Asoka Dissanayake of BBVA Open Platform: “Finance roles require analytical training and an analytical mindset”

Enable (through information sharing and targeted program offerings) and encourage women to take on more (or equal) financial responsibilities for households. We need to move away from the societal habit of men being solely responsible for the financial decisions, even when there is an educated and working woman involved. As a part of my series […]

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Enable (through information sharing and targeted program offerings) and encourage women to take on more (or equal) financial responsibilities for households. We need to move away from the societal habit of men being solely responsible for the financial decisions, even when there is an educated and working woman involved.

As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Asoka Dissanayake.

Asoka Dissanayake is the SVP, Head of Strategic Partnerships and Business Development at BBVA Open Platform. She brings over fifteen years of experience in partnerships, strategy and product functions across payments and tech at global organizations. Most recently, she led strategic partnerships and M&A initiative for eBay Payments Strategy. Prior to eBay, Asoka was an early member of the American Express B2B Digital Payments Group where she was responsible for the partnership strategy, pipeline development and end-to-end execution of the deals from sourcing. She also led mCommerce initiatives at Verizon New Business Ventures and various Financial Services engagements at Deloitte Strategy Consulting. Asoka started her career as a hardware design engineer at Texas Instruments. She has an Electrical Engineering degree from Purdue University and MBA from The Wharton School.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the finance field?

Like most of my generation, I’ve not had a linear career path. Some choices were intentional while others were circumstantial.

I was introduced to the financial services industry about ten years ago. I was a post MBA intern at a mid-market private equity firm. They were not able to process my immigration work permit, so I ended up in strategy consulting.

As a strategy consultant, I was introduced to different sectors of the financial services industry. It was an exciting time to be looking at the financial services with a strategy lense — in 2010, we were just dusting off the remnants from the 2008 financial crisis. The ecosystem was in flux. Fintechs were pushing the frontier with new solutions to old problems while the incumbents were looking for new business models. Stripe, Square and Kabbage were just getting started. To me, this flurry of exciting activities meant that I would have an opportunity to work on interesting problems. So I continued to build sector knowledge and ended up staying in financial services post strategy consulting.

Can you share with our readers an interesting or amusing story that has happened in your career? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

It’s a story from my engineering days in the semiconductor industry, another male dominated industry.

I was responsible for the technical aspects of our engagements with one of the global leaders of consumer electronics based in Korea. I visited them in Korea in 2004 or 2005 with Carl, a male colleague of mine. After a full day of meetings, Mr. Choi, our host and a few others from the client organization were going to take us to dinner.

All of us wanted to take a rest break before we headed out. I followed Carl in the general direction but for the life of me I couldn’t find the female restroom. After a few circles around the floor I came back to the lobby where everybody was waiting for me. Puzzled, I asked where the ladies restroom was. Mr. Choi suddenly broke into an apology. Apparently they hadn’t built a dedicated female restroom as they didn’t have that many females on their staff and they wanted to optimize space. Once we sorted that out, we were going to take the elevators. All of the group, all men, waited in front of the elevator until I got on. Of course, I appreciated the “gentleman behavior”, which I had hardly experienced in the U.S.

This experience made me think about the complex aspects of gender equality. Is it good or bad that our hosts forgot I needed a female restroom? Would this kind of occurrence be the norm if/when we achieve gender equality (literally speaking) where men and women at work almost don’t see gender? Should we strive for gender agnostic fairness instead? Should my hosts have been admired for their chivalry? Can chivalry exist (or should it be expected to exist) in a world where we want gender equality?

The take away was that every situation is unique and needs to be considered as such to ensure that everyone involved can operate as their best selves. There are no blanket solutions to complex problems.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help your customers?

At BBVA Open Platform, BBVA’s Banking-as-a-Service (BaaS) offering for the U.S., we enable companies to embed white labeled banking and payment services within their web/mobile portals. This enables companies to offer their customers better experiences built on seamless banking and payments functionality, all under one brand.

As the Head of Strategic Partnerships and Business Development, my role is to engage and ideate with partners across industries on how we can solve their customers’ financial services needs. It’s an exciting role, since BaaS is a new concept in itself, and for most of our partners this is the first time they are exploring opportunities to include banking services within their offerings. Naturally, most of the folks I get to engage with are innovators and futurists. It’s exciting to hear about innovative ideas from both fintechs and incumbents and to explore solutions so that we can help their customers together.

Currently, I’m engaged with a telco partner who wants to help the parts of the population that have a limited credit history get access to banking products. I have another partner in the investment and retirement advisory space who wants to help retirees lead healthier financial lives. If you look at BBVA Open Platform’s current portfolio of clients, you can see a wide spectrum of ways in which we are helping both consumers and businesses achieve their financial goals, from offering small and medium-sized businesses digital bank accounts to enabling consumers to save and pay down debt.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

BBVA Open Platform stands out in a couple of ways: 1. Our technology leadership, because we are the first major bank to introduce a BaaS offering in the U.S. In addition to that we also get a lot of kudos for our technology capabilities. Most fintechs are quite surprised by our tech stack, built using the most current technologies. 2. As a bank with origins in Europe, a leadership position in Latin America and a primary physical presence in the Sunbelt of the U.S., BBVA has a uniquely diverse workforce. Women are also well represented within the Open Platform leadership team, as well as across the organization. For example, our Head of Product is also a woman. We take many meetings together with our potential partners. Most times we are the only female representatives at these meetings. I’m sure we, as an all female team, surprise the partners, who are used to dealing with all male teams from banks.

Finance used to be an “all white boys club.” This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?

I believe there are several reasons: 1. Finance roles require analytical training and an analytical mindset. I believe the recent increase we’ve seen in girls studying STEM subjects has helped get more women into finance roles. 2. Employers have become increasingly aware and appreciative of the benefits of having a diverse workforce. More focused recruiting efforts have also helped get more women into the industry 3. Flexible working arrangements offered by many employers in the industry have also helped women who might not have otherwise considered a career in finance.

Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?

Attaining leadership positions requires the right skillset (both functional and leadership), strong sponsorship and a broad support system at home. Satisfying all those aspects is an endeavor that involves all three — individuals, organizations and the society in which we live.

Identifying and developing the right skills is something we will have to take ownership of. It is important that early nurturing and education systems are set up in a way to facilitate gender neutral development in young women. Companies should enable skill development across their organizations without direct and indirect gender biases.

Sponsorship is another key element where women working in male-dominated industries can be disadvantaged, because senior leaders like to see themselves in those they sponsor. It may be also harder for women to find common ground with senior leaders, over a love of golf or a love of scotch, for example.

Several changes are critical to create the necessary support systems at home. More companies should provide flexible working arrangements, extended maternity leave and paternity leave, among other initiatives. . As a society we need to do more work to accept non-traditional household arrangements.

When the leadership bench is dominated by men, women face explicit and implicit disadvantages. As senior women continue to pay it forward, it will make it just a little bit easier for those who are following. Also, progressive companies are consciously creating and promoting opportunities to help women forge critical connections with their male leaders. More of those activities would also help women achieve leadership positions in the future.

According to a report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?

  • Start financial education at a young age to develop financial intuitiveness.
  • Enable (through information sharing and targeted program offerings) and encourage women to take on more (or equal) financial responsibilities for households. We need to move away from the societal habit of men being solely responsible for the financial decisions, even when there is an educated and working woman involved.
  • Enable Americans to learn and use the tools necessary to demystify some of the financial concepts so that they are able to live healthy financial lives.

You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, or for smart investing, what would you say?

  • A dollar invested at 20 is worth much more than a dollar invested at 40.
  • Those who have money are never shy to save.
  • Think about how many hours / days you would have to work to fund a “nice to have” purchase. Suddenly you might feel that purchase can wait.
  • The entry price of any asset is key to making it a good investment.
  • Real estate is the hedge against inflation: the earlier you get on the ladder, the higher you can climb.

Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My dad — he cultivated a strong work ethic, taught me the value of perseverance and fed my curiosity. I learned about the stock market when I was 8–9 years old and learned at an early age that “money can be grown”.

Growing up in Sri Lanka in the middle of a very busy Asian city, I didn’t have too many things I was interested in doing outside of home, so I read a lot. Reading the daily newspaper became a habit. Those days, they published the opening and closing stock prices in the newspaper. It was a small market with a few listings but there were a couple of names of tea plantations I recognized, also noticing that prices were moving on a daily basis. When I asked him, my dad explained how the markets worked. Those lessons carried with me for years. My first big ticket item after I started work (before I bought a car or a dining table) was 100 shares of Microsoft. That was in 2003.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can only move forward”. When you feel you’ve done your best and things don’t turn out the way you wanted due to factors outside of your control, it’s especially easy to get discouraged. When I’ve faced setbacks of all kinds, this is a quote that’s helped me keep going. For example, I’ve had to make multiple career moves due to my immigration status at the time. This quote kept me going. 🙂

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be?

Educating girls from underprivileged backgrounds. By doing so you are lifting communities for generations to come.

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