This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that profiles women leading the way on climate, politics, business and more.
Priscilla Sims Brown, chief executive of Amalgamated Bank, said it was her uncommon upbringing that put her on the path to running the country’s largest union-owned bank.
Born in 1957 to Ethiopian parents who were studying in New Mexico, she stayed behind when her mother and father returned to Africa. (Her mother, Marta Gabre-Tsadick, served as Ethiopia’s first woman senator.) She spent the next 10 years living with an American military family in a small town between two American bases in Germany.
But after a government coup in Ethiopia in the 1970s, her parents fled the country and returned to the United States. Ms. Brown joined them, and they moved from place to place while establishing a Christian nonprofit to help Ethiopian refugees.
Ms. Brown said her background gave her the confidence to pursue a path that could be difficult for women, and particularly women of color.
“Having spent my formative years in Germany, there were a lot of people from a lot of places,” she said. “People can be made to feel inferior by difference. I was made to feel difference was pretty cool.”
It wasn’t until she was 14 and had returned to the United States that she experienced racism, Ms. Brown said. “I learned that racism existed, but I didn’t own the inferiority, I didn’t own the prejudice. I learned to lean into differences and be somewhat unconventional.”
Her self-assurance has helped her climb the financial career ladder and to speak out on politically sensitive issues, like abortion and gun control.
Ms. Brown studied journalism at San Francisco State University, then landed a job at KQED, the local public radio and television station in the Bay Area. “I was first hired on the nightly news and I remember getting promoted to $4 an hour,” she said.
What attracted her to journalism, she said, was the storytelling possibilities. She covered small business but quickly realized that she would rather engage in business than report on it.
Starting as a broker at the investment bank Paine Webber, she moved on to other companies, rising in the investment world hierarchy with each change. Her last position before moving to Amalgamated in 2021 was as group executive at Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
Ms. Brown, 65, said Amalgamated was a good fit for her. “I so identify with the history,” she said. “It was founded by mostly Eastern European textile workers who could not be banked. So they opened a bank — and that’s a pretty bold thing to do.”
The bank’s founders not only wanted to make sure that they provided opportunities for people like them, but also “to make sure that when it invested outside of their needs, it did so in a responsible way,” she said. “And that continued throughout history.”
The home page of her company’s website lists 10 “Issues We Care About,” including workers’ and immigrants’ rights, racial justice, anti-violence and gun safety. And though many companies are adopting environmental, social and governance benchmarks, known as E.S.G., Ms. Brown has gone further.
Amalgamated successfully petitioned the International Organization for Standardization to create a new merchant category code for gun stores. While codes exist for many different categories of merchants, there was no code attached to places that sold firearms.
Ms. Brown said Visa, Mastercard and American Express had already agreed to adopt the code, which she said could make it easier to flag suspicious activity, such as building up arsenals by buying guns from different stores.
Ms. Brown said her company’s role was not to advocate for gun control or challenge the Second Amendment but “to do more to implement the code — and it’s a messy process,” she said. “We need to try to mitigate the use of our systems for illegal behavior.”
The bank’s initiative drew attention to the institution and Ms. Brown in particular. Not all of it has been positive: She said she has received death threats.
Ms. Brown was also outspoken about last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Health Organization, which overturned abortion rights. Amalgamated was one of the first companies to announce it would cover costs for any employee who needed to travel out of state to receive an abortion. “This is a workplace equity issue,” she said.
In 2021, she said, one-third of the bank’s lending portfolio went toward climate- or sustainability-related projects. The bank also prioritizes affordable housing for its real estate investments and works with funds that are geared toward closing the Black wealth gap.
Ms. Brown said she recognized that other institutions did not have the size or mission of Amalgamated, which was a relatively small bank with $7.7 billion in assets (the largest four banks in the United States had assets in the trillions). Amalgamated — which has branches in California, New York, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. — went public in 2018. “I have a luxury most people don’t have,” Ms. Brown said.
Wes Thompson, a retired chief executive of M Financial and former president of Sun Life Financial U.S., said he had known Ms. Brown for decades. He said their backgrounds, as Black Americans who had both lived overseas for years, bonded them.
“What struck me is the ease with which she has kept her authenticity but also could navigate through a whole range of people and personalities and culture,” he said. And as she has moved to the top of her industry, he added, “she’s the same person I met in 1998. She’s always the same person.”
Another friend, Thasunda Brown Ducks, the president and chief executive of TIAA, an investment firm that runs retirement plans for educators and others, said they connected years ago, in part because they are both Black women and leaders in the financial industry.
“Priscilla fully appreciates, as I do, both the promise and the weight of being in this seat,” she said. “We understand what it means to occupy and excel in a role where the playbook was not written with a person like you in mind in terms of gender, race and ethnicity.”
But Ms. Brown has carried that weight lightly. Years ago on one “Casual Friday” at work, she wore a dashiki-type garment from Ethiopia. “Most Black Americans don’t dress down too much because that affects respect,” she said. “But I didn’t get the memo.”
“This was Fort Wayne in the 1990s,” she added. “I got a lot of questions. But I’m pretty comfortable with weirdness.”
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