When Rania Llewellyn first immigrated to Canada, she found herself in the same predicament as many newcomers: educated and talented, but unable to find work. Now Senior Vice President, Products and Services, Global Transaction Banking at Scotiabank, Rania tells her incredible story of how she got her start, and how she’s helping other immigrants to do the same.
By Shelley White
When Rania Llewellyn graduated with an undergraduate degree from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, she faced a challenge many newcomers to Canada had faced before her; she was a well-educated immigrant who couldn’t find a job.
Born in Kuwait City to an Egyptian father and Jordanian mother, Rania had grown up in Kuwait and Egypt, completing the first two years of her commerce degree at the American University in Cairo. But then the Gulf War erupted, and Rania’s parents decided to emigrate to Canada in 1992, where she completed her degree.
“When I graduated from my undergrad, no one would hire me because of my name,” recalls Rania, now Senior Vice President, Products and Services, Global Transaction Banking at Scotiabank. “I had no Canadian experience, I didn’t know anybody, and so I started off working at Tim Horton’s with my bachelor degree from Saint Mary’s University in marketing and finance.”
Rania managed to land a job as a bank teller at Scotiabank while she completed her MBA, hoping that adding a “few more letters” after her name would give her an edge.
Her big break came on the day she was being sworn in as a Canadian citizen at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. The citizenship administration announced there was a special guest at the swearing-in ceremony that day — then Senior Vice President of Scotiabank for the Atlantic region, Jack Keith.
“My mom told me, ‘You go and you ask him for a job,’” says Rania. “So I went up to Mr. Keith and I said, ‘We’re having a wine and cheese reception at Saint Mary’s University. I work for you in a small little branch and I’d be delighted if you’d come as my guest.’ He said, ‘Actually, I sit on the board, I’ll see you there.’”
At the reception, Rania seized the opportunity to approach the senior banking executive for a job.
“I went up to him and I said, ‘Listen, Mr. Keith. I was born in Kuwait. I’m half Egyptian, half Jordanian. Scotiabank is Canada’s most international bank and the only bank I want to work for.’ He asked, ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ and I responded, ‘I’ll speak whatever language you want me to speak.’”
A month later, Rania called his office and was able to set up a meeting. “He asked, ‘Where do you want to be in 10 years?’ I said, ‘I want your job in 10 years.’ He laughed and then sent me to speak to HR. I stopped being a teller on a Saturday and became a commercial officer in development on a Monday.”
It was the bold beginning of an impressive upward trajectory for Rania. After three years as a commercial account officer in Halifax, she moved to Toronto and soon landed a full-time associate position in corporate banking.
“That role was life-changing,” recalls Rania. “That culture was so conducive to my skillset and my cultural background. You had to be assertive; you had to get yourself out there and that’s exactly what I was looking for.”
After seven more years in corporate banking (plus a husband and two kids), Rania found a new niche she was passionate about. She pioneered a strategy for Scotiabank to build out its multicultural banking services, creating a customized banking package for newcomers to Canada.
Soon after, Rania became the Vice President of Multicultural Banking at Scotiabank. The role was a continuation of a career-long commitment to helping new Canadians get a leg up, whether as a banking customer or as an employee at Scotiabank.
“I had experienced it firsthand and understood the complexity — not all immigrants are the same,” explains Rania. “You’ve got refugees, you’ve got field workers, you’ve got entrepreneurs and professionals. They all come with very different stories.”
“Not all immigrants are the same. You’ve got refugees, you’ve got field workers, you’ve got entrepreneurs and professionals. They all come with very different stories.”
Rania and her team created the StartRight for Newcomers program at Scotiabank, which launched in May of 2008 and still flourishes today. “It’s one of the top programs in the market, sold through our entire branch network,” she says.
“There are roughly three hundred thousand immigrants that come to Canada every single year,” Rania explains. “So not only are they potential customers, but they’re also potential employees of ours. Scotiabank is a huge supporter of that segment.”
One of the key sponsorship programs that Rania introduced during her time in multicultural banking was TRIEC — the Toronto Regional Immigrant Employment Council. TRIEC helps immigrants connect to employment that fully leverages their skills and talents. Through their Mentoring Partnership program they connect skilled immigrants from professional backgrounds with mentors in the financial institution space. As a vocal advocate for TRIEC, Rania encouraged her staff to become mentors so they could develop their leadership and coaching skills while helping new Canadians reach their full potential.
“In many cases, we’ve been able to find great talent,” she says. “And it’s great to be able to give back because I think we often take our experiences for granted.”
In her current SVP position, Rania is responsible for the development of products and solutions for the business banking segment — this includes small business, commercial, and corporate customers. Heading a team of 200 employees, she’s also responsible for developing the digital channel that customers use to access products and services.
When it comes to opportunity for immigrants and women in the banking field, Rania states “the road has been paved, but there is still more work to be done.”
“I think we need to take a leap of faith. Just because someone doesn’t have Canadian experience or education doesn’t mean that they don’t have the skills and talent,” she says. “All corporations should be encouraged to go out there and hire people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and ways of thinking.”
Rania sees diversity as a business imperative – a potentially huge competitive advantage for Canadian businesses to compete globally.
“We need to take chances on people, just like Mr. Keith took a chance on me,” says Rania. “That’s why I never turn down anybody who wants to talk to me for 10 minutes, because you never know when the next new talent is going to walk through the door.”