From Sari-sari Store Heiress to COMCAST executive
(A wife, a mother of two, a promising name in the industry, and a really gracious head turner – Michelle Alba-Chua, is a complete package of brains, beauty, and business. This feature article is written for The Global Filipino Magazine and the International Society of Filipinos in Finance and Accounting.)
I was walking the halls of the venue, Ernst & Young Building at San Jose, when my eyes caught the gracious presence of a lovely woman. There is a governing sense of command in her simplistic aura and observable humanity. You might mistake her for a celebrity than a corporate dynamo – but not the red carpet gala type; more of an A-lister shopping at Fifth Avenue. She is fashionably dressed but with a composure that silently tells you of her power: coat, blouse, bracelet, and bag. Her femininity is in utmost posture: in the way she walks, the semantic she speaks, and the draw of her charm. She is beautiful.
It was on May 14, 2016 that the International Society of Filipinos in Finance and Accounting (ISFFA) held a mentorship and training event at San Jose, sponsored by Ernst & young, in partnership with Global Filipino Network. An integral portion of the event is where ISFFA invited several Filipino-Americans who are already doing well in the industry to become mentors to respective mentees and probable interns. The mentors provide training, advice, and support, based on their expertise developed in working at Fortune 500s.
Among the distinguished pool of options for ISFFA mentors was Michelle Alba-Chua, Director of Finance Operations for Comcast Corporation, the only ethnic Filipina director out of 60 director positions in Comcast Corporation, the largest broadcast company in the world. A product of Manresa School and De La Salle University’s Liberal Arts-Commerce program, she migrated to the United States in 1999 right after her college graduation. She has since gotten her Master degree in Business Administration from Saint Mary’s College of California. She is brains.
At age 37, she serves as an inspiration to many Asians, women especially, when it comes to making it big in the cutthroat echelon of the corporate world. She is business.
TFC: Tagging Filipino-Chinese?
I had the opportunity to talk to her about her career and her ideas on leadership and corporate mentoring, but we had to start from the beginning.
“I grew up in a family where we used to have a family business. We were taught and expected to work even as a young child. We used to run a restaurant, video store, copying machines, and a grocery store. They were all ran by my father who is really an entrepreneur.” The Filipino-Chinese Michelle said.
“We’re still Filipino-Chinese because my father side celebrates Chinese New Year. But, in terms of speaking the language, my grandmother speaks a little bit, but my father’s generation did not use it anymore.”
Then, I thought of the traditions of preferential option towards the male firstborns.
“I was so lucky I grew up with very strong women role models. My grandmother on the father side is the pioneer of our business. She started a with sari-sari store in our neighborhood, and it just grew into a big grocery – a supermarket store. And, my dad helped on the expansion. My grandmother on the mother side is a nurse and a professor. So, in terms of women, I had very strong female role models. But, that goes to say that I also had a lot of great strong male models to support that.”
Michelle amusingly recalled and shared an experience where she just picked items from the grocery store and, perhaps with an inch of scolding and guilt, understood that those items are not hers for taking. Then and there, she has her lessons on what an inventory is. For families succeeding in business, the one standard that goes all across the board is the instilling of discipline and the determined family values at an early age. She has worked at the cash register, has worked as a bagger, an errand-runner, living in the grocery’s bodega while sharing it with workers, playing with the workers’ children – exposing herself to lives, laughs, and letdowns of people.
“Also, in Manresa, we had to do charity programs. While we also teach catechism to less-fortunate children in the community, I taught math. I am good in numbers. These kids would come without bags, papers, or shoes, but they were very eager to learn. There is a blackboard and there are a few small benches. It’s fun because the kids know me. The kids are our workers’ children.”
Truly, Michelle had the best exposure at such age – not because she was Chinese nor she was from a Catholic school. Also, it was only circumstantial that they have a family business of their own. The main factor as I see it was her exposure to the world through the lives of other people. Her experiences seem to be an anti-thesis to the don’t-talk-to-strangers adage.
“I want to be a senior leader someday.”
I didn’t get to talk to her continuously. We had to cut off our banters for a while to give way for a few chores. At those times I was a bit thwarted at myself, thinking, ‘How dare you make her wait?’ However, it has afforded me a new vantage point. It was amusing how she spent that time to eat while standing. While cowboy may mean shady in contemporary American English, Filipino lingo reads cowboy as somebody who is very much adaptable, very easy to get along with, and not picky and whiny. For sure, this character roots from more than just being in good schools.
After graduating with flying colors from De La Salle University in Manila, she moved to the United States and started in the finance industry as a management trainee for World Savings Bank, which is now operating under Wells Fargo.
“In that setup, I was able to learn the formal operations of the banks and the banking industry. I have learned much more about customer relationships and organizational management.”
The little grocer worked her way in the banking industry, until a friend suggested she work for Comcast. And with Comcast, she has gone.
“My expertise is on finance. So, at Comcast, although it is known to be a media company, I lead a team responsible for closing the books. We have to tell a story behind the numbers. We help in making them understand the impact of corporate finance. What drives the business? What are the financial factors to be considered in decision-making? What is our forecast? What are our risks and opportunities?”
Those questions which she may have considered as her yardstick is a general questionnaire that is endemic to the corporate world. But, what makes her different is her understanding of the system ever since she was a youngster.
“The sari-sari store was a huge impact for me. I grew up watching my parents building something and it gives jobs to people. It helps other people better their lives. It inspires me to be part of something that changes people’s lives. It helps keep the business growing to hire more.”
Michelle has mentioned the Asian American Pacific Group inside Comcast where the membership is mostly of the mentioned ethnicities. These groups inside the company is a support group wherein executive board members provide leadership, mentorship, and pragmatic support to other members. Although it is open to all ethnicities, the inspiration springs from a vision of a highly supportive and efficient workplace bereft of petty rumors and staple procrastinations – one that is fulfilling the pockets, the pulse, and the pensive. Holistic – something Michelle is an embodiment of.
“My Filipino touch on leadership is not that I have a preferential option for Filipinos. My touch is on putting passion in genuine development for my team. I have a responsibility to develop my team. My mission is to become a leader that would create more leaders. It doesn’t matter what race you are. It shouldn’t be an issue. The diversity makes our decisions better. But, if there’s anything I can do for a fellow Filipino with a potential, I’d give them a message,”
“Hey, you’re a Filipino. Come on. Join me. I’m starting my journey.”
Our conversation ended with heartfelt smiles and I ended up feeling more challenged. Inspirations and motivations come from different avenues. There is no denying that Michelle had a good head start coming from a family with strong values on finance. But, we have to see the leap she has made from a petty grocer to a finance director. For her, she was inspired by how her family develops the business to help more people get jobs.
What inspires us?