Julia Cornelio received a Bachelor's degree in business administration from Baruch College. She has been employed at the Swiss bank UBS AG since November 1991 and now holds the position of Executive Director. Her journey from the Dominican Republic to a high-level position in the banking industry is an amazing story, but she tells it with quiet humility, always noting her surprise at the opportunities that have come her way—opportunities that her dedication to hard work and her strong sense of duty have nonetheless helped to make possible.
"Up to the age of 15 I lived in the small village of Castillo in the Dominican Republic. I had a solid family structure with four brothers and one sister. My parents were hardworking people. My father worked for the city and my mother worked from home as a seamstress. I had good teachers who inspired us to focus on education. My parents used to take us to meetings and campaigns to elect government officials. It was clear to me that you need to connect with people as well as gain their support. In my job I have to have good communication with people and connect with them. If we don't have a good relationship, my job is not successful."
Ms. Cornelio learned to be responsible at an early age. "In the late 1960s, my parents immigrated to the US and left their children in the Dominican Republic. At that time, I was 11 and became the mother figure for my brothers and sister. I was in charge of managing the money we received from our parents and making sure we all behaved well and attended school. At that time I developed my management skills and level of responsibility. When my parents came to the US, they became factory workers because of their lack of education. They had no knowledge of English and no financial means. Later, when they were able to take us to the US, three of my brothers became factory workers. My sister and I had the opportunity to attend school. My sister dropped out. One brother joined the US army and stayed there for 20 yrs. I always saw my parents and brothers working hard. I knew I had to do my best in school and I became an A-student."
Determination was one key factor in Ms. Cornelio's success. "My goal was to become educated. When I was in high school I found counselors who helped me achieve a full scholarship to attend college. So basically my influences were those experiences with my parents and with those counselors who helped me out. I went to George Washington High School in Manhattan. The counselors saw my potential to go forward in education. My parents were not educated, so didn't have the information provided to me, telling me how to get on in life, where to apply. I wouldn't have had enough money, if I hadn't received the scholarship, so those counselors played an important role in my life."
I ask what lessons Ms. Cornelio's life has taught her. "The number one lesson is the value of education. Also, in dealing with challenges and adversities, the need to be proud of yourself and not let gender, ethnicity, or skin color stop you from being successful. Deal with people regardless of their culture, education, or financial background. Follow rules and regulations. Also, to control yourself when dealing with difficult situations. If you work hard, your dreams can be accomplished. The importance of listening, being determined, disciplined, responsible, and having respect for others."
Ms. Cornelio then tells me about some of the challenges she's faced. "Adjusting to a new life when I moved from small village in the Dominican Republic to the big city in New York. Another was starting 10th grade. When I started at George Washington High School I had no knowledge of English. So I had to go every night and check words for meaning in order to understand what I had to do. That was very difficult. Another challenge was attending college with limited financial support. Then, finding my first job after graduating from college, with no work experience.
"I worked as an administrative assistant for the Venezuelan government. The president of Venezuela at that time was Carlos Andrés Pérez. Venezuela had a scholarship program in the US with its administrative office in New York City. I was there for over a year and then was offered another job, in the accounting department. In 1982 I started working in the banking industry. I didn't know anybody, but I went to a bank at 1 Wall Street, and asked to see somebody in the Human Resources department. I talked to a mature man who asked what I was looking for. I told him I was looking for a job where I could apply my accounting experience, use my Spanish language, and deal with people. He said there was no position now, but if anything came up, he would call. He called a week later. I was surpised." Like a reasonable person, Ms. Cornelio had assumed that nothing would come of the previous conversation.
"I started working in international accounts. A very nice young Cuban lady was the manager. She approached me and volunteered me to transfer to another department. I didn't know anything about it, and that department was on another floor. She said, 'I think you have the right personality. Since she was my manager, I was surprised. I went for an interview and they wanted to make sure I had experience and could speak Spanish. I had to write a letter as a test. Naturally I could write it fine, and I got the job."
Ms. Cornelio has continued to deal with challenges as a financial advisor. "I have succeeded in a financial system dominated mainly by men. I have traveled alone to different Latin American and European countries in order to accomplish my job duties and attend seminars and conferences. Meeting people from different cultures, in Switzerland and Germany, being surrounded by well-educated people in top-level positions. Being alone in a hotel, you face loneliness, far from home, not surrounded by people you really know. Conducting a face to face review of a client's accounts during cycles of strong market volatility resulting in substantial losses can be difficult. The worst experience was during the 2008 financial crisis. I deal mainly with men who are business owners, well-known professionals or top executives at prestigious institutions.I have to be patient, understanding, and supportive when clients express worries about their financial needs and difficult family situations as well as political and economic problems in their country.To gain the trust of clients in order for them to follow my financial advice, increase their assets with us or refer us to new clients. To work mainly from a hotel suite or visit clients at their homes and offices. Dealing with people who at times, are complicated, demanding, arrogant and extremely difficult."
I ask Ms. Cornelio what her proudest accomplishments are. "I'm very proud to be the only one of six children in my family who graduated from college. Today I hold the position of Executive Director of the Wealth Management Division of UBS. In my function as financial advisor, I manage $300 million in investments for South American clients. Having the opportunity to travel to many countries and deal with people of different backgrounds and personalities has enriched my life tremendously. I'm also proud that my son graduated from Hofstra University in 2005. He received a Bachelor's degree in finance. Today he's an investment consultant and also works for UBS. I'm also proud of my achievement in taking advantage of the opportunities and support I received from CUNY."
Finally, I asked her to describe how the financial system has changed since she has been working in the field. "There have been strong changes in regulatory issues. The 2008 financial crisis impacted the global financial system and caused a loss of credibility in the system. Advanced technology makes people more aware of financial system. Competition amongst major financial institutions has increased. They have become more sensitive to economic and political issues in the world. Women have gained more recognition and respect in the financial system. My job nowadays requires me to take on more responsibility. Business development depends more on me. I have to make more decisions myself. The financial system has become more complex as people think short-term. Today there are more education requirements in order to achieve certain positions. Also, before there was more team work. Today there is more competition among peers in the financial system."
Though today's financial climate is unstable and fraught with uncertainty, we may be thankful that someone as clear-headed, honest, and upright as Julia Cornelio is involved in making important some of the decisions in that sphere, and hope that more people of her caliber will rise to such positions in the future.