Episode 27: Lauren Sparks
Breaking Barriers: Empowering Women in Banking with Lauren Sparks
Join us as we delve into the fascinating journey of Agility Bank, a groundbreaking financial institution led by Lauren Sparks. Discover how Lauren's passion for community banking and her commitment to gender equity inspired her to create a bank that challenges traditional norms. In this podcast, we explore the bank's unique approach, its mission to empower women in finance, and the innovative technology shaping its future.
Lauren saw the need for a bank that challenges the status quo and empowers women in finance. Discover how she rallied a diverse team, with a remarkable 66% female ownership, to raise capital, even during the challenges of a pandemic. In this podcast, we delve into the innovative tech stack, the bank's focus on supporting underserved communities, and the strategic use of Minority Depository Institution (MDI) status. Whether you're a banking enthusiast or interested in progressive financial institutions, this podcast promises an inspiring journey into the world of modern banking.Click to Watch the Video
Lauren Sparks 00:00
What that person really needs is education. And there's a lot of pieces of that out there. So we've really been struggling internally with we can't be everything to everyone. And we can't be the Oracle of all education, but we can provide some education.
Jack Hubbard 00:15
I've had the privilege of being in and around banking for more than 50 years. Lots of changes during that time. We've gone from Ledger's to laptops, typewriters to technology. One thing, however, remains the same. Banking is a people business. And I'll be talking with those people that make banking great here on Jack Rants With Modern bankers.
Welcome to Jack Rants With Modern Bankers brought to you by RelPro, and Vertical IQ. Each week I feature top voices in financial services from bankers and consultants, to best selling authors and many more. The goal of this program is simple, to provide insights, success practices and to bring new ideas to the table that you can use to maximize your results.
My guest today is Lauren Sparks. I met Lauren when I was speaking at a session off conference several years ago. And we've stayed connected ever since. Lauren is a graduate of Colgate University and was a senior director at Sheshan off consulting, she owns her own very successful risk management company, three ERP. And she's really involved in the community bank movement from a variety of perspectives from risk, compliance, and many other operational issues but she decided to move on to banking. She filed papers to start Agility Bank in 2019. And the capital raise began right when the pandemic did in 2020.
Now, despite that, she and her team raised more than $40 million capital when the bank opened its doors in 2022. This is a great, great entrepreneurial story, and a fascinating interview with a great banker. Lauren Sparks on Jack Rants with Modern Bankers and here we go.
So as I mentioned, I met Lauren a number of years ago as a consultant, and she stepped out and did something quite unique and exciting and we're going to talk about that today but Lauren, as I always like to start the program, tell me something good.
Lauren Sparks 02:38
Well, you know, I had to think about it because sometimes when you get your head down in the heat of the moment of a startup, you have to think about it. But I actually was yesterday afternoon, and it's work related, but we had a director loan committee, so a loan committee for some larger deals. And it went off without a hitch. The directors were on the same page that lenders were on their game. Credit had done great jobs, on the credit memos. Everybody was in sync, it went like that 123. And I thought of all the teams, you know, there's the team. It doesn't happen every day. So we all actually when the meeting was over, several of us just sat around to cherish the moment. Because when you're, banking is a team sport. And when the team works, it was like, wow, that's what we're building. So it's really a nice moment. Thank you for letting me share it because I really had to think about it to come up with it for you.
Jack Hubbard 03:29
Well, you've built a great team. And five out of the six of your board members outside board members are females, which I want to delve into, because you have such a unique organization but before we get into Agility Bank, tell us a little bit about your background.
Lauren Sparks 03:44
Well, you and I met in my consulting space, right? So I was at a community bank for about nine years, sort of saw that I wasn't going to go any further than where I was and that environment here in Texas but people started saying, Well, why don't you come here and do this? Why don't you come here and do that? And I thought about going to law school and didn't do that because I had enough work going on. So I started a local consulting and then regional firm and then ended up a session off where I met you doing all kinds of fun things in my mind for banks, mostly risk management and compliance consulting, and really getting inside. I can't even imagine how many banks there are now. Like in your career. I can't imagine how many banks you've been inside, but hundreds, hundreds, yeah, it's probably close to hundreds for me too. But I know that in the last 12 or 13 years, I started my own firm of regulatory consulting for community banks. And so that's really what I've been doing. It's banking all the way and I just love it.
Jack Hubbard 04:38
Well, you loved it enough to get this idea to start a bank. What was going on in your mind and what clicked for you that finally said, Okay, I'm doing this.
Lauren Sparks 04:51
I think, you know, I think I talked to you way early on, because I was talking to people about wanting somebody to tell me I was crazy. A couple of people did But I don't think you did. But I think I love banking, I love community banks. And when you've been in enough of them, and in enough communities, you see the impact they have. And you realize how important they are to the fabric of the economy. And you're like, oh, my gosh, this is great. I'm so glad I'm a part of it. And then when I started to see the consolidation happening, I became very fearful about this whole conversation that we only need one or two banks, or we only need a central bank or all this, it just would be so bad for our economy.
And for the people I know, who run businesses and for entrepreneurs. That was one level of the discussion in my head about, we really need more community banks, and this consolidation is not necessarily good. And then I started to realize, as I'm aging, that women still haven't really found their place in that community bank environment, we all know, 75% of the women who are people in the bank are women who do the work. But they don't always get to the C suite, they certainly hardly ever get to an equity position in those banks.
When those banks do sell, they're not in a position to do anything, but try to find themselves a new job. So that inequity thing was kind of glaring at the same time. And those two things sort of created a perfect storm of me saying somebody needs to start this bank, somebody needs to start a woman on a women lead bank. And when nobody did it, I just sort of found people who would do it with me.
Jack Hubbard 06:19
Amazing. And what was that? When did that all kind of fuel fruition in your mind?
Lauren Sparks 06:25
Well, I'm trying to think I probably talked to you in 19, I think I probably talked about 1918, I had to start figuring out what I was gonna do about my business, because I own a business. And I had to figure out what to do about that. So I started talking to people in late 1819. It's sort of solidified, this is what I was going to do. And the regulatory part didn't bother me because my background is regulatory. But so it was really a year and a little over a year of talking to people that I respected and knew and getting some feeling from people about what they thought. And then we really only filed March of 20, which was interesting timing, because that was the whole beginning of the pandemic, really not the beginning but the part where we acknowledged it started shutting down. Well, you raised
Jack Hubbard 07:12
$43 million in capital during the pandemic, how did you do that?
Lauren Sparks 07:19
Well, talk about a team, right. The thing about this bank is we wouldn't be here, if there weren't a lot of people who really believed in what we believe in, which is you can do good things and good business in the same space. And that women deserve an opportunity to be in charge of financial services, to start to create more parity or equity in the environment. You know, if you look at community banks in your town, wherever you are, most of them, I would suspect all of them are majority owned by men and run by men.
And there's nothing wrong with that but until we start to do some of what we're doing, we aren't going to be able to engage people and bring them into the places where they have the career opportunities where they can become members at the same table and where there's really more financial parody and going on, because where the decisions are made, is where the power is. That's who grants access to capital. That's how people get ahead. That's what makes change.
So anyway, it was going on for a while. And the pandemic was definitely a challenge. We thought we had it figured out. And then the first week that we really went out to market and said, Okay, we're gonna dial for dollars this week. We had a big freeze here in Houston. And all the power was out. We didn't even have our phones charged. It was just like we got there.
Jack Hubbard 08:47
Well you got there in a very unique way because you had to do this one on one dialing for dollars, because you couldn't see people but some of the stories that I've heard you tell about how, you know, women certainly are we're we're all in with you in terms of stockholders, but there were also men who said, you know, for my daughter for my granddaughter tell tell us though,
Lauren Sparks 09:13
Those were the conversations I mean, that was obviously so I'm so naive. I am so naive. I thought, we just talked to like minded women, we raised the capital, bing, bing, it's done no problem. Well, you know, first of all, I realized that I am a risk taker, which I never thought most women are not. And, and and then talking to women about investing in a bank is a whole different conversation. It's an educational process, because women do not traditionally get the invitation to invest in a bank.
So it's a whole different conversation. I think that the best part of all of this was realizing that there were just as many men who came forward and said I want to do this as you said, I want to do this for my granddaughter. I want to do this for my daughter. I want to do this so that they have a different world to be in then maybe my wife did or maybe my mother did. And that's the really no, we have several women who also did this as legacy plays for their, for their grandchildren, too. And they're engaged.
One of the women, an investor here, she's already earmarked her investment for her grandchildren. And they asked her all the time, Graeme, how's the how's the bank doing? How's our bank doing? And so it's really kind of a family environment in some ways. But this was an organic grassroots raise. So again, different investment banks were wary to work with us on it. It was a bad time, bed bed risk, but it isn't at the end of the day.
Jack Hubbard 10:40
but you did it and you raised a ton of money. And you could have done this anywhere in the country. Why did you pick Houston?
Lauren Sparks 10:49
Well, I live here, I've lived here, I came here right after college. So this is where my home is. It's also where I worked as a consultant for probably, tried to list them the other day about 10 or 12, Lenovo banks where I was with them on the ground floor, part of their process, understanding what they were doing. And so it felt like the right place for me. But that's personal. On a completely economic basis. Oh, my gosh, the Texas economy. I mean, despite COVID continuing to grow and prosper, all the projections are incredible. I could sit in our temporary space, during COVID. While we're raising capital, and see cranes working, nothing stopped, and they were even building restaurants, restaurants open, nothing stopped. It's just a very vibrant economy. It's also, you know, the Wild West, still, in many ways. So entrepreneurship is a big deal.
Jack Hubbard 11:38
Outstanding, what you talked about your team. And when I went on your website to look, I think I counted of the 25 employees you had at the time, and you may have more now 21 of them were female. Got some interesting stories about some folks that actually came out of retirement. So talk about your team a little bit how you found them, and how you're recruiting bankers now?
Lauren Sparks 12:07
Well, I'm lucky in that, since banking is my background. And I've worked with so many great bankers that in order to build a core team of starting the bank, I knew people who really had some tremendous experience. So for example, our Chief Operating Officer, this is her third de novo, and our Acting Chief Financial Officer, it's his third, second or third de novo. So I mean, they had experience and I, you have to have this kind of gray haired experience to get approved, you have to know what you're doing. But that's not where banking is going. And one of the things I wanted us to be was relevant as a community bank of the future, understanding technology, understanding the things that needed to change about community banking, to keep us competitive, and keep us moving forward and keep us a part of that, a valid part of that economic fabric.
So I thought, How am I going to do that? We need to bring people along in banking, and it's not sexy, right? I always say that all the time. It's really not sexy. But boy, is it a great career? And how do we get people to come in? And I thought, Well, maybe it's like anything. If you see somebody and you have a mentoring process, I think that's a very effective way of bringing people into an environment. So our head of marketing is Sarah Peterson, she came out of retirement just because she believed in what we were doing. And so she's our first generational chain team, we paired her with a young woman right out of marketing, with a marketing degree right out of University of Houston.
And it's been so fun to watch them, they've developed a tremendous non-work relationship as well. But their work relationship is really fun. They help each other. We fully expected that Sara would impart some incredible knowledge to Eden over the years, they've been working together about two and a half years now. Maybe close to three. But the really fun part is that Eden teaches all of us with a perspective that we don't have. And so we're trying to do that more and more with you know, I'm paired with a couple younger bankers, the poor things, but it's, it's just an inch, it's trying to build a culture as well, right? You can build a bank with numbers and reconcile on some things, but building the culture of the bank is the other piece. And so we're hoping that that generational dream human environment also creates a pathway for talent to want to come here and stay here.
Jack Hubbard 14:25
Yeah, and I want to dive into that a little bit, too. But you know, every bank has, and we're seeing this more and more in banks as they merge or they change their branding and what have you. And they changed their name from first national or second national to whatever. Agility Bank is such a unique name. And I'm just curious how y'all came up with that name.
Lauren Sparks 14:51
Well, it's funny because we also know stories of large banks that are paid millions of dollars to get new names and you go So it really was just a couple of us sitting around talking, we probably me and two or three trusted friends, sitting around talking about what's a name that imparts, we're not old, we're not stuck in the mud. We're moving forward. And we're always part of what's important to our client. And so it had to denote movements. It had to be something that made sense in a collaborative kind of way.
And when you start to understand the whole agile, collaborative work environment of not being stuck in a position, but being willing to move forward and test and move forward and test, it just sort of spoke to who we wanted to be as a bank, as a bank that was able to be part of the future, as opposed to stuck in the past, which is what most people think about banks, unfortunately. But I do tell people that there is probably a little bit of wind involved in some conversations like that. It's never bad.
Jack Hubbard 15:54
It's never I hope not. You have 51% of your stockholders are females, which allows you to get MDI status. Now, that was what I heard and when I researched this, it was very new to me. What is an MDI and what does that do for your bank?
Lauren Sparks 16:16
So a minority depository institution or an MDI is a specially designated charter for a bank, who has a mission or a requirement to make sure it's addressing or serving a certain segment of an underserved banking community. So I've known about MDS for a while. I've helped empty eyes In the past as clients, and it was part of the original plan to be an MDI, a woman owned women led financial institution from day one, that was part of who we wanted to be part of our business plan. And we're actually closer to 66%, I think, female loans. And within that, we have some really cool LLCs that are another group of 30. Business owners who didn't want to put in the minimum individually, so they came together as a group. So we have some really neat ownership at the bank. But it creates a great opportunity because minority depository institutions have a mission. And it's aligned with the Community Reinvestment Act, and in many ways, so when we partner with another financial institution, that financial institution gets CRA credit for working with us.
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Lauren Sparks 17:41
And we truly believe that the fact that our mission is based on women owned and what's become minority owned business, because that's our focus. We can reach deeper in the community than a larger bank can and so they're partnering, they're partnering initiatives with us just make more sense. So already, we've had some great partners. We have four banks that have purchased our stock, they don't have any majority ownership, they don't have any money on the board. They don't have anything like that. They have it as strictly as a CRA investment. And they're part of that. They saw us, they saw our team, they liked our mission. They liked what we were about and they invested in the huge bank. I mean, what a great partnership. And it benefits them and it truly benefits us. They can also do things like do loan participations with us, buy and sell.
So initially, they were purchases we were making of loan participations, and we knew that was part of our business plan. Those banks that sold those participations do get care credit, now we're beginning to do the opposite. And there's CRA credit involved there too. And then also in terms of deposits, which at this point in time, it's nice when somebody wants to place a deposit with us. Instead of all the money running to the top three banks. Go ahead. They get CRA credit for that too.
And then sitting here today, there's initiatives around it that we haven't even thought of yet. But we have a strategic partnership with a couple large financial institutions on everything with JPMorgan Chase offering empowerment funds for money market investments for companies that have that as a strategy for their shareholder initiatives for di two, Bank of America opening their ATMs to us to our to our clients. I mean, it's just there's different ways that we found and like I said, there's probably more ways going forward, that are opportunities to really have an impact. So we're not getting giveaways. It's not like we don't pay taxes. People say that you do not pay taxes? Do you get grants? No. We're a bank just like everybody else, but we have a unique opportunity for partnerships.
Jack Hubbard 19:37
It is a wonderful situation. Well, you're so here you are in your consulting firm and maybe you had a couple of employees or associates or whatever. And you get up every morning and you have to make payroll. You got to make your clients happy, and that's one thing. But now you're the CEO of a bank, and you have employees and Associates and stockholders. You as a CEO, in the community bank wear a ton of hats. How do you go about getting things done during the day?
Lauren Sparks 20:07
You and I've had that conversation if, yes, we have. So I don't know if I've cracked any code on it. And I certainly run around with my hair on fire a lot. But the, the, you just, it's a lot of reacting at this point, I can't wait. I mean, we're a year, we're only 14 months in. So we're still reacting to a lot of things. I find that I do have some days now where I'm less reactive and more proactive. And I think that that's where I hope to get to sooner, it's definitely a different experience. From running your own business being your own boss, you do exactly what you want to do every day, to having a board that you're accountable to and shareholders.
And while the shareholder accountability doesn't bother me, the board accountability is a little bit of a change of, you know, there's a hierarchy that I wasn't used to. And so that's been, you know, a good learning curve. For me. The regulatory piece doesn't bother me at all. I'm used to that. And it's been my career. So following those rules, not that doesn't bother me. But it's definitely a different experience. And I think it was when I ended up when I had sighs. I still own my consulting firm, I can't do anything in it. I don't know what they really do. I still own it. But when we got to the point at the bank that I had more employees, when I hit 13, when I had more employees at the bank than I had at the firm, I started to go. That's a tremendous responsibility in a different way.
Jack Hubbard 21:37
Yeah. How I'm curious, you're so beautiful. You launched your business, and you built it, because you're good at sales, in addition to the other things that you're good at. Curious how much you're able to get out with customers? Because as a CEO of a bank of a community bank, I would think that would be really powerful.
Lauren Sparks 21:56
Well, you know, that is our challenge. And resources have been our challenge. And I'm sure you had that conversation with everyone. People are a little wary about signing on to a startup, especially during COVID, people are a little wary of a less traditional financial institution. So it's been an interesting challenge to bring the team to get the right team. And so we made some strategic hires, and that now is going to afford me to get out more. But I do get out. I mean, I attend things, I handle a lot of clients. First up, you know, I'm the first conversation and I get the deal information, and I handle, you know, sort of a strategy conversation, and then I hand off. So I'm very involved with a lot of the clients and I'm loving it because I love working with people, I just don't know why you wouldn't want to bank here. I just don't know why you wouldn't want to force and
Jack Hubbard 22:53
then you have to feel that conviction, if you're gonna be successful. Well, you mentioned non traditional, and one thing you and I talked about, as you were building the bank out, was your ability to kind of start from scratch with technology. So talk about some of the technology that's going on in your organization now.
Lauren Sparks 23:12
Well, that's part of the conversation I've heard a lot from my clients in the consulting side of Community Bank saying, Well, I can't afford to be competitive, I can't afford to provide those services. I can't and some of it is can't and some of it is won't. And what I realized was that I and then several investors said, why don't you just go buy an existing charter of an existing bank, and I did not want to do that, I did not want to buy the technology. I didn't want to buy the culture. I didn't want to buy any of that. I wanted to start fresh, like you said and say, This is the Community Bank of the future. What does it look like? Well, it's an agile stack of technology, and trying to find, you know, we went with a smaller core, because of their ability to be flexible with us.
And we've partnered with FinTech solutions to create, uh, you know, what we felt was an interesting tech stack. And some of our choices have been great. Some of our choices haven't been so great. We, you know, we're learning as we go. And it is difficult to find all the right technology that plays together well, because you get a lot of this finger pointing between all of them. Yes, we'll play together, and then they won't. So, you know, that's an interesting experience. But I think the idea is that we continue to change whatever we have to in the stack to be flexible. And to figure out what business tools are appropriate as we're primarily business banks, what are the business tools that are appropriate for our businesses, and I can tell you that things that I thought were going to be like, because it would have been cool for me as a business owner, just aren't necessarily lying. And so we're retooling and changing our focus as we go. Nothing. Nothing that we thought would be when we filed our application in March of 2020. Is the reality of where we are sitting here for any bank really, in August. Can you believe it's August 23?
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Jack Hubbard 25:14
But the good news is because of your size, you are agile. And you have the ability to do what bigger banks, even a $200 million $300 million bank can't do, because they're locked into contracts. So that does give you a lot of flexibility. So I remember when Bob St. Meyer and I started St. Meyer and Hubbard, and we were talking about it in 1999. And my wife said, Well, what kind of business are you looking for from banks? I said, the ones that write us a check. So you can't be terribly picky when you're a brand new company. But I gotta believe that as you started this out, because you mentioned you're really targeting commercial, I gotta believe that as you started this out, you, you and your board, and your team said, Okay, these are the kinds of verticals that I sort of want to go after proactively, what are some of those without revealing a whole lot of confidences?
Lauren Sparks 26:13
Well, it's interesting, because I think with any [inaudible] bank, as you look at your shareholder base, because that's your first place you go for growing the bank. And when you when we look at our shareholder base, we have some very specific types of, of investors, and they're in certain industries, and there are certain profiles of professional, you know, executive and professional, and they are entrepreneurs and business owners, and that they like community banks, because they like to have the ability to walk in and talk to the CEO, or texture, or color. I mean, everybody in the world has got my cell number, and that's fine. That's what community banks are about, and they want that kind of accessibility.
And so, you know, we're executive and professional medical, you look at the Houston market, it's just such an incredibly varied market in the medical profession and industry. And then, you know, of course, commercial real estate is definitely a big deal for community banks. The interesting thing is that based on the market, as it currently is, we're getting to look very selectively at things because that's the market so we can be very selective in what we do.
Jack Hubbard 27:27
And, and others are pulling back from commercial real estate, which gives you the opportunity to do some more looks that maybe you wouldn't have had
Lauren Sparks 27:34
Exactly my thought, you know, everything happens the way it's supposed to. And some of the timing, particularly in this market is probably going to be even when we look back, we'll go wow, that's really what gave us that, that bump there or that bump there, or that opportunity there. And so, you know, out of everything. And we've said this is the end, this is the board has agreed and our founding investors have agreed from the very beginning because we could have stopped in their tracks with COVID, we could have stopped. But we all acknowledge and we all understand and I think most of us are entrepreneurs. That's why out of disruption comes opportunity. So that's what our focus is, is where, you know, we see all this happening. And what's our opportunity out of that?
Jack Hubbard 28:12
No doubt. Well, you mentioned Eden. And the reason I brought her up is I was looking at your LinkedIn homepage. And it is really, really outstanding. And by the way, you should all go to the Agility Bank homepage, follow Agility Bank. Oh, it's great. I'm curious, because you are so young, you've also got some younger bankers. I'm curious how they're using LinkedIn, as they're doing their business development activities.
Lauren Sparks 28:45
Well, it's interesting, because you can't generalize, you can't think that everybody that's younger than you is better on LinkedIn than you are. Because there's still some people who are not as tech savvy. And, but they're, but they're using it really well. And they'd like to engage in it. And it's also part of, I think, culture building. They're excited about what they read and see, because they don't always know where I am. They don't always know what we're up to. We're small, and you can yell down the hall. And, and most of them, it'll hear it, but we don't always yell about everything down the hall. So we don't always know. So I mean, I think we don't have an intranet currently. And it helps us all communicate in that way about knowing what's up.
They like being an extension of the bank, they like even when they're not client facing people. They like being an extension of the marketing of the bank. And so there's enjoyment and then being able to share like that. And I do know because we've compared ourselves to other banks, our size, other general banks in the market and even other gennova banks nationally, and we have a pretty darn good presence on LinkedIn and that's eaten, and she spends time training the board. And she spends time with any of the employees that need help and so we can always be better but we're doing pretty good and she's been. It's funny because I'll be out and about talking to people and they say, We see you everywhere. They don't mean they see me, they see the bank everywhere. And that's because of social media.
Jack Hubbard 30:07
And that is the great equalizer, the ability to be sitting in an office providing content, providing value, looking at the verticals that you're wanting to get involved with, and targeting them and providing value to them. That is so powerful. That's great. Well,
Lauren Sparks 30:25
I'm looking forward to working more with you, Jack on that.
Jack Hubbard 30:28
Well, that would be you know, that would be a real privilege. And I'm really proud of our Mastering LinkedIn for Bankers class. And it's just going, Well, we had a story the other day, from a banker who took our class and said, Gee, I reconnected with five people. And I've got five appointments, and I never would have had him without the class. So yeah, I love to look forward to working with you and others in that regard. But you talked about this very unique approach, called generational dream teams. You alluded to it a little bit, but talk more about it. And how did that all start?
Lauren Sparks 31:06
It's really me sitting there saying, we have to find a way to bring people into this bank. I want to retire someday. And I want to hand off the reins to a really great team who knows what they're doing, understands who we are, and is going to drive us forward. And how am I going to do that? So it's a very selfish retirement plan. But on another level, it's how we bring people in because I have to be okay with bringing people in, and mentoring them and then learning and then going somewhere else, because it's all about stronger bankers in the community banking system. So I have to be okay with that, as I remind myself, but it really was an idea I had and I said, we have to have a culture that's around creating opportunities for women and in financial services. So whether it's with us or somewhere else, we start changing who's at the table making the decisions around financial services and access to capital.
Jack Hubbard 31:58
It's just a terrific idea. Here's another thing that you have talked about a couple of times, and it's such a unique opportunity for a startup Bank De Novo is that your board is made up of the same kind of folks that are stockholders, which is women, five of the six board members are women. I'm curious how you found them. And what are some of their responsibilities?
Lauren Sparks 32:23
Well, we're actually up to eight now. So six of the eight are women, to men. And, you know, they come from varied backgrounds. So the majority of them are entrepreneurs, or have had entrepreneurial experience. So they understand what it is to be banked as a business, they understand what it is to have a good bank partner to grow their businesses, so they help remind us all the time of what our focus is, and who we're trying to serve. Many of them also have some financial services experience, especially 123 of the women. And that's huge, because they've lived what I'm talking about, you know, hitting the ceiling, only getting so far, understanding that they weren't at the table to make the next decision, that kind of thing. So they've lived it.
I guess what it is, is they, they are a really great representation of what we're trying to serve and address in the market. And their role as a director of a startup or a De Novo Bank, it's a lot of work. Our director, loan committee meets sometimes every week. So there's homework before every meeting, looking at the deals, we are, of course, we have our board meetings, but there's a lot of homework because everything we do is the first time at least once right? So everybody's learning all the time, this is our first kind of deal. This is the first time we've had to do a resolution about this, this is the first time we've entered into this kind of agreement. And we don't pay director fees as a startup. And so it's a mission of, of serving what they truly believe the bank will be doing here and in the community for a long time.
Jack Hubbard 34:01
It's a labor of love for the community as well, you've developed something called Agility achieve, which is phenomenal talk about that? Well, and so
Lauren Sparks 34:13
Okay, Agility is the first part of what we're trying to do in terms of education. So what I realized during the capital raise was, things I know are the only because I'm a banker, and 99% of the rest of the world doesn't know these things. And some of that they need to know because it can impact their success. So like the opportunity about investing in bank stock, explaining that to women and why that made sense. And yes, you can do that through your IRA. And this is a great thing for you to think about. You should think about all these things as a woman that way in totality, and you should be exposed to these decisions and these opportunities. So that way, we realize education was a big deal, just raising the capital. But then when we're getting down to 14 months of making loans, we have its digital lending platform. numerated has been an incredible partner for us.
As a credible partner for us, and here, we are trying to do small business lending on a digital platform and increase access to capital. And it's hard because these business owners might be good business owners, but their credit score isn't there. So then you stop, and you have to reach out and say, I want to help that person I can't. What that person really needs is education. And there's a lot of pieces of that out there. And I and well, so I've, we've really been struggling internally with, we can't be everything to everyone. And we can't be the Oracle of all education, but we can provide some education.
And that's what Agility achieves, it's an educational opportunity, it's a digital process, it's through our website, eventually, we'll probably do some certification around it, and some loan discounts around that. But it's our first effort at education, because that's when we learn, we can do things differently or better. And I think it's just the beginning of that I truly believe our purpose, our best way to serve in that educational field is going to be harnessing in some way, all the initiatives that are out there, because there's a million initiatives around education for small business owners, how do you harness that, and make that clear to somebody so they know what they need and and how to get it. I feel like there's all these disparate things out there in great initiatives, but it's not a cohesive list of information, a hub of information for business owners to know what to do next, we're doing a lot of that one on one. But there's got to be a better way to do that.
Jack Hubbard 36:29
And it's probably going to just do nothing but grow, you'll expand it, change it, modify it.
Lauren Sparks 36:35
That's what we have to do. And I think that everything we do, we realize we have to NS that agile name, right? That's about Okay, that didn't work. We're gonna tweak it this way. This is what we wanted to do. It didn't have the expected results. How are we going to get there? And it's just always changing, which for bankers is very hard. Right? Bankers like things very set, strong framework, nothing changes. And here we are saying, Here's a bank that's willing to keep changing.
Jack Hubbard 37:01
Yeah. And you're also not only changing, but you're running. And you keep running every single day. So you have a story about red sneakers, what's the deal with red sneakers with our red high tops? Well,
Lauren Sparks 37:15
The capital raise took us a while through the pandemic. And so we kept saying it wasn't a sprint, most other people's capital raises are a sprint, and ours was a marathon. And so you know, it's all team building stuff. I don't even know where it came from. Somebody laughed about oh, we all need sneakers or something. So I bought the team, which was about five of us, red high tops. And so now the thing is, everybody, when you come on board, you get your red high tops, even the board has them. And on Fridays, a lot of us wear them. I wear them sometimes in between if I can't, can't be in my heels for another minute, I put my red high tops on and walk around the bank. And I'm so you never know who you'll find in red high tops at the bank. But it's just part of, I think, an idea that we are bankers, and we know what our job is as bankers, but we're also human, and we like to have a little bit of fun and joke around.
Jack Hubbard 38:08
Outstanding. Well, I loved this interview, it just went by so fast. And I really value your time. I know how busy you are. I just have a couple more questions. One is, I'm a banker. I heard this interview and I want to start a bank. What advice do you have?
Lauren Sparks 38:35
I actually was so lucky. Because Sarah, that was the woman who came out of retirement to help with our marketing side everything and everything she did, and does. She took me to an extremely venerated and well known banker who started a lot of banks and was involved in a lot of banks, and took me to him early on, and said, talk to him and see if you really want to do this. And after we talked a little while he said, Well, I can tell you, I can tell you, I can't talk you out of this, you're going to do it. But if you have a niche, and you're very clear about what your niche is, you can still be successful opening a new bank in the United States. And he said you have a niche. So I realized that we did so I would tell anyone that they have to be very clear about their niches. Now, I'll tell you, you are still marketing around that and expressing that and how you profile that that's still a struggle, but you have to be clear day to day about what your niche is. And I think you can do it. And depending on your niche, you might find that the regulations aren't even written in ways that are helpful to what you're trying to achieve. But maybe over time, that'll change too. But don't give up. You haven't
Jack Hubbard 39:49
and you've been incredibly successful and I know that you always want more, because you want to help more people. But congratulations on what you've done Lauren. It's just phenomenal.
Lauren Sparks 39:59
Well, you're very kind. And I want to thank you for being encouraging. You might have laughed if you hung up the phone, but being encouraged early on about the need, and the opportunity that there is for, you know, not changing banking as a whole, that is positioning community banking for the future because it's so important. And thanks for encouraging me the way you did.
Jack Hubbard 40:21
You bet. Thanks for your time, Lauren.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Jack Rants With Modern Bankers. And my great guest, Lauren Sparks. This and every program is brought to you by our great friends at RelPro and Vertical IQ. Join us next time for more special guests bringing you marketing, sales and leadership insights and ideas that will provide your bank or credit union with that competitive edge you need to succeed in 2023 and beyond.
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