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Cindy Hill is First Independence Bank's self-proclaimed biggest advocate, often talking it up to her community and handing out business cards.

"I feel that it's very important for us to support it because if we don't, who will?" the Brooklyn Park resident said of Minnesota's first Black-owned bank.

It also doesn't hurt that she's also known Damon Jenkins — the Twin Cities regional market president for the Detroit-based bank — since he was a teenager.

Still, even for one of the bank's biggest champions, Hill admits that because of work and travel, it took her a bit longer than planned to open an account for Minnesota Chill Foundation, a nonprofit she runs with her husband that provides college readiness and youth fitness programs.

She finally did so a few weeks ago and then posted on Facebook about it, encouraging her network to do the same as part of a deposit challenge to support the bank.

"We're building momentum," said Jenkins, nodding to a year of relationship building with nonprofits, businesses, community leaders and other groups.

At the same time, he and other bank leaders acknowledged it's taken longer to build traction and to roll out new services and programs than initially anticipated in the bank's first year of operation in Minneapolis.

"Some things are moving slower than what we thought," Jenkins said. "Would I want more deposits on the books? Absolutely. Yeah."

But so, too, do many banks given the current environment, he added, nodding to rising interest rates and the recent banking turmoil this spring.

Kenneth Kelly, First Independence's Detroit-based chair and CEO, said the recent collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and other banks caused a few prospective clients with significant incoming deposits to put them temporarily on hold in Minneapolis and Detroit.

"We never took any of that personally. It was just a sign of what was going on in the marketplace," he said, adding those clients have since re-engaged with the bank.

As for the expansion to Minneapolis, he pointed to some early signs of success, such as providing a loan to a local business he declined to name which had trouble acquiring funding in the past.

"We're extremely proud of that," he said.

First Independence Bank, a Black-owned bank from Detroit, expanded to Minnesota a year ago.
First Independence Bank, a Black-owned bank from Detroit, expanded to Minnesota a year ago.

Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

Driving for deposits

Kelly hopes to have more stories like that to share in the months and years ahead as the bank ramps up its business, auto and mortgage lending around Minnesota. Nodding to the Twin Cities' large racial gap in ownership, he noted one of the initiatives that has taken a bit longer to roll out is a new home-lending program that's still in the works but will offer down payment assistance.

While there used to be more than 100 Black-owned banks across the U.S., First Independence is one of fewer than 20 still in operation. It has been a fixture in Detroit for more than 50 years. With $546 million in assets, it's among the larger Black-owned banks.

Its arrival in Minnesota came through an unlikely partnership following the murder of George Floyd. A group of five banking executives from some of the Twin Cities' largest banks — Bank of America, Bremer Bank, Huntington Bank, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo — urged First Independence to come to the Twin Cities in hopes having a Black-owned bank in town would be useful in helping to close the region's large racial wealth gap.

Buoyed with investments, assets and other logistical support from those banks, First Independence held a grand opening in April 2022 for its first Minnesota branch on University Avenue in southeast Minneapolis. While it moved its main operations to the Lake Street branch this past October, it still has a small presence at the original location with a small drive-thru and walk-in space.

Amid the initial buzz about its arrival, more than 200 customers opened accounts soon after, Jenkins said. But for other potential clients, it's been a slower process as they think through their current banking relationships, direct deposits and the like.

"Those things take time. That's just banking," he said.

In recent months, the bank has received a boost from the Minnesota Business Coalition for Racial Equity, which launched a $1 million deposit challenge in February to encourage its members and friends to support First Independence by opening accounts.

Tiffani Daniels, the coalition's managing director, said they want ensure the bank is sustainable and build awareness about it while supporting a Black-owned business that lifts up entrepreneurs and homeowners of color. She opened an account there herself in March.

The campaign, which ends on Juneteenth (June 19), has already surpassed its goal, garnering nearly $3.2 million in new deposits from more than 80 new accounts so far.

A sizable chunk of that came from the Greater Twin Cities United Way, which moved $1 million into First Independence earlier this year. That is roughly 10% of its discretionary deposits, said CEO John Wilgers, adding that it had planned to do so even before the deposit challenge launched.

"Their mission around providing capital and banking relationships to diverse and underserved communities aligns really well with ours, where we are really focused on racial equity and addressing disparities that exist in a number of areas," he said.

Jenkins said the $1 million deposit challenge has helped bring more traffic and awareness about the bank.

"It has helped our business grow tremendously," he said.

Cindy Hill posted this picture to Facebook after opening an account for her nonprofit at First Independence Bank last month. “Challenge accepted!” she wrote in the post, referring to the million dollar deposit challenge launched by...
Cindy Hill posted this picture to Facebook after opening an account for her nonprofit at First Independence Bank last month. “Challenge accepted!” she wrote in the post, referring to the million dollar deposit challenge launched by...

Courtesy of Cindy Hill

Serving a community

When Hill came to the bank to open an account, the view from the windows of nearby businesses, bus lines, a light-rail stop and pedestrian traffic on Lake Street all struck her, as did the memories of the civil unrest that took place a few years ago.

"They could have put it anywhere," said Hill, who grew up in south Minneapolis. "But to have it there says a lot."

At the Lake Street branch, near the epicenter of the 2020 riots, First Independence has begun hosting a monthly networking meeting for area business owners where they can learn about various resources and programs. It's also held classes on site for first-time home buyers through Project for Pride in Living's Home Stretch program.

Starting this month, a financial coach from nonprofit Operation Hope will staff the branch two to three days a week to offer coaching and advice to consumers on how to repair their credit and improve their financial situation.

Other new programs it hopes to have up and running later this year include an indirect auto loan program and a new lending program for small Black-owned businesses.

In the meantime, First Independence's executives have been immersing themselves in the local community. Its head of mortgage operations, who lives in Detroit, has stopped in at Summit Academy a couple times to offer students at the north Minneapolis vocational school financial literacy and money management tips.

Leroy West, president of Summit, said while some students arrive on campus with a good understanding of banking, others don't. If any are reticent about traditional banks, he hopes that having First Independence in town will give them more confidence to join a bank.

"I think it's good that you have a Black-owned bank that plants themselves in the community," he said.

While he hasn't done so yet, West added he's planning on opening an account at First Independence, too.