Banks in major cities like New York and Los Angeles perhaps have a responsibility to be diverse so that their staff reflects their local community.

But when a bank based in North Dakota — a state where the population is 89% white — prioritizes diversity, it is looking to make a statement.

"We live in a large geography with a sparse, but homogenous population," said Michael Solberg, the president and chief executive of Bell Bank, which has been on the annual list of Best Banks to Work For all five years. "I think our commitment to diversity has added a lot of richness to our culture here. I think it helps us understand that although we have differences, we have more commonalities."

Proactive by necessity
"We don't sit and wait for people to come to us," Julie Peterson Klein, Bell's chief culture officer, says in describing the bank's quest for diversity even though it operates in heavily white markets.

To get a better perspective on that commitment, it is important to know about Bell's roots. For the decades that it has been around, the bank has been co-owned by two families with opposing political views: the right-leaning Solbergs and the left-leaning Snortlands.

"But the families have always had healthy respect for each other and have given each other grace" when their opinions differed, Solberg said.

Issues of diversity and immigration are permeating the political landscape currently, but Solberg said he believes they should not be.

"This shouldn't be a political issue. People are people, and I want to make sure we are focused on the things we agree on," he said.

While Solberg champions the bank's diversity, Julie Peterson Klein, Bell's chief culture officer, makes it happen.

For starters, anyone who is an ethnic minority, comes from a foreign country, is a veteran or has military experience receives a screening interview if they inquire about a job opening, Klein said.

But given the demographics of Bell's North Dakota and Minnesota markets, the bank often seeks out diversity rather than just relying on inquiries.

"We are proactive in building relationships with colleges and professors. We attend job fairs," said Klein, who declined to share specifics about how much diversity the bank has been able to recruit. "We don't sit and wait for people to come to us."

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For Bell, diversity is not purely about race.

The $4.4 billion-asset, Fargo-based bank has partnerships with organizations that help place individuals with autism and other special needs. Bell also has helped noncitizens obtain work visas.

"We are trying to do our part to give everyone an opportunity," Klein said.

Also, while the communities that the bank serves tend to be white, there are people of color in those communities who deserve to see themselves reflected at Bell, Solberg said.

"It is important for people of minority backgrounds to see people familiar to them having success," he said.

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