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Women Leading the Finance Industry: “Companies’ recognition of diversity as a business strategy will likely have the biggest impact.” with Melissa Stevens and Tyler Gallagher

Companies’ recognition of diversity as a business strategy will likely have the biggest impact. I’m proud that Fifth Third has recognized this and has created programs — from a women’s leadership class to our Maternity Concierge — while helps pregnant women and those with young children. The Maternity Concierge is an outgrowth of our classic concierge which is a […]


Companies’ recognition of diversity as a business strategy will likely have the biggest impact. I’m proud that Fifth Third has recognized this and has created programs — from a women’s leadership class to our Maternity Concierge — while helps pregnant women and those with young children. The Maternity Concierge is an outgrowth of our classic concierge which is a lifesaver for me! They’ve run errands, created care packages for my kids at camp, research vacation spots, plan parties, filled my gas tank before a trip and even found a Father’s Day gift. The more that companies recognize employees as people and recognize their needs beyond reaching business goals, they will actually exceed their business goals.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Stevens of Fifth Third Bank. Melissa is the Bank’s Chief Digital Officer and head of digital, design, innovation and customer experience. She is charged with ensuring a client-centric, digital-first approach to all areas of the Bank, including Consumer Banking, Commercial Banking, and Wealth & Asset Management. Melissa came to the Bank about three years ago from Citi — bringing her deep digital experience and strong innovations work to spark a cultural change. While her job is to lead the digital team, she has inspired a cultural transformation at the 20,000 + employee bank, resulting in: seamless and meaningful experiences for our customers; increased digital engagement; operational excellence; revenue growth.


Thank you so much for joining us Melissa. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to the Banking/Finance field?

My personal purpose in life is to “enable the lives of others.” I am fortunate in that my personal purpose and professional purpose in financial services are completely aligned. I do not think that any bank will be the center of an individual human being’s life but I do think we enabling much of what they do in their lives — we hold their money so they can transact, we loan money for day-to-day needs as well as major life moments (big family trip, home buying, auto buying) we provide cash flow resources for people to run their businesses.

I joined financial services in 1998 straight out of a Master’s program in Labor & Industrial Relations at Michigan State. I had opportunities to join a variety of industries (auto, oil, financial services). I joined financial services for the chance to work in the services industry vs. tangible goods, and work internationally (at Citi) within the first couple of years of my career. I was intrigued by financial services because I felt I could understand most products and understand how they were helping solve a need for customers. (I’m not saying that I didn’t understand how cars solve the problem of needing to be transported, or oil as an energy source, but it just didn’t “hook” me in the same way).

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?

One of my favorite moments in my career involves “sitting at the table.” Anthony Farina was my manager in one of my roles at Citi and he chaired a senior leadership committee within the organization that I staffed. For the first few months after we started it, I would “run” the meeting from the sidelines — think of the junior analyst at a consulting firm doing all the research, all the prep work, and all the follow-up work. During the committee meetings, I sat off to the side. After a few months running like this, he called me into his office and, rather than coaching me or lecturing me, he simply asked me two questions: “Why don’t you sit at the main table?” and, after hearing my response of seeding seats for the more senior members of the committee, he asked “Is there space at the table when you get to the room?”

I responded, “of course, I’m there an hour before anyone else.” He looked at me and said, “Then sit at the table. It’s the others’ own damn fault if they don’t come early enough to get a seat.” And that was that. I never sat on the sidelines again regardless of my level, regardless of whether I was on the only woman in the room, and regardless of whether I was running the meeting or just attending the meeting. That simple life lesson helped me get where I am because in those simple questions and quick retort, he taught me more than I could ever ask for — he taught me that I was “equal” and that I didn’t need to hold myself back. It fueled my ability to take on assignments when I didn’t know the subject matter as well as others, to ask questions when others wouldn’t, to boldly engage in debates on critical topics. He has supported my journey for almost 20-years — encouraging me when I needed it, counseling me when I was at a fork in the road, and kicking my butt when I needed to be reminded to pick myself up and get back in the game.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

A little while ago we began an extensive effort to build a body of research on millennials. Fifth Third surveyed more than 3,000 millennials and interviewed more than 100 young adults in six markets across the globe to understand better what they need in general in life — their hopes and dreams, their challenges and opportunities. We wanted to learn more, not with a solution in mind or a banking product, but to understand this generation better.

We also wanted to bust some myths about this generation. You’ll often hear that they don’t have money and that’s why they are still living with their parents. But what we’re finding is there is a lot of affluence and even first-time home buyers in their ranks. We also hear a lot about how this generation has much more debt than previous generations. But we’re finding this isn’t true. Baby boomers and Generation Xers had debt for their homes — tangible goods — at this age. We’re finding millennials with that same amount of debt, but for their college education, so intangible goods. It’s a different investment.

From this research we’ve launched a few products and will continue to use it to inform what else we need to create. Most of it surrounds financial wellness which I’m really passionate about. We know that this is important at every age, but particularly for millennials.

With student-loan debt as one of the biggest burdens that the millennial generation faces, we found that, if we could bake a chance to do better in paying that loan debt off into their daily lives, we could get engagement and involvement from them. So we created Momentum as a stand-alone app. It allows our checking customers to swipe a debit card, round up, and we will directly pay down their student loan. They register their student loan with us, and we directly pay it down. I’m so excited and proud that we’ve helped our customers pay down more than $2 million in student loan debt. And we’ve made this free.

Another thing we learned is that people have a hard time saving. So many people told us they wished they could put their money in a “money jail,” to keep from spending it on things that weren’t important to them. So we launched Dobot this year, an app that uses gamification and AI. It’s been really fun to see how it helps people save. They can upload a photo of what they’re saving for, set their savings goal and connect their checking account from any bank to Dobot. I’m so proud to find a way to make savings more fun and help people reach their goals.

And last, we’re redesigning our branches. While the majority of our customers are using digital banking, we know they still want human contact. Branches are still very relevant to customers, yet they are being used differently than they have in previous generations. Today it’s about growing the relationship by delivering a holistic customer experience — digital and physical blending perfectly to meet their needs. So it’s been fun to talk to people across the country about what they want in a bank, what will make them feel comfortable and at ease to talk about finances.

We’ve created what we’re calling our Next Generation branch that features a design that puts more emphasis on education, advising, and new technology that can help our customers more seamlessly manage their finances.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’ve been working on inclusion and diversity since far before it was required or considered necessary. More than a decade ago we began work on ensuring an inclusive environment for employees who identity as LGBT+ / members of the LGBT+ community. We began programs to support women in the workforce before it was “cool” to do it.

Last year I had the honor of being part of a story that gets press these days but isn’t as common as you might think [stat: 0.6% of Americans identity as transgender]. A young team member shared that she was transgender. She had grown-up as a man in a woman’s body and had decided that it was time to make the transition. Hormone therapy had begun, the surgeries were scheduled (a ways out), friends were aware and supportive and the family members were aware and not so supportive. This individual no longer wanted to come to work each day without being able to be HIMself, plus the hormones were starting to take effect — voice was deepening, facial hair starting to grow. So, I asked “how can I help.” I simple question — something I ask people almost every day. It was the first time anyone had asked that question during this difficult, and lonely, journey. We talked about doing whatever he was most comfortable doing, how to announce the transition, the fears of how people in a bank (stereotypically white male and conservative), especially one in the heart of the Midwest and a heavily Catholic area, would react. I shared that our company supports everyone and wants each individual to be their most authentic self. And so, a week later we shared the news with our team. I gave a simple message — we have a celebration today. This individual, who you know as a woman, is going through a transition, and is actually a man. It’s a long process from a medical standpoint, and it’s been a long process emotionally and mentally from a human standpoint. Today, we celebrate that he can now share with us, who he really is. Effective immediately you will all know X as a man. He will use the men’s restroom, we will refer to him as he/him, and we will support him through this journey together. We will also have questions. We will also make mistakes (wrong pronoun, etc.). We will learn through this together. This is not our story, this is HIS story, and I’m proud that our team can be part of his story and go through the journey with him. It was emotional for this individual. It was scary for him. The effect and result was unexpected for him. People hugged him. People congratulated him. People asked how they could support him. NO MAN had an issue seeing him in the restroom. No individual expressed any concerns except how to best support and that they were likely to get a pronoun wrong here or there.

We do a lot of cool innovation at our bank, but it’s creating this culture of inclusivity that allows everything to happen.

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?

MSS: My mother is in her 70’s. She’s a highly accomplished mathematics teacher. When she went finished high school she was coached toward three choices — go to work (assistant or other similar work) or go to college and become a nurse or teacher. I’m not saying that she didn’t have other options, but that they weren’t encouraged. This is what girls did. These were the jobs deemed appropriate for women. Her mother (may God rest her soul) worked in the accounting department at a major marketing firm in Minneapolis before she was married. After she got married, she had to quit her job. In those days, it was okay for a single woman to work, but once she had a husband, he was to provide for her, and she to keep the house for him and start producing children. She couldn’t keep working because it was considered “taking a job from a man.” So, I think a major part of the change is that opportunities for women are much broader. I was born in the 1970s. I was told that I could do ANYTHING, be ANYTHING, that even things that were unattainable as a child could be opened up to me if I just “went for it.” As such, I think part of the change is really a matter of the progression of women and people of color in the workforce.

To me, the change is also due to a few other elements including recognition that broader diversity yields better profits. Study and study shows that having diverse backgrounds (education and upbringing), diverse points of view, and diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity are better for business. It’s also because the workforce has more diversity in it now, than ever before, and if employees don’t see “people like them” at the top, they aren’t likely to want to work in the company.

Companies’ recognition of diversity as a business strategy will likely have the biggest impact. I’m proud that Fifth Third has recognized this and has created programs — from a women’s leadership class to our Maternity Concierge — while helps pregnant women and those with young children. The Maternity Concierge is an outgrowth of our classic concierge which is a lifesaver for me! They’ve run errands, created care packages for my kids at camp, research vacation spots, plan parties, filled my gas tank before a trip and even found a Father’s Day gift. The more that companies recognize employees as people and recognize their needs beyond reaching business goals, they will actually exceed their business goals.

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?

1. Individuals (men and women) should do something to be the change they want to see. At my firm, two women in our Wealth & Asset Management business designed a program called “Women of Wealth.” They recognized the level-gap, the representation gap and many other gaps, and they built a pitch to start doing something about it. Then, they made it happen. They’re in the middle of their second year — each cohort has 10–12 women in it. They expose them to all areas of our company, give them coaching and guidance, work on diversity topics and many other topics to help them prepare for what’s next.

2. Companies should change recruiting practices. Do not start interviewing for a new position if you do not have a diverse slate. You can define what diverse means (male/female, race, etc.). Many companies encourage having a diverse slate, but they don’t mandate it. As I speak with colleagues at other companies, the very few that have done this have seen a change in the make-up of their workforce. It’s hard. Positions will be open longer and existing networks won’t easily be used to fill roles.

3. Women who have “made it” need to help those who haven’t. Men should help, too, but women should operate as a “new girls’ club” instead of being upset about the “old boys’ club.” Let’s learn from that. Let’s drive a new way to networking, supporting one another, celebrating many women making it into senior positions. There was an era where there was “only room for one” but now, I say that we embrace Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s approach — when RBG was asked when there will be enough women on the Supreme Court, she responded “…when there are nine.”

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.

1. Learn the Rule of 72 and use it

2. Track your spend by ad hoc, weekly, monthly, and annual expenses. Manage a budget for at least one year accordingly so you understand how much life really costs.

3. From the first time you have a job, even as a babysitter or pet sitter, put some of your earnings away into long-term savings. It adds up to a lot in the long term, and if you do it from the start, it never feels like you’re taking away from yourself.

4. Pay cash for everything for a period of time. It helps you understand what things cost. You won’t live beyond your means. Try this before you start thinking about credit card spending and loans.

5. Know your own worth. You are your biggest asset. Invest in yourself — in education, in constant learning, asking questions, growing.

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’ve had help from so many people. And I think my story above about Anthony Farina really shows how someone can push and help you.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I live for quotes to live by. Here are a few favorites:

Babe Ruth: “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individuals in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

I’m a team sport person; I grew up playing soccer. I love being part of a team — my family, my neighborhood, and my workplace. This is a reminder that team is what brings things to life, a human collective drives us forward.

Vince Lombardi: “Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” This defines how I think about team and how I think about relationships, love, life, etc.

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. 🙂

About 20 percent of children in the U.S. live in poverty, and that number rises to nearly 30 percent in states like Mississippi, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Growing up in poverty has serious consequences that can affect a child for life. If I could start a movement, it would be to focus on America’s children. We’re the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, yet our children suffer more food insecurity than in most nations. This has a long-term negative impact on all aspects of their life and stacks the odds against their ability to live a better life than their parents do. It makes me sad to know that American children go to bed hungry on a nightly basis. I personally want to find a way to be part of solving this, and I’d welcome others joining the movement.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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