In conversation with Nneka Bowen


Ms Nneka Bowen Vice President RBC Royal Bank
Ms Nneka Bowen Vice President RBC Royal Bank

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you?

I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba to Nigerian parents from the Ibo tribe. My father traveled to Canada to study on a Nigerian Scholarship. He and my mother lived and worked in Canada for many years after he completed his MEd and started working on his PHD. In the early ‘80’s,  when I was in junior Kindergarten,  he decided to return to Nigeria to work as an educator in the college system – his way of “giving back” to a country that had given him so much. As I look back to my early childhood in Nigeria, I remember living in poverty. I also remember my father instilling in us the value of hard work, and the importance of education.  As a result, while our circumstances where dismal, my four brothers and I believed our futures would be better by holding on to the promise of education, hard work, and returning to our country of birth – Canada.

Was there any person or persons that influenced your childhood the most?

My father played the most important role in shaping who I am today. He used Nigerian story telling and proverbs to inspire me to never feel entitled and to earn every success I ever set out to achieve.

What is your educational background?

I have an undergraduate degree in Business from University of Ottawa, and a Masters in Business from Dalhousie University in Halifax. When I retire from banking (many, many years from now), I plan to follow in my father’s footsteps and obtain my PHD and dedicate the rest of my life to educating and investing in young people to inspire them to be all they can be.

Could you describe your day job? How did you get to where you are today with RBC Bank?

I started my career in banking as a teller while working on my undergraduate degree. I then progressed to various roles with responsibilities including strategic roles in national office, and roles with our commercial credit risk management team.  In my current role as Vice President for Commercial Financial Services in Durham I lead a local team of industry specialized Commercial Banking Account Managers covering the Durham Region.  Providing industry specific advice and solutions to local businesses to help them grow is a key focus for our team..

It is rare for a woman to reach your position in the corporate world and even rarer for a woman of colour to do so. What has the experience been for you? Do you feel accepted, especially by the men who dominate the upper echelons of the finance industry?

I am proud to say that in RBC it is not uncommon to see women or women of color in senior and strategic positions. And although there are many women Vice President’s at RBC, in fact, women comprise 38 per cent of the Executive Team in Canada. I am equally proud to say that I am the first African/Canadian woman to hold the title in Commercial Banking. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the many non African/Canadian women mentors and managers who inspired and supported my journey.  For women as employees, RBC is committed to:

• Increasing the representation of women in leadership globally.

• Providing access to leadership development opportunities including experience based learning, mentoring relationships and networks to support advancement.

• Maintaining an inclusive and supportive work environment by evolving and providing access to progressive work/life and flexibility practices and programs. 

For our communities and women as clients, RBC is committed to:

• Developing programs and services for women, women entrepreneurs and women’s markets.

• Increasing the representation of women in key client-facing roles (i.e. Financial Advisors) to better serve client markets.

• Advocating for increasing the representation of women in Board of Director positions

Outside of your job, what do you do to relax? Do you have any hobbies?

My children are my life. I enjoy spending time with my two sons and supporting their hobbies. As well, I am an avid runner, and plan to conquer a 25k fund-raising race this summer or fall, then train for a full 50k marathon. I also enjoy reading historic fictional novels.

You are of Nigerian heritage. Do you keep any connection with the “motherland”? How about the Igbo and Nigerian communities in Toronto? Do you speak or understand any Nigerian language?

My mother and youngest brother still live in Nigeria. Other than that, other connections are through volunteer activities with organizations in the African community. I used to speak Hausa and Ibo languages fluently when I lived in Nigeria. However at this point “pigeon English” is the only style of speaking that comes easily to me. I can barely understand and speak Hausa and Ibo today.

Looking at Canada’s black population, there seems to be a divide between African and Caribbean communities on the one hand and Anglophone and francophone communities on the other. Do you agree with this perspective and if so what can be done to remedy this divide?

Actually, this has not been my experience. My husband is Canadian too, but from Jamaican decent. In my experience our cultures and values and aligned. It is amazing how similar the cultures are in spite of the geographical divide for example food, respect for elders, value of hard work, spirituality etc.

Over the years, have, have you seen any change in the status of the black population? Are we any better off now than say, ten or fifteen years ago?

Yes, I believe we are better off than we were ten or fifteen years ago. The fact that we lived to see the day that US would elect its first Black President is a big step towards a more inclusive society. As well, if I look internally within RBC; there are many more people of color or black employees in Senior positions.

There are some segments of our community which claim that black men do not respect black women and vice versa, that we tend to defer to other races when we interact with them, especially white Caucasians. Do you agree with this perspective?

Again I have to say, this has not been my experience. I am blessed with a loving husband who puts my needs before his. And looking back at my father’s legacy and how he empowered me and respected my mother.

Looking at the Black population in Canada, what do you see as our greatest challenge and how do we resolve it? What are our strengths?

If I were to reflect on my own journey, I will say that being aware of and having the courage to remove self-imposed barriers is a great challenge for our community. When I say “self-imposed barriers” I go back to a time when I refused to apply for positions or failed to raise my hand to take leadership roles because I felt I would be judged for my color, my accent,  or my exotic background. One of the biggest steps I made towards believing in myself is getting outside of my own head and telling myself “I am good enough”, “I can do it too”. That is the message I try to pass on to colleagues, friends, family, and black youth who are holding back. In my view, our greatest strength is our resilience…ability to keep going in spite of life challenges. I believe this comes from having experienced so many set-backs and challenges in our journey towards equality.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

Believe in yourself and never give up on your dreams no matter what your present circumstances look like. A great example of this is my personal journey. I am the most unlikely individual to end up where I am in life with my career at RBC. If I  could get there, so can you.

 Copyright: Black Ottawa Scene



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