The Women to Watch: No. 18, Sound Community's Laura Lee Stewart

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President and CEO, Sound Community Bank

When Laura Lee Stewart was offered a full scholarship to the University of Chicago, her father insisted she turn it down. Her parents, who hadn’t graduated high school, encouraged her to do well in class, but didn’t necessarily expect her to go on to college.

“His rationale was that girls only went to college to find husbands,” Stewart said. “It was a generational thing.”

But Stewart charted a different course, starting as a bank teller while a freshman in college at the University of Washington and rising to become one of the most respected women in the industry. She became president and CEO of Sound Community Bank in Seattle in 1989.

“Women often think that other successful women got there because of an Ivy League education or a silver spoon and went directly to the top,” Stewart said. “But that’s not my story.”

Stewart emphasizes the need for perseverance, noting that there have been times when she reached for a goal that didn’t immediately materialize. For instance, she wasn’t even the first choice for her current job, she said.

At the time, Sound Community was still a small credit union. The board initially offered the role to a man who worked for a big bank. He accepted but then backed out after realizing how different running a credit union would be.

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Stewart was the No. 2 pick. She accepted, and has run with it ever since. Stewart has grown Sound Community from a $38 million-asset credit union that served the grocery industry into a $685 million-asset, publicly traded bank that offers an array of business and retail products.

“There is still much work to be done in terms of opportunities for women,” Stewart said. “I am committed to trying to find the path for mentoring and encouraging women to seek the C-suite and not be discouraged if they don’t get there on the first try.”

Besides transforming her own bank, Stewart has left her mark more broadly on the industry through advocacy. She was one of six community bankers who met with President Trump last year. She has also served on advisory committees for regulators and has been active in trade groups, including serving as vice chairman of the American Bankers Association.

Earlier this year, she was chosen as a board member at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s Seattle branch. In that role, she helps the Fed to understand the trends behind the economic results it is seeing, she said.

“I believe banking is a noble profession and a great economic engine in our country,” Stewart said. “If we want to ensure the viability and sustainability of the industry, then we have to be advocates.”

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