CORTLANDT, N.Y. -- Rebecca Polanco faced overwhelming odds to make it in the banking business. The fact that the Cortlandt Manor woman has done so, working for more than three decades as an Hispanic woman in an industry that had been primarily the domain of white businessmen, is a testament to her industriousness passion, skill and resolve.
“My parents gave me a good base,’’ said Polanco, who was named Vice President, Business Development Officer for Tompkins Mahopac Bank in early October. “You had to have a good work ethic and you had to work for what you wanted. There was no such thing as a handout.”
Rebecca’s parents, Raul and Maria, were first generation United States residents from Puerto Rico. Marie owned a hair salon near their home in Washington Heights in the northernmost section of Manhattan. “I worked there every Saturday, and absolutely hated it,’’ Rebecca remembered. “She dragged me there to wash the towels, fold them, wash women’s hair if it got really busy. Nothing in life for me was free. I had to work for everything I got.”
And work she did, starting out as a teller at a Harlem branch for Manufacturers Hanover. Polanco rose into leadership positions at The Bank of New York and Hudson Valley Bank before joining Tompkins Mahopac last year. Besides computer-induced changes in the banking industry, Polanco also had to fight for her place in a work environment that was dominated by men.
“Once I had to make a presentation to an all-male group,’’ Polanco said. “I had a mentor, and told her I was having some anxiety about it. She told me ‘Just say to yourself they have to put their pants on leg at a time, just like you do.’ That’s what we had to go through. During the entire presentation, I kept telling that to myself.”
Polanco faced other challenges as well. She has spent much of her career working in sales. Early on, it was far out of her comfort zone.
“I was very shy,’’ Polanco said. “My mother used to tell me in Spanish to hold my head up and say hello to the customers. I would feel very uncomfortable. I remember when I first started to go out to networking events, I would sit it my car. It was almost like I a theater person who had to get in character. Eventually I’d say, OK, it’s showtime. After a while you begin to feel comfortable.”
She remembers watching mentors attend network events with poise and confidence. Slowly, Polanco’s confidence began to emerge as well. “I would ask my mentor, how do you that. She said it would just come naturally,'' Polanco said. "I had another mentor who would walk into a bank and just light up the branch. She could sell a vacuum cleaner to someone who doesn’t own carpet. I used the experience from those mentors for me to grow.”
Polanco’s skills will be especially valuable in her new role, where she will be responsible for developing new business for Tompkins in Yonkers, Pleasantville, Mount Kisco, Putnam Valley, Ossining and Sleepy Hollow. “My role is to go out and let businesses know that Tompkins Mahopac Bank is a community bank, and we want to do business with you,’’ she said.
Polanco’s challenge is convincing businesses to switch from their larger, nationally-recognized banks to a smaller, local bank. “Transitioning to a new bank can be time consuming in terms of paperwork, online banking and transitioning payments. That transition is definitely the elephant in the room.”
Polanco counters that argument with service that is second to none. “People can always call me,’’ she said. “I have two cell phones. Even if I’m on vacation, I’ll take the call. They should be inconvenienced. I’ll even bring in Jerry Klein, the President of the bank, if I have to. That’s not something you’ll find from a national bank.”
Polanco has seen a seismic shift in banking operations since she started her career. All transactions were handled at offices, where bank executives could wait for clients to come to the branch. “You didn’t go out to bring in business,’’ she said. “They came to you.” Now, Polanco finds she’s the one setting up the meetings and contacting businesses. “It was more operational and service-oriented then,’’ she said. “Now we’re very much into sales.”
Polanco is also dedicated to her community, where she sits on the advisory board for Latino U., a White Plains non-profit agency that helps first generation Hispanic students navigate the college process. She is also belongs to Rotary in Briarcliff Manor and contributes to a Latino banking initiative. “It’s my way of giving back,’’ said Polanco, who has lived in Cortlandt Manor for more than 30 years with her husband, Francisco. “I feel very passionate about that.”
If Polanco lost zest for her work, it is not evident. Bright and energetic, she still enjoys the interaction with customers as much as she did when she was a young woman helping customers in Harlem.
“I’m a very outgoing person,’’ Polanco said. “I just like meeting people. I kind of feel like it’s investigative work. You have to ask a lot of questions and find out what they really want. It’s that interaction that exhilarates me. I told my husband when we retire, we should become bartenders. You get to interact with a lot of people. I could do that.”