'At the end of the day, DEI is about innovation,' says U.S. Bank executive

Chief Diversity Officer Greg Cunningham says it's been proven that practices lead to growth.

Greg Cunningham, chief diversity officer for U.S. Bank, poses for a portrait in the U.S. Bancorp Center building in Minneapolis. Under his watch, the
Greg Cunningham, chief diversity officer for U.S. Bank, poses for a portrait in the U.S. Bancorp Center building in Minneapolis. Under his watch, the bank has invested $600 million since May 2020 to diversify its lending, hiring and wealth creation efforts in communities of color.

— Alex Kormann, Star Tribune

This past year, after the Supreme Court ruled race cannot be a direct factor in selective admissions to Harvard, many companies started to receive pushback on their diversity policies.

Some opened up training and internship programs to all races. Others slashed diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices, even if they kept diversity goals. Others dropped goals.

The movement was disheartening to many diversity advocates who had seen the focus on equity issues rise after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Several Fortune 500 companies in the Twin Cities have reaffirmed their commitment to DEI strategies amid the pushback. U.S. Bancorp, which is No. 6 on the Star Tribune 50, is one of them, said Greg Cunningham, chief diversity officer of Minnesota's largest bank by deposits.

Cunningham, who joined U.S. Bank in 2015 after 16 years at Target, said U.S. Bank, has not wavered from its commitment.

"At the end of the day, DEI is actually about innovation," said Cunningham, who earned a bachelor's degree from the historically Black Clark-Atlanta University and an MBA from Fordham. "It's about how you grow your business by being more inclusive in terms of your employee base, the customers you need to be relevant to [and] investing in community."

To achieve this, an organization needs to have DEI goals at every level of the organization, he said. The bank ranked No. 11 last year on DiversityInc.'s Top 50 companies list.

"Leading with inclusion is on every one of our managers' performance reviews, and so it is a performance expectation, and I think that's pretty fundamental to building a culture of inclusion," Cunningham said.

Cunningham sat down for a wide-ranging interview on diversity issues. Following are excerpts edited for length and clarity.

Q: In 2020 the bank pledged $100 million toward diversity initiatives. Where did you start and where are you now?

A: That number we originally shared was $100 million. We are now over $600 million invested. When we were trying to figure how U.S. Bank could lean into issues of social impact and really make a difference, it was clear to us we needed to bring our core competencies to help solve some of these issues. Because we are a bank, we felt the wealth gap was really the most important place to start. Because the gaps were largest with the Black community, we started with the Black community when we launched in 2021. Last year, we added the focus on the Hispanic community because there are incredible wealth disparities there as well.

Q: Have DEI goals helped your business?

A: That's unquestioned in my mind. McKinsey has been studying that for years. There is empirical data that talks about organizations that have diverse representation of women and people of color in senior level positions are more profitable. And while I can't share specific U.S. Bank numbers around that today, there is no question that it's opened up opportunities and markets.

Q: Can you give an example?

A: About 95% of all the growth in our retail footprint is coming from communities of color. Our recent acquisition of Union Bank gives us an even deeper presence in California. California is such an important growth market for us. We don't think about it as a DEI opportunity. It's a growth opportunity. Yet in California, 60% of the residents are non-white. It requires you to have cultural competency to understand that those multicultural consumers are your core customers in California. So the way we're thinking about it is, not that DEI has a separate initiative, but that it has to be completely integrated into the business.

Q: U.S. Bank has invested $600 million in DEI efforts to date. Can you unpack that for us?

A: Essentially, there are four critical pillars we call "Access Commitment" that are important to help close wealth disparities. One focuses on helping individuals and families build wealth, through wealth practices, through financial education and ensuring we have wealth advisers who understand the lived experience of these communities and who can communicate financial information in a way that is culturally relevant, meaningful and useful. We've increased the number of coaching sessions and financial education seminars our access advisers have with individuals and families and businesses. We've partnered with Operation Hope to put financial counselors in underserved communities to help the underbanked and unbanked. For example, we have two Operation Hope coaches in our north Minneapolis branch who are helping individuals and families improve their credit scores. We know those things are working.

We're also supporting small businesses, because it's no secret they are the engine of our economy. This initiative helps to create access to capital and get capital into the hands of small businesses. We've created a position in the past two years we call business access adviser. That role serves as a bridge between small businesses and the bank.

Under another pillar, we know there is nothing more important to building wealth than homeownership. Yet homeownership gaps are dramatic when you look at the differences between white homeownership and black homeownership, both nationally and locally. So we added mortgage loan officers who are serving diverse communities, in much the same way that our new business access advisers are doing it for small businesses of color. We also launched a Special Purpose Credit Program that is essentially a forgivable loan, if you qualify. Part of that program provides down payment assistance and potential assistance to pay down the mortgage rate.

Q: What are some of your neighborhood or community DEI efforts?

A: We're making very specific investments in community development financial institutions (CDFIs). They have some dexterity about how to get resources and capital into the hands of small businesses and community institutions. We are funding groups involved in affordable housing and real estate developers who are building affordable housing. I think about local developer Johnny Opara and his initiatives building the Hollows in St. Paul. We are significantly invested in projects like that and like Houston White and his Camdentown development project in north Minneapolis. All of that DEI work is coming through our Access-To-Capital initiative. Those are just a couple of examples of businesses on both sides of the river who have benefited from those types of CDFI investments.

Q: In working with so many organizations nationwide, do you sense corporations are pushing back on diversity measures as more time elapses since George Floyd's death?

A: Yes. I think the pushback is some people have felt DEI was about providing favor to some group over other groups in some way. I don't think we've ever looked at it as an opportunity to create favor. It is an opportunity to create parity. Our purpose is to power people's potential. We've always contended, if we're going to power potential, we need to power potential for all. For all employees. For all of our customers. For all the communities where we live and work. And so while there is pushback, I think we have real clarity around it. We've always realized that we had to have stamina around this.