Malia Lazu
Eastern Massachusetts Regional President, Berkshire Bank
Age: 42
Industry experience: 10 months 

After joining Berkshire Bank 10 months ago, Malia Lazu had an eye-opening experience when she discovered how few women of color held executive roles at banks. Although she had consulted with financial institutions, Lazu had not worked at a bank until Berkshire hired her as an executive vice president and chief experience and culture officer.  

Often finding herself in rooms where she’s the only person of color and the youngest by 20 years, Lazu continues her efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the industry, both within Berkshire and in the products and services offered to consumersAnd she’s also handling new responsibilities. Last month Lazu was one of eight Berkshire Bank executives promoted to newly established roles as regional presidents. 

Q: What have the last 10 months been like for you?
A: As someone who comes out of culturebuilding and community economic development work, it’s definitely been an interesting 10 months. It’s been really great to see how open the new CEO, Richard Marotta, has been in seeing what it takes to have real impact with diversity, inclusion and social responsibility.  

Externally we’re doing some really, I think, innovative and groundbreaking work in bringing small microloans to minority businesses that are in the startup phase. We’re working with The Runway Project on these microloans. They’re communityunderwritten, so we’re learning about a different type of underwriting process, learning how we think about due diligence in an innovative way.  

It’s been baptism by fire as my grandma used to say, but it’s been an absolutely wonderful baptism. 

Q: Why did Berkshire Bank establish regional presidents?
A: We’re a community bank, and our footprint doesn’t necessarily lend itself to community banking. So, the role of the regional president is really to make sure that we’re in the communities that we serve and that we’re building relationships  retail relationships, commercial relationships, community relationships  to ensure that we’re banking our communities as effectively as possible. Regional presidents are in charge of the core part of revenue driving for the region. 

Q: How did the launch of the small business microloan program, the Friends and Family Fund, go?
A: It’s been a wonderful experience to work with The Runway Project and see how we can think about underwriting differently. African Americans are twice as likely to be turned down for a loan as their white counterparts [according to Federal Reserve data]. We know that loans are some of your longestterm relationships with customers. If we’re turning down twice as many people of a demographic, we’re probably leaving some money on the table, and we want to think about that. 

Q: You previously worked as the chief experience and culture officer. Where do those initiatives stand?
A: I’m still doing that work. We’re still working on shifting our internal culture to be more responsive and understanding of the 21st century and, with the external culture, to understand not only what our consumer wants but how much the landscape has changed. 

For the work that we’re doing externally right now, we just launched our first ReevX Labs. ReevX is our commitment to the community to revolutionize banking and help evolve a more just economy. These ReevX Labs are not branches. They’re in communities and they’re coworking or community entrepreneur pop-up spaces that will allow us to sit in communities and get to know what emerging and developing economies are happening and how they can be banked. That’s work I’m continuing to do while I also support our business lines in the region. 

Q: What role does the bank have in the ReevX Labs?
A: Branches have been losing foot traffic for a really long time. I think CapitaOne did a great job of really asking the industry to rethink how we engage our consumer in the retail space. What we realized was that with our look toward digital and what people are doing with their phones, we could have a banking presence in communities without actually taking deposits. It really lets us sit in the community and support the community.  

We’re doing the microloans program out of ReevX Labs. We’re also doing financial literacy and some programs for specific targeted audiences. Our lab in Boston happens to be next to a senior center, so we’re going to do some elder security classes for them. And we have a concierge banking service for all of our customers, My Bankers, that will also be sitting in the ReevX lab working with current customers.  

Q: How has the community responded to the coworking space?
A: It’s been amazing. We’ve had an average of 10 people in the space every day since we’ve opened it. Especially in our futurefacing strategy in urban centers, we really wanted to ask: how do we come into a community in a way that’s relevant? Because if you’re not relevant, no one’s going to use you. What we wanted is to figure out what the community needs that’s within our lane.  

From talking to communities, the coworking startup energy is everywhere. It’s not just in tech centers or college campuses. Yet there was not a lot of space for folks to come together and have that coworking, networking experience. So, the coworking space is where we started. We worked with six accelerator programs here in Boston that all have been running programs for several years and have businesses at all different levels. You sign up for a membership  it’s free  and then you can come in from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. to use the space. We also have event space that’s free to all of our entrepreneur members and any nonprofits that want to use the space. They go online, sign up and then can get access to the space for the time they need it for free.  

Lazu’s Five Favorite Businesses Owned by Women of Color 

  1. Backstage Capital  
  2. The Runway Project  
  3. Culture Shift Creative 
  4. Trillfit 
  5. Kreyol Essence 

Jumping in With Both Feet

by Diane McLaughlin time to read: 4 min