Damon Jenkins and his team at First Independence Bank know they face special challenges.
“We are the new guys on the block, a new bank in town, so we have to work extra hard to gain the trust of our potential customers,” said Jenkins, First Independence’ Senior Vice President/Regional Director and a former Wells Fargo executive who grew up in south Minneapolis.
Jenkins’ bank may be a financial newcomer to the Twin Cities, but it has a unique attribute that none of its competitors can claim: it is Minnesota’s first and only Black-owned financial institution.
The idea for a new Black-owned bank took shape in 2020 following the death of George Floyd, when the area’s leading lenders came together to look at new ways of addressing Minnesota’s deep-seated pattern of racial disparities. That group included top executives from Bank of America, Bremer Bank, Huntington Bank, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo.
“We realized that in order for us to bridge the racial wealth gap, it would be better to have a Black-owned bank in our community in addition to all the rest of us,” U.S. Bank’s Tim Welsh told the Star Tribune earlier this year. “For a lot of historical reasons, many in the Black community don’t have as much trust in traditional financial institutions as we would like.”
Welsh and his group reached out to Kenneth Kelly, CEO of Detroit-based First Independence, one of only 17 Black-owned banks now operating in the U.S. With a 50-year track record in its home town, Kelly’s bank was looking for ways to expand its reach.
Initially, Minnesota was not on Kelly’s radar screen as a potential expansion site, but outreach from the Twin Cities lenders encourage him to give this area a closer look. The lenders were able to form a partnership with the Michigan CEO by pledging to sell First Independence $200 million in loans as a way of capitalizing the Detroit bank’s expansion into the Twin Cities. In addition, Wells Fargo provided a site for the new venture by offering its closed facility at 3430 University Ave. S.E. as a fully equipped branch office, ready to re-open as is. Wells Fargo donated the site to the non-profit Project for Price in Living. PPL, in turn, is leasing the building to First Independence.
With the pieces coming together quicker than many had expected, First Independence was able to stage a grand opening at its new Twin Cities branch in April. Now that the University Avenue branch is up and running, a second office is in the works on East Lake Street.
As a full-service bank, First Independence offers traditional banking products and services including checking, savings and lines of credit, Damon Jenkins explained. “But we will have a special focus on mortgage lending. One of our major objectives is to get more Black people and people of color into home ownership. And our key tool will be a program known as Operation Hope, which works to boost our folks’ credit scores up to 700. That score will open a lot of doors that may have been closed to them in the past. We will also be giving our customers access to over 50,000 ATMs free of charge through our partnerships with other lenders.
“The fact that we are the first Black-owned bank in Minnesota is huge. It is historic in itself. There are some 5,000 banks in the country but only 17 of them are minority owned. Having a Black-owned bank is a bold leap towards equity. What it means is that we are trying to go back and rewrite 400 years of marginalization and inequities in communities of color, specifically Black people. With our bank being a beacon of hope, this is an opportunity for our local Black community to have its own institution; something that can be a source of pride for our people. But it can also be a point of pride for the broader community to know that we have First Independence right here in our midst.
“But it’s true that people in our community haven’t always trusted banks. So, it is up to us to earn the trust of the people we want to serve. And there is something to be said for just starting out – building a brand-new institution. That fresh start gives us an opportunity to make our own record – to do things differently from the way they have been done in the past. “
Jenkins hopes to open his second office in mid-July. It will be housed in the Hennepin County services building at 22nd and East Lake.
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