Every now and then, I meet a woman who is so joyful and peaceful, it’s hard to imagine the career obstacles she confronted on her path to success. That’s definitely the case with Nina Aguas, Executive Chairperson of the Philippines’ Insular Life Assurance Company (InLife).
Speaking jovially from her home office – in which she painted colorful butterflies on the walls – Nina describes how she broke through gender stereotypes and tough circumstances – including a New York post at the core of the Global Financial Crisis. By balancing technical proficiency with women’s softer skills, she built a resume overflowing with ‘First woman to…’ titles. And today, she’s focused on empowering “sheroism” among all women in her native Philippines.
Sweet, but speak up strategically
From the start of our long-distance chat, I was intrigued by Nina’s cheery tone as she described her career ups and downs. For instance, after graduating as an auditor amidst martial law in the Philippines – when accounting was viewed as a male profession – she chirps that, “They only allowed 30 percent of staff to be women, but nevertheless I made it among the 30 percent.”
And, each time she suspended her career so that her husband could study or work overseas, or to raise their sons, she remarks that, “It just shows that it doesn’t have to be a continuous career. I did what I had to each time, but I felt internally that I was made for more.”
Similarly, when I ask Nina what it was like to be the “first” woman to hold many senior roles in Asian banking and insurance firms, she modestly replies that, “I was mentored by ‘generous’ men who were open-minded about having a woman in the room.”
Even so, some boards were not as welcoming. She recalled a friend, a newly-minted board member, sought her advice as to how to work the boardroom. Her friend said that on one occasion she entered a boardroom in which all the chairs were taken by men and no one offered her a seat. Nina’s subtle but shrewd advice: the next time, go 30 minutes early, turn on the lights, sit down and don’t get up for anyone.”
This approach served Nina well, and she describes how, over time, she gained the respect of her peers, executives and subordinates, “First and foremost, you have to carry your own weight and be technically competent. Then, you have to choose the right moment to speak up, rather than being the loudest in the room. If you are logical and firm, people will listen to you.”
Nina also adopted a positive attitude whenever she faced bad managers: “I just said to myself, ‘That’s not how I am going to be when I get my turn to lead’.”
She definitely put that pledge into practice, since she blends her personal spirituality into her leadership style: “I’m very calm and I don’t over-react to anything going on. I listen to views I don’t agree with and incorporate them to make my own argument better. I believe that the best leaders really listen, because that’s how you learn.”
Lifting up Developing World ‘Sheroes’
Make no mistake, Nina doesn’t wear ‘rose colored glasses’ when it comes to global issues, including the need for the financial sector to take on social challenges like gender equity.
Reflecting on her time in New York during the 2008 financial sector meltdown, Nina recounts that, “It was quite jarring to see how it affected so many people – By 10am some days, more than half of the floor would lose their jobs. It really reinforced for me the importance of ethics in the financial system, and it helped me find my purpose.”
And Nina has seized each opportunity to do so, including accepting an invitation in 2018 to join the World Bank Advisory Council for Gender and Development. There, she discovered She for Shield, an International Finance Corporation (IFC) report that described the huge financial risks faced by under-served women in emerging markets and the potential for women’s financial literacy to boost the economic strength of households and nations.
“I made this a priority area for our company – not only to support corporate social responsibility, but also to help sustain our business, by learning to effectively serve the next generation of women,” says Nina. In 2019, working with the IFC, World Bank, regulators and the private sector, Nina launched InLife Sheroes, a social inclusion program that empowers Filipino women to take charge of their economic, social, health and overall well-being. Now, InLife financial advisors and agents deliver financial literacy programs, health awareness campaigns, targeted female health solutions, and credit programs for women-led small and medium-sized enterprises.
“Women are often the CEO and Chief Health Officer of their families, yet they don’t have time to think about their financial situations or even tend to their own health,” observes Nina. “That’s why we want to help bridge millions of women and girls to a lifetime of good that can help lift our entire society and economy.”
The need for women in top jobs
Nina is equally committed to increasing the presence of women in corporate jobs. “Board seats and senior management roles should have no gender, since the fitness and propriety of a candidate should depend on their integrity, intelligence and energy, not their sex,” she insists. “Today’s boards could benefit from injecting diversity since discussions are richer, and stronger decisions can be made, when diverse points of view are included.”
To achieve this, Nina points out that, “While regulations and quotas on board and leadership composition should not be necessary, for now they are needed to open the door wider for women.”
Ultimately, Nina offers a sunny forecast that, “The future is female, and the greater the power of women, the greater a country’s economic success will be.” She adds a positive pep talk to up-and-coming women: “I have always marched to my own drum, and you should too. Find the courage to say ‘yes,’ and don’t let them squash your ambitions to lead. You were good enough from day one, so don’t let the world tell you that you are not.”
More about Nina D. Aguas: Nina is the Executive Chairperson of The Insular Life Assurance Company (InLife), the first woman to hold this top position at the largest Filipino life insurance company. Nina is a business leader with over 30 years’ experience in retail, wealth, investments and private banking. Prior to her appointment to her current role in 2018, she was InLife’s CEO, Board of Trustees Member and Charmain of the Executive Committee. In 2016, she become the company’s first woman CEO in its 106-year history. Nina began her career in accounting in the Philippines and juggled posts as an auditor with family commitments until she joined Citigroup in 1997. She held increasingly senior roles across Citi’s international network, becoming the first Regional Audit Director, and the first woman Country Manager at Citibank, Philippines. She later became the first woman Managing Director of ANZ Retail Bank in Asia Pacific and the first female President and CEO of Philippine Bank of Communications. Nina has been recognized by Forbes Magazine as one of the 25 Asia Power Businesswomen in 2019, and she belongs to a select group of women who are breaking down barriers and shaping Asia’s business landscape. In 2020, Business Insider Australia cited her as one of the 100 People Transforming Business in Asia. Nina was also chosen as a member of the Advisory Council for Gender and Development by the World Bank Group in 2018 and served her second term until December 2021. Today, she continues to promote the advancement of women, in part through of advocacy of the InLife Sheroes Movement in the Philippines.