In that encounter, she was not just the only female and Asian, but also a greenhorn all of 24. The Oxford-educated banker, who got her career start in the dealing room at Barings Security in London in 1990, volunteered to be dispatched to Kuwait right after the war. She recalls walking into a roomful of men looking “shocked, possibly with a bit of disbelief” that she was of the wrong gender.
“Halfway through, it became clear we were wasting each other’s time, so I stood up and said, ‘Thank you gentlemen, I don’t think this is constructive. It’s OK, I will leave’,” she says.
They were so surprised by her guts that they called her back and grilled her on the technicalities of finance. She nailed it. “The men who gave me the hardest time then proceeded to call everyone else on my schedule to let them know I knew my stuff and they had no need to question me,” says Tan.
Her in-depth knowledge, straight-talking ways, and clear and concise diction – a hard-earned skill she mastered by listening to recordings of herself on the phone – have consistently helped her rise above the challenges of this notoriously cutthroat industry, where she has held positions at Citigroup and Morgan Stanley.
Tan moved to DBS Bank in 2010 and, last year, led its acquisition of the Asian private banking business of French bank Societe Generale, increasing its high-net-worth assets under management and assets under management for all wealth customers to $88 billion and $129 billion respectively.
The feather in her cap was being named the world’s Best Leader in Private Banking at the prestigious PWM/The Banker Global Private Banking Awards in Geneva, a first for a Singaporean, which she says is an indication that “Asian financial leaders are game changers today”.
But her largest satisfaction does not stem from winning awards. It’s in cultivating young talent, both within DBS by mentoring young bankers, as well as via the Financial Women’s Association, which she founded. “There was a female banker that I really pushed to lead. She just made managing director,” she says with pride.
The ex-Nominated Member of Parliament also sits on the board of Singapore’s KK Hospital Health Endowment Fund, which provides financial support to needy patients, and is an adviser to Raffles Girls Primary School and the SJI International School. She is just as eager to share her big heart with her two children, Talisha, 16, and Kai, 15.
She is travelling to Cambodia with them so they can see for themselves the work her husband, social entrepreneur Christopher Wilson, has done in the villages via a not-for-profit organisation.
It is perhaps also a good way to carve out quality time with the young ones. With a laugh, she says: “Now that they are older, I have to schedule time with them as they have their own activities too. I try to have dinner with them two to three times a week. Weekends are sacrosanct.”
Besides her family and friends, who keep her “grounded”, Tan finds escape from the stresses of work through yoga, swimming and running. There is a fun side to her too. She finds much amusement in discovering new smartphone apps, such as My Idol, where her avatar does karate chops in the animation.
The sassy avatar may have been created in a moment of lightheartedness, but it certainly reveals her grit and determination, combined with a willingness to get the most out of life’s experiences.
Her parting words: “I would tell ambitious young women to go for it. Know what you want but know that the endpoint is not the goal. The journey and evolution is what you should enjoy. Along the way, collect memories and friendships. Gather and groom talent. There is a lot of satisfaction in that.”