Bank of America's Cathy Bessant: The Most Powerful Woman in Banking
Chief Operations and Technology Officer, Bank of America
Cathy Bessant’s day job — managing 95,000 employees in 35 countries and a $14 billion annual budget — would be enough to keep most people busy.
But Bessant has undertaken major initiatives outside the office as well, including starting the Council on the Responsible Use of Artificial Intelligence with Harvard University two years ago and working with the North Tryon Advisory Committee on efforts to achieve economic mobility for disadvantaged people in Charlotte.
This year, she has stepped up her involvement in yet another major initiative: helping people with disabilities.
She’s driven, at least in part, by her experience with family members with disabilities. Her former mother-in-law was a paraplegic, and her brother, with whom she is very close, sustained severe injuries from a car crash in 2013.
“I think everybody, on a piece of paper, is a champion of accessibility and adaptability,” Bessant said. “Having personal experience motivates action and helps overcome fear.”
Helping take care of her former mother-in-law taught Bessant to ask questions.
“I’m not shy at all about saying, ‘How can I help you? What can I do to make this easier for you?’ ” she said. “If I get the question wrong, my earnestness comes through. I don’t always get the language right, but I’m not afraid to ask.”
Bessant is the executive sponsor for the BofA’s internal Disability Advocacy Network, which supports people with disabilities and their families. DAN has grown under her leadership to more than 7,300 members and 17 active chapters worldwide.
In 2018, for the second year in a row, BofA earned a perfect score of 100% on the Disability Equality Index, which is run by two nonprofits, the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability:In. The index benchmarks companies in five categories: culture and leadership, enterprisewide access, employment practices, community engagement and supplier diversity.
See the most recent rankings:
Bessant invested $30 million this year to ensure the company’s technology and facilities meet or exceed industry standards for employees and customers with disabilities.
On the digital banking side, she has mandated compliance with implementing the highest level of Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. These go beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act, which she considers table stakes.
If the standards are incorporated at the point of design, “it’s not any more expensive, it just takes added thought,” Bessant said. “If you have to retrofit, it’s expensive.”
Technology plays a big role in ensuring financial services is accessible, she said. “How you design a drop-down menu affects whether or not someone can use it.”
Bessant is using her position as one of the biggest technology buyers in the world to put pressure on vendors to better serve disabled Americans, requiring them to disclose their scores on three disability inclusion indexes, or their plan for being included in the indexes.
“When I’m ready to sign a contract, my people bring me a summary that has the financials and how they’ve answered that question,” Bessant said. “We are exiting one vendor that’s a household name because they won’t even certify to be ADA compliant. I’m excited about this work because it heightens awareness in these firms and causes them to take action, but that action also creates additional support for the advocacy network of organizations like the American Association of People with Disabilities.”