Women in Banking: Community Impact Award for HarborOne's Mo Wilkinson

Register now

In 2008, during the depths of the housing crisis, the housing nonprofit NeighborWorks Southern Mass agreed to open an office in hard-hit Brockton to counsel the thousands of city residents facing foreclosure. But there was a problem.

It would take time for NeighborWorks — whose main office was nearly 20 miles away in Quincy — to find and retrofit suitable office space that was within its budget. Many underwater homeowners didn't have the luxury of waiting.

That's when HarborOne Federal Credit Union stepped up.

The credit union had recently opened a multistory banking center that offered English classes, financial education, citizenship test preparation and other services to Brockton's large immigrant population. One of the floors was vacant. HarborOne offered the space to NeighborWorks — rent-free — and paid for renovations that included building six separate rooms so the nonprofit could counsel clients in private.

"We could have spent all of our time looking for space, installing phone lines, building cubicles, but HarborOne handled all that for us so we could just focus on counseling," said Normand Grenier, NeighborWorks' president. "It was beyond extraordinary." Grenier estimates that NeighborWorks has counseled some 2,500 struggling homeowners in the eight years it has occupied the HarborOne space. The nonprofit provides a range of other services there, including credit counseling and down payment assistance to first-time homebuyers.

The $2.2 billion-asset HarborOne is now a bank (it converted in 2013) and providing workspace for a local nonprofit is just a small example of its commitment to improving Brockton and other communities it serves.

Thanks to initiatives led by its Community Reinvestment Act officer and vice president of community education, Maureen (Mo) Wilkinson, HarborOne has emerged as one of Massachusetts' leading providers of financial education to low- and moderate-income individuals, particularly immigrants. Some 15,000 men and women have enrolled in its classes since the first of two education centers — now dubbed HarborOne U — opened in 2007. Nearly one-third of them have gone on to become HarborOne customers.

Under Wilkinson, HarborOne has also been a catalyst for entrepreneurship, offering a wide range of workshops for would-be and existing small-business owners and providing financing to the most promising startups.

Grenier said that HarborOne is "in a class by itself" when it comes to promoting financial empowerment and entrepreneurship in its communities, and a big reason for that is Wilkinson. Name the event — an economic-development forum, a credit fair for high-school students — and chances are Wilkinson is either leading it or was involved in organizing it, Grenier said.

"HarborOne is a leader here and Mo is the point person," Grenier said. "Everybody knows them."

For this commitment to financial education, American Banker has named Wilkinson its community impact award honoree for 2016. She will be presented with the award at the annual Most Powerful Women in Banking dinner in New York on Thursday.

Wilkinson is a former credit union chief executive who joined HarborOne after it acquired a credit union she once ran. She came in as head of financial education, a post Chief Executive James Blake created to build on the success of its recently opened financial literacy center in Brockton and further HarborOne's outreach as the magnitude of the housing bust was just coming into view.

"I had never met anyone at a financial institution whose job was financial education," said Wilkinson. "It was usually something on the list of things to do by the marketing person."

No city in Massachusetts had more foreclosures following the financial crisis than Brockton, so the need for education there was dire. Wilkinson soon recognized a growing need in other communities as well and, in 2010, HarborOne opened a second center Mansfield, Mass.

Perhaps the greatest measure of HarborOne U's success is in the number of formerly unbanked or underbanked consumers who have gone on to become depositors or borrowers. Both HarborOne U locations house branches and since 2007 they have brought in an estimated $33 million in deposits and $66 million in loans, primarily mortgages, according to Wilkinson. The bank estimates that the business it has brought in from the two centers generates roughly $2.5 million in annual revenue.

As the economy has improved, small-business training has become a particular focus of HarborOne's in recent years. Hundreds of budding entrepreneurs have enrolled in classes like "Budgeting and Financial Basics for Small Business" and "Marketing Your Brand" and several have gone on to start businesses with financing help from HarborOne.

Wilkinson ran three credit unions before she joined HarborOne, but she says the work she's doing now is the most satisfying of her career. One recent graduate of its "Success for Small Business" program is a full-time pharmacist who has a dream of opening a string of offices where she will train individuals to become medical office workers. She just opened her first location in Brockton with the help of a Small Business Administration loan from HarborOne.

"She's the one with all the brains, and the one pouring her blood, sweat and tears into building her business," Wilkinson said. "All we're doing is facilitating and giving her a hand-up to make it happen. It feels good to be in a position to do that."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.