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Support That's Right on the Money

It was 1921, a year after American women had won the right to vote. While there was celebration and hope that a new viewpoint was about to be heard, not all was joyful on the feminine financial horizon, particularly in banking. Across all major financial institutions, women were employed in staff positions, working as tellers and bookkeepers. They deposited funds. They counted funds. Some women even were managers and officers, but they weren't allowed to represent their respective employers at business functions. They were not allowed to walk on the loan platform or even across the main lobby of the bank.

In February of that same year, a group of intelligent and outspoken New York City women bankers got together to discuss how they could empower each other to get past the prejudice and succeed in their male-dominated field. That first meeting of those six pioneering women, all recently appointed as officers of their respective banks, led to others. A seed was planted. A vision was nurtured. An organization was formed.

On May 9, 1921, a formal resolution was adopted stating that the main purpose of the organization was to "encourage mutual helpfulness and cooperation among its members with the end in view of making themselves increasingly valuable to the institutions with which they are associated" and "to help not only its members, but other women wishing to take up the same type of work." The National Association of Bank Women was born.

Additional meetings were held over the next few months to discuss plans, programs and strategies of the organization. On Sept. 23, 1921, the name of the organization was formally adopted and a fiscal period was set. By August 1922, the fledgling association had grown to 59 members in 18 states. By the end of World War II, the membership numbered more than one thousand.

Decades later, in 1989, the association changed its name to Financial Women International (FWI) and expanded its mission and vision to include women professionals from all segments of the financial services industry worldwide.

Today, the association has more than 2,000 members in every financial services industry discipline. Membership is composed of financial executives representing all 50 states, Bermuda, Canada, Mexico and Russia. More than 80 groups across the United States address national as well as local industry issues. Membership is open to professionals from all sectors of the financial services industry, including commercial banks, savings and loan institutions, credit unions, credit providers, consulting firms, processors, acquirers and ISOs.

Pretty much tracking what is seen in the financial services industry, membership is predominantly Caucasian with lower numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics. Income usually falls between $45,000 and $80,000. Between 70% and 80% are married with children. FWI has come a long way since its secular beginnings.

"From everything I have read, it was more about support and how to keep women working, progressing and helping each other with their daily jobs, setting up a networking kind of thing versus going out and making public statements," says Julie Cripe, President of FWI. "Our core is still helping one another."

Cripe epitomizes that philosophy. In addition to being the President of this international organization, Cripe is also the President and COO of OmniBank, N.A. in Houston. She oversees more than 2,000 loans totaling more than $250 million for OmniBank. She also is responsible for the creation and implementation of the bank's strategic plan and serves as the bank's liaison to the community and a number of government agencies.

In her spare time, Cripe is a guest lecturer for entrepreneurship classes at the University of Houston, Houston Baptist University and Texas Southern University. She also serves as Vice President of the Board of Directors of the Capital Certified Development Corporation, which is administered by the Department of Commerce. Cripe served three years on the American Bankers Association's Communications Council and is the Banking Advisor for the Texas Bankers Association.

With an MBA from the University of Houston and more than 20 years of expertise in the banking world, Cripe is a stellar example of how embracing education and opportunity can make the difference for a woman in financial services. But it wasn't always that way.

"Back in the '20s, women didn't have access to the same educational programs, meetings and such, so there was a determination to obtain that information themselves," says Cripe. "Under that guise, these women created an association for the sharing of information. Information is power."

Cripe says FWI's mission is simply to help women in the financial services industry be successful in their careers. Her definition of success:

"For some, it's a higher salary or a title, for others it might be making a living wage and still have time for family. Everyone defines it differently, and what we want to do is provide the tools for each individual to assess that and be able to do it. If you need a degree, we provide an avenue to do that. If you need to make presentations, we offer educational programs to help you practice making presentations, run a board meeting or create a marketing plan from beginning to end."

Toward that mission statement of success through support, FWI offers a myriad of programs, including:

  • Timely and relevant information and knowledge.
  • Ongoing encouragement, moral support and bolstered self-confidence.
  • Career road maps, plans and goals as well as career coaching and guidance.
  • Professional, technical, and interpersonal skills and know-how.
  • Financial savvy through sound financial advice, plans and habits.
  • Convenient and readily available resources at reasonable prices.
  • Introductions to and recommendations by industry influencers and decision-makers.

"We have more than just a mission; we have a vision to be an association of women helping one another versus once a woman makes it, she doesn't help others," says Cripe. "We allow all our members to be joyful for each other's successes and to learn from them. We reach out a hand and help the younger women coming in who, frankly, may have a stronger educational background but lack information about how to manage people or run a department."

FWI's membership tends to be between ages 45 and 55 with an average of 15 years' experience in financial services. The younger generation, though, is making a strong impact on FWI's mission.

"Our younger members bring new perspective on work," says Cripe. "They keep us keyed into the work force of today. Many of our current members are loyal through and through to their company whereas the younger generation is coming in with a different attitude. It's not bad, it's not good, it's simply that they don't expect to work at a company for 25 years. They also don't expect the company to take care of them for life."

Cripe sees a great benefit in bringing young and old together. "Skills may be different and you may change jobs, but you don't change the type of problems you face," says Cripe. "You still have a difficult time finding good workers, still have managers you may or may not get along with personally. You still may end up training your boss. The older members bring that insight into the organization."

In addition to adjusted attitudes, Cripe sees other changes in the female work environment. "It's a combination of things; some of it has to do with the types of jobs women now hold," says Cripe. "There are more backroom operations, auditing and bookkeeping, which are incredibly important but not viewed as income-producing. Women are now coming in at the top, and they've not been there before. They're now going in to the lending and managing side of banking, meeting customers, getting out there. I think the movement will be quicker as education levels increase."

Guiding that movement is FWI's Board of Directors. In addition to its President, Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary, the Board has a Membership Chair, a Foundation Chair and four directors at large. All positions are elected except for the Foundation Chair and Membership Chair, both appointed by the sitting President. The Board consists of members who meet quarterly in person and more often by teleconference and weekly e-mail communication.

The immediate past president serves as Nominating Chair. The preceding past president serves as Public Relations Chair and stays on the Board for two years. All other board members serve for one year, from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31.

The election process is interesting but lengthy. A nominating meeting is held for next year's candidates. Members submit names for the elected offices. Three referral letters and a tape answering questions on their vision and creative ideas for revenue-generating are mandatory for each nominee. The sitting board members serve as the nominating committee. They select the candidates, and the whole membership then votes.

The Board strives to achieve goals reflective and remaining true to what they see in the marketplace. "We try to set up priorities and strategies for a given year based on the market," says Cripe. "In 2002, we emphasized membership. We wanted to see a net increase of 20% in new members and retention of 75% in current members. We've exceeded both goals."

The Board also wanted to create more visibility. It did so by establishing a road show that traveled across America. "We premiered it in five cities," says Cripe. "It was aimed at new members and giving women a chance to see what we were all about. It was very well received."

Another ambitious goal was to create a new FWI Foundation project. The FWI Foundation, in essence, is the purveyor of all educational products for the organization. Through the Foundation, the association provides numerous workshops, seminars and online educational programs and products for groups and individuals to strengthen their leadership, management and career-development skills. Members also gain extensive experience through volunteer leadership opportunities and training at the group, local, state and regional levels.

That new Foundation project was a half-day seminar conducted by Sally Helgesen, author of "Thriving in 24/7: Six Strategies for Taming the New World of Work." This was another example of FWI continually bringing appropriate authors and guest lecturers to its membership as part of its educational and life-improvement programs.

"At this particular seminar, each attendee assesses where they are and what their strengths are and how they can bring those strengths to the workplace and their life," says Cripe. "Many found their talents weren't matching their jobs. Many felt this seminar gave them a refreshing way to go back to their jobs and utilize their talents in a better way. This seminar was designed around individual work as well as women working with each other to use their strengths in new way."

FWI relies on another area of the industry - corporate sponsorship - for added strength. Prudential Financial sponsored the FWI road show this year. Last year, conference sponsors included Robert Half International as well as banks that provided monetary and material support.

The Graduate School of Banking at the University of Wisconsin provides scholarships to FWI for its financial services courses. Norwich University in Northfield, Vt., offers a discount for FWI members for its online MBA program. Various national business journals offer in-kind sponsorships as well. FWI is always on the lookout for more.

"If anyone would like to be an FWI sponsor, please call us," says Cripe. "We came to the game of asking for sponsorship very late in our 80-year history. In my opinion, our association is a great place for financial vendors, but so many are already locked into other trade associations where our members are the decision-makers on their product. It is an interesting phenomenon."

Obviously, corporate acceptance plays a big part in FWI's continued success. FWI puts itself out for comment on a regular basis.

"We participate in industry trade shows," says Cripe. "We've participated in American Bankers Association conferences, Independent Bankers Association conferences. We are always well received. CEOs of financial institutions are impressed with our materials, especially the ones who never really knew what we were all about. It's been a great way to provide visibility and cement a relationship with someone who makes the decision to support our association. ...

"We repeatedly get recommendation letters from CEOs and presidents who say they've seen the difference participating in FWI has made. We get letters from members telling us the reason they got their promotion was because of a presentation they made - a presentation they would never have been able to do without the training, support and education from FWI."

Cripe says FWI has only one male member, "but we certainly have quite a few who we consider friends but are not dues-paying members. They work closely with us via sponsorships. They attend our conferences with their wives or co-workers. We frequently have men attend our programs, especially in smaller communities where there are not a lot of educational offerings."

FWI utilizes all the talents of its membership in the public affairs arena, where it focuses on workforce issues affecting women in the financial services industry. Members have participated in Washington "visits" to discuss issues of concern to working women with key legislators and administration officials.

FWI representatives have testified before Congressional committees and proposed legislation. They've spearheaded letter-writing campaigns, assisted the Federal Reserve in putting together consumer information on commercial credit and written a brochure for the Department of Labor describing careers for women in banking.

One of the most outstanding and well-received programs of FWI is its annual conference. This year it is scheduled for Sept. 21-24 in Portland, Ore. The 2002 conference marks the 80th anniversary of FWI (based on its fiscal calendar) and is expected to be attended by hundreds of financial services executives from around the world.

"Our goal for this convention will be to bring cutting-edge information to all who attend," says Cripe. "We'll bring educational products, sessions with well-known authors and provide a forum for all members to learn from each other. It is truly an all-encompassing educational conference."

Education doesn't start and end with the annual conference. FWI offers online classes for business-related subjects throughout the year. FWI even offers its members an online masters or undergraduate degree program.

However, none of FWI's impressive programs would work without networking. "It is extremely important to this organization from the standpoint that we help each other with all job-related issues," says Cripe. "We have a forum on our Web site where if you post a question, 20 experts will get back to you. We give each other guidelines to success."

Those guidelines include a job bank as well as informal communications. "Every member who's lost a job or been laid off goes to her fellow members first. Most of the time, she'll have found a job before she has to go out to the marketplace to look."

This job bank network is especially valuable at a time when mergers and acquisitions are spreading throughout the financial services industry like a wildfire with serious repercussions. "So many of us have been greatly affected," says Cripe. "Twenty years ago, banks were in the tens of thousands. Now, that number is down to below 6,000."

Consolidation also means a loss in membership for FWI. "Each time a bank is acquired or merged with another, we lose members," says Cripe. "For the most part, about 80% of our members rely on their respective companies to pay their membership dues. In large and small communities where there may be two or three members for each consolidating institution, if one of them buys the other, they're not going to allow six executives from the same company to remain FWI members. Unfortunately, management tends to make those decisions without researching and finding out what our association is all about."

Cripe sees another aspect of mergers and acquisitions that affects FWI: With integration comes tightening of time budgets as well as monetary constraints.

"It is about time management," says Cripe. "Without sounding sexist, women do it to themselves. Some women feel if they can't be fully engaged, they can't be a part of the project. We encourage everyone, even if they can no longer take a leadership role or attend regular meetings, to continue to get feedback from their peers, even if it's just via the Internet."

Despite these challenges, Cripe cites many significant breakthroughs in recent years at FWI.

"One of our biggest accomplishments is the partnership we have formed with other associations and the visibility we have gained in the industry," Cripe says. "We have a great deal of expertise. We lovingly refer to it as a 'brain trust.' Pretty much any kind of technical or global matter you want to know about, there is someone in our organization who knows it. We are a powerful group of women with great knowledge."

Another monumental accomplishment, in Cripe's view, is the FWI Foundation's ongoing "Women At The Top" survey. "This survey has gotten extraordinary press with television and newspapers quoting it often," says Cripe. "We surveyed the top 100 banks in the U.S. last year to see how many women were in top senior-level management roles. We found one CEO, two CFOs and 11% of senior managers were women. We then did the top 100 community banks, and the percentages were virtually the same."

FWI repeats the survey every year, and the management percentage showed an increase from 13% in 1999 to 16% in 2001. FWI also looked into where women had the best opportunities, smaller versus larger, national versus community.

The results are posted on its Web site, .

The flip side of accomplishments is mistakes. Cripe sees only one major faux pas by FWI.

"We waited too long to ask for corporate sponsorship - telling our story as opposed to keeping our story under wraps," she says. "We weren't good about tooting our own horn and highlighting the expertise we have. We have members who for years have run companies with integrity and provided jobs and community service, but we haven't done a good enough job about making it known. We are doing it now, but it takes awhile. We are competing for time and dollars."

Getting their message out isn't the only challenge facing FWI.

"For the industry as a whole, the biggest challenge is competition and low markets because of low interest rates," says Cripe. "For women, it's dealing with two issues at the same time - work and family. Whether it be taking care of elderly parents, husbands or children, keeping everything going is difficult.

"Women tend to be the point person for just about everything. They wear multiple hats at their company and in their family. They also do a lot of community service. Our members are busy people trying to keep stress from ruining their health!"

In a male-dominated industry, relieving stress may be just one step toward breaking the glass ceiling.

"In any case, it all goes back to traditions long held and hard to break into," says Cripe. "Many women got into the banking industry part-time. The hours were good and they liked the work. Men were rolling off the MBA track and were immediately going into senior-level positions. That is changing, but we still have a lot of small banks throughout the country that just don't have many openings.

"The median age of CEOs today is late 50s/60s. People are working longer and staying put. There also are lots of family-owned institutions with grandfathers and sons still running the shop. At least the percentage of women in senior management in the financial services industry isn't less than in other industries."

Cripe says that women are "leading the pack for America's small businesses," and FWI is "providing a wide forum for community improvement and economic development. We are getting women in positions they have traditionally never been in."

She predicts that FWI will become an even bigger influence in the financial services industry and will take a larger role in legislation that will affect not only FWI members and their jobs but the industry as a whole.

Eighty years ago, Mina Bruere, Secretary and Chairman of the first program committee for FWI, wrote:

"A confident hope that we shall grow in strength, in dignity, in clarity of purpose, in service to the field and to the women who have entered it, may be justified if the distance which the association has covered in these short years since our small informal beginning, be a measure of the future."

Thanks to the dedication and effort of thousands of women like Julie Cripe, FWI surely will continue to measure its merit through strength, dignity and clarity of purpose.

Financial Women International

200 North Glebe Road, Suite 820

Arlington, VA 22203-3728

Phone: 703-807-2007

Fax: 703-807-0111

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