Jonathan Meachum was an inner-city high school dropout. Tommy Redae was a penniless Ethiopian immigrant. Ursula McNeal was a single mom with a dead-end job.
Today, years later, these three African-American managers are local leaders in retail banking at Wells Fargo.
And Choua Lo, 24, a Wells Fargo project manager, joined the company two years ago as an intern through a train-to-work program of PPL, the nonprofit housing and employment trainer.
Each turned obstacles into opportunities. They used attitude, determination, and Wells Fargo-paid education and training. "If you assert yourself and perform, the company will promote and reward you," said McNeal, a vice president who started as a teller and worked as a personal and business banker before becoming senior manager of the 40-employee Eden Prairie office.
She also chairs Wells Fargo's local African-American employee association.
These four also had mentors. A critical one was Philomena Morrissey Satre, a Wells Fargo human resources vice president who is well known in the Twin Cities region for her mentoring skills.
Last year, more than half of the 500 tellers hired by Wells Fargo, the biggest bank in the Twin Cities, were minorities. Tellers are the multitasking, consumer-facing front line of retail banking. They start at $11.50 per hour plus benefits. Successful tellers often are promoted to supervisor, teller manager and personal banker.
"That's our talent pipeline," said David Kvamme, CEO of Wells Fargo Minnesota. "We've been doing this for a while. And a third of our Twin Cities-area bank managers are people of color. That's exciting for our business. It's also the right thing to do."
The Metropolitan Council predicts that 40 percent of Twin Cities-area adults will be a person of color by 2040.
Yet, adults of color are far underrepresented in the Twin Cities workforce compared with whites. And they make less money on average, according to census and other data studied by the Itasca Project, the employer-led civic alliance that studies local economic challenges. A black high school graduate is 2.5 times more likely to be unemployed than a white graduate.
The conclusion: The Twin Cities economy is underperforming because of its underused "human capital" potential. As baby boomers retire in the next 20 years, more workers will be needed than schools and training programs are providing.
That's the challenge. Wells Fargo and other employers are working with high schools, nonprofit training agencies and others to increase the recruiting pool.
These four Wells Fargo minority professionals embody a more successful future for themselves and the economy. "I have a GED and a little college, but if you had told me at age 15 that I would be a bank branch manager … I mean a guidance counselor in high school actually told me to drop out," said Meachum, who moved to the Twin Cities from Chicago.
Meachum, 30, who started as a teller years ago while he earned his high school equivalency degree, also made the most of opportunity. He has exhibited a desire to learn and grow professionally. He is credited with building a diverse staff in Elliot Park, and recently was promoted to a senior position in Wells Fargo's flagship downtown office.
Tommy Redae, 38, arrived from Ethiopia with his mother at age 15. Redae, who earned an undergraduate degree from the University of St. Thomas and an MBA from Augsburg College, credits his motivation to his mother's grit and perseverance that saved his life during a boyhood famine, and her focus on education.
Redae lost his first job at Wells Fargo when a business unit closed. But he transferred into retail banking, advanced through several positions and now is a district manager in charge of several retail offices.
"I've never worked anywhere but Wells Fargo," he said. "I have had mentors and networking meetings with business leaders. These opportunities helped me understand the value of networking. I [learned] the leadership quality of our business leaders … caring, honesty and follow through. And had it not been for Philomena understanding my desire to learn and grow within our organization, it would have been [much more] difficult."
San Francisco-based Wells Fargo, which operates several businesses from the Twin Cities, employs 20,000 in Minnesota and is the only bank listed among the annual DiversityInc Top 50 companies for its recruiting, retention and advancement of women and minorities.
Wells Fargo has "groundbreaking talent-development initiatives," according to DiversityInc.
Satre is part of that strategy. She is a St. Paul-raised daughter of working-class parents. Her dad was an immigrant carpenter and she worked her way through college. She formally mentors several younger Wells Fargo employees annually — 100-plus over 15 years — on top of her recruiting job. That includes working with nonprofit train-to-work programs that provide Wells Fargo entry-level hires.
Satre counsels young "team members" on navigating corporate life. Then they go on to mentor others.
Satre talks of learning from those she mentors. She recalled a young black single mom years ago who was guarded and felt stereotyped.
"I learned from this relationship that we all have a story, and it is important to take the time to understand a person … and what has happened to create who we are today," Satre said. "Not long ago, I got a voice-mail message from her and she let me know that her daughter graduated from high school and was going to college. She had advanced in her career and bought a home.
"She shared that every day she is intentional about her attitude, and it has transformed her life into what is possible. For me, this is what mentoring is all about. Making a positive impact in the life of another."