By Edie Gross
Inspired by the pictures she saw in her parents’ National Geographic magazines, Barbara Bennett ’68 had been fascinated with Latin America since she was 8 years old. And though she wasn’t entirely sure what career she’d pursue when she arrived at Mary Washington College in 1965, she was 100 percent certain it would take her to Spanish-speaking countries – she would see to that!
The New Jersey native applied to Mary Washington because the school had a residence hall, now Marye House, where students immersed themselves in the Spanish language beyond the classroom.
“I just dove into the Spanish House environment,” said Bennett, who went by Barbie in those days. “We all tried to speak Spanish as much as possible, but . . . the Marines from Quantico provided us with many diversions!”
When she studied abroad in Madrid her junior year, she refused to speak English to any of her classmates. She noted that she often skipped class to travel around the country and to visit Morocco. She was fluent in Spanish by the time she returned to Fredericksburg.
Her challenge was to find a practical way to apply her love of Spanish. She majored in pre-foreign service and entered the banking profession.
“I’ve used Spanish every day of my professional life,” Bennett said. “Every day.”
Chase Manhattan Bank nabbed Bennett right after college for its International Investment Management Department. The department handled Latin American investments but had no staffers who spoke Spanish.
Bennett excelled and became one of the first two women to attend the bank’s ultracompetitive Credit Training Program, graduating as a certified credit analyst. Simultaneously, she took night classes at Fordham Graduate School of Business, earning an MBA in 1973.
While most of her classmates and colleagues were male, Bennett said she never felt like anything but a valued member of the team. When Marine Midland (now HSBC) lured her away from Chase Manhattan, she became one of the first female bank officers on Wall Street. Within a year, the bank sent her to Panama, allowing her to fulfill her pre-college dream and making her one of the first female officers to serve overseas.
At Bank of America, she was elected the first female vice president to manage a Latin American department for the institution. Later, at Citibank, Bennett played a key role in helping negotiate debt restructuring agreements for Colombia, Venezuela, and several Central American countries.
These days, Bennett is the CEO of Anari, which takes large institutional investors on trips to Latin American countries to identify investment opportunities. While there, they meet with bankers, government officials, and industry leaders. When she’s not traveling, she runs the Q Street Fine Art gallery out of her Washington, D.C., home. She’s featured local artists as well as works of artists from China, Cuba, and other countries. She also enjoys spending time with her adult son and three grandchildren, who live in New Jersey.
Bennett attended her 50th reunion at University of Mary Washington, where she was joined by some of her friends from the Spanish House, including roommate Susan Sears Shiriak.
“Everyone was so kind. It was just a wonderful, wonderful school,” she said. “I just loved my classmates. Still do.”