Beyond banking: How PNC staff connects cross-culturally with Fort Wayne's Burmese community

As the world becomes smaller with immigration and globalization, more companies are looking for ways to better accommodate and cater to that changing landscape. Locally, PNC Bank branches offer an example of what it means to be inclusive in practical terms.

Case in point: Fort Wayne is home to about 6,000 Burmese-born refugees. So PNC is catering to the needs of this population by investing in staff at the branch level who share their same culture and language.

Look no further than Carol Sunderman and Khin Cho as examples of this commitment. 

Khin Cho, left, and Carol Sunderman, right, of PNC Bank.

Both women had the benefit of coming to the U.S. at an impressionable young age, allowing them to quickly learn English in school and assimilate into American culture. Yet, they both have managed to keep one foot in Burmese culture, at the same time, which has served them well in life and their careers. 

Fox example, Sunderman, who is a student at Indiana Tech, works at the Huntington PNC branch in branch sales and services. Fleeing a decades-long civil war, she and her family lived on the border of Thailand and what’s now called Burma for five years before coming to the U.S. Her family’s journey was sponsored by a Baptist church. They settled in California for several years before making the move to Indiana. At the time, Sunderman was 21-years-old.

Since then, she and her immediate family have lived in Huntington for about three years, and she’s worked for PNC Bank since February.

Looking back, Sunderman says it was about being in the right place at the right time. 

“When I got hired on here at PNC, (my manager) didn't even know that I spoke Burmese,” she says. “It just came up in conversation. So all of this is just a coincidence, and it’s worked out great. It's nice to be able to be far away from my family because they're still in California. But it's nice to be able to kind of still feel close because the Burmese community is right here.”

PNC works with local Burmese business owners like Pakao Mon of Magadoo Asian Grocery & Wholesale.

Sunderman says it’s a pleasure to serve the needs of Burmese customers, translating or interpreting as necessary. Sometimes these customers need help opening accounts or applying for credit cards, so she can serve as a trusted advisor.

As she explains, a lot of Burmese immigrants don’t understand or trust the banking system for various reasons. In these cases, she acts as a bridge between two cultures.

“For example, some lack an understanding about mortgages and credit cards—the simple things that other residents know about and take for granted," Sunderman says. “It's easy for us because it's something that we grew up with. But for them, it's completely new.” 

Like Sunderman, Cho—a branch and banking manager in Fort Wayne—also acts as an unofficial ambassador to the local Burmese community. Born in Thailand to Burmese parents, Cho describes her journey to America and the Midwest, which took place when she was very young.

“Basically, we went back to Burma and came over to the United States as refugees,” she says. “There was some conflict there, so there was more opportunity here in the United States. I pretty much grew up in Fort Wayne. It was nice because we had a lot of people around us who were from the same area in Burma. So the community is pretty tight-knit.” 

Cho says formative experiences made her into the person she is today. After high school graduation in 2011, she joined the Indiana National Guard. To that end, she served the country while working in various positions at other financial institutions. The South Side High School graduate joined PNC in 2017 and has worked her way up into a management position since then.

Cho credits her success to her ability to navigate the nuances of both the Burmese and American cultures.

“I've been able to take advantage of a lot of things that I learned here in America, and then also being able to always say, 'I am Burmese, I speak the language. And here are some things that I like to do in regards to helping my community,'" she says. "I think taking that into account and the leadership skills that I've learned from being in the military really helped speed up my advancement at PNC.”

Cho recalls an encounter she had with a longtime customer that left a mark on her. 

“It was a husband and wife business,” she says. “They mentioned how they're really proud of me and what I've been able to accomplish and how they’re happy to see their own people in places of business because it makes them more comfortable... to see somebody who looks like them, in a professional position."

Michael and Pakao Mon of Magadoo Asian Grocery & Wholesale.

That business is Magadoo Asian Grocery & Wholesale, located at 5945 N. Clinton St. in Fort Wayne. Pakao and Michael Mon. They supply goods to restaurants across the country and serve the needs of retail customers.

Pakao, who is Buddhist, has come a long way since coming to the U.S. from Burma in 2002 and becoming a U.S. citizen in 2007. Upon arrival, she spoke limited English. Today, she speaks with confidence and runs a successful business alongside her husband. The immigrant-turned-businesswoman attributes their good fortune to a heart-centric mindset. 

"It's not about the money," she says. "Sharing is important and that comes from the heart.  I always say you should do something good each day. Ask yourself: "What did I do to help someone today?"

Magadoo Asian Grocery & Wholesale is located at 5945 N. Clinton St.

Pakao is quick to credit PNC for their help over the years. While she says they've paid off their business loan and therefore don't owe the bank anything, she feels indebted to PNC in other ways.

"They do much for us," she says. "They've changed our lives."

Magadoo Asian Grocery & Wholesale is known for its helpful staff as well as its variety of seasonings, produce, and Asian cooking needs.Fresh produce is a popular item at Magadoo.A sampling of products at Magadoo Asian Grocery & Wholesale.Along with running a grocery, Magadoo supplies goods to restaurants across the country and serve the needs of retail customers.


Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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