By Katie Zakrzewski and Mark Carter
Former Arkansas House Speaker Pro-Tem Darrin Williams became CEO of Southern Bancorp in 2013 after a six-year stint in the state legislature and a run as managing partner at the Carney, Williams, Bates, Pulliam & Bowman firm in Little Rock.
Southern is a $1.6 billion asset organization based in Arkadelphia with more than 65,000 customers and 49 branches primarily in underserved markets throughout the Delta and Mid-South.
Williams opens up to AMP about social injustices, why doors seem to be closed for young Black people entering the finance industry and how the pandemic has impacted rural, Black entrepreneurship.
AMP: Do young Black people have equal access to the banking and finance industries?
Williams: Absolutely not. From Wall Street investment banks to Main Street community banks, African Americans are underrepresented. The reasons are varied, and the lack of equal access relates to intentional discrimination, structural racism, a lack of role models or mentors in the field and many other reasons.
A recent article by McKinsey & Company, in partnership with the Kellogg Foundation, one of Southern Bancorp’s largest shareholders, explores the lack of diversity in the financial services sector, which offers insightful commentary.
AMP: Has increased awareness of various social injustices led to more opportunities for young people of color and other minorities?
Williams: Currently, there is a great deal of attention around advancing racial equity, and I applaud the people and businesses who are actively engaged in making a positive difference. However, the injustices against African Americans, from slavery to a corrupt criminal justice system to denied economic opportunities, have been longstanding and pervasive.
The results of these intentional actions will not be resolved overnight. They will take intentional and sustained actions to overcome the generational damage that has occurred. I hope we are up to the challenge. I pray advancing racial equity is not simply the hot topic of the moment.
I am encouraged when I see the Business Roundtable (BRT) — chaired by Doug McMillon, Walmart’s CEO — take a strong stand but more importantly take actions to break down the barriers to economic opportunity.
Southern Bancorp has been the recipient of an equity investment from BRT member Bank of America that will help us expand our unique brand of banking, which works to build financial resiliency and create economic opportunities in underserved communities where far too few exist.
AMP: Were there any specific obstacles you had to overcome related to race in your career path?
Williams: Yes, and I don’t know an African American that has risen to leading positions in corporate America that has not had racial challenges to overcome. It’s the hand that we have been dealt; racism is built in the very structures of society. We can be upset, or we can push forward. I choose to push forward. As opposed to looking back at specific obstacles, I work to provide access and opportunity for other African Americans. I stand on the shoulders of many who helped me, both Black and white, and I repay my debt to them by being a shoulder for others.
AMP: How badly has the pandemic impacted Black entrepreneurship in rural communities?
Williams: Anecdotally, we believe that African American entrepreneurs in rural communities have been impacted more by COVID-19 than white entrepreneurs. We see this when comparing the recipients of the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, mostly white males, with that of our Business Continuity Grant (BCG) program recipients, which were more than 63 percent African American.
We established the BCG program to reach businesses that were not eligible for the PPP by raising philanthropic funds, led by our board members’ gifts, to provide $1,000 grants to small businesses to help them transition toward safe operation during this pandemic. We offered these grants to small businesses in markets where we had a bank branch, and we gave priority to counties that had higher COVID Community Vulnerability Index (CCVI) scores. Surgo Ventures created the CCVI to highlight those communities that will have long-term impacts from COVID beyond just the health impacts, including employment and economic impacts.
We were able to provide 128 grants supporting 330 jobs. Working with 60_decibels (an impact survey company), we learned that 54 percent of our Black PPP and BCG customers said they would have closed (compared to 20 percent of white-owned businesses) but for this support.
Nationwide, clearly, evidence shows that Black businesses were significantly impacted (see below). Undoubtedly, these stats hold true for Black-owned rural businesses.
• According to the New York Federal Reserve, Black-owned businesses were twice as likely to close their doors as a result of COVID compared to white-owned
• Research at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that 41 percent of Black-owned businesses — some 440,000 enterprises — have been shuttered by COVID-19, compared to just 17 percent of white-owned businesses.