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Thought Leaders: Yvette Vargas, Managing Director, Head of Talent Development & Diversity, UBS Wealth Management

By Melissa J. Anderson

“My role at UBS is to put in a talent management framework that is totally integrated with – subsumed in – our diversity agenda. I’ve been working to reframe how people think about managing talent, to make sure the right people are in the right jobs at the right time in the context of the business they’re in,” explained Yvette Vargas, Managing Director and Head of Talent Development and Diversity at UBS Wealth Management.

“When I look at financial services, diversity has really been focused on evolving from affirmative action and creating awareness around sensitivity to now understanding the importance of diversity from a values perspective,” she explained. “The challenges is getting people to think about this from a business perspective.”

She added, “If we do this right – set the philosophy, processes, tools – managers can become the best talent managers they can be.”

A Career Based on Learning

Vargas is a first generation Cuban American – her parents immigrated to the US in 1960. One of four girls, she said, her parents truly believed in the importance of education. “Education was really important to them, that when they came here, all of their daughters would have a good education.” Vargas and her sisters attended a private Catholic school, and all four went on to college.

“They really embraced that immigrant mentality, to give a better life to their family,” she explained. “We were taught that we were all part of a bigger group, to help each other out, and help each other get to the next level.”

She said her family’s focus on learning encouraged her own inquisitive nature. As an undergraduate at St. John’s College, she intended to enter religious life, but soon realized that a more scientific field was the right path for her. “Catholicism requires you to go on faith and believe – but I had the nature to ask a lot of questions,” she said.

After graduating with a degree in psychology, Vargas met her husband and had a son. Still unsure what she wanted to do, she took a job at Gimbel’s department store while she tried to sort out her career. “This was way before the Internet,” she said with a laugh. “I went to the 34th Street Library and found the Occupational Handbook of Careers and Jobs, and I found this thing called Human Resources and Organizational Psychology. It was all about understanding the behaviors of people and how to get adults to be the best that they can.”

Without knowing much more about the field, she applied to grad school and shortly thereafter enrolled at Stevens Institute of Technology. “It was basically an engineering school,” she pointed out. “But I always try to do things contrary to my comfort zone. It taught me how to think and connect the big picture into process and tactics.”

After school, Vargas became a recruiter at Integrated Resources, a brokerage firm, and then joined the HR department. “I was amazingly fortunate to work with really great managers. I was always in a position to learn. I had the space to make mistakes and decisions.”

Five years later, she moved to Marsh & McLennan as a recruiter and generalist for operations and technology. “When I interviewed a woman from American Express for a different position, she described her role at Amex – and it was better than the one I was interviewing her for, so I told her that,” she recalled.

“She was shocked, and asked if I’d be interested in working for Amex. After 13 interviews over three months, I became head of management development for the Operations Center.”

She continued, “My five years at Amex were my biggest growth spurt. I was surrounded by a brilliant team and there was a lot of energy. They really valued creativity.”

When Vargas’ son got sick, she left the organization to care for him. “There was too much travel and they couldn’t move me fast enough,” she explained. She then joined JP Morgan – where she stayed for 11 years – working in leadership and talent organizations within the businesses and at the corporate level. “I was able to bring forth creative change in the organization and the culture,” she said.

“I felt the work that I did informed how people thought and informed the organization,” she continued. “People pushed you to be better and you didn’t get away with just talking about things on the surface. You had to defend your point of view and make sure your voice was heard. It gave me the platform to say what I thought, and put it into action – to really influence.”

After four mergers, Vargas left the organization. “My son was going into high school, and I thought I would take some time off and stay home with him until he went to college. But then I got a call from Bank of America – they were hiring in the global markets, which was the only area I hadn’t worked in at JP Morgan.”

She was there for two years. “It was a tougher environment,” she said. “It really forced me to step into the shoes of a business person.”

In the end, she said, the culture wasn’t the right fit for her, so she went back to her original plan to spend time with his son, touring colleges.

“Then a consulting organization I had worked with at JP Morgan contacted me and said the Fed was looking to put a succession plan in place – and they said I could make my own hours.”

Vargas went to work for the Fed. “I learned a lot – it was during the time of the ‘too big to fail’ discussions. It was an exciting time, and I learned about banking from a different perspective.”

When her son went off to college, Vargas started a new position at UBS, and has been there for three years as Head of Talent and Diversity.

Strategic Diversity

“I never wanted to do a job as a single function – I personally felt frustrated by the focus on programs – as opposed to reframing the mentality of decision makers,” she explained. “’Fixing’ women or people of color is not something we are doing.”

“The work we’re doing is presenting a real line of sight that market value in the world is becoming more diverse. For example, there’s a shift in wealth to women – not just white women, but Black, Latin, Asian, and other minority groups, like lesbians.”

She continued, “We’re seeing opportunities in specific areas – some are women, but there are other areas as well – like gay Black men or Asian Americans. We’re putting a strategy in place to reframe how people think about opportunity. And we’re not just hiring for diversity, but aligning ourselves for opportunity – it’s market-driven recruiting.”

Having members of diverse demographics on a team can go a long way in tapping into these opportunities, she explained. “I’m not saying that demographics need to sell to the same demographics. But if you don’t have a critical mass of those individuals on those teams, you’re going to lose that insight and ability to sell to those demographics.”

And a pilot program UBS undertook last year helped change attitudes about the value of diversity as well. “It was a big ah-hah moment – it showed that they weren’t always as connected as they thought,” she said.

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