Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month reminds this Commerce Trust leader of family
For Lilian Heller, Commerce Trust Company’s director of marketing, a discussion of Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month evokes thoughts about her parents. “Both of my parents were immigrants,” she says. “My dad is Chinese, my mom is Filipino, and they met here in the States.” Heller’s parents settled in Charlottesville, Va., home of the University of Virginia where Heller obtained her undergraduate degree. She has fond memories of growing up in a college town. “There were always new people coming through with new ideas, and I grew up with a strong sense of community,” she says.
Heller notes that her parents worked hard to establish themselves; her father studied chemical engineering and became a research scientist, while her mother started her career in nursing. “They each came to the U.S. on their own and they came with very little,” she says. “Their families saved so they could be sent to the U.S. to establish themselves in their work and start their own family. And in time, they made something out of nothing. They came here because they saw opportunity here and they made the most of it.”
The family history of hard work and self-reliance rubbed off on Heller from an early age. “My parents set a great example and instilled a very strong work ethic in me,” she says. “They taught me to strive for success, focus on results, and the importance of proving one’s personal merits. They also instilled in me a lifelong curiosity for learning and exposing yourself to new cultures and communities and perspectives. That curiosity is something I try to apply at Commerce every day and I think helps us be open to different ideas and perspectives.
Paul Lewis, the St. Louis market executive for Commerce Trust Company, says Heller’s ability to connect with people is one of her strongest assets. “She’s incredibly positive,” he says. “She approaches any challenge, whether it’s work or personal, with a positive mindset. And she’s a collaborator, which is why I’ve enjoyed working with her. She won’t make decisions in a vacuum; she wants to get the team together and bounce ideas off people. She wants to ensure she’s always gathering the best ideas.”
The collaborative, performance-driven culture was one of the aspects that attracted Heller to Commerce Trust Company in the first place when she joined in 2020 after serving in senior marketing roles in the financial sector and in luxury real estate. “I loved what I heard about the culture of the company,” she says. “There are so many opportunities here, and the fact that we’re structured in a way that allows us to make decisions and move quickly was extremely appealing to me. I’m always driving for results and growth, and I think my style is a good fit for where I am.”
In addition to her role leading Commerce Trust’s marketing initiatives, Heller plays a significant role in Commerce’s strategic focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. “DEI is important to who we are at Commerce, and it’s an important element taking us forward into the future,” she says. “My efforts are focused on how we bring our internal values around DEI to life for our customers. It’s the next step in ensuring that inclusivity continues to be a priority. We always want to reinforce that Commerce is welcoming to all customers, and that they will experience the best level of service here.”
Heller says she’s excited by the number of ideas the company has for its DEI work. “We’ve had some really thoughtful conversations around how we can try different things that will meet the different needs of more customers. We’re learning what works and what doesn’t, and we are adjusting along the way as needed.”
Diversity is important, notes Heller, because everyone is unique. “We’re all diverse in our own way,” she says. “And diversity isn’t limited to race and gender. Each of us has a unique combination of background and experiences. Bringing that unique perspective in a constructive way is how we can benefit Commerce and in turn, our customers. Regardless of your background, don’t put yourself in a box,” she says. “Take the best of what you are and make the most of it. Don’t limit yourself.”
The celebration of Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month reminds Heller of everything her family did to find success in the United States. “That’s had a big impact on my values and on what’s important to me,” she says. “I try to instill that same work ethic in my children -- encouraging them to perform at their best and lead by example, whether it’s academics or sports or activities.” I’ve been very fortunate to have great opportunities. And I believe you have to continue to work hard to develop your skills so that you are prepared when new opportunities arise. Leaders I respect have taught me that is a perspective that applies to everyone.”