Most Powerful Women in Banking: Laura Lee Stewart, Sound Community Bank

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Laura Lee “Laurie” Stewart was looking forward to conversations about diversity and the next generation of bankers when she became chairman of the American Bankers Association last October. The conversations turned into a hard look as the industry grappled with its history and its need for more diversity amid racial justice protests this spring and summer.

“I think for the most part we thought we were doing OK,” said Stewart, president and chief executive of Sound Community Bank in Washington. “And I think we’ve come to understand that even if we were doing OK, OK wasn’t good enough and that, in many cases, we probably weren’t doing OK.”

To keep the conversation alive at her bank, Stewart established a committee of employees representing all levels of the business.

“We got more diversity in the group than I anticipated, including things we didn’t think about,” said Stewart.

An older customer service rep, for example, raised issues around ageism, Stewart said. “It made us think how broad and deep this conversation could be.”

She hasn’t shied away from taking the conversation outside the bank. After the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, she wrote an email to customers expressing outrage and outlining how the bank was stepping up its efforts to address racism.

The reaction was mostly positive, Stewart said. But a few customers took her to task for straying beyond what they saw as the bank’s business. One customer even closed her accounts.

Stewart said she was sorry to lose the business but not for speaking up. “There is no middle of the road, plain vanilla, please everybody,” she said. “It doesn’t exist. So, let’s find out what’s important and find those values and go forward. They won’t be same as everybody else’s values and that’s OK.”

For the first time, American Banker's Most Powerful Women in Banking celebration is open to the whole financial community. Join us virtually October 6-8 to hear our 2020 honorees' stories and experiences. Register here.

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Community banking Laura Lee Stewart Women in Banking
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