Danielle Skipp: Lead Without Limits - Nicola Wealth

Danielle Skipp: Lead Without Limits


Devote time to forming and nurturing professional networks. Go looking for roles that will give you an opportunity to use your best skills — a role where you will shine. Seek out mentors, champions and friends and form mutually rewarding relationships.

After almost thirty years of career success, occupying executive positions within banking and asset management, lawyer Danielle Skipp has taken on one of her most exciting and demanding roles to date — she has joined the senior leadership team at Vancouver-based Nicola Wealth Management and is leaning into the company’s growth objectives in Ontario. A prominent name on the West Coast, Nicola Wealth is known for its work with high-net-worth families, foundations, endowments and select family offices.  The company differentiates itself from other advisory firms with its financial planning first philosophy integrated with an in-house asset management platform offering diversification into alternative asset classes such as real estate, private equity, infrastructure, venture capital, private debt and mortgages. Skipp’s undertaking is no small feat, as Nicola Wealth now boasts $12 billion of assets under management, and continues its expansion as one of Canada’s fastest-growing private wealth management companies.

Those who know Danielle emphasize her reputation as a fiercely intelligent and confident businesswoman, and show little surprise at her unabating ambition in taking on a challenging career role after many years of triumphs and with little left to prove. Her current pace aligns with her past track record and reputation, as Skipp, a mother of three girls, has not slowed down. On the contrary, she has increased her always-robust capacity — on top of a busy personal life, she continues several volunteer positions, including her work with 100 Women in Finance (past chair of Toronto chapter), and as a Lieutenant Governor in Council Member on the University of Toronto’s Governing Council.  She has taken nothing off her plate as she stewards Nicola Wealth’s growth across Ontario, occupying dual roles, as Managing Director, Ontario and Chief Legal Officer.

Danielle was attracted to Nicola Wealth for many reasons, including a family connection – her brother David Sung partnered with John Nicola in 2003 and is President of the firm.  Watching Nicola’s success over the past many years, she was attracted to its innovative approach to working with clients and its powerful corporate culture evident with a long list of awards that include, Most Admired Corporate Culture, Best Managed Company and Top Employer.  Important for Danielle, Nicola “walks the talk” with respect to its commitment to female leadership (almost 50% of the leadership team) and female bench strength in both mission-critical groups of advisors and asset managers — approximately 50% of Nicola staff are women in an industry that is notoriously male-dominated. When Danielle joined the company two weeks prior to the March 2020 lockdown, she was part of a large employee expansion that has seen the doubling of staff, adding 180 new personnel over the past two years, 90 of whom are women – not including the acquisition of Blackwood, a Toronto-based firm.  Nicola Wealth currently has just over 400 employees across six offices in BC and Ontario.

Danielle Skipp, representing 100 Women in Finance at TSX market open
Danielle Skipp, representing 100 Women in Finance at TSX market open

As a lawyer with decades of asset management experience, Danielle brings strategic and academic strength to her role, but she also brings creativity, energy and the visionary nature of an entrepreneur. Alongside her day job promoting Nicola’s national expansion, she exercises her creative chops by implementing philanthropic and corporate culture-building ideas.  Her latest venture, Women’s LEAD by Nicola Wealth is a movement she champions internally – in a few short months, along with a strong Women’s LEAD committee, and talented internal Nicola marketing and communications team, Skipp has helped galvanize women and men across the firm to join the launch of a grassroots effort to amplify and celebrate the voices and stories of women across Canada. The first in-person Women’s LEAD event, on May 4th, 2022 in Toronto, will see Danielle representing Nicola as the evening’s host with guest speakers including Joanna Griffiths of Knix, along with comedian and actress, Jessica Holmes. A similarly-themed Vancouver event will feature local trailblazing entrepreneurs, Deanne Schweitzer, Tessa Mcloughlin and Chloe Angus, along with Covenant House CEO Krista Thompson and moderator, Fiona Forbes.

Skipp’s passion for championing women stems from a career spent in a male-dominated field, where she was constantly challenged by the puzzle of navigating the uniquely female demands of her experience as a mother (pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and gender-based unconscious bias) with corporate life. The question of how to embrace motherhood and nurture family, while building a professional career is not unique to Danielle and throughout her career, she has driven connections with a female peer group to collectively contemplate the ramifications of combining and attempting to balance these encompassing responsibilities, and sharing strategies to mitigate career risk, and family risk.

She has also given considerable thought to how she can help other women prepare for the challenges of navigating a full life as a parent and a career woman. Societal expectations of women — often implicit until fully expressed in gender-normed roles — frequently lead to women bearing a high percentage of parenting and household duties, regardless of their hours of work outside the home or financial contribution to family income. This was never more evident than during the pandemic when according to an Ipsos study across eighteen countries in May 2020, women’s household work and family responsibilities increased significantly. The burden of working full time inside and outside the home often leads to burnout and the lowering of overall happiness.

While Danielle viewed herself as a modern woman, it was early in her career that she recognized the challenges she would face navigating her career and family in the legal profession, where certain systemic inequities and practical realities would be challenging to tackle.  Danielle knew she was launching her career in an environment that was more accommodating than one hundred years earlier, but still wasn’t where it could be – she wouldn’t be able to change the system in the short term, and carefully examined how she could make the most of her circumstances, have a successful career, an active and full-of-fun personal life, and raise healthy and happy children.

Danielle Called to the Bar in 1994

She had graduated from law school with the top marks in her class and loved legal work, particularly litigation — at that time, her path forward was clear, and her goal was to become a judge. However, as she encountered other women in senior legal roles, she recognized there were certain personal sacrifices and trade-offs that she was not willing to make.

A woman I worked with and admired was about ten years my senior and we shared a mutual interest in aspiring to become a judge — she did become a judge! She was an excellent lawyer, but I saw the challenges she faced juggling her career with family life. She spoke openly with me about the sacrifices she was making — she chose to have only one child and she had very little time to nurture personal relationships — she didn’t have many girlfriends. That did not sit well with me, and I made a conscious decision to pivot.

Skipp characterizes herself as a “people person,” someone for whom nurturing relationships is like “eating and breathing,” in her words. She emphasizes the importance of building meaningful connections, “Our relationships with people and our ability to ask for support from the right person at the right time are important.”

Danielle and friends at her 50th birthday

In spite of excelling in the legal profession, and her desire to become a judge, Skipp decided she could not sacrifice building a family and the many deep relationships she craved. She decided to move towards a position as in-house counsel in finance and moved from Vancouver to Toronto, landing at one of the big banks, and kick-starting a new career path that has taken her to the C-suite.

Danielle is a passionate advocate for women and law school.  In her own story, her legal degree set her up with expertise, training and credibility that allowed her to change her career path, and at two points in her career progression “off-ramp” to focus on being a mother and then reenter the workforce (“on-ramp”) with increasingly senior roles – not an easy feat.

At 34-years old, with a one-year-old daughter, Danielle chose to take time away from her career — she risked losing professional momentum but she felt the pull to lean into motherhood and have another child.  When her second child was about 2 ½, Danielle was presented with an excellent opportunity to join a successful investment bank seeking a professional with securities law experience to join its business operations.  During her time in this role, Danielle had her third daughter when she was 39-years old and returned to the bank after a short maternity leave.  Ultimately, however, she chose to “off-ramp” again to spend more time with her three girls and extended family in Vancouver.

In 2010, the next chapter in Danielle’s career unfolded when she joined forces with her husband to launch their own asset management company.  Danielle embraced entrepreneurship over the next five years developing new sought-after skills that ultimately led her to accept a role as chief operating officer at a much larger firm in 2015.  It was her confidence in the value of her legal degree and experience, and the rich network of relationships she had made that emboldened Danielle to move in and out of the workforce while raising her daughters. While her career trajectory would have been steeper had she not taken any breaks, she does not regret, and is, in fact, thankful for the opportunity she had to have spent additional time with her family. Two of her daughters are in university pursuing professional degrees and one is in high school, with a bright future preparing for her own journey.

I share my story with my daughters and other young women emphasizing my belief that a professional degree such as law, accounting, or engineering is a great way to set yourself up for the possibility of choosing to “off-ramp” and then “on-ramp” during your career. Study and learn at university and in your early career roles.  Be present in the role and work hard. Pay attention to deadlines and deliver quality work. Devote time to forming and nurturing professional networks. Go looking for roles that will give you an opportunity to use your best skills — a role where you will shine. Seek out mentors, champions and friends and form mutually rewarding relationships.

Skipp’s brother, David Sung, tapped his talented sister when the company’s growth objectives for Ontario demanded a strong leader. Danielle will tell you that she and her brother have come by their work ethic and business acumen honestly. Growing up, her hardworking parents led by example and embraced a growth mindset before it was part of the current culture. She and her siblings (her brother, David and a younger sister) were taught to “finish what they started, work their hardest and show up prepared and on time.” Danielle often quotes her father’s words, “you choose to bring children into this world; do your best for them.” By that, he also meant to set a good example for them and to give them responsibility. Danielle and her siblings were expected to participate in household chores, work hard at school and hold down summer jobs from a young age. She mentions a quote from Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Successful People about the importance of role modelling by parents:

Role modelling is the most basic responsibility of parents. Parents are handing life’s scripts to their children, scripts that in all likelihood will be acted out for the rest of the children’s lives. – Stephen Covey

A positive outlook and a commitment to family and community are characteristics Danielle also learned from her parents. Her father, second-generation Chinese Canadian, was part of a West Coast dynasty, of sorts. In the 1950s, her paternal grandfather had become the first Chinese millionaire in Canada, building a family business empire and becoming part of a group of men who shaped and grew Vancouver in the mid-to-late 20th century. All that changed when, characteristic of many family businesses, interpersonal family dynamics led to its eventual demise. Danielle’s father, an industrious and relentlessly positive man, showed resilience by forging a new path as an independent businessman, who resolved to commit to his own family and children in order to prevent the dissolution he had seen in his family of origin. He demonstrated to his children a belief that Danielle holds and espouses to this day— “While you can’t control your circumstances, you can control how you respond to them, and you can choose a more positive and optimistic outlook.” 

Conscientiousness was a key part of their family ethos and she saw firsthand how work ethic — coupled with raw ability — can transform circumstances. As a teenager, when her father’s family business imploded, Skipp’s formerly stay-at-home mother went to work in the insurance industry and rose to a high-powered role at one of North America’s top insurance companies, eventually running her own business and transforming their family’s financial circumstances with her success. Her mother’s meteoric success occurred when Danielle and her siblings were in their late teens and Skipp recognized that her mother thrived in business after the load of her parenting responsibilities had diminished due to Danielle and her siblings’ increasing independence.

Danielle’s tendency to think “big,” in terms of possibilities and opportunities was also something she learned from her parents. As a young child, her family spontaneously decided to move to Africa, settling in Tanzania where her father (on a break from his family business) worked for the Canadian International Development Agency, a federal Canadian association that administered foreign aid programs in developing countries. During her early years in Africa, her younger sister was born and her father acquired his pilot’s licence before they moved back to Vancouver where Skipp stayed until she left for corporate life in Toronto at age twenty-seven. Her parents’ pioneering, entrepreneurial flare is a family legacy that Danielle has embraced as she has taken on new challenges and risks in her own life and career, including starting a business with her husband.

While many couples challenge traditional gender roles and share parenting responsibilities, many others, even those who believe they are progressive, slip into traditional patterns once overwhelmed with family life and careers, which means that women, even those who are primary family earners, often attend to the bulk of the parenting and household work, including cooking, cleaning, carpooling and organizing children’s schedules. Danielle shares that while she took on the majority of the parenting responsibilities early on, working with her husband, when they started their own business, was transformative in establishing a more egalitarian approach to their home and work life.

An extremely positive outcome of the husband and wife partnership in business is the spin-off benefit of increased partnership at home. When Matt saw firsthand the extra time I was devoting at the office for the mutual benefit of our company, he was quick to offer the extra help at home.

Danielle’s life circumstances and the sharing of household responsibilities evolved over her years working and raising her girls. However, one theme that remained constant throughout was her drive to be a great leader – a leader at work, a leader in the community and a leader to her family. It is the mentors in her life to whom she credits the ability to lead and communicate effectively, namely her own mother whose organized approach to parenting resembled a CEO’s approach to running a corporation. Danielle also credits a mentor (former boss) and now life-long friend with informing her approach to leadership. Jackie Moss was her boss for only three short years, starting when Skipp was thirty years old, but during that time, she had an incredible impact on Danielle and helped launch her corporate career.

Danielle speaks to Jackie’s ability to lead and what she gleaned from Jackie when she reflects on her collaborative approach:

An example of Jackie in action as an excellent leader was her deliberate steps to bring me along to her meetings so I would gain exposure to other senior leaders and observe for my own learning and development how things worked and got done. She was and continues to be, generous with her time, advice and guidance. This generosity and thoughtfulness motivate me.

Jackie, a dear lifelong friend, speaks about her experience working with Danielle, “She could get more done in a day than it would take lots of other people a week. She had an amazing ability to sit down and understand the issue, figure out a solution and communicate it back clearly. And she’s very likeable and gives good advice and people liked to work with her. She is an all-around A+ player and one of my favourite employees ever.”

Grateful for the mentors in her own life, Danielle has committed to giving back to other women in the workforce and has cultivated a broad stable of mentees who follow her lead and have relied on her for sage business and parenting advice. One of her key mentees, Kseniya Lenarciak, a whip-smart financial analyst who worked for Danielle and her husband when they ran their own asset management firm, speaks to Danielle’s capacity to inspire and motivate those coming up in the ranks.

I’ve been looking up to Danielle since my days as her first-ever intern. She was a role model to me and has shown what can be possible for so many professional women and mothers. Graceful under pressure, seamlessly balancing many professional and family demands, inspiringly multi-faceted and remarkably achieving are some of the key attributes of this superwoman that I endeavour to emulate as now a working mom of three myself. Danielle has always invested sincerely in nurturing young talent and is a community builder. I know several of her protégés who have gone on to great heights, both professionally and personally, including one other former intern who is the Godmother to my three boys.

Danielle’s appreciation for the role of generosity and mentorship in her own life is now being fully expressed as she and her team take on and promote Nicola Wealth’s Women’s LEAD movement across Canada. Trust a woman who deliberately strategized and integrated career and family, to scale her ability to help others and nurture the next generation of female business leaders. As her daughters approach university and high school graduation and launch their own careers, Danielle is now poised to fully express the breadth and potential of her talent and ability. The former straight-A student who graduated at the top of her law class, and took career breaks to raise her children, is now working to not only grow Nicola Wealth, the company she helps lead, but also to improve the lives of young women working to build better and more fulfilling lives as leaders at work, in their community, and of course, in their families.

Danielle and her family

Written by Tassan Sung, Chair Nicola Wealth Women’s LEAD