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Ms. Malia Lazu is EVP, Chief Experience & Culture Officer at Berkshire Bank responsible for creating and executing new community based programs. Prior to her appointment, Malia founded and led the Urban Labs, a firm dedicated to helping companies create brands that are culturally competent and attuned to shifting racial demographics. Ms. Lazu’s deep work at the intersection of community, culture, art, politics and business has earned her a reputation as a person who can create sustained change.
Lindsay Gearheart: I’d like to start off by asking about your background and how you found your way to Berkshire Bank?
Malia Lazu: My background is a bit non-traditional as it pertains to the world of banking. By trade I am an organizer. I spent my formative years on the ground here in Boston working to make voting equitable and accessible. I have spent my career working to rebuild communities that have been purposefully marginalized and left behind. It’s this work that brings me to Berkshire Bank. As the EVP and Chief Experience and Culture Officer I am focused on how we as a bank can begin to tackle the racial wealth gap and provide tools and services to entrepreneurs of color that help them transform the communities they live in. Banks have historically been seen as an obstacle to wealth building for low income people and communities of color and our goal at Berkshire is to change that narrative.
LG: As a relative newcomer to the corporate world, what challenges have you faced in shifting internal culture, and how are you overcoming those challenges?
ML: Yes, I am a newcomer to the corporate world, but as with community organizing how you shift any culture begins with listening to the people, so in this case the corporate world is no different. People want to feel heard and seen and that is how you begin to make shifts.
LG: Can you tell us about Berkshire’s Be FIRST Initiative, in particular the “Friends & Family Fund” component, which provides seed capital for minority entrepreneurs?
ML: Berkshire’s Friends & Family Fund is a new loan fund designed to help entrepreneurs of color access the seed capital they need in order to launch the businesses of their dreams and spur economic growth in underserved communities. The fund’s key feature is our new Certificate of Deposit that allows depositors to enjoy a market-based rate of return on their investment while also providing liquidity for the loans. The fund is one of the first offerings under Berkshire’s new Be First initiative, the bank’s social impact strategy. Be First is our internal and external initiative that is committed to building an inclusive and meaningful culture for our employees and experience and products for our customers.
LG: As a founder yourself of The Urban Labs, could you talk about your experience as an entrepreneur and how you use that understanding to help others?
ML: It’s not easy to start a business and have it thrive. I learned through my experience with Urban Labs that there are products that can be created to help entrepreneurs succeed. The majority of people that are starting businesses across the country are Black women and yet they receive almost no seed funding. My hope is that products like our Friends & Family Fund will help more people actualize their dreams and transform their communities like I had the opportunity to do with Urban Labs.
LG: If you were to give Boston a letter grade for its diversity and inclusion efforts, what would you give it? If there’s room for improvement, what advice do you have?
ML: I’ve been doing work in Boston for decades. There have definitely been improvements as it pertains to diversity and inclusion but there is still much work to be done. So, for now I would give the city a C.
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