Myrna Olvera: The Accidental Investigator

With a banking career that began in high school, Myrna Olvera seems born to be in the industry. Her expertise and leadership in compliance, specifically the Bank Secrecy Act and back-office operations, illustrate how tenaciousness pays off.

Myrna Olvera, SVP & BSA Officer, East West BankPhoto: JCPenney Portraits

The whole of the financial services industry—banking, lending, credit, etc.—touches our lives and our work in dozens of ways. The numbers tell stories and sometimes even reveal misdeeds. Not everyone is aware of this, but Myrna Olvera sees it every day.

The senior vice president and Bank Secrecy Act (BSA) officer for East West Bank manages an exceptional team that works to develop, implement, and coordinate anti-money laundering systems and controls. The team also reports to state and federal authorities in the event of suspicious activity, which may include a wider range of financial crimes such as drug trafficking, terrorism, and felonious fraud.

Olvera is also a mom, the daughter of a migrant farm worker (“this was before Cesar Chavez,” she notes), and a well-practiced public speaker. Her career began with working for a finance company in her financially strapped youth (one of two jobs she concurrently held during high school, the second being on the crew at a McDonald’s restaurant), and she’s worked in many different sides of banking ever since. She didn’t set out to lead a team of managers and analysts (investigators), but her career track shows that she knows the ins and outs of the banking industry—a base of knowledge built over the course of momentous financial times and through many roles and institutions.

“I was working in an employment program in my high school when a member of the board of education asked if I could type,” she says. “I said yes.” That, in combination with a good academic record, got her the job with a finance company. The business served the low-income community with less-than-stellar credit, which provided Olvera a look at some key dynamics of personal finance. “I understood the bigger picture and the importance of having good credit,” she recalls.

She continued working with that firm as she attended the University of Southern California, eventually moving over to the firm’s escrow department. Subsequent positions at several other financial institutions included the mortgage department; back-office functions in a credit union; working in a call center for deposits, loans, credit cards; following the management-trainee track; and then becoming the first Hispanic manager to oversee an East Los Angeles bank branch. Her bilingualism was a distinct advantage there.

The ever-changing bank industry led Olvera to roles in several institutions—merger redundancies have twice sidelined her, but she always managed to find her next job. She had a breadth of experience (along the way she learned about data mapping, marketing, legal disclosures, and worked in the communications department at one bank), each of them subject to different regulatory regimes, making her a well-rounded and strong job candidate. She landed at East West Bank in 2016.

In one of those positions, she helped with the investigation of bank robberies. But the kinds of crimes that get investigated under her eye and those of her team are less obvious and sometimes much larger in scope.

At its core, the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970, which has been tested in the courts and amended with provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act passed in the aftermath of 9/11, is sometimes referred to as the anti-money laundering laws. It requires financial institutions to establish internal controls, policies, and procedures to train employees on an ongoing basis, to conduct audits, and to have designated compliance officers. Another component of the BSA is the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC), an agency of the US Treasury Department that enforces economic and trade sanctions against countries and groups of individuals involved in terrorism, narcotics, and other disreputable activities.

Her current employer, East West Bank, was established to serve the Chinese-American community. It is a full-service commercial bank that has more than 130 locations in key cities in the United States and Greater China. She enjoys learning about this culture and finds similarities to her own culture.

“Information can be sliced and diced in different ways. We have to know where to target our energies. Most importantly, we are people who roll up our sleeves and have a passion and eye for the details.”

The talents and skills she looks for in her BSA compliance team include an interest in a broad variety of industries, international experience, entrepreneurial instincts, and comfort in working with Big Data, which also involves searching through criminal and other databases. “Information can be sliced and diced in different ways,” she says. “We have to know where to target our energies. Most importantly, we are people who roll up our sleeves and have a passion and eye for the details.” Olvera fosters a team atmosphere, two-way direct communication, interaction amongst the team members, collaborative brainstorming, and teaching managers soft skills. She also mentions how phone calls to customers under review should not come across as an interrogation. “It should flow like a conversation.”

In addition to crime detection, her team’s work is about maintaining and sustaining a solid BSA program and avoiding enforcement actions for non-compliance. When truly suspicious activity is observed, the case moves up the chain for further investigation and potential government reporting.

Olvera believes strongly in staying networked in her industry, both to learn and to establish valuable connections. She does this in the most financially prudent way possible: She speaks at conferences. Covering topics such as “banking marijuana-related businesses,” “the new frontiers of transaction-monitoring analytics to combat money laundering, terrorist financing, and human trafficking,” and “operational risk–fraud,” her conference fees are covered by the sponsor and she helps build industry resilience at the same time.

So, it’s a good bet that wherever any one of us does our banking, someone like Myrna Olvera is keeping track of the transaction(s)—as required by law. What they protect us against is a lot bigger than just the money involved.

A Message from Crowe LLP

“We congratulate Myrna on being recognized for her contributions to the Financial Services community and the organizations she has served! Myrna’s values, vision, and passion have always made our partnership an opportunity to innovate, create thought leadership, and establish leading practices.  We are excited for her future successes!”
—Arjun Kalra, Principal & Ralph Wright, Principal