Financial Women: Profiles in Diversity Series

Janeth Medina Larios

In our allyship with the women of color in the financial services industry and our membership, we are finishing out 2020 with a series of member interviews with FWSF’s women of color aimed at giving us a glimpse into their career journeys, spotlighting their challenges and successes. Janeth Medina Larios, vice president of corporate social responsibility at Bank of the West and vice president of diversity and inclusion at FWSF, is our next interview. 

We hope this series will help provide insight into ways that we can all better stand together and be a strong support system to one another. 

Will you please introduce yourself?

I was born in Mexicali, Mexico and immigrated to the United States with my parents and three siblings at the age of six. Leaving everything behind, my parents dreamed of a better future for my siblings and I. They taught us the importance of education very early on in our lives. Although I grew up in the Central Valley as an undocumented immigrant, I didn’t learn about the lack of access to resources until I graduated high school when I was hit with the harsh reality: I did not have a social security number or qualify for state and federal loans to pursue a higher education. 

Although this was a big stumble along my journey, the support of my family and community never failed me. While my father and I balanced multiple jobs so I could get to the finish line, I constantly applied for scholarships. That is how I learned about the Financial Women of SF (FWSF). Becoming a part of the FWSF community brought me more blessings than I could have ever imagined. 

After being the first in my family to graduate from college, I went on to complete my MBA. During my graduate studies, with the support from FWSF, I connected with leadership from Bank of the West and launched my career in banking shortly after. Over the last seven years, I have had the opportunity to be a part of several strategy and transformations teams at Bank of the West and have recently joined the Corporate Social Responsibility team where I have the opportunity to bridge my strategy background with my passion for social impact. 

What was your career journey and how was it positively or negatively affected by being a woman of color?

“Arrimate al arbol que te de sombra.” This roughly translates to: Gravitate towards the trees that will provide you with the most shade. My father said this to me when I left home for college many years ago and he still repeats this to me to this day. It represents mentorship, sponsorship, community and support. 

I have been incredibly fortunate to identify a strong support system of mentors and sponsors throughout my career and have benefitted from many exciting opportunities because of it. My first job out of college was in corporate security and although I knew that was not the career path I wanted to pursue, I looked at the opportunity as a springboard to what was coming next for me. When the time was right, I was able to break into corporate development and strategy where I learned a lot about large scale enterprise wide programs and the banking industry overall. As a woman of color, breaking into these spaces was a real wakeup call in terms of lack of representation. Often times, I was the only woman in the room. These groups and roles have direct access to executive leadership with people making important decisions, so I knew this was where I wanted to be to accomplish my career goals. 

Although I received a lot of support from management and was able to identify mentors, being a woman of color in corporate America’s most sought out for groups definitely came with its challenges. I recall a colleague once saying to me “You are so lucky to work in strategy. Most people who make it into those roles have an ivy league degree or investment banking backgrounds.” I could not believe someone would think I was in my position out of luck instead of merit and hard work. 

These type of unconscious biases and micro-aggressions are things people of color experience in the workplace every day. I know sometimes these comments are not ill intended so I try to give people grace and gift them with feedback, so this kind of negative culture does not get perpetuated at work. Demonstrating leadership competencies and staying true to the values I grew up with have ultimately led me to the right support system and in turn helped me propel my career forward. 

What (or who) has helped you get ahead in your career and professional life?

I was very fortunate to learn about the difference between a sponsor and a mentor very early on in my career. In the simplest way to explain, mentors serve as sounding boards and guides, whereas sponsors open doors of opportunities and talk about you when you are not in the room. Both mentors and sponsors have helped me get ahead in my career and professional life. 

I also realized very early on that my career path and trajectory is my responsibility and investing time and effort into clarifying where I want to go next has really helped me leverage my mentors and sponsors in a very effective way. I am the author of my career story and having clear asks of my mentors has really helped me be strategic about my mobility. 

In your opinion, what challenges do women of color have in the workplace?

Women of color face an incredible amount of societal and cultural challenges in the workplace. Unconscious biases, imposter syndrome, and unequitable compensation to name a few. We are battling many systemic issues in the workplace. 

The best way to combat these issues are for women of color to be empowered to ask for what they deserve and for allies in power making decisions to start to open doors of opportunity. Leadership training and coaching is a benefit that should be accessible to all women of color and that employers can easily provide. 

What challenges have you faced as a woman of color in your profession?

I briefly touched on this when I talked about my career journey thus far. To expand on this I will share that imposter syndrome is real. Being the only woman in the room and the youngest team member was incredibly challenging. This made my ability to ask questions very hard and made my learning curve even steeper. 

Thinking back on it, I would be so much further ahead in my career if I had been empowered to ask questions and take on more responsibilities earlier. Trying to fit into the boys club and having a sense of belonging took a very long time for me to foster as well. 

Something that was also very challenging was that management always tasked me with administrative responsibilities whereas my white male counterparts always received the higher- level, more visible, and more technical projects. It took a long time for me to speak up for myself and respectfully decline administrative responsibilities and rather ask to lead projects that would support my professional growth and exposure within the company. 

Can you talk about how important having a network is for a woman of color?

Having a support system is an essential part of professional growth and career mobility. I am very grateful to be a part of communities whose missions are to promote the advancement of women such as the Financial Women of SF, Latinos in Finance and Latina Vida. 

Many people I respect and look up to are a part of these communities and have supported me in my career journey. I have met a lot of my mentors within these communities and have been very fortunate foster long lasting relationships with amazing women and men that I can count on when I need advice about important decisions. A lot of the opportunities I have pursued have also come through these relationships. 

What can women of color and their allies do to support equal pay and equal opportunities for women and minorities?   

For women of color to achieve equal pay, they need to be empowered to ask for fair market rate compensation within their companies. For allies with hiring power, hiring, promoting and compensating women of color fairly is something that they need to advocate for and push for within their companies despite pushback from HR policies. Talking about these topics transparently is the best way to start to tackle these problems an understanding the systemic barriers can help us bridge gaps more sustainably and constructively. 

Have you personally ever encountered a major risk in your career that advanced you forward? 

Every move I have made in my career has been a risk, but I have seen it as a strategic opportunity and thus far, this has propelled my career forward and accelerated my growth. The riskiest move I have made was taking an ambassadorship that would place me at a nonprofit for a year with no clarity about what role I would come back to after my assignment was over.

This allowed me to apply everything I have learned in a completely different environment and forced me outside of my comfort zone. I am very glad I took the risk and was able to secure a position within Corporate Social Responsibility which was my desired outcome. 

What can organizations like FWSF do to continue supporting the advancement of women in business? How has the organization helped you?

I have made many important connections within the FWSF community and was able to secure my first job out of college through this network. The opportunities for education, connection, networking, and mentorship that organizations like FWSF provide are invaluable. 

Continuing to work with and collaborate with other organizations with similar values and with business partners is a powerful way to scale the advancement of women in business. It takes a village to make strides and the more we can do it collaboratively as opposed to working in silos, the further along we can go together. 

Is there anything else you would like to share about your career journey, diversity, and the advancement of women of color in the workplace?

I would like to ask other women leaders, allies, and business partners to pull women up as you come up. We are paving the way for other leaders who will shape a better future for all of us. If you move up in your career, do not forget to pull up others with you.

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