Lauren Sparks, a veteran community banker and banking consultant with nearly four decades of experience, identified a pressing need for increased representation of women in financial decision-making, particularly in the boardroom. Simultaneously, she recognized the significance of technology in ensuring the survival of community banks in the evolving financial landscape.
In response to these realizations, Lauren founded Agility Bank in 2020, establishing it as the first women-owned and led Minority Depository Institution (MDI) in the United States. Agility Bank is a digitally progressive commercial community bank, with its primary focus on serving small and mid-sized businesses in the Houston area.
The journey to establish this groundbreaking institution commenced with a successful capital raise of over $43 million, exceeding the federal regulatory requirements for opening. Notably, 70 percent of the 331 shareholders of Agility Bank are women.
The story of Lauren Sparks and Agility Bank is not just a tale of banking and finance; it’s a narrative of vision, determination, and a passionate commitment to bridging the gender gap in the financial sector. It’s a story of innovation and a resolute belief in the transformative power of technology.
As we delve into the tale of Lauren Sparks and Agility Bank, we discover a remarkable journey that seeks to reshape the future of banking while creating opportunities and empowering women in the process.
In the ever-changing landscape of modern finance, two pivotal factors are taking center stage: diversity and innovation. For Lauren Sparks, founder and CEO of Agility Bank, a seasoned community banker with nearly four decades of experience, these principles emerged as the driving force behind her endeavor to establish a women-owned and women-led Minority Depository Institution (MDI) that specifically caters to women.
An MDI is an institution where either 51 percent or more of the voting stock is owned by minority individuals or a majority of the board is comprised of minorities.
Recognizing the urgency of increasing female presence in bank boardrooms to influence the future of banking, Sparks embarked on a remarkable journey in March 2020, a time when the pandemic was reshaping the world as we knew it.
This journey led to the founding of Agility Bank, a groundbreaking commercial and digitally-focused institution that positioned Sparks to make a substantial impact for women and the finance industry.
- The Starting Line
The genesis of Agility Bank was primarily driven by Sparks’ unwavering commitment to bridging the gender gap and expanding access to business capital for women and underserved populations.
However, before their vision could be realized, substantial capital needed to be raised for the bank’s launch.
Remarkably, Sparks and her team exceeded expectations by raising over $43 million in funding, surpassing federal regulatory requirements by more than 30 percent.
This achievement not only validated the viability of Agility Bank’s mission but also showcased the extensive support they would receive moving forward. Moreover, the fact that approximately 70 percent of the bank’s 331 shareholders were women further underscored their commitment to empowering women.
- Creating the Right Team
To ensure the bank’s success, Sparks assembled a team of individuals with strong banking backgrounds who shared a deep commitment to the bank’s mission. She even went the extra mile by creating “Generational Dream Teams” comprised of experienced mentors who would guide emerging or returning talent and increase the pipeline of women entering the finance industry.
While Agility Bank was building an exceptional team internally, they also actively sought external partnerships. Sparks cultivated a valuable relationship with Data Center, Inc. (DCI), a woman-led developer of leading bank technologies for community banks.
This collaboration was instrumental in establishing the bank’s digital service offering. Additionally, they secured funding from the national banking giant Bank of America, marking the beginning of a mutually beneficial relationship.
- A Catalyst for Change
As an MDI, Agility Bank is uniquely positioned to collaborate with established financial institutions to meet the economic needs of women-owned businesses, offering a wide range of services, including loans, education, and connections.
Notably, Citi and JPMorgan have contributed programs to support Agility’s growth. Citi’s “Bridge” initiative empowers big-box retailers to encourage their vendors, particularly small- and mid-size businesses, to seek financing from MDIs. JPMorgan Asset Management has made “Empower Funds” available to MDIs, enabling them to earn fee income.
Because MDIs often have a better understanding of the financial and cultural needs of minority communities, these institutions play a crucial role in closing the financial literacy gap and fostering an environment built on advocacy and representation. In just a year and a half since its inception, Sparks and her team have significantly increased access to financial services for minority entrepreneurs.
- Beating the Odds
Despite her proven success, Sparks’ journey was not without its challenges. She initially hesitated to embark on this path, acutely aware of the scarcity of female-owned community banks in the United States. However, it was her husband who provided the push she needed. According to Sparks, “He was tired of me complaining about not seeing enough women in boardrooms and key management and finally told me to stop talking about it and do something about it.”
However, taking action was easier said than done. Soliciting funding from investors, instead of lecturing groups of bankers, especially on a topic she felt passionate about, proved to be a significant challenge. During her capital raise presentations, she often appeared on the brink of genuine tears due to the deep emotional connection to Agility’s mission.
She feared that her emotional reaction might hinder the audience from taking her seriously. Nevertheless, she has continued to evolve as a speaker throughout her career and now views public speaking as an opportunity to drive change.
- There is Room for Women at the Financial Table
Sparks offers advice to women aspiring to enter the finance industry, emphasizing the enduring importance of interpersonal skills alongside the evolving technology landscape. Women’s inherent aptitude for relationship building is a valuable asset to embrace.
While technology and innovation are here to stay, they remain fluid. Prioritizing being the person that someone wants to collaborate with, as opposed to just a company or service, will set one apart in an industry that constantly evolves.
Sparks and her team are trailblazers in the banking industry, eager to inspire more women to join the financial sector. As she continues her journey with a wealth of experiences, she advises other women aiming to break into the industry to do so with ambition and determination.
Achieving financial equity demands involvement from women at all levels, and mutual support and encouragement are essential in challenging the male-dominated status quo.