Executive Spotlight: Malia Lazu, executive vice president/chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank

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PITTSFIELD — Malia Lazu is an example of the cultural diversity that exists in America but, historically, is not found in the banking industry.

Lazu, an Afro-Latina whose father is Black Puerto Rican and mother is Italian-American, grew up in Hawaii and attended Emerson College in Boston, where she co-founded her first nonprofit organization, at age 19.

Lazu — she is a longtime community organizer who finished as the runner-up on a reality television show held to select a "people's candidate" for the 2004 presidential election — was named executive vice president/chief experience and culture officer at Berkshire Bank last year. She is tasked with finding new markets and changing the culture at a bank that moved its corporate headquarters from Pittsfield to Boston in 2018 and is trying to redefine how a community bank operates in the 21st century.

Part of her job is addressing the racial inequalities that traditionally have existed in the finance industry.

We recently spoke with Lazu about her new job, how she is trying to create change in the banking industry, and where her interest in creating change started.

Q: The Boston Globe recently referred to you as "a community organizer, reality TV star and political provocateur." Banking seems totally unrelated to any of those descriptions, so, why did you decide to give it a try?

A: As far as being a community organizer and cultural provocateur, I think those are journeys that lead you to root causes. ... On this journey of community organizing, which really is a journey about how communities can actualize their power, I think it makes absolutely perfect sense that I would end up in finance.

It's unusual, and I would have never dreamt this for myself. But, when you take a step back and look at what I'm doing and how Berkshire Bank is going to be able to succeed and compete as a community bank in the 21st century, what I'm doing is community organizing, right?

Q: How so?

A: It's understanding power. It's building trust with communities that historically have no reason to trust you. It's those skills, along with the ability to get things done, the sawdust and spit, that I think you learn as a community organizer. That's what attracted me to the field. I was doing consulting primarily for financial services and real estate [before joining Berkshire Bank].

Q: You have an interesting job title; one I've never heard of before. What does it signify?

A: When Richard [former Berkshire Bank CEO Richard Marotta] and I were talking about me coming into the bank, what was very important to Richard was that I was not a diversity person. What he had seen in the past is that if you create a diversity position, you end up with someone being responsible for training and having very little power to actually change the culture of the bank. ...

If you want to attract new markets, future-thinking and forward-thinking markets, your culture needs to be ready to do that, and it needs to know how to do that.

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The way we looked at my position is, I would be chief experience officer, which is something you see in tech a lot, and the whole idea would be to think about the business model of the company from the user experience to the product backward. ... It's really helping an [over 100-year-old] company understand what the 21st century looks like.

Q: How would describe what Berkshire Bank is trying to do now to someone who has been with the bank since before it became a regional conglomerate?

A: I think we're still a working-class bank. It's just that the definition of working class has been [changing] in this country, and I think that's what we're recognizing.

Q: Why is there such a racial disparity in banking, and how is Berkshire Bank trying to change that?

A: Part of my job is to think about that, so, you've come to the right place with that question.

I've spent 22 years thinking about power, and now I'm thinking about it specifically in financial services. ... There has been a systemic and historic — I guess in trying to be kind, what's the best word I can use? — predatory relationship between African American growth and America, and financial services played a huge part in that. ...

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When you think about redlining, which was an agreement between the banks and the government, there has been a long history of taking advantage of the African American community. ... The GI Bill that allowed so many white males to buy homes, it was denied to African Americans. We know that homeownership is how you build a good relationship with the bank. ...

You look at these moments of redistribution of wealth in America, whether it's Franklin Roosevelt or the New Deal, and guess who wasn't included in the New Deal, right? ... So, it's a lot of layers. It's not just one thing.

Segregation really didn't end until the '60s, quote, unquote. So, we started then. That's a very atrophied muscle. ... You can't atrophy a muscle for 400 years and then ask it to participate in the Olympics. ... We still need to fight for it.

Q: What I hear you saying is that it's work in progress.

A: It's work for this country and, I think, the world. You're seeing England have this conversation with the way wealth is generated through colonization. We have now come to a point of reckoning, and Berkshire Bank has decided to include people and figure out how we bank everyone with dignity.

If you look at [the numbers], 50 percent of African Americans and Latinos are either under-banked or unbanked versus 19 percent of white communities. That's not a class issue. That's a race issue.

Q: Why did you come all the way across the country to go to college, and why did you decide to stay in Boston?

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A: My father's from New York City and my mother is from outside New York City, in New Jersey. So, I spent my summers at my grandparents' houses. My mom and dad were in Hawaii with the family that we built, but I knew that I was getting off the island.

When you grow up in Hawaii, it's very hard to get off. So, I knew that I had to go to college or join the military or have to get married to a military guy. Those are just sort of your options when you're a working-class person like me. I was going to go to college. I wasn't going to do the other two.

Q: Why Boston?

A: Boston seemed like a nice transition city. I was looking at different colleges, like NYU, but to come from Honolulu to New York City just seemed like too large of a leap for me.

The idea of me going on a train ... I was an island girl who wanted adventure, but not that much adventure. So, Boston was the perfect size.

I wanted to get into communications, and Emerson was one of the best in the country. So, it made total sense. And when I got here, I started my first nonprofit, when I was 19, so, that kept me here.

Q: What was your major in college?

A: I started off a journalism major. Then I switched my major to political communications because of my continued questioning of what my professors considered objective.

Q: Everything you've done in your career seems to be related to questioning and change. Where does that attribute come from. Does it run in your family?

A: You know, it sort of does. I come from a very civically engaged space. ... Where I come from, we talk about things like that, we talk about how you participate in society.

Being a woman of color, I was outside of a lot of the American dream story, which doesn't feel right. It's quite tiring to be seen and judged differently than other people. I'm Black, Puerto Rican and Italian, so, I don't necessarily take that stuff lightly. ...

My uncle is a former elected official and gay activist out of San Francisco named Tom Ammiano. He was part of Harvey Milk's crew. I like to think that I walk in his footsteps.


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