How Maria Freites Hernandez rebuilt her career as an immigrant to Canada

Moving to Toronto from Venezuela, Maria Freites Hernandez expected to take a few steps back in her analytics career as she settled into her new country. But now she’s back in a senior position at a bank, and taking her career to the next level as a student in the first Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence class at Smith — North America’s first graduate business degree in the AI field.

 

By Hailey Eisen

 


 

When Maria Freites Hernandez left Venezuela five years ago, she knew she’d have to take a few steps back in her career in order to start over in a new country. In search of a better life, she settled with her family in Toronto. “I would have loved to move with my position at the time, which was within the retail credit risk department of Citibank,” she says. “But I knew I’d have to lower my standards when looking for a job in Canada.”  

Having earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from what she calls the best university in Venezuela, Maria discovered an interest in analytics while working at Citibank, her first job out of university. “Even though I was only creating reports back then, I could see how my managers would use the numbers I gathered to make business decisions, and what great value that data could provide.”  

Though her background was in software engineering, Maria says she decided right then that obtaining insights from data would be the focus of her career. At Citibank, she worked her way into more senior positions and found herself in the retail credit risk area. “That’s when I started to learn about forecasting, planning, and setting up business cap, and by that time I knew analytics was the area I needed to develop in.”

 

“If I can be a CEO someday, I want to be, and while my bachelor’s degree is good; I wanted to have a Canadian academic experience and management exposure.”

 

In Canada, she took a few jobs well below her qualifications, which gave her time to become fluent in English. “My greatest challenge,” Maria recalls, “was the language barrier — I didn’t feel comfortable with English and had a really strong accent, which made communication difficult. I would make mistakes when I spoke or wrote, and it was really hard on my self-confidence.”

Despite these challenges, nine months after moving to Canada Maria got a job with Scotiabank. She was back on the career path she’d set out for herself — just a few rungs lower on the corporate ladder. A year later, she joined the portfolio analytics team as a manager, and, three years after that, in September 2018, she got promoted to director of portfolio insights in the retail credit risk department.

Just prior to that promotion, Maria set out to take on another huge challenge. Led by her “sky’s the limit” mentality, she decided to go back to school to earn a master’s degree. “If I can be a CEO someday, I want to be,” she says. “And while my bachelor’s degree is good, I wanted to have a Canadian academic experience and management exposure.”

The new Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence (MMAI) at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University caught her attention. She was eager to improve her management skills while also boosting her technical expertise. She believed the program would help her with both.

Maria goes to class Tuesdays and every other weekend, while still managing her role at Scotiabank. It can make for some long days but Maria says that going back to school is energizing. “I’m excited to be learning the AI framework and how we can use AI in the bank setting — but also, to be working with people from other industries and opening my mind to things I’ve never considered before.”

For Maria, the technical aspect of the program has given her the confidence and skill set to talk in greater detail with the technical staff in the bank who report to her, while also allowing the executives she reports to realize how much she understands and can contribute to conversations.

Beyond AI, she says she’s also benefiting from other services at Smith, such as a writing coach, who is helping her improve her written communication skills — something she feels is important if she wants to move into executive roles. And it’s clear Maria knows exactly what she wants.

“All my career I’ve been surrounded by men. But Venezuelan women — especially my mom — are really strong,” she says. “I’m not afraid to let people know what I want, to identify what’s not working for me, and make a change when necessary.”

 

Industry demand for AI product managers is growing. The Master of Management in Artificial Intelligence at Smith is North America’s first graduate business degree in artificial intelligence designed to fill the talent gap for much-needed managers who can apply AI strategies to business decisions.

Five minutes with Kirsten Bobbie, Manager of Operations and Logistics for the 2019 Special Olympics Ontario Invitational Youth Games

Kirsten Bobbie started with Special Olympics Ontario in 2012 as a student intern. She continued on the team and over a few years transitioned into a leadership position, all while seeing the program grow — from 4 regional qualifiers to 80, and from 400 annual participants to 7,500. Now, as Manager of Operations and Logistics for the 2019 Special Olympics Ontario Invitational Youth Games, she’s playing an integral role in bringing together 2,500 student-athletes from around the world to Toronto for four days this May. We spoke to Kirsten about why these games are important — and how our WOI Community can help.

 


 

Why do you feel it’s important that the Invitational Youth Games take place?

As is the case with generic sport and community driven causes, big ticket events have the power to bring people together and inspire like no other. The Invitational Youth Games are designed to do just that. Inspire a generation to promote inclusion, build communities, and showcase the strength, determination and abilities of young athletes with an intellectual disability like no event has done before.

 

Women of Influence is supporting the 2019 Invitational Youth Games with a fundraising drive because we share the same mission of inclusion. What does inclusion mean for your organization?

There is a shift in society all around the world right now; a shift to focus on inclusion. In Special Olympics terms, we call this the #InclusionRevolution, and it’s something we’ve been working towards for 50 years. In 1968, when the first Special Olympics event was held, it was the start of a dream of both co-founders of the movement: Canadian Dr. Frank Hayden, and Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Their dream? That people with an intellectual disability would have a place to be included in sport, and use the power of sport to grow, develop and gain the awareness needed to be included in all other areas of society.

 

What are some of the specific ways you are promoting inclusion at the Invitational Youth Games?

As a focus of the Invitational Youth Games, inclusion is felt in a number of different ways, one of which is Unified Sport. Unified Sport teams are comprised of athletes both with and without an intellectual disability who compete together, towards one common goal. In schools, Unified Sports bridge the gap between students of all abilities who can compete on the same team on behalf of their school. An opportunity that is monumentally impactful for both students with an intellectual disability and those without on the team. A chance for all athletes to compete as one — the perfect example of inclusion, and one we hope our athletes, coaches, volunteers and fans will take back home with them.

 

“An opportunity such as this one — competing on the International stage, travelling to an overnight competition, and even being a part of a high school team — did not exist for high school students with an intellectual disability before these Games.”

 

Why are the Invitational Youth Games important to you, as an individual?

Back in January 2012, fresh on the Special Olympics Ontario staff team as a College intern, I was fortunate enough to assist the team in their first year of the school competitions model, called Four Corners. Over the years the program grew; from 4 regional qualifiers to 80, and from 400 annual participants to 7,500. To have a front seat in watching a program and an idea grow from grassroots infancy to being showcased on the International stage has, and will continue to be, a highlight of my career.

 

What do you wish everyone knew about this event?

An opportunity such as this one — competing on the International stage, travelling to an overnight competition, and even being a part of a high school team — did not exist for high school students with an intellectual disability before these Games. Students from around the world may be getting on a plane or train for their first time, and travelling to Canada. The look on their faces, the opportunity they are being given, and the life-changing impact this will have on young adults from around the globe is something everyone needs to experience first hand.

 

How can individuals or organizations help these inspiring athletes?

You can fund an athlete’s journey to the games. Draft an Athlete or Draft a Team through the dedicated Women of Influence fundraising page, and challenge your network to do the same, individually or collectively. Every dollar raised in these Games goes towards ensuring that everyone can compete and that no athlete is left behind. Every dollar raised is impacting the life of a young adult with an intellectual disability and giving them the opportunity to participate, compete, and be included.

 

Help us send more athletes to the inaugural Special Olympics Ontario International Youth Games, taking place in Toronto from May 14 – 17. We’re asking our WOI Community to support making dreams a reality by donating today.