Nancy Robles became chief operating officer of Eastern Funding at the beginning of 2021, but she didn’t need to reach the C-suite to become passionate about leadership or, more specifically, people. Months before she took on her current role, as the racial disparities of the U.S. were put on full display across the country in the summer of 2020, Robles posted a video on Eastern Funding’s internal network discussing her experience as a mother of two Black sons. In the roughly 15-minute video, Robles shared her fears for her sons as well as her belief that being in a position of privilege meant she had a responsibility to stand up and speak out and to encourage others to do so.
After posting the video, despite knowing she was staying true to herself, Robles was fully aware she had taken a risk. The equipment finance industry has not been known for being welcoming to people of color and by sending the video, Robles feared she might lose her job.
Obviously Robles maintained her employment and her actions helped to create a safe space for others to discuss their experiences related to unfolding events that were taking a toll on so many and yet were largely absent in workplace discussions.
“It gave us a place to talk about it and it gave us a format,” Robles says. “It became a more acceptable conversation when before no one was talking about it although we were all experiencing a lot of pain and fear because of it.”
Posting the video wasn’t the only way Robles has maintained a people-first approach to leadership during the turbulence of the last 18 months. In the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to outside stresses from continued political instability, racial injustice and the pandemic itself, employees at Eastern Funding faced heavily taxing responsibilities, often working seven days a week as the company dealt with thousands of contract modifications and the uncertainty of its future.
Rather than watch idly as her colleagues ground themselves to the bone, Robles reached out to a Shanna B. Tiayon, PhD, founder of Wellbeing Works, to improve Eastern Funding’s emphasis on employee self-care. Tiayon provided an outline of services and led sessions to identify elevated stress levels and coping mechanisms as well as how to make decisions under heightened pressure. There were also training sessions for those at the executive level outlining how to identify signs of overwork from employees and detailing how differences in life circumstances can create drastically diverse work experiences.
These are just a couple of recent examples of the emphasis Robles puts on supporting people across the entire organization as part of her role with Eastern Funding.
“I’m really, really devoted to the area of leadership and leadership for all,” Robles says. “Being a leader is really about people. If you focus on the people, the rest of the success will come.”
‘I’ll Figure it Out’
Robles’ passion for understanding and supporting the people she leads is no doubt influenced by her own experience rising the ranks of the corporate ladder. Robles began her career in the finance world a little more than two decades ago when she was a single mother receiving governmental financial aid to support her three children. At the time, her focus was not on getting on an executive team but rather on finding a way to support her children.
“There wasn’t a lot of room for dreaming or planning a career,” Robles says. “It was just winging it every day.”
After earning her paralegal degree from Berkeley College, Robles got her first job in the equipment finance industry at Fleet Capital Healthcare in New Jersey. During her time with the company, Robles says she volunteered for jobs and responsibilities across multiple departments, but operations attracted her the most due to its problem-solving nature.
“When you grow up the way I did, problem-solving is a required skill, otherwise you can’t move any further in life,” Robles, whose mother worked three jobs after immigrating to the United States before opening her own salon business, says.
Robles eventually made the jump to Eastern Funding in 2005 after Fleet Capital Healthcare was bought out by Bank of America. For the three months prior to joining Eastern Funding, she also worked at a small community bank in New Jersey, but the organization’s lack of diversity and resistance to change made Robles seek a better fit for herself.
In her early days at Eastern Funding as a director of loan processing, Robles experienced a looser structure compared with her previous experience at larger corporate entities. With more collaboration across departments, Robles saw plenty of chances to expand her own experience.
“I knew that I had a lot of willingness to do whatever it took to move forward,” Robles says. “If everybody can do everything, there’s a lot of things that I can learn how to do and I could just do them here and potentially secure a position for myself.”
Eastern Funding was eventually bought by Brookline Bank, which brought about opportunities for Robles to tackle new challenges, particularly in the area of compliance.
“I was one of those people who stepped up and said, ‘You know what? I don’t know anything about compliance, but I’ll learn,” Robles says. “That’s how a lot of my career has evolved; a lot of times I didn’t know and I just said, ‘I’ll figure it out. I’ll learn.’”
Robles also added to her knowledge base by more traditional means while rising the ranks at Eastern Funding, earning her MBA in 2013. She is currently working on her doctorate of management in organizational leadership.
‘This is What I’m About’
Now that she has reached the upper echelons of her profession, Robles is dedicated to helping bring others up the ladder with her. That’s nothing new, as she has always had a goal of being a role model for people from a variety of backgrounds, especially as someone who is often the only woman of color in the room.
“You can’t hope for and visualize something that you’ve never seen,” Robles says. “I want other people who don’t fit that box, who don’t look that part, to know that they have an opportunity. I’m just like them. To me, that is the biggest accomplishment. I feel like I’m able to amplify voices for others and that I’m able to serve as a role model.”
Robles encourages others to amplify their voices by being transparent and being unafraid to share her own story.
“I am very open and very vulnerable about my experience about where I come from,” Robles says. “A lot of people find that it’s shameful to say I was on welfare when I was 25 and a single mom with three kids. Maybe I felt that way when I was 25. I’m sure I did. But today, I recognize that that’s one of the things that makes me different.”
In addition to being a role model, Robles is also actively seeking to address the shortcomings of the equipment finance industry when it comes to diversity, equity and inclusion. She believes there is a great deal of progress that can be made by addressing unconscious biases.
“We don’t realize that a lot of the business decisions we make are not based on business at all,” Robles says. “They’re really based on biases or other experiences that we’ve had that we don’t even recognize are affecting the way we think and the way we make decisions.”
Robles doesn’t view identifying and addressing these biases as a combative task. Instead, she sees it as a collaborative one.
“It’s about working together to all help each other but not in a way that’s accusatory,” Robles says. “And we shouldn’t get defensive. We should just recognize that it’s human nature.”
However, Robles also knows that there will still be resistance and that continuing to push forward despite such resistance is imperative, particularly when those who have historically been in positions of power make excuses like there being a lack of candidates of color for job opportunities or that they feel uncomfortable discussing racial disparities and how to address them.
“For years, I felt like I was fighting every day to stay at the table,” Robles says. “You don’t get the best of people when people work under those circumstances all the time, when you feel like you’re constantly in a defense mode or you constantly feel under attack.
“This is what I’m about and this is what I care about. I hope that my career continues to evolve in this way and I continue to have an opportunity to talk to people, make a difference, connect with people and both be able to motivate people to dream and to find opportunity.” •