Could a Latina from the Bronx be the Finance Worlds Next Big Oracle?

Bianca Caban / Entrepreneur, Investor, and Philanthropist

Bianca Caban graduated from Harvard University in 2009 and moved to NYC to pursue a career in finance. After stints at Credit Suisse and Blackrock, she teamed up with former Barclays CEO, Bob Diamond, to launch the merchant bank Atlas Holdings. This opportunity found her traveling frequently to African nations such as Nigeria and Rwanda and opened her eyes to the continent's enormous potential. Even further, she realized what a gateway her families home of Puerto Rico could be to West Africa.

In 2015, she launched Koban Holdings, based in the US and Puerto Rico, as a global investments holding company to pursue these opportunities.

Breakout caught up with Bianca recently and asked her about this latest career move:

Where do you hail from?

I was born and raised in the Bronx, New York.  I was educated there through middle school. A program called A Better Chance that helps talented minority youth gain access to the nation’s best college-preparatory schools helped me to attend The Chapin School, an elite all-girls institution on the Upper East Side. 

What is your profession?

It’s a combination of social entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist.  I focus on economic revitalization projects in mainland U.S. and Puerto Rico, while building organizations that invest in women and Latina entrepreneurs specifically. 

Did you have a favorite tradition growing up?  

Traveling to Puerto Rico.  Since infancy, I have traveled to the island for the holidays, including Christmas, New Years, and a holiday that is celebrated throughout much of Latin America called El Dia de Reyes (Three Kings Day).  There’s this fun tradition called parranda where a lively band made up of neighbors and family members traveled from house to house in the barrio singing funny and lively Christmas songs.  At each stop the band would be invited to eat, drink, and celebrate with the family and friends gathered there until the wee hours of the morning. This early connection to the island and its cultural fabric certainly influenced the work I do today.

Outside of family ties, what drew you to focusing your career on Puerto Rico?

I worked for five years on Wall Street after graduating from Harvard, starting with Credit Suisse and Blackrock. After that, I worked for Atlas Merchant Capital helping set up the merchant bank and our first investment vehicle, which invested in banks in Africa to build a pan-African financial institution. During my trips to Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, I began seeing similar economic needs between certain African markets and Puerto Rico.  I was fed up with reading the negative headlines out of Puerto Rico in 2014. I had built a substantial network on Wall Street and throughout the world, so at the end of that year, I decided to focus my attention entirely on reinvigorating Puerto Rico’s economy and leveraging women to do so.  

Before these initiatives you were fortunate enough to work on launching Atlas Merchant Capital with Bob Diamond, formerly the CEO of Barclays. How did that come about?

Bob was looking to invest in Africa back in 2012 after leaving Barclays. I had decided to leave Blackrock to assist his future partner, Will McDonough, who was spinning off from Goldman Sachs, to launch an asset management firm. Will had an existing relationship with Bob dating back to their roots in Boston. Shortly after I joined Will, Bob reached out to him wanting to start his own merchant bank to invest in banks in Africa as well as in U.S. and Europe run-off bank assets, at which point we joined forces to launch Atlas. It was a sort of apprenticeship; I learned so much thanks to his thirty or so years of experience in the global banking sector.  Eventually, I became his chief of staff.

You mentioned before some of the broad project types you are focused on in Puerto Rico. Any successes you can speak to?  

"My goal is to transform Puerto Rico into the "Singapore of the Caribbean"

My goal is to transform Puerto Rico into the “Singapore of the Caribbean.” Why shouldn’t we build an engine of economic growth and commerce right in our backyard?  I’ve been working to do this in two ways: by fostering entrepreneurship and an environment for start-ups to thrive and through channeling investment to the island. I’m shepherding to the island internationally recognized organizations like Endeavor Global and collaborating with government sponsored programs to carry out their mandate to jump-start the entrepreneurship ecosystem. In this vein, I’m serving as an Ambassador for Puerto Rico Global, an initiative of a local millennial-led think-and-do-tank called ConPRmetidos, which is working to engage Puerto Rico’s global diaspora towards our economic agenda.  Secondly, I’m leveraging my global connections to attract capital, operating expertise, and influential networks by assisting international businesses and investors to relocate to Puerto Rico to take advantage of tax and economic incentives. I’m currently finalizing a local partnership to launch the business development arm of an emerging, successful law firm to do this very work. I am also organizing and executing investment projects in the fields of real estate, medical cannabis research, energy, and entertainment. So far this year, I’ve brought teams of investors, entrepreneurs, and millennial movers-and-shakers from Asia, Africa, and the U.S. to bid on key development projects. 

While working overseas, what has been your most eye-opening moment?

I traveled to Abuja, Nigeria in May 2014 for the World Economic Forum just two weeks after Boko Haram bombed the center of that city and violently kidnapped 200 girls in the north of the country. The atmosphere was very tense. One very vivid memory of the trip, and probably one of the scariest moments of my life, was traveling to the airport alone at the conclusion of the conference as I was escorted by two private security armed SUVs. The streets were eerily barren due to the heightened security precautions the government had imposed during the conference because of the deadly terrorist attack just weeks before. The only people our convoy encountered were at a check-point where several men dressed in plain clothes holding assault rifles shouted at us for payment to pass.

Aside from this gut-wrenching experience, my time spent working on building this bank in Africa opened my eyes to the continent’s enormous economic potential. It also widened my perspective to Puerto Rico’s favorable geographic positioning parallel to West Africa just across the Atlantic and the huge export potential for the region in the near future. Puerto Rico has always been the gateway to the Americas, but I now think about how Puerto Rico could most definitely be a gateway for Africa to the Americas and vice versa, like Singapore is to Asia.  

Empowering women and Latinas is another integral part of your work. You had a big announcement recently. Fill us in.

I recently launched a financial accelerator program for women with the help of fellow Breaker, Nathalie Molina Niño, at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College.  It’s called AccessLatina and it’s focused on providing access to much-needed capital, operational and leadership training, and networks to Latina entrepreneurs. I had the honor of meeting Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda several times while doing business in Africa. He explained to my colleagues and me what he was doing to revitalize his country from a civil war, just twenty years earlier. What stuck with me was how President Kagame leveraged one of the most valuable resources he had – women – in all facets of society to revitalize in his country. Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in Parliament in the world. I realized that this strategy was ripe to implement in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico.

Latinas in the U.S. are six times more likely to start a business than the national average.  However, data shows that they rarely achieve scale beyond “mom and pop” level due to lack of access to capital, education, and networks. Moreover, U.S. Latinos have amassed $1.5 trillion in purchasing power in 2015, 90% of which is controlled by Latina women who are making most of the financial decisions for their households. We are huge consumers! Yet, Latina women only earn 56 cents to every one-dollar that white men earn. If they were at parity, that would translate to hundreds of billions of dollars injected into the U.S. economy. These facts are the foundation for why we launched AccessLatina, to assist this segment of the population to realize their full economic potential towards the financial progress of our great country.

"If you educate a woman, you educate a village"

If you could put in place one governmental policy overnight, what would it be?  

Increasing access to capital for women entrepreneurs on a national scale and in Puerto Rico.  I think it’s a real economic imperative to focus on solving the issue of the gender wage gap in this country.  Data shows that if you educate a woman, you educate a village. Likewise, I think that if you invest in a woman you impact the economic prosperity of the entire village because women control the money and consumption in families. I would focus on creating policy to achieve gender wage parity.

Who currently inspires you?

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.  She’s Puerto Rican from the Bronx and was fortunate to receive an elite education like me. My whole family looks up to her. My sister, a budding attorney, has partnered with her to launch a foundation in her name that provides underprivileged NYC high school students with exposure and access to the legal profession through judicial internships. The work Justice Sotomayor is doing is incredibly inspirational, but there is still a lot of progress to be made for Latinas in the U.S. We need a Latina Oprah; we need a Latina Warren Buffett. Cosmo Latina magazine recently coined me as the next Latina Warren Buffet, which was very humbling and an honor to even be mentioned in the same sentence as him. Mr. Buffet – for me and for many of us – is an icon and inspiration. The economic opportunity he has created for our country, as well as, for his philanthropic endeavors is something I aspire to create in my own community and globally.

Graham CohenNYCComment