Behind convent walls and on to Wall Street
Writing about myself may be a self-indulgent act, but it is a most propitious time to do so as we prepare to celebrate the centennial of our alma mater, the College of the Holy Spirit, formerly Holy Ghost College, starting with a homecoming on Feb. 2.
It was 58 years ago when I first set foot on Holy Ghost College on Mendiola Street in Manila. Because I wanted to take up a combined degree that was not offered then, I had to go for an interview with Sister Bellarmine, then the dean of admissions. It seemed like an interminable interrogation, but she agreed to admit me when I resolutely answered “liberal arts, because I want a well-rounded education, and commerce, because I know I have to be able to make a living someday” to her persistent question. Thus, 1954 marked a major milestone in our school’s history—the birth of the Liberal Arts Commerce Department, of which I proudly claim to be the pioneer, and from where many bright young women graduated to become leaders and innovators in business and industry worldwide.
Two years after graduation, I was admitted to Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the yearlong Harvard-Radcliffe program in business administration, the only postgraduate program offered to women by the Harvard Business School then. On my commencement day on June 12, 1962, I received word that my father had suffered a fatal heart attack. I took the first plane back to Manila, forfeiting my enrollment at the Radcliffe College Creative Writing Workshop, to take on responsibilities for the family business.
My first management task was to revive a shut-down paint company, a joint venture between American and Chinese-Filipino businessmen. My success in turning the company around gave me the impetus to test myself in a bigger pond—New York City.
I flew to New York and in 1972 joined Citibank, starting as a “trainee” in one of the earlier management training programs and staying on in various executive positions, mostly in operations management in the International Financial Institutions Group. My first management experience in the Philippines set me on the path to becoming a management turnaround specialist.
Operations management, not “glamorous” posts in marketing or in corporate finance and investment, was a deliberate career choice. Operations entailed working with people; it was an area where I found I could best apply the lessons I had learned from my parents, teachers and mentors. I took on the mentorship of new associates, nurturing and guiding them to become not only successful bankers but successful human beings as well.
It also gave me the venue to provide job opportunities to women and minorities. My career in Citibank’s International Banking Operations, transforming marginal enterprises into high-performance workplaces, established my reputation as a turnaround manager, for which I received awards and invitations to conduct banking product seminars in three continents.
But my life in the bank was not without periods of adjustment. I spent my first day on the job sorting out two years of unpaid bills for four check-processing systems. Then I was assigned to do the financials of four departments, but there was only one electric calculator for every two analysts. One day I brought my father’s abacus to work. I told my boss to test me when he expressed some doubt on the accuracy of my abacus computing. In the end I beat my coworker by two seconds, the time it took him to push the final “equal” button. So for a few days I was happy doing my financial analyses with my abacus—until the EVP of the Operations Group came to visit and saw me clicking away.
The next day there was a brand-new Olivetti calculator sitting on my desk. I found out later that the EVP told my department head, “Are you trying to embarrass the bank? We are a $34-billion (at that time) corporation and you have your analyst playing with her beads?” I learned then that necessity could drive one to be innovative, and consequently get one’s own calculator without even trying.
One of the hardest adjustments I had to make in the early days was speaking up and being assertive. I told my Irish-American boss at my first line job that having been raised in a conservative Chinese family and in a Catholic convent school, I valued and practiced the virtues of humility and modesty. His response: “Go Bio, f–k that Chinese humility and Catholic modesty, you are now in America and you have to toot your own horn to get ahead!”
I sought training in presentation skills to help me overcome this cultural barrier and gain confidence. After all, I grew up in the 1950s. At home, one did not speak unless spoken to, and in school, one did not speak out but waited to be called to recite. One did not talk over another, as interrupting someone in a discussion was the height of rudeness. Thus, I had to learn to keep talking when interrupted, sometimes more loudly and without losing my train of thought, or to firmly tell the one who butted in to let me finish.
Doing the work was not as much a challenge as working in an environment where assertiveness may be considered aggressiveness by some, or downright abrasiveness by others. For one brought up in a society where respect for others, civility and courtesy were the code for proper behavior, it was a major effort to go against the grain and to do as the proverbial Romans do when in the Rome of a competitive corporate arena.
My training in Holy Ghost College—the German discipline, the strict adherence to excellence—prepared me well and gave me the competitive edge even in a high-performance environment like Citibank.
After almost 30 years in the bank, I moved the business to India and Florida, closed down my department, retired in June 2001, and never looked back. I still live in New York and, besides traveling to less-trodden places and doing volunteer work for sick pilgrims in Lourdes, France, I devote my time to CHSNAF (College of the Holy Spirit North America Foundation) matters and to helping our school. I try my best to lead an uncluttered and unfettered life.
In retrospect, I believe that I have achieved some measure of success. I am happy in the knowledge that I have used, wisely and effectively, the lessons from my parents, teachers and mentors, classmates and colleagues to enhance my life and that of others. And I pray that the Holy Spirit, in whom I have put my loving trust, continues to bless me with the curiosity of a child, the wisdom of a sage, and the confidence to live without fear.
Deanna Go Bio, 74, says she is now retired from “gainful employment” but is fully engaged in living an “examined life.”
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