She successfully conquered the competitive and often-stressful world of corporate America… but failed in what is perceived to be a most fun and relaxing period…retirement. That’s how influential Filipina Cora Tellez, explains her professional life.
“I had completed a great run of corporate life,” said Tellez who has had 25 years of management experience in healthcare finance and delivery, having worked for Health Net, Inc., Blue Shield of California, Kaiser Permanente. “When I retired, my husband said ‘You’re going to drive all of us crazy, because of all this energy.’ He was right. I experienced retirement for two hot months. I flunked retirement,” said Tellez, President and CEO of Sterling HSA, a company she founded in 2004.
But whether working for others and now working for herself, Tellez admits she has always been focused on her career, which made her a very busy wife and mother to her two sons.
“My family is very important to me. I’m a lola now, to two grandchildren, two sons and a husband I’ve been married to for 38 years,” she said. “But I remember when I was working for Kaiser. I commuted to and from Hawaii for five years. I would leave my family on Monday and come back on Friday. My sons dealt with a corporate mom who wasn’t always there. This was before cellphones. They would fax over their homework so I could help them.”
Tellez considers this to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest sacrifice she’s ever had to make, being away from family. But she’s always very thankful that she had help along the way.
“The secret is to have a great nanny,” she shared with me during a meal after the interview. “I was lucky to find a nanny who was older. She was motherly to my children.” Tellez also points out that she specifically looked for an older sitter because younger ones could leave at any point “if they find a husband; or if they get a better offer or opportunity; even after you’ve trained them.”
Aside from the nanny, when asked about people she thanks for her success in life, Tellez credits her mother: “My mom is a devout Catholic Filipina woman and she had her dream for me which was to be a nun. She even had a convent picked out for me. But it turned out that I’m not a terribly obedient person. I don’t handle authority very well.”
Tellez came to America when she was 11. And though she did well in school, she says she also observed others who did better, “I realized I could learn from them because they had certain traits that made them successful. I realized I was rather timid and afraid. I started debating and public speaking helped me develop confidence. Debating also helps you to be able to communicate clearly; to disagree without being abrasive; think on your feet and have and defend your own opinion.”
She said that helped her navigate the corporate jungle; adding that as soon as she entered the corporate world, she realized that “America doesn’t particularly value timidity and humility. America values assertiveness. And that’s what we should be, Because we’re good and there’s nothing to be afraid of or ashamed about.”
Tellez also thanks her father for her success, “My father always said women need to achieve as much as men. In some cases Filipinas have to fight internally really hard to be able to create an image that is in consonance with our core values but will not minimize who we are.”
She recalls a particular conversation she had on a call with a company in Hawaii: “I was chatting with the CEO, nice fellow. And during the conversation, he said: ‘This is really interesting but I really need to speak to your boss.’ My boss was a white male, so I said; ‘Good for you. But my boss only comes once a year. So if you want to wait, feel free. But if you want to do business now, with me, I’m happy to do it with you. Right now.’”
Tellez admits she dealt with some prejudices like this, along the way. But she didn’t take it personally. “When you’re younger and vulnerable, it’s easy to take things personally, and think it’s always your fault. But at work, you’ve got to put on an academy award-winning performance all the time. The public face is never hurt. If you are hurt, cry in private. The public face shows ‘I am a strong person, I can take this.’”
And while she gives advice to others now and generously shares her learnings, Tellez also gratefully credits one who gave her what she considers a most valuable advice, a Filipina janitor whom she encountered in Hawaii: “She cleaned my office in Hawaii; and she worked hard. Like many of us, she had two jobs. She already put in a full day’s job in McDonald’s; at night, she came to clean our offices,” said Tellez who recalled what the kababayan told her when she got promoted one day: “She said to me, ‘You have to work very hard. You can’t let us down. There are very few who make it to the top. You have to be very careful that you are a role model for others and that you help other people.’”
According to Tellez those words made it possible for her to be grounded; “to be mindful of where I came from and it made me realize that I have an obligation. That’s why I always hold the door open to aspiring Filipino and Filipina women. That’s my way of giving back.”
As part of her giving back, Cora speaks nationwide, whether on topics of health care, or to share her inspiring story. I first heard her speak at the awarding of 100 Most Influential Filipina in the World last October 2013. This coming October 25th 2014, Tellez is going to be a panelist at the “Impactful Leadership Conference” organized by the International Society of Filipinos in Finance and Accounting (ISFFA.) For more information, log on to: www.isffa.org.
For now, here’s another advice for all kababayans: “Be proud of being a Filipina. Be true to yourself. Be clear and honest about what you’re sacrificing for. Have the guts to say no. Take care of yourself,” she said, adding that there’s something to be learned from the reminder travelers get before a plane take off, “Put on your mask first before helping others with theirs.”
Above all, “work hard,” Tellez said. “God helps those who help themselves. Luck comes to those who are prepared.”
Jannelle So is taking a break from 20-years of print and broadcast journalism career that began in the Philippines and continued here in the US. Connect to her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/JannelleSoOFFICIAL); Twitter(www.twitter.com/JannelleSo); and Instagram (www.instagram.com/JannelleSo) or email her at [email protected].