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How Betty DeVita, President of MasterCard Canada Found Career Success By Going Global

How Betty DeVita, President of MasterCard Canada, found opportunities through diversification and achieved success.

By Heather Pengelley | Photography By Nick Wong

“I always knew I wanted to run something,” says Betty DeVita. “A key insight for me is to know yourself, understand what you’re good at, and really work that.”

At 20, DeVita started on one career path, but her self-awareness and passion led her to another. While studying hospital administration at St. John’s University in her native New York, she took a part-time job as a Citibank teller.

“My career took off,” she recalls. “I ended up staying with Citibank for more than 25 years, moving from New York to Florida, South America, Asia and then Canada.”

After graduating, she worked her way up the corporate ladder, married and, in 1993, moved to Citibank’s Latin American office in Florida. She started as a regional product manager then oversaw the automation of branch distribution networks, ATMs and call centres. She spent 60 per cent of her time in Latin America and had her first child, a son, in 1995.

Women should always think two or three steps ahead when planning their career, she advises. “You should look at how your next position can align you – from a skills development, networking and experienced-based perspective – for the next opportunity and the next.”

That’s what she did. Early in her second pregnancy, an enticing opportunity came her way. “I had made it very clear to the regional CEO that I was interested in moving to one of our markets to run a business,” she says. “In 2000, I got that opportunity.”

She didn’t tell her CEO that she was pregnant. “There was a continuous slate of candidates, and I thought that it would diminish my chances of getting that role. I did everything I needed to do to get that job.”

She won the position, moved to Venezuela, had a daughter and led Citibank’s consumer business for two years. In 2002, she became Regional Business Executive for the global consumer franchise in North Latin America, overseeing seven countries.

“Going global is an amazingly valuable professional experience for any individual in today’s business environment,” she says. “When people know that you have an understanding of how your business works across geographies, it’s just invaluable. I urge women, and all professionals, to think harder about how those opportunities help you to leapfrog into your third and fourth career objectives.”

DeVita learned to use market-specific strategies to grow Citibank’s business share and encourage customers to adopt new product lines. Ever mindful of her career goals, she honed her leadership skills.

Historic events conspired to give her first-hand experience in crisis management. Hugo Chávez became Venezuelan president in 1999, a year before DeVita landed in Caracas. Two years after her arrival, Argentina’s economy imploded. Political instability rocked the region.

“I dealt with military coups, takeovers, and a complete and total constriction of business,” she states. “From a management standpoint and learning perspective, there was absolutely nothing like it.”

When news reports provided an incomplete or inaccurate picture of what was happening, DeVita had to learn the fundamentals of crisis control – a challenge she rose to meet.

The management of information is critical in a crisis. I dealt with military coups, takeovers, and a complete and total constriction of business. From a management standpoint and business perspective, there was absolutely nothing like it.

Working with the local team, she ensured that Citibank headquarters and the regional office in Miami had the right information to make decisions on key issues, such as government relations, product configuration, and client relationships.

“The management of information is critical in a crisis,” she says. “The ability to ensure both your local team and headquarters know you’re in control – that was a key learning for me.

With business stymied by the Chávez administration, DeVita sought new ways to advance her career and ensure her family’s security. “I was looking for scale, a greater depth of job responsibilities: larger numbers of branches and employees, a bigger balance sheet.” So, when Citibank invested $3 billion (US) in Korea and its CEO was looking for someone to integrate the banking I priceless acquisition into the global business, DeVita jumped at the chance.

This is a woman who plans her career two steps ahead – but in Korea, crisis confronted her again. Dealing with an entrenched union, representing more than 90 per cent of bank employees including branch managers, refined her negotiating skills.

Working through a translator, DeVita explored cultural nuances in the ways that business works in Korea versus the USA. “It’s all about articulating a vision that everyone buys into,” she explains.

One of her strengths is being a chameleon. “You must put yourself in the scenarios. Any leader’s job is to work through what the best options are, considering the local and global mandate. Sometimes you take a hit, because those mandates don’t align.”

She learned to defend her market and convince headquarters to adopt region-specific policies.

In 2007, DeVita became chairman and CEO of Citibank Canada at the onset of the global financial crisis. “It was dark times,” she recalls. The parent company was under severe stress. With her board and regulators, she worked to ensure that the Canadian business thrived.

Becoming president of MasterCard Canada in 2010, DeVita further diversified her business skills from the banking industry to a technology company that happens to be in payments. Skill diversification is a challenging risk that women should take more often to prepare for future opportunities, she advises.

She served on six Citibank boards and developed a passion for corporate governance. She earned ICD.D certification from the Institute for Corporate Directors at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and revamped Citibank Canada’s board of directors. Her career plans lean in this direction.

DeVita currently serves on the board of Cops & Kids, an at-risk youth organization. This year, she aims to join a public board. She’s a passionate supporter of breast cancer research. This cause hits home with her, as her mother is a breast-cancer survivor.

Her passion for fashion, along with market research showing that women are chief purchasing officers in the household, inspired MasterCard Canada to sponsor Toronto’s Fashion Week, offering consumers better access to Canada’s exclusive designers and the runway.

Married for 23 years, she believes in date nights and staying connected with her children, who text all the time. “It’s important to ensure that you have time together as a couple and family,” she says. “That’s what makes life priceless!”

Read more from Betty K. Devita on the challenges of modern leadership at www.womenofinfluence.ca/atthetop.