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OneUnited Bank, the largest black-owned bank in the United States, has been around for more than 50 years, but it wasn’t prepared for the events of July 2016, when new account openings jumped from about 50 a day to about 1,000 a day.

Following several high-profile police shootings, hip-hop artist Killer Mike urged members of the black community to put their money into small black banks or credit unions and the #BankBlack movement was born. As the only black-owned bank in the New England, activity at the Boston-based OneUnited Bank jumped.

“It was exciting and crazy at the same time,” said Teri Williams, owner, president, and COO, in a Feb. 27 talk at MIT Sloan. “But, it was a … management operational crisis.”

The bank, which has assets of approximately $657 million, headquarters and two branches in Boston, two branches in Los Angeles, and one in Miami, started its own #BankBlack challenge by hiring more staff, expanding its call center, and lowering minimums to enable more people to open accounts.

OneUnited has long been at home in black neighborhoods where residents, who may distrust large institutions, are more vulnerable to predatory lending practices, Williams said. The #BankBlack movement reinforced the bank’s commitment to be “authentically and unapologetically black,” Williams said. 

Several years before the #BankBlack movement began, OneUnited had amped up its social media presence and drew on community strategies to reach customers — such as essay contests for kids, financial literacy workshops for adults, and more recently, a series of financial videos on Facebook Live, YouTube, and the OneUnited website.But, in addition to moving their money, members of black communities need to change their mindset, Williams said. According to Williams, black consumers in the United States spend $1.2 trillion a year, and only 2 percent of that spending is done inside the black community.

“Start thinking about how you can use your money more purposefully to build wealth in the black community. If we could just move [that spending] from 2 percent to 10 percent, we could create a million jobs in the black community,” said Williams, who added anyone can #BankBlack. “You don’t have to be black to buy black.”

Williams, who has an undergraduate degree in economics from Brown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School, said OneUnited is gaining traction as a minority-owned bank, but would like to add more offices in more cities and gain the expertise to do small-business lending.

When asked how she has handled the challenges of being a woman and a minority in the financial field, Williams credited the memory of her great grandmother, Annie, a formidable entrepreneur who owned multiple businesses — including a juke joint, a penny candy store, and a barbecue pit — in Florida. And, in spite of some of the hardships Williams has faced, her minority status has given her the chance to give others like her a shot.

“I see the brilliance in people who don’t ‘fit the mold,’” Williams said.

Williams’ talk was sponsored by the Sloan Black Business Students Association and Sloan Women in Management, with the support of MIT Office of Multicultural Programs.

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