Madame President! Teri Williams Leads America’s Largest Black-Owned Bank

Teri WilliamsOneUnited Bank is America’s largest Black-owned bank as well as the first Black Internet bank. And its president is a Black woman, Teri Williams.

With offices in Los Angeles, Boston and Miami, OneUnited Bank began nearly 50 years ago with the opening of Unity Bank & Trust in Boston. OneUnited Bank was formed by combining Black-owned banks across the country–Founders National Bank of Commerce in Los Angeles, Family Savings Bank in Los Angeles, Peoples National Bank of Commerce in Miami and Boston Bank of Commerce. OneUnited Bank introduced its Internet branch in February 2006.

As president and member of the bank’s board of directors, Williams is responsible for implementation of the bank?s strategic initiatives, as well as the day-to-day operations of the bank.

Williams has been in the banking sector for many years, having worked at Bank of America and American Express, where she was one of the youngest vice presidents. Williams holds an MBA with honors from Harvard University and a B.A. with distinctions from Brown University.

One of her passions is promoting financial literacy. She is the author of ‘I Got Bank! What My Granddad Taught Me About Money (Beckham Publishing)’, a financial literacy book for urban youth.

Williams shared her thoughts on the state of Black banks and more with What inspired you to enter the banking sector?
Teri Williams: I always loved people and math?financial services has both! I originally worked for American Express, which is where I gained my most valuable training and corporate experience. I moved from American Express to community development banking to use my knowledge and expertise to help minority communities, which is my passion. What have been some personal obstacles you have faced as a female bank executive?
TW: As my parents taught me: I must be twice as good to be recognized for my performance. Fortunately, I love what I do, so working hard is not an obstacle. Especially today?you have to love banking and its ability to improve lives?to be successful. There have been many reports that say Black banks are troubled. How do you feel they can survive?
TW: With this economic recession, many banks have experienced challenges. Black banks are no different. However, I believe the country needs Black banks and minority banks. A recent study indicates that almost 70 percent of the loans originated by Black banks are to low-to-moderate income communities and almost 60 percent are to African-American communities compared to only 7 percent for other (non-minority) banks. In addition to lending, we also provide financial literacy and guidance to many people, businesses and organizations in minority communities. Minority communities need an independent financial voice. Why do you feel Black banks are still necessary?
TW: The current financial crisis is a strong indication that Black banks are still necessary. The difference between Black and White wealth is largely due to equity in real estate. Unfortunately, between redlining in the past and more recent subprime loans, minority communities have not always been well served by the financial services industry. Black banks have a community development mission that focuses on providing programs to build wealth and develop minority communities, as opposed to merely maximizing profit. We believe our approach is needed. There is still a big gap in getting Blacks into the banking system. Why do you feel this to be so?
TW: There is a high percentage of Americans who do not have bank accounts, including African-Americans. There needs to be programs to bridge the gap. As an example, we launched the UNITY Visa Card to move people away from pre-paid debit cards that charge high fees and do not rebuild credit.

Our UNITY Visa secured credit card reports to the three major credit bureaus and helps rebuild credit with a ?How to Rebuild Credit Program.” We also offer a “second chance checking account” in our branches for people with a ChexSystems record. Another example: we are waiving our home loan fees to encourage families to purchase a new home or refinance their existing mortgage in order to take advantage of lower interest rates.

Many families are not taking advantage of the lower interest rates because they cannot afford the upfront costs for a mortgage ? so we?re waiving the appraisal fee, credit report fee and other fees. Finally, we teach financial literacy workshops in schools and through partnerships with organizations. We believe our products and services can change lives and we are meeting families wherever they are on their journey. How do you reach out to the community?
TW: We advertise on local radio and in community newspapers; have a very active online presence including our website and social media (Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn); partner with organizations; send out email blasts; participate in community events; and teach workshops, among other things. What are your goals for 2014?
TW: To continue our community development mission to be the premier banking institution for urban communities across America by providing innovative products and services including: the launch and development of the UNITY Visa Card Program; origination of new real estate secured loans largely in low-to-moderate income communities; teaching financial literacy workshops including a Summer School Program in our branches; and developing more programs to improve the lives of the communities we serve. Looking beyond 2014, what are some of your long-term goals?
TW: To continue our community development mission and expand our use of technology to change the lives of the communities we serve. What has been your biggest business lesson?
TW: It has taken longer than I expected to build a team of senior managers who are committed to our community development mission, have the knowledge and expertise to achieve our goals and understand the importance of collaboration to make better decisions. Our senior management team has been with OneUnited Bank for 12 years. We also have a seasoned board of directors that guides our efforts in good and bad times, which has been essential to our success. What business advice would you pass on?

TW: Build a team; collaborate extensively; and focus on big ideas that you can execute successfully.

(CLICK HERE for another article about Teri Williams.)