Women in Treasury

Women in Treasury: Philomel Pena, University of California

Published: Mar 2024
Philomel Pena, Director, UC Treasury, University of California

This much I know

Philomel Pena, Director, UC Treasury at the University of California, explains what motivates her, and why creating a comfortable environment focused on good communication is the best way to accomplish treasury’s varied and multiple daily tasks.

Philomel Pena

Director, UC Treasury

Philomel Pena has been Director, UC Treasury at the University of California, her former alma mater, for the last eight years. She holds a Master’s in Business Administration, Management, from San Diego State University, earned whilst working full time, and a Bachelor of Arts, Economics from the University of California. Her many professional affiliations include Women in Treasury initiatives, alongside a long list of community service. She loves the outdoors and playing the piano!

Describe a typical day

The thing about treasury is that there is never a typical day, but this is what makes it such fun. I always start the day with a checklist of what I want to accomplish, but then things come at you from different angles. At the end of the day, my biggest job is to ensure the safe and secure movement of our cash and that it goes where it needs to go. It’s my job to make sure our cash machine is well-oiled and as efficient and productive as possible.

How did you land your role?

I have been in treasury for over 25 years. I finished my MBA in San Diego and landed a job as an analyst. I got the chance to try all kinds of different elements of treasury from FX to receivables and it immediately sparked my enjoyment and interest. Since then, I’ve done different treasury jobs, particularly in the tech sector but wearing a bunch of different hats. I’ve now come full circle. I studied at the University of California and working here now is like coming home. I love the fact I’m giving back to a system that served me so well.

What gets you up in the morning?

Personally, I like my job to have a purpose, when you are fulfilled, the feeling is second to none.

What advice do you have for others?

I would advise others to be curious and stay curious. When you are offered an opportunity for something new, take it as long as it fits your values because you never know where it might lead you. Secondly, seek out the people who can support you because a positive environment is a breeding ground for career progression. Third, remember that failure creates resilience, strength and perseverance. We all have doubts: embrace it and keep moving forward.

Describe your style of leadership

I think my style is transformational; I really do try to focus on innovation and the future. Change is hard on a lot of folks, and I endeavour to try and make sure I’m creating a comfortable environment supported by good communication so that people understand the need to evolve and how it can support an organisation. I guess my leadership style also focuses on people. People are our greatest asset. My theme song as a working person is Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,’ it gets me in a positive frame of mind, especially if I sing it driving to work!

I like to compare treasury people to engineers. Engineers are innovative, creative, solution driven and treasury is the same.

Keep the faith

It’s difficult to believe, but Philomel insists she has doubted herself throughout her career and can still find herself questioning her ability, a perspective that she links to being raised in a culture where women were taught to just say “yes”, not “ruffle feathers” and “keep it simple.”

She also attributes her upbringing to her reluctance, more prevalent early in her career, to put herself in uncomfortable positions and take on stretch assignments. It’s a tendency to doubt that she still catches herself doing today. “Today I still find myself thinking, did I fund that account? Did I put that item in the contract? Did I hedge that exposure?” she says, only half joking.

She also links her earlier hesitancy to venture forth and take risks to another cultural hangover that is particularly common amongst women: constant striving for perfection. It took her a long time to understand the value of growth found in imperfection, and today she strives to create a supportive and friendly environment where imperfection and failure, and strategies and new approaches that don’t quite work out, are also a force for good. “Of course, it’s important not to repeat mistakes and do our jobs well, but we also need to foster an environment where we can learn and are comfortable sharing what’s gone wrong rather than hiding mistakes under the rug.”

Sources of inspiration

Philomel reflects that she is constantly inspired by her colleagues. Not just her immediate seven-person treasury team, but the wider network of finance folks, people on campuses and those she interacts with every day. Much of that camaraderie derives from a shared mission. “It makes me feel positive; this purpose to support this organisation,” she says. She is also inspired by the University of California’s record on DEI, something it has been doing for decades. “It is not a new concept at the university,” she says. It’s a facet of the organisation and a sign of its culture and values that she notices draws younger people to join. “Individual work supports our mission through inclusion and belonging and values aligned.”

Philomel is a mother of four children, including twins and all born within four years. She says she never shared much detail about her working life with her kids when they were young. “I just said I move money around,” she recalls, laughing. Today it’s a source of quiet inspiration that one of her sons, studying business, is actively interested in what she does. “He likes to sit down and talk about treasury,” she says. “It warms my heart!”

My theme song as a working person is Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow.’

It leads her to reflect how treasury as a profession is often overlooked and its interest and reach a source of surprise to the uninitiated. Something she attributes to few people realising it is such a multi-faceted career. “It requires building technology with analytical and soft skills,” she lists. “Treasury is unpredictable, and anything can pop up in any given day.”

She also attributes treasury’s allure to its solution-driven focus, a facet of the job she notices is particularly sought out by the next generation. “Treasury is the backbone of a finance organisation, and it doesn’t matter in what industry. I like to compare treasury people to engineers. Engineers are innovative, creative, solution driven and treasury is the same. There are no limits to learning, so you have to be a life learner.”

She concludes by reflecting on her hope that she’s given her daughter a yearning to carve out a dynamic career and taught her sons to respect and support women determined to develop their career. She also adds: “We must always look at what we’ve accomplished in any given day. And not what we haven’t!”

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