The most powerful woman at Bank of America explained how to defeat racial inequality at work: 'It's one thing to say Lives Matter. It's another thing to say, with clarity, Black Lives Matter.'
Bank of America's chief operations and technology officer Cathy Bessant spoke to a group of students graduating the Year Up program on Thursday. Bessant opened up about how companies need to address racial inequality: "Racial equality and economic mobility go hand in hand." "It's one thing to say, 'lives matter.' It's another thing to say, with clarity, 'Black lives matter, brown lives matter,'" Bessant added. The Year Up program supports underprivileged students in skills development and career advancement. Bank of America hosted 40 students as interns through the program's new Charlotte, N.C., chapter this year. Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
One of the top female executives on Wall Street is calling on companies to be more vocal in their support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On Thursday, Cathy Bessant, the chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America, spoke virtually to a cohort of students graduating from the Charlotte, N.C., chapter of Year Up.Year Up is a national organization that was founded in 2000 with the goal of helping underrepresented students accelerate their careers and develop personal and technical skills to succeed in the workplace. Its Charlotte chapter was launched last year with the help of a $1 million donation from Bank of America, which is headquartered in the city, to help the group get the new branch off the ground. In a live fireside chat conducted over Zoom between Bessant and Year Up's founder Gerald Chertavian, Bessant spoke about racial inequality in corporate America, and how the antidote will require corporate leaders to confront the problem. "Racial equality and economic mobility go hand in hand," Bessant said. "You can't have one without the other, and I think it's very simple for our company to say, 'We believe in equality.' It's another thing to live it." "It's one thing to say, 'Lives matter.' It's another thing to say, with clarity, 'Black lives matter, brown lives matter,'" she added, and "to be willing, as a company, to stand up and acknowledge the past, but more importantly, acknowledge what needs to happen to change the future." Read more: How a Bank of America exec is partnering with a non-profit training program to tap into a diverse and underserved talent pool for Wall Street tech jobs\ Among students in Year Up's program, 48% identify as Black or African American, and 29% identify as Hispanic or Latinx, according to the organization. In other words, more than three-fourths of the students whom the group works with identify as people of color.
Meanwhile, only 6% in the program identify as white — a glaring indication of a racial disparity that continues to cast a disproportionately dark socioeconomic shadow on minorities. Since partnering with Year Up, Bank of America has hosted 1,400 of the group's students in internships nationwide, and hired more than 550 of them into full-time roles. In June, Bank of America announced that it would commit $1 billion over the course of four years to "help local communities address economic and racial inequality accelerated" by the coronavirus pandemic. Bessant opened up about her past: 'I was the person that needed Year Up' Last year, American Banker named Bessant the most powerful woman in banking — but she told the graduates on Thursday that her journey to the C-suite took a non-traditional path."I'm the oldest of four children. We had one shower, and we didn't have that until I was a senior in high school, and so I'm very conscious of the fact that when most people look at me today, they don't know that I was the person that needed Year Up," she said. See more: The biggest US wealth firms won't disclose adviser racial diversity data despite renewing commitments to make their mostly white adviser forces more inclusive And, for a top executive whose portfolio includes technology at Bank of America, Bessant's first job was painfully low tech. "I started at McDonalds — and by the way, I started at McDonalds when there were no computers," she said, "so I was adding up cheeseburgers and hamburgers with a pencil and a piece of paper every single day." 'You are going to work with the wind at your back as you become firsts' Bessant had a few words of wisdom to help the graduates on Thursday find future success. "There is no substitute for hard work," she told them, adding that they didn't have to feel the pressure of having "to know everything [on] day one." They'd invariably learn vital skills on the job. She concluded her remarks on a nostalgic note, looking back on her first days at Bank of America and reminding students to maintain the network of relationships they'd built through the Year Up program. "I started with the bank September 7, 1982. I can still pull out of my closet the pink — yes, light pink — suit that I wore to work the first day of work, and I can still tell you the names of the people in my starting class." Read more: C-suite leaders are making a big assumption about their workforce — and it's bleeding the economy of $1.05 trillion And, as students find themselves breaking ground in the future, Bessant had a message about being the first to knock down barriers. "It's easy to say we want to shatter glass ceilings or break racial barriers. It's another thing to actually live it and do it," she told them. "You are going to work with the wind at your back as you become firsts," she said. Are you a young person working on Wall Street? Contact this reporter via email at email@example.com, encrypted messaging app Signal (561-247-5758), or direct message on Twitter @reedalexander. Read more:
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