Cora Tellez: Leadership Keynote at Global FWN100™ Awards Gala, 2013 Filipina Leadership Global Summit

Filipina Women's Network's Marily Mondejar, CEO and Elena Mangahas, Board Chair, with Cora Tellez (US100 '09 and Global100™ '13), President and CEO, Sterling HSA, receiving the FWN Global100™ Award at the awards gala at the 10th Filipina Leadership Global Summit on October 24-26, 2013 in San Francisco.

Cora Tellez (Global FWN100™ '13) is the president & CEO of Sterling HSA. Cora was selected to deliver the Leadership Keynote at the Global FWN100™ awards gala on October 26, 2013 at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco.


Once upon a time …

… in a galaxy far, far away (that is, San Francisco, California), a group of women imagined a time when successful Filipina women could meet and network and find opportunities to mentor younger Filipinas. We met at the City Club, not far from here, and dreamed of such a time. Fast forward to 2013 and here we are. The power of a small group of women who took a simple idea and created a powerful network of Filipina women in the US and indeed, the world, just takes my breath away!

But then again, I shouldn’t be surprised really. After all, a Filipina women’s network is an idea whose time has come. I sense a palpable hunger for a forum, a vehicle for Pinays to express who we are and what we aspire to become.  Yet, we all know that great ideas go nowhere if there’s no action to make it happen.The story of the Filipina Women’s Network is one of execution, persistence, and passion. The hardworking Filipina leaders of FWN, led by the incomparable Marily Mondejar, deserve our warmest thanks and congratulations for making this dream a reality. Please join me in acknowledging their leadership and advocacy!

Tonight is more than celebrating the success of Filipina women who are adding value to the world in a special way. To me, this evening is about three things:

First, it’s about giving hope to younger women who are starting their careers and wondering whether success is possible for a Filipina;

Second, It’s about affirming support to women of any age who dare to challenge the conventional views of what is possible for a Filipina, and finally,

It’s about challenging Filipina women and men who are successful in their careers to give back to our communities.

Let me elaborate on these three things.

First, this celebration is about giving hope to younger women.

I am fortunate to be in a position to counsel Filipina women who are striving to succeed in their field. I am asked often whether being a Filipina in the U.S. has been a liability to me in my professional journey. I believe that question speaks to concerns that somehow Filipino values and customs conflict with what it takes to succeed.

On a personal note, being a Filipina has not kept me from succeeding in corporate America as an executive or as a board director of publicly traded and venture-backed companies or as an entrepreneur. To the contrary, I am grateful to my Filipino heritage for being grounded in who I am and what matters in life. I take pride in telling business colleagues that I’m Filipina.

My experience says that being a Filipina is an asset, not a liability. If you don’t believe me, just ask the 100 women who are being honored here tonight.

At the same time, I am keenly aware that there are challenges to young women who want to succeed while staying true to values taught by our parents and our community. Sometimes it’s tough to balance the demands of home and family with the pressures at work. And sometimes those demands call to question the relevance of Filipino values.

Frankly, I have found that certain values work very much in our favor. For example, the cultural value of working with others, pakikisama, is a trait that fosters alliances and networking.  Pakikisama speaks to the sense of community, of working towards the collective well being of family, friends, organization, and community. After all, success is a team sport, and we women are natural team-players! The Filipina Women’s Network is the perfect forum for Filipina women to network and obtain support!

Young Filipina women complain that outside of the Philippines, we are subject to stereotypes:  we’re supposed to be shy, modest, retiring, hard-working, but not assertive … meaning, we’re not leadership material. In my professional history, I have relished destroying those stereotypes. I began by destroying those views inside my head, as often our mental models impair us long before we go to work. When our self-image is positive, strong and confident, there is no leadership position we cannot tackle!

The 100 women who are being honored tonight bear witness to the power of a positive self image as a Filipina. So to the young women just starting out on their leadership journey, take heart! You can make it! And someday, we are going to look back on this evening and recall that there was a future CEO sitting in the audience tonight, a future political leader in our midst, and somewhere in the audience, a serial entrepreneur who created extraordinary companies.

My second point:  I said that this evening is about celebrating women who defy conventional views of what is possible for a Filipina.

I’m an example of failed familial dreams. My mother, a devout Catholic, had her view of success for me, and that is, I would be a nun. She had even picked out the convent for me. Even at age 10 (Mother started programming expectations at an early age), I sensed I would fail as a nun, because I knew I couldn’t honor one vow. The vow is obedience to laws and rules that don’t make sense to me.

A character trait (or flaw) that has defined me is a violent allergy to being told what to do, especially to follow practices and policies that I don’t agree with. And I figured out that the only way I could do that in my life, is be Number One in any group or company. But striving for excellence and leadership puts me in significant conflict with conventional views of Filipina women, especially the ones about being obedient and not questioning authority.

(L to R) Gizelle Covarrubias Robinson, IT Managing Director, Charles Schwab moderating the Make Me A Filipina Millionaire Panel with speakers Lita Manalastas Watanabe, President, Speed Money Transfer Japan Kabushiki Kaisha; Cora Tellez, President and CEO, Sterling HSA; Evelia V. Religioso, President, Siniloan Feeds Corporation; Owner & Vice President, REVA Farms; Director, Rural Bank of Mabitac Inc.; Chairman, Siniloan Water District

I am reminded of an awardee I met the other day: Ms. Isabelita Manalastas-Watanabe, who started a remittance business in Japan. She had many things going against her: she is not Japanese, she is not male, and she had to overcome a significant barrier to entry in her industry, and that is, huge capital outlays in advance of opening her business. Her story of courage, sheer determination, and a very clever way to raise capital among Filipinos in Japan is a celebration of defining success on her own terms.

I’ve been privileged to meet very successful men and women in my life. I’ve learned from successful women, in particular, that they are made, not born; that they became successful, in part because they challenged societal views of what a woman should be, should act like, should have by way of professional success. They are comfortable in their own skin, and with each passing year, they destroy limits to what they can achieve. These women are in our midst today.

If I were to take a poll of the most influential Filipina women in the world, I bet I would learn the following:

  1. They are self-confident, self-assured in their views of their capabilities and their ability to influence others.
  2. They are strong and courageous, as they have broken limits set by society, by their families, and perhaps, by their own mental views of themselves and how far they can go.
  3. They are avid learners; as importantly, they learn from their mistakes.
  4. They are risk takers; they are willing to make sacrifices to test an idea, to pursue a dream.
  5. They are generous in sharing what they’ve learned.
  6. Quite literally and figuratively, they hold the door open for other women.

Finally, these very successful women are the beneficiaries of support from their families, from husbands, children, parents, siblings, co-workers and friends who believed in them. They provided encouragement when times were hard, capital when needed, and support in tangible and intangible ways. My cousin Nina Aguas speaks eloquently about the support she draws from her family and how much of her success is owed to them. As I said previously, success is a team sport, and successful women benefit enormously from their personal team of supporters.

Giving back

And that brings me to the final point about this evening. To me, success carries a powerful responsibility, and that has to do with giving back. For every successful woman, there are many more women who feel stuck in positions that are soul-destroying, and many young women who will be denied opportunities to grow. And who can we depend on to help such women if not successful Filipina women?

If you agree with me that success is a team sport, then it behooves us to support the home team. In the audience are many women who model behavior that speaks to giving back. I’ve listened to them during the course of this conference—I’ve learned how they've created opportunities for women through personal referrals, by providing scholarships, by mentoring, by advancing capital to young entrepreneurs, and by funding charitable organizations. These women are true heroes, as they model for us, what success truly means. Like you, I celebrate these women and look to learn from them.

When I began my remarks, I reflected on the meaning of this evening for me. I spoke about giving hope to younger Filipinas, to affirming support to women of any age who defy views that limit our potential, and to giving back.

So what will success look like if we succeed in achieving these three things? The Filipina Women’s Network offers us one view of success: to double the number of global Filipina leaders by 2020. We’ve got work to do, ladies and gentlemen! We need a solid pipeline of emerging Filipina leaders if we are to meet this goal.

The goal is lofty, but achievable. Look around the room, everyone! Who could have imagined such a meeting years ago when a small group of women dreamed of a network? Now imagine the future, and know it’s only a matter of time before we double the number of global Filipina leaders. Let’s begin by celebrating the achievements of women who succeeded against tough odds, women who have shattered glass ceilings, women who  have stayed faithful to and appreciative of their Filipino heritage. Join me now in celebrating the 100 Most Influential Filipina Women in the World!

Thank you.