It requires moxie and determination to move forward against seemingly overwhelming odds. Soma Sarkar shows how far self-confidence, an optimistic attitude and a refusal to fail will take you.
At just over 19 years old, Soma Sarkar, CCE, CUCE, left India and moved to the U.S. Sarkar’s fear was great; newly married to a husband who had already settled here, she was leaving everyone and everything she knew and loved behind.
“There were many emotional ups and downs—adjusting to a new family I was married into, becoming a new young mother, moving from one culture to another,” she recalls. “[But] I was open to learning and adapting to the new environment. I kept an open mind, and that helped me to adjust slowly but continuously to the culture and the lifestyle here.”
Having a supportive husband and a welcoming new family also helped, as did her can-do, optimistic attitude. This came in handy, since the obstacles Sarkar faced—never having held a job, being without transportation (other than her feet) and dealing with cultural differences, among others—would have wilted a less-determined spirit.
She not only vaulted over these hurdles, she wildly succeeded, traversing her way up the career ladder from her first job as a bank teller in 1983 to now serving as EVP/COO of Credit Union of New Jersey. Headquartered in Ewing, with five branches and a high school branch located in Mercer and Burlington counties, the credit union serves 36,663 members and has $436 million in assets and 90 full-time employees along with one part-timer.
Sarkar arrived at the organization about 28 years ago, starting out as branch manager and working her way up to director of branch operations, VP/operations, SVP/operations and chief operations officer to her current position, which she’s held since 2013. She has a bachelor’s degree in finance from Loreto Convent and Lucknow University in India, has participated in the Filene i3 program, obtained her Certified Chief Executive designation from CUES CEO Institute, has attended several CUNA schools and is a certified sales trainer.
Sarkar, a CUES member, was also presented with the Difference Maker Award from the New Jersey Credit Union League in 2014 and is currently on the NCR’s Advisory Solution Board and on Seton Hall University’s Customer Experience Advisory Council Board.
Advancing Women wanted to learn more about Sarkar’s remarkable journey and what gave her the confidence to undertake it.
What attracted you to the credit union industry?
“It offers a huge variety of opportunities and flexibility as well as the possibility of career progression, complemented with good pay and benefits. It’s also a challenging profession where you are consistently learning and evolving with the evolution that is taking place daily in the industry.”
How did you get your start?
“Banking seemed to be a nice place to begin my career, especially because I am a people person. A friend of mine had also suggested that I take on this new venture. I applied at a few places for a teller position but either did not get a call for an interview or I got a rejection letter. But I was not going to give up or get discouraged.
“Finally, I got an interview at a commercial bank. I went in with a very positive mindset and was not afraid to be as confident as I could be about myself. I followed my gut, and in my mind, I said ‘I am not going to fail,’ because all I needed was a chance to work in this country. Once the interview was done, I felt I had connected well. At the end, I very politely, but confidently, requested that the branch manager please give me a chance to show that I could do this job.
“I got the job as a part-time employee making minimum hourly wage, working 2:00-6:00 in the afternoon. I had a few challenges, but nothing was going to stop me. There is a solution to every challenge, and you cannot give up—this is what I kept reminding myself.
“I used to walk seven or eight blocks daily in the scorching sun (it was July), carrying a change of clothes with me since I would sweat. We had one car in the family. My husband worked a distance away, so he had no choice then but to take the car to work. That was the start of my career in the United States of America in 1983.”
What is your advice for women who struggle with self-confidence? How can they overcome the doubts that hold them back?
“Take on tasks that sound impossible to commit to; nothing is impossible in this world. Give yourself a chance to compete.
“To overcome self-doubt, you need to get rid of the fear of failure. Start with making small decisions. Be yourself—do not compare yourself to others. Steven Covey said, ‘Focus on developing character and not personality.’ Try to be around people who motivate you and lift you up.”
What has been your greatest challenge?
“When I came to this country, I had no work experience at all, and no one wanted to hire me due to my lack of experience. I was very young. … The only way to handle this was to be persistent, confident and to ask for a chance to prove myself.”
Have you found mentors along the way?
“Yes, one was my very first boss when I started my career in 1983 as a teller. She believed in me and gave me a chance to prove myself. My second mentor is my current boss, (CUES member) Andrew L. Jaeger, CCE, CEO (of Credit Union of New Jersey).
“Andy believes in me. He has invested monetary and non-monetary assets in my career development. Andy pushes to bring the best out in me. Andy never lets me give up. He gives me every opportunity to learn and grow professionally. He has given me many challenging opportunities to excel and move forward in the organization. I am here today because of him.”
What advice do you have for aspiring female leaders, especially when it comes to recovering from missteps? And what’s the best advice you’ve received?
“The best career advice I’ve received was to keep learning and learn from every generation. Do not gravitate to just to your generation. Keep an open mind.
“For aspiring female leaders, I would say embrace and foster accountability. Walk the talk. Give credit to the deserving people. Step out of your comfort zone and raise your emotional intelligence.
“If you are recovering from missteps, always keep in mind to learn from your mistakes; avoid running away from the sense of disappointment and unhappiness. Try to write down your mistakes, to find a solution to your mistakes and keep things in perspective.”
How can credit unions and industry organizations help develop future leaders?
“By empowering them to make decisions. Remember, you should not have to manage a manager. If you are managing a manager, then you do not have the right skillset in place. Keep the line of communication between you and the future leader open and give them feedback, both appreciative and constructive. Allow them to communicate their views; do not make them feel intimidated or undermined. Many future leaders are hesitant to speak and share, because their views are considered not so important. Provide mentoring and coaching, and measure how they are doing. Reward them accordingly.” cues icon
Pamela Mills-Senn is a writer based in Long Beach, California.
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