A lot of what Cathy Bessant knows about directing a team can be traced back to her days as patrol leader of her Girl Scouts troop.
"That was the first leadership role I ever pursued," said Bessant, who was in the scouts as a tween growing up in Jackson, Mich. "You get to wear a special cord, but your power isn't positional. It is relational and that is exactly what I do every day. I work with our board. I get groups to get work done. You can draw a straight line between the work I do today and the things that began in girl scouting."
This Girl Scout connection is also helping Bessant solve a systemic problem in today's workplace: a shortage of women with degrees in computer science. In 2000, 28% of college degrees in computer science went to female graduates. By 2008, it was down to 18% and remained there through 2013, according to a study by the American Association of University Women.
"It's a problem to begin with and it is not getting better," Bessant said.
So when a member of Bessant's team suggested pitching the Girl Scouts Hornets' Nest Council of North and South Carolina on the idea of a "women in technology" badge, Bessant put the support of Bank of America behind the initiative.
The badge, which bears the Bank of America logo, launched last year and can be earned one of two ways. There is a cybersecurity track, where the scouts learn cybersecurity lingo and either get to do a role-playing activity or a read-and-discuss activity. (They tend to pick the role-playing one.)
Alternatively, they can learn banking basics, including how to use ATMs and what to do in other banking scenarios.
The badge is meant for scouts between the sixth and eighth grades. Bessant said that's when the girls are at the perfect age to get them thinking about a career in technology.
"If you think about the deep tech skills required to be successful in the industry, it is not something you can teach a midlevel or senior level person in 30 days and send them on their way," Bessant said. "We have to change the shape of the tech sector permanently by impacting those in the earliest stages of their development. That's how we weave it into their DNA."
So far, 58 girls in 19 troops have gone through the cybersecurity course, and 50 girls in 18 troops have gone through the banking basics course. In addition to the Hornets' Nest, Girl Scouts councils in Delaware and Dallas have adopted the women in technology badge.
Bessant joined B of A in 1982 and over the years she has run some of its most important business units, including global corporate banking, treasury services, and marketing. In her current role of chief operations and technology officer, Bessant is responsible for a workforce of nearly 100,000 people in 35 countries and an annual budget of $16 billion. Her division oversees technology and operations for all of B of A's business lines.
Another trait the Girls Scouts helped galvanize in Bessant is an appreciation for diversity. Bessant's mom was an executive on several regional councils after initially volunteering to be the cookie chairman for Bessant's troop. The organization has long been a champion of inclusivity of races, orientations and genders, and Bessant's mom, along with her schoolteacher dad, maintained that attitude at home too.
At Bank of America, Bessant is leading the development of its LGBT Pride Global Ally program. The company launched an LGBT Pride program in 2009 and expanded it to include LGBT allies in 2013. Now 15,000 employees are involved across the organization.
"For me, it starts with the belief that diversity of all kinds produces better outcomes than homogeneity," Bessant said. "Diversity always wins, it just does – talent development is better, shareholder returns are better, the quality of life is better. We are better because of diversity and I was raised that way."