It was not very long ago that banks openly refused to lend to in minority neighborhoods like Chicago's impoverished Kenwood-Oakland.
Yasmin Bates-Brown remembers visiting the area in the mid-1980s and seeing homes with crumbling walls, shattered windows, and broken plumbing because residents couldn't afford to make repairs.
"These were hard-working people," says Bates-Brown, who recently retired after 34 years at Harris Bank in Chicago. "But they had menial jobs and were not making enough money to turn those buildings around."
At the time, Bates-Brown had just been asked by Harris to start up a Neighborhood Lending Program to correct the injustices of redlining. The project, launched in 1984, was triggered by pressure from advocacy groups, but quickly became a model for banks around the country.
Working closely with Kenwood-Oakland's nonprofit development corporation, Bates and her team made the first loans in that community since World War II. The money went toward fixing up two residential buildings, each with six run-down apartments.
"Block by block we were changing neighborhoods," says Bates-Brown, who lived in Chicago public housing as a child. "I loved it because it was an opportunity to work at the bank but at the same time we were making a difference in the community."
The Neighborhood Lending Program-which grew from a five-year project into an established business-is the perfect example of how Bates-Brown used her platform as a banker for the greater good. This passion for the community eventually led Bates to the final job she held before retirement, as head of community affairs and economic development.
Ed Williams, the banker at Harris who recruited Bates-Brown to the program, says she was successful largely because she has an uncanny ability to build friendly relations with people who might be suspicious of bankers.
"She comes across as someone who listens to you and cares about you," says Williams. "When you're trying to build trust that's very important."
Banking doesn't work without a focus on the bottom line, however, and Bates-Brown says she never confused charity with business. Helping communities in need works in the bank's favor by improving its reputation, she says.
Throughout her career, Bates-Brown had several opportunities to prove her savvy with the bottom line in more mainstream banking jobs. As head of Harris Bank's Chicagoland South Division at the beginning of this decade, she managed more than $10 billion of assets, 1,700 employees and a network of 130 branches. She significantly expanded the division during her tenure, growing revenue by 20 percent annually on average and overseeing three major acquisitions.
But what Bates-Brown says she enjoyed most in her career is building relationships with colleagues. "I had great team members who supported me to get the job done."