One day, years later, I met her again. Nina Datu Aguas, now a high-powered global banking executive, was reading her notes for a keynote speech.
“I’m from Tarlac. I went to Holy Spirit, too,” I said. Nina smiled, a flicker of recognition came through her deep dark eyes. We were both at the Filipina Women’s Network (FWN) summit in San Francisco. She was charming. The years made her even look better. The chilly weather gripped us while we boarded the bus. Nina, sophisticated and stylish, was fresh-faced and serene, without jet lag, even if she had just arrived from Manila. Her confidence was inspiring. What was her secret?
“My parents were educators and saw the value of a solid education,” Nina started.
“At the University of Santo Tomas I pursued a BS Commerce degree, major in accounting. I became a CPA. My classroom went beyond the campus, networking with other student leaders.”
Nina’s journey overseas started when as a young bride she joined her husband, Mario M. Aguas, in the USA. He had a scholarship at Northwestern University. She put her career on hold to be with her young family. “We have each taken turns in the back seat.” She stressed marriage is a partnership.
Nina knows today’s tough economy presents difficulties for new graduates. Her advice to jobseekers, “Keep your eyes on the prize. Know where you want to go. Learn to find opportunities. Grab them.”
She adds, “Sometimes the door that opens will take you through a roundabout route to your destination.”
At the start of her career, she was drawn to Citigroup for its growth opportunities. She took the opening for Internal Audit, even if it wasn’t what she wanted. “It was my ticket to the dance. The rest was up to me. I worked with Citi for 26 years. “
What followed was the start of her banking career. Even if her family was based in Manila, her Regional Audit role at Citi gave her the chance to work in various Asian cities.
“When my five children had grown and my husband retired, I worked for Citi’s Global Corporate office in New York. I set up a Private Banking business for ANZ’s Asia-Pacific Region, leading me to Singapore.”
In 2012, she moved back to the Philippines. “I came home to be closer to my mother who was 90.” Nina spent the last year caring for her mother till the latter’s passing.
By August 2012 she had joined the Philippine Bank of Communications as president and CEO. This was a decision she made over four job offers she had upon returning to Manila.
“They share my vision for a reinvigorated bank,” she described her management team. “We are in transformation, expanding branch networks, offering more products. We want to focus on the customer.”
She has witnessed firsthand while living abroad how Filipinas redefine themselves. At the FWN summit Nina said, “The Filipina shines when she is in a foreign land.”
She believes that working in other countries gives the Filipina access to stronger platforms and technology. “Filipinas leverage their unique spirit. Our capacity to leave family, friends and much of what we hold dear speak of our courage and strength.”
“Being thrown into the unfamiliar ignites in us the desire to rise above ourselves.”
Today, she sees that the youth are drawn to social media. Nina advised her own children, “Be authentic. When you present yourself, be your best self.”
“In this dot.complicated world, there is no substitute for the language of the heart. You cannot replace the warmth of a human relationship,” Nina stressed.
Nina Aguas exemplifies the true Filipina. Her soft-spoken demeanor is strong enough to silence the room. Around people, Nina shows genuine compassion and warmth.
“Since college, I learned life was a team sport—to connect with people one must have empathy and a sincere desire to know, listen and understand.”
This was her secret. She chose the door that was open. She emerged from a different one with better opportunities.
Nina admits that when her day is not going well, she prays for strength. Her faith is a big part of her life, in challenges and in gratitude.
“Even in disappointments, there is grace. The lessons learned are translatable at the next turn. Without darkness, you do not appreciate light.”
Looking back, had she had known the turns in her life, Nina would have told her 16-year-old self: “Brace yourself, girl; you’re in for a great ride!”
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey, is a journalist, food writer and member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). She blogs about Filipino home cooking and culinary travels to the Philippines on her site AsianInAmericamag.com.