Cora, empowered woman personified

‘Why me? I’m female,’ Corazon de la Paz-Bernardo asked when offered the top job at PwC Philippines. ‘Who else?’ was her husband's swift reply. | Photograph courtesy of D&L Industries

An often-heard and timeless formula for success is as simple as it can get which is to work hard and be kind to others.

In the business world, however, being a female makes the path to the top harder as it was even considered in the past as an anomaly in a male-dominated culture. 

Corazon “Cora” S. de la Paz-Bernardo, a certified public accountant and independent director at D&L Industries Inc., proved this wrong multiple times and in breaking the convention, she became the icon of woman power.

She initially took on an executive role in 1981 as the first lady senior partner worldwide of audit and tax advisory firm Price Waterhouse, later known as PricewaterhouseCoopers or PwC.

She then became the head of the Social Security System of the Philippines from 2001 to 2008. She is also the first woman president of the Management Association of the Philippines and the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines.

On the global stage, De La Paz-Bernardo also became the first non-European president of the Geneva-based International Social Security Association from 2004 to 2010.

Last December, she was named the first female honorary member of the Institute of Corporate Directors. Its other distinguished members include Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia Jr., Dr. Cesar G. Saldaña, former Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Amando M. Tetangco Jr., Antonino T. Aquino, Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala and Dr. Justo A. Ortiz.

From balut vending

to global finance

As a child with three sisters and one brother, De La Paz-Bernardo shared that she started developing her management and business skills by helping their mother sell balut.

“The girls are expected to assume the responsibilities of helping their mothers do the household chores and run the family business,” Bernardo told DAILY TRIBUNE in her talk during a meeting of the Rotary Club of Makati.

“The boys are allowed more leeway in doing their things like socializing and playing outside the home with other boys. As a result, the girls usually mature earlier and faster,” she added.

She also led a disciplined life academically as a student at the University of the East, which resulted in her topping the 1960 examination for certified public accountants or CPA, and later on earning a Fullbright scholarship.

The corporate world was revealed as part of the program which she said built her resolve to be equipped with superior mental toughness, particularly as she was one of two women apprentice at the renowned PricewaterhouseCoopers or PwC in New York.

She worked there for two years, crunching numbers in an office dominated by men. Being the only woman trainee in the multinational firm meant De la Paz-Bernardo had to tag along with his mostly male officemates in drinking sessions after work.

“I survived the training program as the only woman and foreigner in our class. The other lady resigned one week into our one-month training program,” she shared.

Before returning to the Philippines as required by her Fullbright scholarship, De La Paz-Bernardo traveled alone across Western Europe and Southeast Asia which she said made her more resilient.

“Sometimes I would be sleeping in train stations or pension houses. It was an experience that made me more confident about my ability to face new situations and different cultures,” she recalled.

Already married, she went back to the United States, specifically to Houston, with her tax lawyer husband whom she met as a client. There, she designed education materials for PwC’s training program, while her husband helped run the oil company Exxon.

She wanted to stay in the US as an immigrant and earn more money. But love got in the way.

“My husband was intent on staying in the Philippines and serving the country rather than working elsewhere,” Bernardo said as she recalled her second return to the Philippines.

Why me?

Despite these exceptional achievements, she initially entertained doubts when her male boss at PwC Philippines offered her to become chairman.

“Why me? I’m female,” she told her boss. “In the first place, I never planned to be the lead partner of our firm. I wanted to have children and be a devoted, nurturing mother. Also, I did not relish worrying about where the firm’s payroll will come from,” she continued.

As a traditional wife, she thought of asking permission from her husband who, she said, simply replied to her question, “Who else?”

She took this as an affirmation that she was the most qualified person for the job and that she should not falter in believing in herself.

“I said yes. Better for me to tell them what to do than for them to decide things for me. My life changed that minute,” she said.

Cora and gentlemen

After she accepted the position as chairman of PwC Philippines, De la Paz-Bernardo thought about how her predecessor would break the news to the team due to prejudice or sexist tendencies of some male and older colleagues.

However, she said this was not the case and her colleagues even found their meetings amusing which would always start with the remark, “Cora and gentlemen.”

“When all was said and done, there was enough goodwill in the partnership to think of the common good rather than hurt egos. I served as chairperson for 20 years in the firm, which is the oldest in the country. Profit grew more than threefold and it admitted more partners male and female,” she said.

When praised by Rotary Club members for her professional accomplishments, she replied, “You should see me in action at home. I’m not as sweet as you see now.” She added, “I was just born earlier.”

As a widow, she also shared that she had another partner who passed away. She said both inspired her to fulfill her endeavors and made her work easier.

In jest, De la Paz-Bernardo said she has been dubbed by friends as the “husband killer.”

Definition of success

While De la Paz-Bernardo is grateful for her key corporate positions, she said success can also be felt even in simple but meaningful ways — like sharing time with others to comfort them during times of trouble. She said she was reminded of this by his only brother who was an activist and who recently died from diabetes.

“Success does not always mean fame and fortune. As long as we try our best with the gifts we’ve been given. He had many friends at the funeral that he had helped, not financially but by his moral and emotional support for them and their families in times of need,” she said.

Recalling her visit to her brother in his final moments with the family, De La Paz-Bernardo said “he was happy.”

De la Paz-Bernardo recited the poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson on how to live well, both in work and personal aspects.

The poem reads: “To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better.”

Aside from D&L Industries, De la Paz-Bernardo is currently an independent director of several Philippine companies including Del Monte Philippines Inc., University of the East, UE Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Medical Center, Republic Glass Holdings Corporation, Roxas & Company Inc. and Phinma Education Holdings Inc.

She is also a trustee of several organizations including MFI Polytechnic Institute Inc., Jaime V. Ongpin Foundation Inc., Jaime V. Ongpin Microfinance Foundation, and Philippine Business for Education.

 She currently serves as an adviser to the board and audit committee of BDO Unibank Inc., and an adviser to the audit committee of PLDT Inc.