It was in the small town of Jackson, Mich., that Catherine P. Bessant gave her first speech. Coached by her father, a public speaking teacher, the 5-year-old held forth on the nation's space program.

Twenty-nine years later, Ms. Bessant is still talking up a storm. As a senior vice president and community reinvestment officer at NationsBank, she is perhaps the most outspoken person in her increasingly visible field.

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