February is Black History Month. In celebration, we asked Claudia Yombo, Residential Underwriting Manager, to share her perspective and experiences as a Black member of our team.
Claudia, where did you grow up?
I was born and went to high school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which used to be a Belgium colony, and then I moved to Belgium to go to university. I stayed in Belgium after graduation because my sister also lived there. After some time, I decided to move to Canada. That was about 25 years ago.
What differences did you notice between Belgium and the DRC?
In the Congo, everyone is Black. When I moved to Namur (Belgium), that was not the case. Entering university, my mother told me to focus on my education and get the biggest degree I could, and that as a woman who is Black to work harder than everyone else to show I can do it. I was told that universities in Belgium are hard and sometimes Black people will fail even if you were smart. When it came to first year, I actually failed. I was shocked. I was always the top of my class. I thought about it and realized, no; I didn’t fail because someone decided I should fail because I was Black but because I didn’t study hard enough. Being in a different country without the parents, it was party time! After I was honest with myself, I got back to studying properly and everything fell into place. My lesson was that if you do what it takes and believe in yourself, there is a way.
How have you enjoyed the Canadian experience?
I love it. Going to Belgium first meant that there was no culture shock for me when I came here, except for the fact that everything was a lot bigger (roads, cars, fridges, stoves, etc.). Canadians were very welcoming. I felt at home here. I originally came to visit friends who were getting married here in Montréal. I stayed for two weeks. I love to travel, so I travelled to Québec City and Toronto. When I returned to Belgium, I told my sister that I loved the Canadian people, and everything about Canada and announced that I planned to relocate. Her first reaction was, but it’s far and so cold there! Even if it was summer when I visited and it was hot and sunny, my sister’s reaction didn’t stop me.
Since moving to Canada and being part of the multicultural mosaic of this country, for me, I don’t not really identify myself as being Black in Canada but instead just one of many lucky immigrants that have been given the opportunity to settle here and contribute in a positive way.
How easy was it to find a job when you arrived?
It wasn’t easy at first. I had my degree in Financial Accounting, but I didn’t have “Canadian experience” and that was something that employers were looking for. My friends told me it would be hard to find a position in my area of specialization without that. They advised me to get small jobs just for experience. I took that advice to heart and after three months of working in manufacturing, changed for customer service in a call center, then I decided enough; I didn’t go to school to put things in boxes. I wanted to do more. I decided that I had enough Canadian experience and it was time to apply to jobs that I wanted. I aimed for the big banks and went to two or three interviews, and they all said they liked my profile but couldn’t hire me because I couldn’t speak English. With that, I decided I had to learn English quickly and I decided to move to Toronto for six months to learn English. I stayed five years.
Did that lead to a job in your chosen field?
Not right away. At first, I took English courses for newcomers, then I realized that wasn’t what I needed. I was spending time and trying to speak English with people like me who were also learning and speaking with mistakes; I needed to be in contact with people whose first language was English. The best way was to get a job. So, I started by working for a roadside assistance company as a French-speaking customer service agent, but I practiced my English talking to my work colleagues. (I had my French/English dictionary with me all the time). They helped a lot and some of them became good friends, and we keep in touch. After that, I got into the mortgage field at B2B Trust (Laurentian Bank.) During my interview, they asked me what I knew about mortgages. I said nothing but promised to learn everything there is to know very quick. They believed me and hired me. I started as a customer service agent and then in underwriting a year after. I took from that experience not to be afraid to ask for what you want. If someone says no, fine, but they also might say yes. You will never know if you don’t ask.
How did you find your way to First National?
The manager who hired me at B2B Trust (Laurentian Bank) left to join a mortgage start up called Cervus Financial and she asked me to join her as their first bilingual underwriter. As Cervus Financial grew, they opened for business in Québec and offered me a position in Montréal. Cervus Financial was eventually acquired by Macquarie Financial and in 2008, the new owner rationalized the Montréal office, so I joined CMHC as an underwriter. In 2015, CMHC also rationalized, and I lost my job. I got my resume out quickly to a number of banks. By then, I had lots of friends in the industry, I got calls from mortgage brokers and they all said the same thing: you need to join First National. I submitted my resume to Rene Allard who was the Director for the First National Québec team at the time. Before long, I had three job offers but I felt most comfortable at First National.
Why did you choose First National?
The people, the culture and the welcoming feeling I got the first time I walked in the First National office. I didn’t want to work in a big bank because I would just be a number, not a person. Right from day one at First National, I felt like I fit in, I felt like I had been part of the company for years, it was that comfortable. I really don’t consider myself a Black team member, I think of myself as a First National team member. Everyone works to build something great, and everyone’s opinions and ideas are respected.
Do you find that First National is a diverse organization?
Yes, First National is the most diverse, multicultural organization I’ve ever worked for. No matter who you are, you can find yourself at First National.
What does Black History Month mean to you?
Being Black, I don’t wait for a specific month to celebrate our history. There is no Black History Month in the Congo or in Belgium. It doesn’t exist. I found out about Black History Month in Canada a few years ago and wondered what it was all about. I started to research it and what I learned is there are many Black people who contributed to Canada’s history. What they brought is worth celebrating. Our place in Canadian history is possibly not as well recognized as it should be, which why Black History Month is important. To me, it would be better to teach more of it in school every day as part of a multicultural curriculum that recognizes the contributions made by all different groups to Canada’s development.
From a diversity, equity and inclusion perspective, would you recommend First National do anything differently or better?
I think First National is doing it right, doing what it takes. I like the focus we put on celebrating different cultures. Everybody feels part of the same family even though we’re getting big.
Final thoughts for your colleagues at First National?
Celebrate our multicultural culture and don’t be afraid to ask questions about someone’s heritage if you are curious. Sensitivity is important but it shouldn’t stop people from connecting and getting to know each other better.
There are things we can control and others that we can’t. We can control our own attitude, how we interact with others, our knowledge, and our kindness to other. Those are things that I, personally, always choose to focus on. I think, if you remain positive and true to yourself things you can’t control will fall into place at some point. If they don’t, well! at least I know that I did my best!