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Fascinating Women: Manulife Philippines' Senior VP and CMO Melissa Henson

This successful female executive is trying to make a difference in what was considered a male-dominated field

Just a few years back, I remember it was an old high school classmate who approached me and asked if I wanted to know more about financial independence, insurance, and investments. She was a financial manager at an insurance company, and I remember being amazed by the fact that she was a woman leading a team in the finance industry.


In a world where women are finally getting the jobs, the salary, and the attention that they deserve, it’s still exciting to see women taking the lead especially in what have been considered male-dominated fields for years.


According to a report by Catalyst in 2020, globally, women represented only 12% of chief financial roles in large-cap firms. As of 2019 data, in executive committees in major financial services firms, only 20% were female. This goes to show that there is still quite a way to pave for women in many major industries in the world. 


This is also why efforts to bring more women to finance—and not just into the door, but up to the executive positions—continue to be crucial in the global movement for gender inclusivity and equality. 


In the Philippines, there is no shortage of empowered women who are leading this wave of change. And one of them is Melissa Henson, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Manulife Philippines. In celebration of Women’s Month, we talked to Melissa about how she climbed up the corporate ladder.


Manulife Philippines' Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Melissa Henson
Manulife Philippines' Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Melissa Henson


Encouraging more women to climb up the ladder

Melissa has been a marketing professional for more than 15 years—10 of which were spent in the banking industry, and the rest at Manulife Philippines, a financial services company known for their insurance and investment offerings. What sets Melissa and Manulife apart is that they have made it their goal, their mission, to bring more women to executive positions in the company.


“When I joined Manulife in the Philippines, there were 25% women in senior leaderships. But I noticed that when we would meet in small groups, sometimes there would only be one senior woman in the room. And that was me,” Melissa says.


But that was in 2015. 


Having realized that if they wanted more women to be present in the company, it has to be written in the organization’s DNA, and had to be a result of a very deliberate plan of action. With the conscious effort of everyone in their team, they were able to achieve a percentage increase in this aspect. Now, 50% of the people in the senior leadership team at Manulife Philippines were women, and that did not go unnoticed by the world. 


Thanks to the efforts of Melissa and her fellow leaders—both women and men allies—Manulife Philippines was lauded by the United Nations at the 2020 Asia-Pacific Women’s Empowerment Principles Awards and Bloomberg’s 2021 Gender-Equality Index for their efforts to foster gender inclusivity and equality.


Melissa Henson representis Manulife at Asia CEO Awards
Melissa Henson representis Manulife at Asia CEO Awards


Women getting it done

As chief marketing officer, Melissa has a very busy, but pretty exciting schedule. Before the pandemic, she used to travel a lot for work, while making sure her team works smoothly to deliver quotas and follow timelines even when she is away.  


But when asked about her proudest moments in her career, for her, it’s not just the very successful campaigns they mounted (in 2017, they created the short digital film titled Stand Up that resonated well with people, even until today). It’s also not her decision to leave the banking industry in New York and go back to Manila to join a multinational financial services company. It’s not the many awards and recognitions (from both local and international award-giving bodies) that she helped bring home to Manulife Philippines.


For Melissa, what makes her the proudest is having a resilient and hardworking team, who was forced to pivot and stretch themselves to deliver especially during the pandemic.


What makes her proudest are the people who surround her, who she admits are even better than her when it comes to technical stuff. It is their brilliance that helps her get through every challenge and roadblock at work.


Melissa Henson visits her first apartment in New York City
Melissa Henson visits her first apartment in New York City


What makes her proudest are the programs they create that really make a difference in the lives of people, just like when they provided free insurance to 85,000 delivery riders at the heigh of ECQ [enhanced community quarantine].


What makes her proudest are their financial literacy initiatives, where they help transform lives and teach students about budgeting, saving, and being more responsible with their finances as they grow older.


For Melissa, this is what makes women spectacular—they have a heart and they’re not afraid to let their heart take the wheel. Women are natural life-givers and bearers, so it shows in the way they nurture not just their careers, but the people around them as well.  


“I’m very fortunate that the organizations I’ve worked with were places where there were women in senior positions who were very empowering to me,” Melissa says. She met many women throughout her career who helped her become the strong, amazing, and inspiring leader she is now to her team.


Melissa Henson's Georgetown MBA graduation
Melissa Henson's Georgetown MBA graduation


Being a woman, for women

To this day, Melissa says she carries with her the words of her first manager when she just finished her MBA at Georgetown University in Washington DC: “You know when you are in a meeting, I know you know, but you don’t speak.”


“And that really stuck with me,” Melissa says. “I held back because I was afraid to make a mistake. But I realized, when you don’t speak, people will think you don’t know. We shouldn’t be afraid to make a mistake, but instead have the courage to express our opinions and let our thoughts be heard.”


So now, Melissa has learned to voice out her thoughts when asked, and speak up whenever she feels the need to. 


Melissa Hension shooting a video for a campaign of Manulife Philippines
Melissa Hension shooting a video for a campaign of Manulife Philippines


There are still a lot of challenges that women face even in this day and age. And being that voice for women who still haven’t discovered (or recovered) theirs may be all that women like Melissa can do for now, but that is more than enough. 


In the words of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Prize laureate who has fought passionately for human rights, and education of women and children in Pakistan: “I raise up my voice—not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.” 


Photos courtesy of Melissa Henson and Manulife Philippines