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If you ask Wells Fargo executive vice president Monica Cole about her life, she’ll say it consists of “The Four Fs: Faith, Family, Food and Finance.” “My grandparents had 12 children and they also raised me, and they always told us there’s nothing more important in your life than faith and family,” states Cole.
“And my grandmother was an incredible cook. We used to laugh about the fact that she could make dirt taste good,” she laughs. “So having that understanding of faith and family around food was critically important, as it is in a lot of Black families.”
Faith, Family and Wells Fargo
And like a lot of Black families, Cole’s family was part of the Great Migration from the South to the North from 1910 to 1970. That’s how she came to be born in Chicago but was raised by her grandparents in the small town of Grenada, Mississippi.
Family was so important to her that when it was time for college, she chose Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, because it was only an hour from home and allowed her to go to church with her grandmother on Sundays.
“It was a predominantly White school and coming of age in the late 70s, early 80s in the South, where we were still having challenges amongst the races…it was important for me to be able to go home and stay grounded and be given that confidence that I could compete and that I belonged,” Cole admits.
However, her graduate school experience changed for the better when she attended the Historically Black College of Clark Atlanta University (CAU) in Atlanta, Georgia. That’s where her career path changed, as well.
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As an undergraduate, Cole majored in mechanical engineering with a minor in math, but at CAU she was challenged to take a different path. “My teacher’s assistant convinced me to interview for a summer internship at Norwest Bank, which was the predecessor to Wells Fargo, where I am now,” remembers Cole. “And I actually went into that interview to blow it. I basically said, ‘I’m not the person you want. I don’t even balance my checkbook,’” she laughs.
“And when she called to offer me the internship, I said, ‘You have the wrong person.’ And she said, ‘No, I’m sure we have the right person!’ So 27 years later, here I am.”
Cole’s faith gave her the courage to leave the comfort of family in the South to work for Wells Fargo in Minneapolis, where she had no family. “The people were incredibly nice, and at the bank, everyone was so welcoming to me coming from the South and trying to fit in,” Cole remembers.
“And it was during the OJ Simpson trial, so it was such a divisive time in our country,” she continues. “But to be in a space where my colleagues were willing to talk about that with me was the first time I realized how important it was to have representation in the room so you can start to tell the true story of Black America vs. what the media [reports],” she emphasizes.
Food and Finance
Working in various banking positions in cities across the country is how Cole brought the fourth F into her life equation – Finance. “When you grow up in an economically challenged area in the South, you talk about a lot of things in the kitchen while you’re cooking or while you’re having dinner, but because finances tend to be challenging, we don’t talk about that a lot,” Cole laments.
“So with my background, it’s something that I’ve brought to the table with my family as we now start to educate the younger generation, as well as my aunts and my parents, on how to build generational wealth.”
As the first African American woman to hold the title of Executive Vice President and Head of Agribusiness, Food and Hospitality, Cole is merging two of her Fs – Food and Finance – to help business owners in those industries.
“I lead a team that effectively has everything from seed to table no matter where you consume it. So I have all the agriculture business across the U.S. I have beverage businesses, convenience stores, quick-serve (fast food) restaurants, hotels, gas stations and casinos under my umbrella,” Cole explains.
“And if you think of the wine and spirits businesses out there that are Black-owned, chances are I have some involvement in them as well,” she adds. “And as the first Black woman to head this business, it has been incredibly eye-opening for me because I get to see the challenges that Black America has with understanding how to navigate banks,” Cole discloses.
As a Black woman, Cole knows the nuances needed to do business with Black entrepreneurs. “For example, there’s a general fear or distrust that Black America has typically had of financial institutions of all kinds,” Cole admits.
“So to be in the room with my colleagues, I can talk about, ‘This is why you’re hearing hesitation. You can’t go into a Black company and start talking business. Black people want to know who they’re doing business with first. So build the relationship and understand what is important to them and then start tying that into their business objectives.’”
She continues, “And when I’m talking to my Black clients, it is really about letting them know that their passion for what they’re doing has to link up with the cash flow they’re generating. So while [Wells Fargo] absolutely appreciates their passion, we’re not lending on passion; we’re lending on cash flow and assets. So being able to talk to both sides and have them mutually achieve success is what I bring to the table,” she says with pride.
The executive adds, “Also, when I speak to industry associations across agriculture, which are typically predominantly White men, I’m not shy about bringing up the need for diverse representation in their businesses. That diversity can’t just exist out in the fields or on the shop floor. Having it in their decision-making rooms, their conference rooms and C-Suites is also critical.”
The Fifth F
It seems that there’s a fifth F in Cole’s life equation – Fun! “For the first time in my career, I’m in a space where I actually impact the world,” she says with a deep sense of responsibility.
“For example, when COVID first started to leak out across the U.S. and people didn’t know what this disease was, I started to call my family and say, ‘You need to understand how to be prepared for this [pandemic] from a food perspective. Here’s what you can expect with meat prices, there may be a scarcity of [certain foods],” she discloses.
“To be able to understand how macroeconomic environments can affect families in my business, has made this the most fun time of my career,” she exclaims.
Cole also has fun speaking at events like The Family Reunion at Sheila Johnson’s Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Virginia this past August. The annual event celebrates diversity in the hospitality community.
“Wells Fargo was one of the major sponsors, so I had an opportunity to speak on a panel to entrepreneurs in the restaurant space about how it’s important to surround yourself with someone with a high financial acumen while you focus on your passion of cooking and food…You must be a realist about how you finance your business because if you’re not, that’s where your dream starts to fall apart,” she warns.
At another convention, Cole remembers helping a Black woman franchisee see her value by inviting her to speak on a panel she was moderating. “She was the owner of one of the biggest quick-serve restaurant brands out there,” Cole exclaims.
“But when I told her I wanted her to tell her story on my panel, she asked, ‘Why do you want me in the room with all of these powerful women?’ And that took me aback because here is an incredibly successful Black woman, running amazing franchises throughout California, and she’s wondering if she’s equally as powerful as some of these women in the room,” Cole laments.
“So to have her tell her story and see her recognize that she not only belonged in the room, but she owned that room when she spoke. That, for me, is a great example of the doors I’m able to open in my position.”