Perseverance, Empathy And A Sense of (Dry) Humor: Asoka Dissanayake Shares Valuable Career Lessons

The Crunchbase “Female Founder Series,” is a series of stories, Q&As, and thought-leadership pieces from glass-ceiling-smashers who overcame the odds and are now leading successful companies.

Asoka Dissanayake brings over 15 years of experience to her role at BBVA Open Platform, having worked in partnerships, strategy, and product functions across payments and tech at global organizations. Most recently, she led strategic partnerships and M&A initiatives for eBay Payments Strategy. 

Prior to eBay, Dissanayake was an early member of the American Express B2B Digital Payments Group where she was responsible for the partnership strategy, pipeline development, and end-to-end execution of the deals from sourcing. 

She also led mCommerce initiatives at Verizon New Business Ventures and various financial services engagements at Deloitte Strategy Consulting. Dissanayake started her career as a hardware design engineer at Texas Instruments. She has an electrical engineering degree from Purdue University and an MBA from The Wharton School. 

In this Q&A she shares more about her less-than-linear path, her personal mantras and how perseverance, empathy and a sense of (dry) humor have contributed to her success.

Asoka Dissanayake headshot
Asoka Dissanayake

Q: Why did you choose to enter your field/profession?

Like most of my generation, I’ve not had a linear career path. I started my career as an engineer in the semiconductor industry. After getting my MBA at Wharton, I became a strategy consultant, advising execs on business strategy. That’s where I developed a strong interest in the financial services industry. Looking at a complex and fluid industry from a strategy lens, I got to work on interesting problems. So I continued to build sector knowledge and ended up staying in financial services after I left strategy consulting. Most of the second phase of my career has been spent in roles where I have combined strategy, partnership and product aspects to establish strategic partnerships across financial service sectors.

Q: What issues did you see in the financial services industry before you got started in it?

The financial services industry has complex ecosystems, which in the U.S. is regulated at both state and federal levels and bears high switching costs for consumers. These aspects create high barriers to entry and can dampen innovation. As a result, until about 10 years ago, we didn’t see much innovation within the industry. 

The 2008 financial crisis changed that because the financial services ecosystem was in flux, and there were big problems to be solved. Fintechs were pushing the frontier with new solutions to old problems, while the incumbents were looking for new business models. To me, this flurry of exciting activities meant I would have an opportunity to solve some of the big problems we were seeing in financial services.

At BBVA Open Platform, we want to democratize financial services. Our Banking as a Service offering enables companies to provide embedded financial services products within their platforms to their own customers. This allows us to serve a much broader customer base with relevant financial services products, offered by brands that they already have a relationship with and trust. 

Q: How did you network, find communities, and make the connections you needed to succeed? Did you run into challenges along the way?

Most of my networks have been established rather organically through school associations and the colleagues and partners I’ve worked with across different companies, industries and the three continents I’ve lived in. I’ve been surprised at the support I’ve received from my contacts across those networks. There haven’t been any major challenges. I believe that’s partly because those networks are mostly built on common experiences and associations and partly because I’ve actively nurtured those relationships over the years. I believe that’s important as networks and relationships are two-way streets.

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your career?

There are two main observations and they are somewhat related. The first one is the importance of asking for help and advice. The second one is the importance of considering a diverse range of viewpoints. Asking for help can sometimes be viewed as a weakness, but as you mature in your career you realize that it’s essential to be able to ask for help and advice. As you come across multifaceted business issues, it also becomes critical that you consider a diverse set of views. This is especially important in financial services, where most business problems need to consider a broad set of factors ranging from regulatory issues to consumer behavior to technology capabilities. 

Q: What is your advice for other female executives and women of color at the beginning of their career or entrepreneurial journeys?

People you work with, especially in the formative years of your career, play a key role in shaping your perspectives and enabling you to develop a strong base to support your long-term success. Look for those you can learn from and model after.  

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or “personal mantra” you use to keep yourself motivated?

I have two. The first is “You can only move forward.” When you feel you’ve done your best and things don’t turn out the way you wanted due to factors outside your control, it’s especially easy to get discouraged. It’s important, however, to remember that all of these experiences strengthen us in different ways, helping us move forward. 

The second is “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I believe it’s important not to lose sight of empathy. When faced with tough decisions, I look inward to seek guidance by asking how I would like to be treated.

Q: What challenges are you most proud of overcoming in your career?

Early on in my career, when problem-solving, I spent a lot of time on the details. This is partly due to my training as an engineer. As I have matured in my career, I’ve learned to effectively use the 80/20 rule and to prioritize the issues that will have the greatest consequences. My strategy consulting experience was helpful in overcoming my natural inclination to dig through all the details. Now I’m able to bounce between the high-level considerations and detailed analyses with equal ease. 

Q: How have you integrated your values and mission into your own work?

Enabling others to achieve their best self is one of my passions. I have been fortunate enough to incorporate this into my work through how I lead my teams, by establishing a supportive environment, and mentoring and empowering others.

Q: What qualities do you possess that you think have contributed most to your success?

Perseverance, empathy and a sense of (dry) humor.

Disclaimer: Verizon New Business Ventures is an investor in Crunchbase.

  • Originally published January 20, 2021