As the president of OneUnited Bank, Terri Williams guides the fortunes of the nation’s #1 black owned bank with assets over 600 million dollars and branches in Boston, Miami and Los Angeles. With an Ivy League pedigree that includes a BA from Brown University and a MBA from Harvard, Williams has implemented an array of products and services that has earned her an impressive reputation in financial circles for her business acumen and strong commitment to community service.
Black dollars matter and to that point, Williams is committed to the growth and vitality of her core constituents. Under her leadership One United Bank has introduced innovative online operations that are capable of providing services to customers nationwide. The bank also sponsors financial literacy programs and supports other initiatives that empower the bank’s customers.
EBONY.com spoke with Williams recently to gain a better understanding about her amazing career in banking.
EBONY: What made you interested in banking?
Terrie Williams: The last profession I expected to be in is banking. First, growing up I didn’t know any bankers…and when I met them in college, I thought they were too stuffy. However a good friend told me that banking was a good first job to learn about many different industries. So I worked at Bank of America after college and American Express after business school before buying and joining OneUnited Bank in 1995. Since, we grew OneUnited from $50 to $650 million in assets by combining four banks to become the largest Black-owned bank in the country. And we’ve been profitable every year but one for the past twenty years. We’ve lent over $1 billion in low–to-moderate income communities while our credit losses are below our peers. We’re also the first Black internet bank. We promote financial literacy through essay contests, workshops, social media and even murals. Our kind of banking is not stuffy.
EBONY: What is a typical day in your life like?
TW: I wake up at 5:30 AM in Boston, Los Angeles or Miami, where we have offices. After a long walk, I go online to see what happened overnight. Depending upon my schedule and how much work I can do from home, I get to the office between 9:00 and 11:00 AM. We have eight senior managers in Boston and LA who manage Lending, Retail, Finance, HR, IT, Legal, Compliance and Internal Audit. I work for our Chairman & CEO. I’m in meetings either online, in person, video conference or by phone with our team for most of the day. With our technology, I can manage the bank from my mobile phone, if necessary. I also have meetings with our partners, community organizations, customers and board of directors. Surprisingly I spend about 50% of my day either reading or writing to stay ahead of potential risks and ensure our team is on the same page. I leave the office at 6:00…but I’m back online by 7:30 because our California team is still in the office. By 10:00 PM, I’m done. Yes, I have a long day…but I love what I do!
EBONY: Are there any inherent responsibilities in owning a bank?
TW: Absolutely! As the owner, I have to make sure we have the best “team on the field” including our Board of Directors and senior management team. Our board is very seasoned and battle tested. We’ve had the same management team for over five years. They all own stock in OneUnited and have been with the bank for 5 to 20 years. My other responsibility is to the communities we serve. This is not my bank. It’s our community’s bank. My goal is to ensure OneUnited Bank changes the nature of urban banking. We strive to offer banking services and promote financial literacy in our unique way…very similar to how hip hop speaks to urban communities in ways that rock could not.
EBONY: Why OneUnited Bank versus larger banks
TW: The advantage of OneUnited Bank is that we have the technology of a large bank, but the “everyone knows your name” service of a credit union. Our customers love our branch and call center employees who, by the way, live in America. When our customers walk into OneUnited, they feel like they’re home. Yet…we have the same online banking, mobile banking, bill pay and funds transfer services that large banks offer…and we offer better interest rates. National banks do have a large branch and ATM network, but there’s a price you pay for that network. They offer less competitive rates, higher fees and poor personal service. With our internet/mobile banking services and network of surcharge free ATMs, you can conveniently bank with us online at www.oneunited.com and get the benefit of our personal service.
EBONY: Why are black banks still relevant?
TW: Simply put, Black banks are relevant because we care more about urban communities and understand them better than other banks. Unfortunately, there are many ways to get scammed in banking. As an example, for years many banks changed the order of checks to maximize overdraft fees. They also offered subprime loans and now offer pre-paid cards…the current urban scam. OneUnited could make more money if we offered services that are not in the best interest of our community. We choose not to. Instead we offer services like our UNITY Visa secured credit card because it helps people rebuild their credit. In essence, you can trust us to do the right thing! I also think #BlackBanksMatter because we need to own our economic resources. Otherwise, we have no control over the development of our community. Other ethnicities get this, which is why the largest Asian and Hispanic banks dwarf us in size. We can do better. We must do better.
EBONY: You implemented some very creative strategies for your bank. Tell us about some of those programs?
TW: OneUnited Bank seeks to inspire dignity and financial literacy – in our way – through products and services, workshops, music, books, essay contests, social media and murals! In other words…by any means necessary! As examples, we partner with the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA) in Los Angeles to talk about how to make money in the entertainment industry behind the camera…a subject that is often ignored. We offer our “I Got Bank” financial literacy essay contest for youth where we give away three $1,000 savings accounts for winning essays. We have an artist painting a mural, “Thunder and Enlightening”, on our Miami branch to represent freedom, equal justice and love using media icons such as Trayvon Martin, Christina-Taylor Green and Mike Brown. We’re partnering with the Bay State Banner in Boston to offer “Pitch in the City” a local version of Shark Tank. We also offer great banking services including high rate CDs and our multi-family loan program which finances properties with 5 to 75 units in Boston, LA and Miami. So…overall, we’re changing the nature of urban banking!
Gil Robertson IV is an award-winning journalist, bestselling author and president of the African-American Film Critics Association.