By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
In variable economic times, one thing people want to be sure of is their money. Carol Kobuke Nelson, Pacific Region Sales Executive and Seattle Market President of KeyBank, makes sure that when her clients need a human touch, KeyBank delivers. It’s different from the traditional idea of banking — and it’s different from what many prophesy for the future: impersonal, digitized banking, where human contact is nonexistent. For Nelson, when it comes to both external and internal clients, nothing could be further than that.
The core values of KeyBank are teamwork, respect, accountability, integrity, and leadership. To Nelson, it is a fortuitous coincidence that these correspond with her own core values. Nelson chose KeyBank in 2015 because the values of the company and its CEO, Beth Mooney, were in alignment with her own. She had just come from the culture-changing success of transforming Cascade Bank into Opus Bank, which was nominated as “Best Business to Work For” under her guidance. She had spent time as Agency Director and CEO of the Department of Revenue for the state of Washington, serving as a part of the Executive Cabinet for the Governor. Nelson also chose KeyBank because she felt there was an absence of strong banking leadership in the Seattle market — an absence that Nelson was more than qualified to fill. Leadership is, one might say, key.
“That’s how things get done,” Nelson said. “You can be a leader no matter what your role in a company is…you can lead in so many different ways. That’s what I encourage people to do…Be a leader. Just step up. Raise your hand. Take on a challenging assignment. Just dig in.”
Nelson is never just about what’s in it for her. Her ambition encompasses community. She understands that banking success rests upon the success of her bank’s clientele. She understands that essentially banking is a service. And she understands that in her role as a female, Asian American executive in a country where there are few in her position, she can be a role model. In her own experience, Nelson has encountered more workplace challenges as a woman than as an Asian or Japanese.
Nelson said, “Pushing through to be the first at something is great — but it’s more than just for me. It’s about helping women advance in the workplace. Reaching down to help others climb the ladder along with you.”
In Nelson’s mind, everything is a team effort, whether it be helping clients, making sure that KeyBank employees feel invested in the company, or taking an active role in the community. If possible, Nelson will find a way to do all three at the same time. Her proudest moment at KeyBank was taking part in Community Impact Day held in April. It was a day-long philanthropic event for which KeyBank’s CEO flew in and she, Nelson, and other KeyBank executives travelled throughout the city to donate to important causes.
Their first stop was the University of Washington (UW)’s Foster School of Business and UW Tacoma, to help mentor rising business leaders with a focus on low-to-moderate income and minority students and businesses — they helped to raise several hundred thousand dollars.
Next was a luncheon at Fare Start, where organizations involved in promoting STEM and solving homelessness were equally honored, among others. From there, Nelson and her team went to Mary’s Place and finally, they topped off the event with a reception during which KeyBank members were given the opportunity to donate to nonprofits of their choosing through what KeyBank calls KBINGS (pronounced “Keybings”), Key Business Impact and Networking Groups. These are groups of employees that represent different cultures within the company, and help KeyBank uphold its commitment to a diverse workplace.
Giving to worthy causes is part of what Nelson calls “being a human being.” She actively participates in United Way of King County and is an enthusiastic proponent of volunteerism. Even on her days off, if she is not celebrating a birthday or graduation with her large extended family, she is pursuing some type of activity to support the community, her professional development, and banking, often all at once. In the beginning, people were suspicious of Nelson’s strong work ethic, as if she had some ulterior motive for wanting to do her best.
“That hard work, the willingness to do the job, put in the hours, can be misinterpreted. I know in my early career, I don’t think people really understood — why do you work so hard?” Nelson wonders if being a woman in a predominantly male career field led people to think that there was more to it.
“We women have had to work really hard to be perceived the same way as some of our male counterparts,” she noted. To avoid misinterpretation, Nelson continually strives to be open and transparent about her goals.
“It isn’t about advancing your career. It’s about making sure that the work you’re doing is high quality, and something you can be proud of.”
Nelson credits her family for instilling in her an entrepreneurial spirit and a willingness to take risks. Nelson is a third generation Japanese, and she recognizes that this colors who she is. Her family had already relocated twice by the time she was 8, at which time Nelson’s father passed away, and her mother brought the children to eastern Washington, where many of Nelson’s relatives are still involved in farming. Soon after, Nelson’s mother decided to relocate to Seattle, due to increased opportunities. Nelson started working early, in the florist shop that her mother opened in downtown Seattle. But Nelson was inevitably drawn to banking.
“I have felt really blessed that I found banking because I do love it,” she enthused. “I find it very interesting. The people that I’ve had a chance to work with have been terrific.” Nelson credits her uncle, who was on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank, for sparking a passion that has lasted to this day.
It’s evident that Nelson is clear about her identity and her purpose. To her, these two things are essential to success. “Understand who you are as a person. Understand your core values as a person. Make sure that you are working for a company that mirrors those core values. That’s where the magic happens.”
Jessica Kai can be reached at email@example.com.