Speaking to Chika Aghadiuno, Daisy Coke reflects on a life at the vanguard of the Jamaican actuarial profession
The word 'pioneer' is overused - but this is not so in the case of Daisy Coke. She was the first Jamaican actuary to practise in her native country, having helped to establish the profession on the island, and has been a trailblazer for her compatriot actuaries for more than 45 years.
Coke has received a plethora of awards and commendations, and yet in talking to her, I discover a warm and humble woman with endless anecdotes - not about prizes and personal achievements, but about human interactions, acts of kindness bestowed upon her, the tremendous sense of community she has nurtured, and a bygone era that was so different from, and yet in many ways is similar to, the present day.
The daughter of a Pentecostal pastor, Coke was born in the small Jamaican town of Spalding. Her life has been punctuated by a number of significant relocations, beginning at the tender age of 11, when she was sent to a Quaker-operated coeducational boarding school in Portland, some considerable distance from her home. From there she went to Kingston for sixth form college, and then on to the University of the West Indies, where she studied pure maths, applied maths and Latin.
The next phase of her life saw her move to Toronto, Canada for two years, to study for a master's degree. After a year working with the Jamaican government, she was sent to the UK to train as an actuary, in order to help establish actuarial capability in the Jamaican civil service. A one-year statistics postgraduate course in Oxford was required before the Institute of Actuaries admitted her as a member. She then took up a secondment with the UK's Government Actuary's Department in 1962, with a brief spell at the Norwich Union in 1968 to achieve her life office practice. She returned to Jamaica in 1970 with a husband, son and an FIA qualification.
Gaining a foothold
When asked of the challenges she faced as a young, black Caribbean woman in the 1960s, working far from home and in a vastly different culture, Coke's strongest recollection is of the kindness she received, with people treating her as a guest throughout her secondments. That said, she also recalls a wider society, outside of her immediate work environment, that was not always immediately welcoming. Even then, Coke points out that once she became a familiar face, she found people would respond more positively. Interestingly, the cold weather was more of a challenge, and something she was less prepared for. It was more bearable in Canada where, even back in the early 1960s, central heating was the norm. It was with some horror that she discovered this was not the case in England!
Returning to Jamaica as the first qualified actuary and the country's first government actuary, she stayed with the Ministry of Finance in Kingston for a couple of years before joining the Jamaican affiliate of Bacon & Woodrow as a partner. In 1978, she established her own firm, Coke & Associates (Consulting Actuaries), which later merged with Canada-based actuarial consultant Eckler.
While there were some initial challenges in persuading the government that the student they had dispatched to the UK was now capable of delivering exactly what was required, Coke dismisses the suggestion that these were remarkable or pioneering achievements. She describes setting up her own consultancy as "straightforward", and talks about the experience and support she received from her fellow partners at Bacon Woodrow & de Souza. The unstinting support of her late husband Astley Coke was also very important. The main difficulty was promoting her skills in a market that, at the time, had no regulatory framework for the actuary's role in insurance or pension funds.
Strong support network
In Jamaica at the time, women who were given access to higher education soon outperformed their male counterparts and came to dominate many professions. Coke surmises that the affordability of domestic support in Jamaica may have been a contributing factor, allowing herself and other young mothers to pursue substantial professional careers. In Coke's case, the influence of her father in supporting her education was undoubtedly another factor, as was the fact that she grew up with seven brothers - as she puts it: "I am not scared of men!"
The importance of community is evident in our conversation. Prior to starting at the University of Toronto, Coke joined an international group of young Quakers who travelled through the southern states of the US in the summer of 1960. This brought her right into the midst of the US civil rights movement. Navigating the segregation laws of the time, the group travelled through Little Rock, Arkansas, staying with an American family that had coached the Little Rock Nine, whose enrolment at the Little Rock Central High School in 1957 had become a landmark moment in the civil rights movement. She speaks glowingly of her interaction with those students.
Awards and accomplishments
- Order of Distinction, Commander Class (CD) and Order of Jamaica (OJ). Awarded by the Government of Jamaica in 1994 and 2002, respectively, for her distinguished work as an actuary and for public service
- President's Award, Society of Actuaries, 1997
- Lifetime Achievement Award, International Association of Black Actuaries, 2002
- Max Lander Award, International Association of Consulting Actuaries (IACA), 2018
A distinguished career
Worlds apart from these experiences, Coke has deep and numerous memories of her connections with the international actuarial community over nearly five decades. This year sees the centenary of women being admitted to the Institute of Actuaries. Despite this, the numbers of females joining the profession remained small for many decades; it is thought that, on Coke's qualification in 1970, there were then just 12 other living female FIAs. Monica Allanach, the first female council member, was instrumental in addressing this issue. Coke speaks fondly of her encounters with Allanach during her time in the UK and subsequently at various international actuarial conferences. In 1954, Allanach had established the Lady Actuaries Tea Parties to tackle the issue of low representation and create a community for female actuaries. This community extended to students and overseas members, of which Coke was one; she attended a number of the tea parties.
Coke attributes her conversations with Allanach and learnings from these gatherings to her own success in establishing the Caribbean Actuarial Association (CAA) in 1991; she served as president for its first six years. She was also a charter member of the International Association of Black Actuaries and contributed towards its formation in 1992, and was appointed a member of the Judicial Service Commission and the Public Service Commission, chairing the latter for 19 years.
She has served on a number of boards of enquiry, expert committees and task forces, including the National Insurance Fund, the Overseas Examination Council, the Statistical Institute of Jamaica and the Council of the University of the West Indies; these saw her deal with, among other things, topics such as pension reform, financing public sector pensions, public health finance and independence for the Bank of Jamaica. Coke has also been a director of several statutory bodies and private companies.
Now 81, and retired since 2014, Coke still serves the Jamaican government when called upon, serving on committees and tribunals, as well as carrying out other pro bono work. What's next? To continue playing an active role in the lives of her three grandchildren - and to keep her pension provider on its toes for many years to come.