Wells Fargo Names Michelle Lee Top East Coast Community Banking Exec

Michelle Lee didn’t plan on being a banker. Now, she’s about to become one of the most influential bankers in the country.

Lee, currently the executive vice president and Northeast regional president at Wells Fargo, is moving from her Summit, N.J. base to Charlotte, N.C., where she will replace Laura Schulte as the company’s head of community banking for the entire East Coast.

Schulte is retiring at the end of the year.

Lee started with Wachovia, now owned by Wells Fargo (No. 17 on the 2014 DiversityInc Top 50) 31 years ago, mainly as a way to appease her parents. Michelle Lee isn’t an Ivy Leaguer. Her degree isn’t in finance or accounting.

She graduated from the Boston Conservatory of Music with a degree in applied voice.

“From the age of 5, I never considered doing anything other than music. I think I was born singing. I had this great dramatic soprano voice and ended up going to Boston Conservatory,” she told DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti in a 2012 interview. “My mother is from Cleveland, my father from Blakely, Ga., and they came to my recitals and asked, “Why don’t you think about teaching or something a little more conventional” To get them off my back, I applied for a job at the bank. I thought that was a nice, respectable career. I started as a teller.”

Lee soon found herself fascinated and began attending classes at the American Institute of Banking after work. Eventually, she fought through stereotypes and was accepted into the company’s management-training program.

“I remember talking to my assistant manager. She’s an African-American woman and she gave me an example of another really talented African-American woman who had applied for a similar program years before and didn’t get into it,” Lee recalled. “She said, ‘I’m just trying to give you a reality check. They’renever going to take a Black girlin that program.’ I was accepted into the program. I was the only African American and probably was the only person who wasn’t just out of college.

“There were probably 25 people in the class. They were all white men and women just graduating from Ivy League schools. I show up for class. I have on my very best Sunday dress. I’m in a royal-blue dress with flowers on it, and I walk into this class with this sea of dark navy, dark brown, dark gray suits. I knew immediately one of these things is not like the other.”

Lee was hired as an assistant manager at a branch in a predominantly-Latino Newark, N.J. neighborhood and later promoted to a failing branch in East Orange, N.J., where nearly 90 percent of the population is Black.

What she didn’t realize at the time was that her rapid ascent through the company and her turning around of the East Orange branchit went from failing audits to passing with flying colors in just three years under Lee’s leadershiprelied on many of the pillars of diversity management.

“I had this inquisitive nature about banking. I wanted to understand how it worked,” Lee said of her start in the industry. “There was this woman in the back room who basically did all of the proof work. I ended up taking on little tasks for her, running numbers and learning. Here was thisinformal mentor. She was willing to train me to be the backup person when she was on vacation or when she had a day off.”

That continued into her management role in East Orange.

“I think about what made this team not behave like a teamthey didn’t care, didn’t align with the company’s vision and philosophy around serving our customers. It really was abouthelping them see the valuethat they could bring to work every day,” Lee said. “I didn’t think that I was doing work around diversity because that was before all of the focus ondiversity and awareness training. But when I think back on it, it was about the same core values.

“Part of it was sharing, creating a vision for the team. We knew why we were coming together every day. We came to some common agreements around how we wanted our customers to feel and how we wanted our customers to experience us and what we wanted our work environment to be like.

“Then celebrating success; giving people candid feedback; letting them know here is what’s standing between where you are and where you’re trying to go; being a great coach, mentor and not shying away from giving people tough feedback.

As the head of Wells Fargo’s community banking operations in the Northeast, Lee has been responsible for more than 460 branches, over 5,000 team members and $100 million in revenue.

Her branches have provided nearly $10 million through their CityLIFTSM program to help homebuyers with down payment assistance in Jersey City, Newark, the Bronx and Brooklynpart of Wells Fargo’s $220 million nationwide effort that’s helped 8,000 families become homeowners.

“Jersey City, Newark, the Bronx and Brooklyn were significantly affected by the housing crisis,” Lee said. “TheCityLIFTSMprogram will help families achieve successful homeownership which is not just about having enough money on hand and qualifying for a mortgage. It’s also about knowing how to navigate the home buying process, what to expect once you become a homeowner, and having a trusted advisor to turn to when questions come up.”

Wells Fargo has not yet appointed Lee’s replacement in the Northeast, but Lee has worked to develop a diverse team that can step in.

“On my expanded leadership team, there are 21 people: 12 are women and four of those women are African American.”

Latest News


Tennessee Lawmakers Move to Ban Education Against Racism in State’s Public Schools

In recent months, Republican-led states have already moved to enact racist and hyper restrictive voter registration laws, strip rights from LGBTQ individuals and attack trans students and their families — but their ongoing efforts to attack Democrats, populations of color and other diverse individuals don’t appear to be stopping there….

Latinx voting

New Study Reveals 1 Out of Every 10 Voters in 2020 Presidential Election was Latinx — a New Record in Representation

Thanks to extraordinary registration efforts and incredibly high turnout among younger and U.S.-born Hispanics, a new study conducted at the City University of New York has found that voting rates for Latinx men and women reached a new record high during the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. Suzanne Gamboa of NBC…

Mastercard building

Mastercard Commits $25 Million+ To Ensure Equitable Access to Vaccines Across the Globe, Partnering With Global Citizens VAX LIVE Campaign

Originally published at mastercard.com. Mastercard ranked No. 5 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   COVID-19 has taken its toll in every region, every country and every community. The accessibility of vaccines and therapeutics are not ubiquitous across the globe, leaving vulnerable populations disadvantaged. Mastercard…

Marriott International building

Marriott International Named to DiversityInc Hall of Fame — The First and Only Hospitality Company To Achieve This Distinction

Originally published at news.marriott.com. Marriott International is a DiversityInc Hall of Fame company.   After leading the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2020, Marriott International, Inc. was named to the DiversityInc Hall of Fame, as the first hospitality company joining previously number one ranked companies. DiversityInc announced this recognition on May…

Capital One: ‘Freedom To Be You’

Originally published at capitalonecareers.com. Capital One Financial ranked No. 28 on The DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.   Cindy Viener joined Capital One in 2009 and leads Product Management for several of its Card platforms, including Marketing, Rewards, Payments and Customer Resiliency. Viener has also served…

social media

GLAAD Declares Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube ‘Effectively Unsafe’ for LGBTQ Users

In a first-of-its-kind report on “user experience” for the country’s leading social media platforms, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has declared Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube “effectively unsafe for LGBTQ users.” Cynthia Silva from NBC News reported that GLAAD’s inaugural “Social Media Safety Index” report originally…