All her life, Karen Rampersad-Darbasie has been first: first of the three children of Reynold and Margaret Rampersad; first in class tests at school; top award winner at UWI Engineering and for Telecommunications Systems; first female Managing Director of Citibank (Trinidad and Tobago) Limited. Now, she is the first female Group CEO and she intends to keep the nation’s indigenous bank first.
I was born in Tunapuna, the eldest child of Reynold and Margaret Rampersad. Both parents were in the public service. My father Reynold rose to the position of Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance. My mother Margaret became Director of the Central Statistical Office. My father came from a family of cane farmers, so there was a strong work ethic in our family. All of us – my brother Dominic, sister Shelley, and myself – were motivated to always give our best.
While my parents’ wish was for me to pursue a career in medicine, I chose engineering instead and was first in my class at the University of the West Indies (UWI). Straight after university I joined the Trinidad and Tobago Telecommunications Company Limited (TELCO, now TSTT), and was inspired to pursue my Masters in Telecommunications and Information Systems at the University of Essex; and subsequently, an MBA from the University of Warwick.
In December 1993, I was recruited by Citibank (Trinidad and Tobago) Limited. This gave me the opportunity to combine my engineering experience and business training with banking, and coupled with my academic background, I saw this move as positioning me for my ultimate career pursuit in consulting. However, I quickly developed a love for banking as it perfectly blended my fondness for numbers and my people skills. I worked at Citibank for 21 years during which time I attained the position of Managing Director—the first local woman to do so.
In 1999, I had my first child Mikayla and two years after, my son Marc was born. The decision to have children was a conscious one, knowing that my career progression could potentially be sacrificed. Following in my mother’s footsteps, however, I raised my children while pursuing my career. I am very proud of both my daughter and son, and of the young adults they have become. They are genuinely good human beings. Now as they are 18 and 16 years old respectively, I am prepared to move ahead. The decision to come to First Citizens was only made after discussion with the family. We discuss all important decisions as a family.
I feel that I have come home to First Citizens. Here, I have the opportunity to continue to develop this great homegrown brand. The core values of this company are closely aligned to my personal values and are close to my heart. At First Citizens, we have 2000+ employees and their families. Now, my family is part of this First family.
However, nurturing T&T is not only about looking to the future; we also have a responsibility to preserve our history. I am therefore pleased that First Citizens has sponsored the re-publication of Danielle Delon’s A Handbook of Trinidad Cookery, 1907, as it is a historical document and a treasure from our nation’s past.
As an indigenous bank, we pride ourselves on contributing to our country’s development through these types of initiatives. Being an indigenous bank also gives us a unique value proposition. We work closely with our customers. We are a strong financial services group being positioned for growth and expansion in the region. We are currently in Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent, with a representative office in Costa Rica.
Given the importance of our role as an indigenous bank, particularly one that is expanding regionally, we must also consider the protection of our physical environment. We therefore have a green ethos and are very serious about our responsibility to the planet. We want to be more energy-efficient and paperless. We will lead in green consciousness. There’s a lot of synergy here with my personal vision for conserving the environment.
As I am so driven in my role as Group CEO, spearheading the initiatives mentioned above, I am not sure a balance of work and personal life can ever be perfectly achieved—this is a working goal that I constantly strive towards, sometimes with more success, other times with less. It’s a balancing act, to be taken seriously as a professional woman and not compromise the other parts of who I am. Nevertheless, I am fortunate in having a wonderful support system: my family, mother, siblings and children, as well as great friends who rally around me in tough times and celebrate with me in good times.
Even though the balancing act is not easy, it’s important because I am more than my job. For instance, my staff are just learning that I bake: everything from muffins, puffs, and éclairs to coconut sweetbread. My grandmother was a tremendous homemaker with excellent baking skills, and I would spend time with her after school from the age of three up to 14 years old. So I enjoy baking, and with the Christmas season upon us, I’ll be whipping out my grandmother’s recipe for Christmas cake. Actually, the fruits are already prepared and marinated for this year’s batch!
So while pursuing your ambitions, remember to take downtime for yourself, whether it’s baking or spending time in the garden like I do. Most importantly, however, remember that being first requires courage. It calls for confidence and steadfastness in your endeavours. Never give up—you can be first!