Zelma Acosta-Rubio MCJ ’89 discusses her path to leadership at Peruvian financial company Interbank

When Zelma Acosta-Rubio MCJ ’89 was a young law student in her native Venezuela, she took a vacation to New York City. A friend had asked her to bring back a brochure about NYU Law’s Master of Comparative Jurisprudence (MCJ) degree. When she stopped by the Law School, Acosta-Rubio remembers, she struck up a conversation with then-faculty member Howard Greenberger ’54, a professor of comparative and international law.

Zelma Acosta-Rubio
Zelma Acosta-Rubio

Greenberger asked her to share her dreams and aspirations. As they chatted, Acosta-Rubio began to see that her goals were global in scope.

“Unbeknownst to me, I had been interviewed by Professor Greenberger,” says Acosta-Rubio. After their discussion, she decided to pursue the Law School’s MCJ degree. “[The conversation] completely altered my trajectory,” she says.

Today Acosta-Rubio is the general counsel and executive vice president of corporate and legal affairs at Peruvian financial services company, Interbank. She also serves as the chief sustainability officer of Intercorp Financial Services (IFS)—a financial platform specializing in consumer finance and retail banking—and the chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer of Intercorp Peru, IFS's parent company, which also operates in the retail, health and education sectors.

In this Q&A, Acosta-Rubio discusses how her multiple roles within Intercorp allow her opportunities for continuous growth.

How did you first become interested in the law?

I grew up mostly in Caracas, Venezuela, and after high school, I was admitted to the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas to study psychology. However, I had a strong passion for horse show jumping at the time and wanted to have my afternoons free to pursue it. So when I went to pick up my class schedule at the university, I inquired about options that would allow me to study only in the mornings. One of the options was law school, so I made a spontaneous decision and switched my major to law.

By my second year, I was working as a trainee in a local law firm during the afternoons, and by my third year, I was attending law school in the evenings and working full-time during the day. I primarily worked on civil law and contentious administrative cases.

Were there any faculty members, courses, or experiences that were particularly formative for you during your time at NYU Law?

Throughout my time at NYU Law, Professor Greenberger played a crucial role in guiding me through the academic landscape. He not only helped me figure out which extra credits to take to be able to take the New York bar exam but also provided invaluable guidance and mentorship in shaping my understanding of comparative and international law. His expertise and passion in these areas were truly inspiring, and he challenged me to think beyond the boundaries of traditional legal education. [Editor’s note: Greenberger was a member of the Law School faculty from 1961 until 2001. He passed away in 2011.]

Beyond the classroom, collaborating with classmates from different backgrounds and cultures exposed me to a wide array of perspectives, fostering a deeper understanding of global legal issues and challenging my own preconceptions.

Can you tell me about your decision to specialize in international finance?

Following a year-long international internship at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy, I was invited to join Clifford Chance in London. During my time there, I focused on project finance and privatization projects in Latin America throughout the 1990s. This experience allowed me to delve into the intricacies of financing major projects and to participate in the privatization efforts in the region.

My career took an exciting turn when I was invited to join Interbank, a major financial services corporation in Peru, to lead the legal department in March 2007. It was at this point that I shifted my practice to banking. One of the most rewarding aspects of this transition was the opportunity to build and lead an exceptional in-house legal team. Collaborating closely with various departments within the bank, we have tackled complex legal challenges, crafted innovative solutions, and contributed to the bank's overall success.

Tell me about your role as chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. Have you seen the industry change in these spaces over time?

Several years ago, I initiated a project to gather data on the representation of women in leadership roles. Through [Intercorp’s] innovation lab, we delved into cultural beliefs and perceptions, and the insights revealed that our existing leadership model unintentionally conformed to a singular mold.

To attract and develop top talent, we recognized the importance of incorporating an inclusive mindset and expanding our leadership model. In December 2018, I was honored to be appointed the chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer of Intercorp. We have made significant progress along this journey, and our c-suites executives across platforms have played an integral role in driving these efforts forward.

What about your positions do you find particularly challenging or rewarding?

I would say the rapidly changing role of the general counsel. As the business landscape changes, we are required to take on new roles. As a legal advisor, I have responsibilities that now include corporate affairs, reputation, corporate communications—and now ESG [environmental, social, and governance considerations].

The challenge of integrating ESG criteria as a strategic imperative within our organization’s operations has required significant effort to shift mindset and culture. [However,] by communicating the legal and business case for ESG, aligning our legal frameworks, and collaborating with external partners, I believe we can successfully integrate ESG considerations into our operations and mitigate potential risks while driving long-term sustainable growth.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Posted August 11, 2023.