Banking on the Future
"One of the things I love the most about banking is the opportunity to learn about so many other businesses..."
Editor’s Note: At the time of this story’s original publication, Dukes held the role of CFO at SunTrust Bank. SunTrust announced a merger with BB&T in April 2019.
Her stepfather encouraged her to consider math because not only was it a subject that came easy to her, but it would be a useful degree that could open doors in the business world.
“He told me [math] teaches you how to think logically and analytically, and he was right,” she said, adding not many women were majoring in the field at the time. “I don’t use the Pythagorean theorem or any other real math principles in my day-to-day life, but from a finance perspective, it’s a terrific degree in really helping you approach and solve problems.”
By the time she was ready to graduate from Vanderbilt University, Dukes was drawn to banking and consulting — two areas of business that recruited heavily on campus. She was presented offers in Nashville but decided to return to Georgia. Growing up in Atlanta, she developed a high regard for the SunTrust brand.
She couldn’t pass up an opportunity to join its corporate banking training program.
After three years at SunTrust Bank, Dukes headed to New York City to pursue an entrepreneurial opportunity. As the fourth employee — the finance director — she helped launch the business.
For her, the startup was a terrific experience, but something was missing.
“I decided I missed the transaction,” she said. “One of the things I love the most about banking is the opportunity to learn about so many other businesses and industries and influence their growth, and I missed that transactional day-to-day.”
"[Atlanta is] probably one of the best business cities in America, and Goizueta is a big part of that."
She returned home to Atlanta and SunTrust Bank in 2002. Fast forward to early 2018, after several other management and business leadership positions, she became the company’s first female chief financial officer.
When she first arrived back at SunTrust, Dukes quickly gained expertise — and enjoyed success — in capital markets and investment banking, but she also knew she wanted to advance her skill set in other areas.
She traces that to advancing her education.
“I didn’t feel I was growing the strategy and leadership muscle the way I had wanted, and that’s what led me to Goizueta for the Executive MBA program,” she said. “I was seeking to round out that part of my development, and I found exactly that at Goizueta.”
Aside from the program’s strength and focus on leadership, Dukes gravitated toward Goizueta because of her love for Atlanta. She wanted to invest back in the city.
It’s where she was raised and where she chose to raise children.
“I also think it’s probably one of the best business cities in America, and Goizueta is a big part of that,” Dukes said. “I have a lot of pride in being both part of the Atlanta business community and the Goizueta alumni community.”
"I want to bring our purpose to life, and our purpose is to light the way to financial well-being."
Dukes is grateful for all of the learning experiences she had while working on her MBA, and three professors and classes particularly stand out. Her first class at Goizueta, in strategy, was with Robert Kazanjian. She found his case-study approach — learning about specific mistakes and successes and how they impacted the survival of businesses — invaluable.
Dukes also learned life lessons through Rick Gilkey’s storytelling approach on organizational design and leadership.
She loved Jeff Rosensweig’s macroeconomics class. It was a subject for which she had previous affinity but found new ways to connect to business concepts.
Any struggles in class were mitigated by being close to her family and spiritual center.
Dukes’ faith is a driving factor in everything she does; she has a keen understanding that she was made than more for herself. Thus, she is active in the community, serving on the boards of Junior Achievement of Georgia, the Alliance Theater, the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Foundation and the Atlanta History Center.
“I have a really strong sense that I was made to serve our clients, serve our teammates, serve our shareholders and serve our community: the four constituents SunTrust focuses on serving,” she said. “I want to bring our purpose to life, and our purpose is to light the way to financial well-being.”
Dukes’ husband — whom she describes as a co-pilot in life — and two sons, 8 and 10, love Atlanta and SunTrust as much as she does.
“They’re proud of my career and what I’ve done,” she said. “They’ve been a big part of allowing me to do what I enjoy, and they come along and do it with me wherever they can.”
For example, working with projects like SunTrust Park — home of the Atlanta Braves — Dukes was able to teach her sons there’s more to being a banker than numbers and finances.
“It’s not just sitting at a desk; it’s funding projects that are very large in scope and scale and actually creating economic development in a community,” she said. “It was a great opportunity for my kids to see the kind of influence you can have with a career in finance and banking.
“And what’s not to love about a major league baseball team?”
Her service also includes mentorship to others. It’s clear Dukes is grateful for her mentors in the education and corporate worlds, and she’s now able to pass along wisdom of her own to budding business leaders.
One of her favorite pieces of advice she’s picked up along the way?
Have courage when it comes to making changes in your career.
“The opportunity to try something new or do something different is rarely a fork-in-the-road decision like we sometimes think it is,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to move horizontally, backwards, vertically in your organization. It’s not just a ladder. Have courage to think about the skills you want to acquire, and make yourself available to be in different positions. People who make themselves available are the people who have the opportunity to do new things.”
Building on her own encouragement, there is much more Dukes wants to accomplish in life professionally and in the community.
“My life will never be long enough to serve in all the ways I want to serve or experience all of the things I want to experience,” she said. “I see need everywhere I look.”
Dukes hopes to be remembered as someone “who never slept, who never stopped, who saw the opportunity to make things better in a lot of places. It all comes full circle to problem-solving."