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‘Embrace the Journey’

This piece originally appeared in the August 2022 edition of MReport magazine, online now.

Brian “Woody” White serves as Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer for Homebridge Financial Services. In his role at Homebridge, White is tasked with building the roadmap to ensure Homebridge is an industry leader in focusing on diversity and inclusion internally, as well as championing outreach to underserved communities.

Before he began his new role, White served as the Chief Information Officer and Chief Information Security Officer for Homebridge. He also served in similar capacities for Countrywide, Credit Suisse, Sallie Mae, First Union, and the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA).

At Homebridge’s dedicated D&I page (Homebridge.com/about-homebridge/diversity-and-inclusion), White’s team has laid out four areas the organization’s Office of Diversity & Inclusion is initially focusing its efforts on:

  1. Educating the public about homeownership
  2. Enhancing first-time homebuyer program offerings
  3. Establishing relationships with community groups focused on housing
  4. Identifying, recruiting, and hiring diverse talent across the company
  5. Improving vendor diversity

MReport had a chance to chat with Woody recently to discuss his role in fostering D&I efforts at Homebridge and the progress he has witnessed in the industry in the area of diversity and inclusion.

How did your role as a D&I exec come about with Homebridge Financial Services?
I served as a Chief Information Officer and Chief Information Security Officer for more than 30 years. I had been talking to leadership about issues around diversity over the years. In 2020, we had a more detailed conversation, and I decided to retire from IT. In previous jobs that I’ve had, whether it be at Credit Suisse, First Boston, Sallie Mae, Countrywide, it didn’t matter—I was pretty much the only Black executive there. Being the only Black person in the room has two flavors. At some companies, for example, Homebridge, Corestates Bank, Sallie Mae, I was literally the only Black in the room as an executive/senior manager. At larger companies such as Aetna, Countrywide, Credit Suisse, I was the only ranking person in IT, but there were one or two other senior Black executives maybe in HR or Accounting … but still enough to count on one hand. So, over the years, I’ve experienced some really, really bad programs that were rolled out, as well as some good ones. I just decided to take that experience and move it into this space.

In addition to that, in my own community, I’ve been doing a number of things, such as financial planning training. I used to be a certified financial planner, so I would do things like that in the community, work to help people understand how to get mortgages. The two aspects finally just kind of came together.

If you go out and pick a random company, there’s a lot of talk about diversity and inclusion. But if you ask, “Please give us information on your actual demographics inside your company,” you’ll just hear crickets. Nobody wants to do it. There are components of Dodd-Frank that were drafted by Maxine Waters, and she was specifically brought in to draft a component that asked public companies to start sharing their diversity information publicly. Very few do it. As a matter of fact, I only know of one public company that does it, and it’s Apple. You can go to Apple, and you can see the details.

I think Homebridge has a pretty good story. Is it perfect? No. Diversity and inclusion and equity is a journey for every company. I thought we were in a good position to communicate our journey and status, and that’s why I created our community.

What are the 2-3 most critical considerations when working to build and foster D&I when it comes to internal team morale, employee development, and talent acquisition?
#1 First and foremost, executive management and senior leaders have to be 100% behind the DE&I initiative. Not lip service, but at the uncomfortable, think tank, and flexible level. If the senior managers are not fully on board, the resulting efforts will be lightweight, feel-phony solutions that will be ignored by the associates. This executive level of support must be shown (not just talked about) and provide funding.

#2: Understand that everything about DE&I is very personal at the individual level. This is all about sensitivity and getting associates to understand the company they work for takes DE&I seriously and communicating at Homebridge means it’s “safe to be honest.”

#3. Be creative. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can sign up for a D&I cloud program, roll it out, and it will be embraced. It’s like ice cream: while vanilla is good and tasty, that does not mean everyone will like vanilla. My approach at Homebridge is to know where I work and how to read the audience. I personally feel DE&I programs are custom activities to work in a specific environment for a specific time. As the makeup of the company, associates, and society change, so must the thought process around the DE&I programs.

What are some practical ways mortgage industry professionals help foster a more sustainable, equitable, and diverse housing ecosystem for homebuyers/homeowners?
It all depends on how the company views the marketplace. If the company believes the future marketplace is what the past marketplace was, then a number of companies can ignore minority markets for the most part as they have in the past and continue supporting programs such as subprime loans and unfair real estate appraisals. If the company understands that the minority marketplace represents the largest opportunity going forward, then it’s time to work harder to “connect” with the communities being solicited and better understand the challenges. Understand that a family with two working parents today paying $3,000 in rent cannot save the down payment and closing cost to get into a home and need assistance such as HFAs.

The housing ecosystem needs to figure a way to root out bad actors such as appraisal companies giving Blacks and other minorities lower home appraisals for no good reason other than bias and racism. As long as these bad actors a present, the trust level between mortgage companies and the minority consumer will be tarnished. Finally, education and a level of philanthropy need to take root. Meaning, the consumer needs to be guided through the education of the mortgage process when needed, and it should have some level of standards across the industry to ensure borrowers are truly being supported consistently.

On the Affordable Lending/LMI side of the coin, we need to figure out how to get “all” MLOs interested in dedicating some part of their work efforts (this is the philanthropy component) based on a monthly commitment and doing their duty to help the underserved. We all know some Affordable Lending/LMI loans may yield extra work and the MLO might make a little less, but it will take this type of commitment to foster change across this country and allow others to enjoy the benefits of homeownership.

Is the version of this D&I program that you’ve launched in keeping with what you initially envisioned?
Yes. My take is, you can go look at most financial institutions and mortgage companies, and you’re not going to find this kind of information publicly available. I can tell you, in a lot of situations where I was looking for a job, I was hunting for that information. As a minority, I was hunting for that information, and I could never find it. And when I found it, when I showed up for the interview and they walked me through the suite, I would say, “Where are all the people that look like me?”

On the one hand, your company is saying, “We’ve been in business since 1940.” Well, it’s 2000, and how does it still look like this? And to be honest with you, as a minority, you must make a decision when you see that. It’s not about your skill, it’s about, when I go to this company, what is it going to mean for me to work here and be the first? Am I going to be really welcomed?

People don’t understand that those kinds of decisions are being made. People want to understand, what’s your company doing? It doesn’t matter if things aren’t perfect, but are you doing anything to fix it? And I think by a lot of companies not putting that information out there, in a new, millennial world, they’ll be challenged. They’ll be challenged to do better and report this information.

Did you have any uphill struggles getting Homebridge’s D&I program moving and getting everyone on board to make it happen?
Well, I had already been the CIO for Homebridge and CISO for about eight years, so I had a reputation. Everybody knew if I started something, I was going to finish it. So, there was a lot of trust with me at Homebridge. But the one thing I will tell you is, you want to tell people that our senior management believes in diversity and inclusion, and they believe in the power of diversity in terms of enhancing the corporate structure and the goals. But you know what? When you’re a Black person or a Hispanic person in a company where you may be the only one or two, you’re very nervous about speaking up. It doesn’t matter what the company says; you’re nervous about speaking up. Sure, everybody takes classes about how “retaliation is not allowed” and things like that, but the reality is, people are still afraid of that.

So, one of the things that I did was, when I took this position, I had no idea where we were as a company from a diversity standpoint.

I had no idea if a Hispanic woman was in a department feeling like people are passing her by, and why isn’t she moving? I had no idea. So, first, I started out with a campaign of almost four months, saying to everybody, “I’m taking over this department. I’m launching it. I’m going to do things for you to clearly understand that it is safe to be honest at Homebridge.”

Then, I launched a diversity and inclusion survey as a litmus test to see where we were. I asked a number of questions, and I explained to everybody how the anonymous process would work. And I outlined it in detail. And I would say out of 100%, I got about 78% completion rate, and it was pretty good. Were there some issues? Yeah, there were.

There were some people, like I said, a Hispanic team member asking, “Why are people passing me by?”

So, I knew where we needed to focus, and that’s what I did. I started focusing on things related to education. I rolled out education classes around unconscious bias. All executives in the company were the first to go through this program. I also put together a newsletter where I communicate regularly. Everybody knows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, what’s going on in diversity and inclusion—there’s no doubt about that. But I needed that survey in order to figure out if there were things going on that I was totally unaware of, as well as HR and our senior management.

You also had one or two comments which people are talking about, “Why wasn’t my raise bigger?” Things like that. But overall, I thought we were in a pretty good position. I thought I convinced people to be honest, that it was safe to be honest here.

But to be honest with you, you have to work at that. You have to keep trying and see. People are willing to talk. People are definitely willing to provide me feedback. But I’m not sure if I asked all the right hard questions yet to see if they are 100% ready to be honest.

What were some of the surprises that you encountered from that survey?
Some things were immediately actionable, and it had to do with communication. In the mortgage business, it’s non-stop. Everybody’s trying to get a mortgage, you know what I mean? A lot of the communication is about the mortgage process, and here and there, HR is sending something out. But around the issue of diversity and inclusion, everybody was kind of clueless. I needed to immediately communicate more what it was, what it wasn’t.

I’ll give you an example. I had an African American person ask me, “Hey, when I worked at Bank of America, we had the African American male group, we had all of these groups. What are we going to do around that?” And my answer was, “If it was up to me, nothing.”

To be honest with you, I don’t see the value. I’ve been in many companies, and I’ve been in the African American male group, I’ve been in the African American group, the underserved group, and it didn’t do anything for me. All I did was find segregation not actually helping us move forward.

I found Black men in the group complaining about Black men problems in the company, with nowhere to really go with it. And I said to this person, “My primary goal right now is to focus on us working better together at Homebridge, from a diversity and inclusion standpoint. Making sure that senior management is behind what I’m doing, and that you can see and feel that. On top of that, if I ever approve affinity groups in that manner, it would have to be integrated in some way that segregation is not our plan to get from point A to point B.”

I’m not against it 100%, but what they’ve yielded in the past, it didn’t feel good when I was in it. And it’s not where I wanted to start at Homebridge.

Do you think affinity groups are an outdated concept? Or is there a version of them that could be useful?
I think there’s a version that’s useful. But if you look at when those things started, if you go back to the late ‘80s, it was an HR thing. Most of those ERG groups were all about the social aspects, right? We’re going to give this ERG group $500. You guys get together, meet. It was a social issue.

Now we are heavily talking about diversity and inclusion, and I think they’re separate. If the company wants to launch social groups where people are just getting together for potlucks or to go to the movies together, I’m not against that. But I still would like to see something where all those groups get together for some type of event, really come together as a company. When you create a diversity and inclusion group, people are looking for change.

Another example: I had many conversations with a group of Asians at Homebridge, and our conversation was about the academic problem of people creating terminology and just assuming that it’s okay with everybody. For example, when I was born in 1960-something, I was “Negro.” Then came Black Power in the ‘70s, and then I was “Black.” Then sometime in the late ‘80s, I became “African American,” and then somebody decided to forget all of that and call me a “person of color.”

I remember looking at an employment application and literally had a box for a “person of color.”

How did I get stripped of all my culture and just become a person of color? Do people think there’s no difference between my family and a Hispanic family, that our cultures are exactly the same? They’re not. So just because somebody decided to come up with this term, doesn’t mean I have to accept it.

And as a D&I person, you’ve got to connect with that and understand that that’s what’s happening. So, when people throw out terms like Latinx, just because that came out in the academic world, doesn’t mean you can just run around calling everybody Latinx. Because I can tell you, a lot of my Latino friends don’t like the term Latinx.

If you’re a D&I person, you’ve got to be careful about buying into these things. And you have to remember that when you’re rolling things out, there’s a difference.

Maybe you don’t want to recognize the difference. Maybe the EEOC doesn’t want to recognize the difference. But when you’re working in a company, and you’re trying to roll things out to make people feel included, you need to remember those differences, as a D&I person.

What are some practical takeaways you’ve learned from your organization’s own D&I initiatives or programs? What changes have you implemented as a result of those findings?
First, be creative to help drive engagement. At Homebridge, I have a very detailed and informative newsletter that is published every month, and I get lots of responses from associates.

Internally, we are working on many initiatives to create new mortgage resources through our new Homegrown program, which is focused on operations and corporate but provides us the ability to focus on diversity hiring to increase the number of minorities in the mortgage space. Externally we work with diversity-focused organizations such as Circa, which helps us communicate our open positions simultaneously to many diverse organizations (i.e., women, vets, African American, Asian, LGBTQIA, etc.).

While all of the above, in addition to other activities such as online D&I educational classes, are working well, I realized there was not enough two-way communication.

Therefore, I created a live-streaming internal talk show called “The Conversation Spot,” which is designed to allow all associates to use their D&I voice and speak directly to the D&I department and share their thoughts and ideas.

The last thought I have is, I try my best to ignore D&I defaults when recognizing differences. For example, in the D&I space, you cannot fall into a lull thinking “group” focus is truly good for everyone. Meaning, as a Black man, when I plan activities, I recognize that terms such as “people of color” strip people of their cultures.

Culturally, Blacks experience and focus on different things than Hispanics, and Hispanics experience different things and focus on different things than Asians, and so on. When we take terms like “Asians” to represent the various different cultures associated with that term, it’s easy to forget that, in reality, the term Asian is a collection of many different countries and cultures. From a D&I standpoint, we must remember this when rolling out programs and thinking about our associates.

What D&I lessons have emerged from the challenges of the pandemic? The Great Resignation?
I would say in a way (not in a catastrophic way), the very personal DNA core of DE&I efforts was forced to continue forward without the personal, more intimate contact setting of meeting in person. We had to learn how to connect virtually and make that connection engaging. At Homebridge, I don’t think we have been impacted so much by the Great Resignation, but I am sure there are a few that may be classified as being a part of the Great Resignation. I think the pandemic has changed the corporate culture forever and how we view “how work gets done” in terms of what a full-time job looks like, why and when we need to travel for business, and the visualization of what work-life balance means now vs. before the pandemic.

For a company that’s looking to build an internal commitment to D&I, where should they begin?
Again, start with senior management and senior leaders. At Homebridge, the conversation started with me and executive management, and when the program was launched, our executive management team and senior leaders were the first to go through unconscious bias classes and embrace the inclusive Homebridge environment. They also accepted the challenge of examining the possibility that everything may not be perfect and that changes will be necessary in terms of improvement.

Senior management must embrace the value of diversity in the workplace and be willing to go through the steps to foster diversity and inclusion and fund the supported program. This has been my cornerstone of support at Homebridge. Finally, the D&I road is not a project or a phase, it’s a journey that will require constant checkpoints, discussions, corrections, and improvements.

Embrace the journey!

About Author: David Wharton

David Wharton, Editor-in-Chief at the Five Star Institute, is a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington, where he received his B.A. in English and minored in Journalism. Wharton has nearly 20 years' experience in journalism and previously worked at Thomson Reuters, a multinational mass media and information firm, as Associate Content Editor, focusing on producing media content related to tax and accounting principles and government rules and regulations for accounting professionals. Wharton has an extensive and diversified portfolio of freelance material, with published contributions in both online and print media publications. He can be reached at [email protected]
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