Technology has democratized information and transactions to the point where relationships, particularly those without merit, are less valuable. Now, we must compete against a global market with our ideas. There continues to be insufficient capital for women and minorities with great ideas, but the playing field has become more level.
As a part of my series about strong female finance leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Teri Williams. Teri is President & COO and owner of OneUnited Bank, the largest Black owned bank in the country and supporter of the #BankBlack and #BuyBlack Movement. She is responsible for the Bank’s strategic initiatives, as well as the day to day operations, including all retail branches, marketing, compliance, lending, information technology, customer support, legal, and human resources. Ms. Williams brings 30 years of financial services expertise including Bank of America and American Express, where she was one of the youngest Vice Presidents. Ms. Williams holds an M.B.A. with honors from Harvard University and a B.A. with distinctions in Economics from Brown University. She currently is Chair of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts (BECMA) and on the board of the 79th Street Corridor Initiative in Miami, Florida. Ms. Williams is author of I Got Bank! What My Granddad Taught Me About Money (Beckham Publishing) a financial literacy book for urban youth. She is married and has two children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?
I always loved numbers and puzzles, which attracted me to economics and ultimately banking. The “backstory” is that I never expected to own a bank because I grew up poor and believed banking was boring. However, I learned that banking and financial literacy are essential ingredients to community development, which is my true passion. So…I’ve spent 20 years making banking fun!
Can you share with our readers the most interesting or amusing story that occurred to you in your career so far? Can you share the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
In 2015, we decided to paint a 550 square ft. mural on the exterior wall of our Miami bank branch to duplicate the type of transformative art taking place in the Wynwood section of Miami. We engaged an artist, Addonis Parker, and requested he paint a mural that authentically reflected the urban experience. Two days before the mural was scheduled to be unveiled in front of a national audience, I took a sneak peek…and almost fainted! I realized that the direction to the muralist for authenticity and to truly reflect the Black experience, would be depicted in the final product as much rawer than I anticipated. I then sent our publicist a text, “I don’t always screw up, but when I do, I go big!”, referring to the possibility of blowback. After several anxiety attacks, I had the benefit of speaking with my dad, who asked me if the mural was honest. I said yes, to which he asked, then what’s the problem? He was right! The mural, titled Thunder & Enlightening, was unveiled and ultimately seeded the national #BankBlack movement. And indeed it did receive national attention. and served as an important lesson for me that speaking in my authentic voice comes with risk, but also has power and is necessary for leadership.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we just introduced BankBlack X to share the truth about Black Americans and money. We have embraced the New York Times #1619Project, the brainchild of its Chief Editor Nicole Hannah Jones, and using its important historical lessons on slavery to help our community recognize that the wealth gap is a result of 400 years of discriminatory practices. We have only been legally free for 50 years, yet we are each only 1 transaction away from closing the racial wealth gap. We are encouraging our community to relentlessly pursue that transaction through home ownership, life insurance, business ownership, etc. for their family.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re the largest Black owned bank in America and we’re unapologetically Black!
Ok. Thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main core of our interview. Wall Street and Finance used to be an “all white boys club”. This has changed a lot recently. In your opinion, what caused this change?
It’s still mainly a white boys club! However, technology has democratized information and transactions to the point where relationships, particularly those without merit, are less valuable. Now, we must compete against a global market with our ideas. There continues to be insufficient capital for women and minorities with great ideas, but the playing field has become more level.
Of course, despite the progress, we still have a lot more work to do to achieve parity. According to this report in CNBC, less than 17 percent of senior positions in investment banks are held by women. In your opinion or experience, what 3 things can be done by a)individuals b)companies and/or c) society to support this movement going forward?
Everyone knows what needs to be done. There’s simply no will to do it.
First, recognize the financial service industry is deeply biased and needs to atone for its historical discriminatory practices. Second, allow women the same latitude to fail as their male counterparts, because without risk, there’s no reward and there’s no risk without failure! I believe a key ingredient for success is to recognize quickly when something is not working and to adjust. The not working part, or failures, provide the best lessons. Third is to invest capital in companies with diverse leadership because it’s been proven they perform better.
Let’s now turn to a slightly new topic. According to this report in Fortune, nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t pass a basic test of financial literacy. In your opinion or experience what is the cause of these unfortunate numbers? If you had the power to make a change, what 3 things would you recommend to improve these numbers?
Financial literacy should be taught in elementary school and it should be made to be more fun! I wrote a children’s book, “I Got Bank, What My Granddad Taught Me About Money” for this very reason. It’s a book to educate youth about almost everything they need to know about money. It’s fun, easy to read, culturally relevant and educational. We hold a financial literacy essay and art contest every year, and thousands of children from all over the country submit the most amazing work! Ten children, who submitted the winning entries, received $1000 for the best entries. Money can be fun and not boring!
You are a “finance insider”. If you had to advise your adult child about 5 non intuitive things one should do to become more financially literate, what would you say? Can you please give a story or example for each.
- Pay your own bills as quickly as possible! It’s the quickest way to learn the value of a dollar.
- Be aware that all TV shows are a mirage. There is no correlation between the jobs people have on TV and their lifestyle. No, Uncle Phil in Fresh Prince could not afford to live in Bel Air! Don’t try to duplicate what you see on TV.
- Read…a lot! You can’t be financially literate without being well read. Here are some good options.
- As a game, when you enter a business establishment, always ask yourself, “How does this business make money?” Then figure it out! Good investment decisions require a clear understanding of how businesses make money.
- Question your elders (including me)! The world is changing so fast, financial models are struggling to keep up.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I know my great grandmother, Annie Coachman, also known as Ma Honey, is the reason I’m successful today. It took me too long to recognize that fact because I was too busy giving credit to traditional resume building institutions like Harvard, my alma mater. My great grandmother owned a penny candy store, BBQ pit, juke joint and some houses in Indiantown, Florida. She was an entrepreneur! I used to follow her around as a child. She instilled in me a far superior work ethic, business acumen and community focus than any institution can offer.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.” Malcolm X
I always felt it was important to be “rooted”. As a child, I could not have defined that feeling so precisely, but I believed having a clear vision and standing for something was important. This quote defines precisely what I’ve worked to avoid.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I’m already living my purpose. My goal is to make financial literacy a core value of the Black community and to help us define ourselves by our assets and not our challenges. There’s a lot more work to be done, and I may not see that vision fulfilled in my lifetime, but we’re on our way!
Thank you for all of these great insights!