rehabilitation Institution board member and Online Presence Jamaica 50th anniversary co-chair, Burke is a member of Verity women's club, director of the Project for the Advancement of Childhood Education (PACE) and president of People Bridge Foundation, created in 1997 by consultant and philanthropist Betty Steinhauer, to reduce poverty and promote health care in developing and underdeveloped countries.

She was also president of the International Women's Forum - Toronto Chapter, a global organisation of outstanding women leaders. Burke also promoted and championed the establishment of a chapter in Jamaica.

The International Women's Forum and the IWF Leadership Foundation produce innovative and unparalleled leadership and executive development programmes worldwide. These programmes advanced opportunities for women in leadership while also creating a profound, positive and sustainable change in the lives of women leaders today and tomorrow.

"We want to encourage women to become future leaders. Many women do not have access to an international network so we have created a fellowship programme with Howard University where these ladies get the opportunity to network," Burke said.

The Fellows Programme, produced by the Leadership Foundation in its signature, customised format is the leading women's executive development programme in the world today. Providing emerging women leaders with training of exceptional quality and access to IWF's unmatched network, fellows experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to challenge their assumptions and expand their horizons.

Spread across a year, the programme convenes fellows from around the world for a total of 20 days. In partnership with the Harvard Business School and INSEAD, The Business School for the World, the Leadership Foundation offers creative, multidisciplinary training aimed at developing leadership and strategic management capabilities.

The first Jamaican IWF president was Pat Ramsay, who is recognised as one of Jamaica's outstanding civic leaders; and past president Minna Israel, a former banker and special adviser to the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies. Camille Facey, one of Jamaica's premier legal minds, is the current president.

Burke notes that when she was at RBC, she was one of few women in the male-dominated technology department, but that did not deter her from working hard to be successful and being a role model for other women in technology.

She is also the recipient of the Women of Influence Award given to women who have demonstrated innovation and made a positive difference in the security field. Burke spearheaded a campaign called 'Information security is everyone's business', to increase employee awareness, while at the bank.




Being the first Canadian recipient of the Tony Coelho Award, recognising her leadership and commitment to the competitive employment of persons with disabilities, Burke also works to influence government security regulations by her involvement in leading industry groups such as the Canadian Financial Institution, Computer Incident Response Team (CFI-CIRT) and the Global Council of Chief Security Officers.

Despite all her accolades and achievements, Burke is not ready to retire just yet. Three years ago Burke sought to replace Bob Rae, vying for the Liberal nomination in Toronto Centre, after Rae vacated the seat. Burke, who served on Rae's Toronto Centre executive, has resided in the constituency for 25 years.

Although she was unsuccessful in her attempt at representational politics, Burke says she believes that Canada has provided her with exceptional opportunities to experience extraordinary professional and intellectual growth and merit-based advancements, and she continues to be grateful to be in a position to help improve the quality of life for her family and those she has supported over the years.