• A black and white headshot of Birtan Aka is show in front of a red background and next to a quote: I was willing, and I was an eager learner, and I was successful when I went overseas.
Trailblazers

‘A pioneer’ in international banking: Birtan Aka

2020-05-13T10:43:48-07:00
Posted on February 27, 2020

In the late 1960s, Birtan Aka became the first female banking officer to represent a U.S. bank overseas, working in Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

In 1969, The Philadelphia National Bank — now part of Wells Fargo — sent one of its young bankers, 25-year-old Birtan Aka, to establish ties with banks in India and Pakistan. Aka had received training and requested an overseas assignment, but she credits the bank leaders for being open-minded because it was the first time a U.S. bank had assigned a female banking officer as its representative abroad. As the international representative of The Philadelphia National Bank, or PNB, for Southeast Asia, Aka worked with local bankers to facilitate international banking services such as letters of credit and transfer of funds.

Black and white picture of a woman sitting on concrete platform next to staircase with city in the background.

Birtan Aka, 1970. Photo Credit: Birtan Aka Collier.

I came to Philadelphia because I knew some people after I graduated from Vassar in ‘66. I had some friends here. So I came to Philadelphia. There weren’t many exciting jobs offered. There were some jobs offered that required some secretarial skills, which I didn’t have. I decided to go beyond that, and I decided to ask whether I could use any of my international background in the job. That’s why I started looking at the banking industry because I heard that Philadelphia National Bank was one of the banks in the city that had an active international division. And when I first went in and I described that I was really interested to work as an international banker, the first person who interviewed me said, “Oh, you’re looking for a man’s job.” So I started working in the international division. There were several other trainees. They were being put through the credit department training. And the other training program that some of the men were going through was international division operations. In both cases, I asked to be put through these training programs. And the people in charge, they sort of couldn’t come up with any reason why I could not be put through these training programs. All the men were going through. Then I went through these two training programs. And then I looked and I said, “Well, some of the men who went through these two programs were being sent overseas.” So I said, “I would like to be sent overseas.” And again, they were very open-minded. They couldn’t really keep me back. They didn’t have a good reason to keep me back because I was fully trained, and I was willing to travel overseas by myself on behalf of the bank. And the only thing was, it was the very first time a major U.S. bank was sending a woman overseas in a credit and line capacity, an officer.

Aka’s busy schedule of meetings with more than 300 bankers throughout India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Pakistan gained a lot of media attention. The idea of a female international banker was still a rarity at the time, and on Nov. 16, 1969, The New York Times featured the Turkish-born banker with the headline “A Woman Banker Raises Eyebrows in India.”

In an oral history interview recorded in October 2018 for the Wells Fargo Corporate Archives, Aka recalled her supervisors’ willingness to assign a young woman to a new role and their reaction to her sudden celebrity: “After The New York Times article appeared in 1969, the vice chairman of the bank called me and said how proud he was of me. … I felt accepted. And these people helped me because they were in a position of power. So they could have stopped me, but they didn’t. They didn’t see any reason why I should be stopped since I was capable. I was willing, and I was an eager learner, and I was successful when I went overseas.”

Aka’s territory soon expanded into Africa and the Middle East. She established PNB’s representative office in Tehran, Iran, in 1975 and ran the bank’s business there for two years. After returning to Philadelphia, Aka started an international unit within PNB’s private banking department, handling accounts of large international corporations.

Black and white picture of a woman in a sari.

The Indian bankers and their families gifted Birtan with saris to wear for her trip, 1970. Photo Credit: Birtan Aka Collier.

So I was sent to India, Pakistan, and Ceylon, which subsequently became Sri Lanka. That was my territory. And it made incredible news in those countries because it was the first time ever this was happening. And it got back to the U.S. banks, which had international divisions, and it made it into The New York Times. It was kind of a revolution in the banking industry. It was the first time ever it was happening, and I didn’t mind being a pioneer. I was definitely being a pioneer, but I was delighted. Like within maybe two years, another Philadelphia bank sent a female officer overseas, and several New York banks. I think they looked, and they said, “Well, Birtan Aka is doing this, and she’s fine. You know, nothing is happening to her, and she’s doing a successful job. You know, why don’t we also send our female officers overseas?” And while I was on my first trip to India, Pakistan, and Ceylon, the bank, PNB, made me an officer. I became the international banking officer, which is the first rank of officer. And because I was successful, then my territory was expanded to include Southeast Asia, which was Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. So I then began traveling to those countries as well. It was a huge help to be the only woman when I traveled to Southeast Asia. I was the first, and then I was the only woman for like a couple years, and it really opened doors because people were so curious to meet me. And I got appointments that nobody else could get. I got business because people were really, I think, very interested to help me be successful.

In 1984, Aka left banking to take a position as deputy director of commerce for international trade and investments in Philadelphia’s city government. She also got married and — as Birtan Aka Collier — became a well-known local radio producer and talk show host. “I didn’t mind being a pioneer,” she said, referring to her early trailblazing role in international banking. “American banks caught on very quickly. They began also sending female officers overseas. I wasn’t unique, and I wasn’t alone anymore, but I was still the first.”

Black and white portrait of a woman.

Birtan Aka posed for this picture in a 1969 article featuring the many women working at Philadelphia National Bank. Photo Credit: Birtan Aka Collier.

Favorite stories. I guess in Thailand. Actually, this happened in many, many places. Because I was the first one and a young woman — I was in my early 30s — nobody was expecting — I was really shocking people. I had long hair. I had ponytail. I was wearing miniskirts, which I should not have, but I was wearing miniskirts. So I sort of shocked people, and that sort of shook them up. People would take me right to their president, you know, and sort of put me on display. But that gave me an opportunity to make a pitch, and I got listened to. And the bank commented afterwards, some executives at the bank commented afterwards, that I got correspondent accounts nobody else could. People had been trying for a number of years, but they didn’t get a chance. But I got a chance to make a pitch. The advice I would give today is — both men and women, I mean, not just women but also men — is to have goals, to know what you want, to know your strengths, to know where your areas of improvement are. So if you need education, you need more training, you know, to go get it, and also to, you know, go for it, to ask for what you’re trying to achieve and not to hold yourself back. And also to work hard, of course, you know, not to shy from work, not to just do, pick and choose what you want to do. But whatever work is given to you, you know, do it. Whether you enjoy it or not, or whether you want it or not, to really do both the legwork, the dirty work, as well as the work you want to do. To be recognized as a good worker, as a professional worker, you really have to handle everything that comes your way.

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