ReShonda Young and Jamie Smith Hopkins on a split zoom screen
Jamie Smith Hopkins speaks with ReShonda Young about her journey to open a Black-owned bank.
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A year after being the subject of an award-winning Center for Public Integrity podcast, ReShonda Young said she “definitely” feels closer to her goal of opening the only Black-owned bank in her state. 

Young was featured in “The Wealth Vortex,” Public Integrity’s second season of The Heist podcast. The series followed her efforts to confront the vast wealth gap between Black and white Americans by using the banking system that has helped perpetuate it.

In a live conversation moderated by editor and senior reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins, who hosted the podcast, Young shared her progress on the planned Bank of Jabez. She also discussed other recent efforts to increase equity and open more Black-owned banks across the country.

An entrepreneur from Waterloo, Iowa, Young started and franchised a popcorn business before selling the company in 2019. She is the director of an accelerator that supports Black business owners in her town and the leading force behind the Bank of Jabez.

The institution would be Iowa’s only Black-owned bank and potentially the first nationwide in more than 20 years, though a recent deal in Utah could break that drought. Young, who is in the fundraising stage, said she is aiming for an opening date this year. 

Here’s a selection of questions and answers from that discussion.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Since the podcast aired a year ago, what has changed for you? Do you feel closer to achieving what you set out to do?

Definitely. Absolutely, just being connected with people across the country, a great attorney, a great accounting firm, a ton of great people who have really poured in support, who are walking along the journey with us. We have institutional support behind us. There’s so many things that were not reality for us a year ago that are here today. And we’re super excited about where everything is going and [have] no doubt that we’ll achieve our goals.

Q. Is there anything that you think would be helpful to share in terms of now versus then? 

Then, I had consultants — and they were amazing — but I didn’t have an attorney. I did not have the accounting firm. I didn’t have all of the people across the United States who heard the story and who have poured in financial support. I didn’t have so many connections then that I have now. I didn’t have the connections to the institutions and the people within the institutions who are committing to support, whether it be deposits once we’re open or helping with some of the seed capital that we’re needing. 

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Q. Two bits of news this year: In Ohio there’s a newly opened Black bank, which isn’t Black-owned but Black-run, and in Utah there’s a deal that was struck recently to turn an existing bank into the first new Black-owned bank since 2000. How did that feel to hear?

It was super encouraging. Very excited to see it happen because the struggles that Black Americans in Waterloo have felt for so long are the struggles that Black Americans have felt across the country. 

Black banks make such a huge difference in the communities that they serve. I’m ecstatic to see these other institutions getting launched, and I’m just really excited about the work on the quality of life improvements that can happen for Black people in more areas.

Q. Also recently, there are these headwinds like inflation, higher interest rates and bank failures. How are these economic conditions playing into your journey?

Actually, it really is a benefit for us to be getting started at a time like this, because we can better prepare. We can make better plans for tough times because we’re starting in tough times. I really have empathy, or sympathy even, for the banks that are currently established and they weren’t really prepared for this. They weren’t prepared for all the interest-rate hikes, they weren’t prepared for inflation. They weren’t prepared for COVID. 

Q. A question from the audience: Have you heard from others that your work to start a bank has inspired other Black communities to do the same?

So I have been reached out to by several others from different communities saying, “Hey, I really would like to do the same thing. How do you do this? How do you get started?” I’ll be honest, so many emails come through that some of them slip I know through the cracks, and I don’t mean to ignore emails ever, at all. There are just a lot that do come through. But I have had several people who have asked and been encouraged by this journey.

Q. What are your top lessons of taking on something that feels really big?

One lesson is making sure that you do have a team because you really can’t do everything by yourself. Especially with something really big. To try and do it by yourself is like mission impossible. 

So inviting others in, listening to others and being willing to just be open-minded for the input that you’re going to get. Because what you may think is like the greatest idea ever, someone else may come up with something else — then it’s like, “OK, maybe it was the second-greatest idea.” So that would be the first thing, making sure that you have a team of people around you. 

And then the second thing is no matter how big something is, more than likely somebody else has done it before. So why can’t you do it now? 

That’s always my attitude. Somebody else did it. I can do it too.

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Q. A question from the audience: Cities like Baltimore are pushing to open more Black-owned banks and branches of existing Black-owned banks. What role do you think they play in helping to reduce the racial wealth gap?

Opening additional locations, especially in a city like Baltimore, making sure that the banks are accessible and convenient for people to get to, the people that they’re trying to serve, I think that’s really great. … And then in terms of reducing the racial wealth gap, we know that when Blacks go to banks for home loans, we’re denied at [a much higher rate than] whites are denied, and that’s the same for small business loans. 

When you go into a Black-owned bank, you know that your chances are higher, you know that they’re not discriminating against you because you’re Black. You know that there’s a difference there. So you can increase homeownership. You can provide the funding that small business owners need in order to grow their businesses. 

And a lot of times small business owners start their business because their job is not paying them enough. So it’s not necessarily to replace their job, but to supplement the income that they’re currently making. … If you can’t do that, you’re really stuck. Black banks do absolutely help to support the communities that are needing it most.

Q. What has it been like to work on equity in a community that isn’t a large city? 

One of the benefits of working on equity in a small city like Waterloo is that it doesn’t take as much to get to the people who are in charge. Oftentimes you know the heads of organizations, you have relationships with them. 

It makes a difference when you can be in a community where people actually know one another and you know people. If you don’t know them, then probably one or two people that you talk to and you know can be connected with them. So that’s a huge benefit of being in a smaller area. 

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Ileana Garnand (they/them) is CPI's 2022-2023 Charles Lewis American University Fellow. They are currently...