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.