Answering the Call

Bevelyn Coleman shares her views on how the outlook for women and racial and ethnic minorities has changed over her career, and what progress is yet to come

When it comes to creating an inclusive environment and attracting diverse talent, Wells Fargo means business.

Bevelyn Coleman, executive vice president, deputy general counsel, and executive sponsor for Wells Fargo’s Law Department Diversity and Inclusion Council (LDDIC), is at the forefront of these matters. In fact, it is her mission and vision as well that directly align with that of Wells Fargo, as the company believes strong values should guide every conversation, decision, and interaction on a daily basis.

Before starting your long career in banking, you worked full-time while attending law school. How did that experience change you?
I attended law school during the evening and worked as a paralegal in the law department at two Fortune 500 companies. I spent many hours every day proving myself both in the office and in law school. For four years, sleepless nights and the desire to succeed was a constant. Overall, the law school experience forced me to manage my time well, apply what I was learning in class in real time, and [learn] what it really means to pay your dues. It’s amazing how much you can get done in fifteen-minute increments.

Looking back, would you trade that experience?
No way. It taught me so much. My classmates were teachers, doctors, PhD candidates, and stay-at-home parents. We had great, robust discussions. The intersection of the theory of law and the practical application of law was made more clear to me as I worked and attended class at the same time. It was fascinating. When I graduated from law school and was later employed as an attorney, the transition into the “real world” was so much easier. I was able to connect the dots faster.

What was the outlook for women and attorneys of color when you started your career?
There were more female law students, but not very many law students from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. When I got out of law school, there were few women and persons of color in leadership roles. You just didn’t see female partners. It was rare to find an African American or another minority leading an in-house practice group. Also during that time, there weren’t many female GCs.

How did that impact you as an African American woman? Did you think about it?
Sure. The challenges were obvious. It felt like there were fewer opportunities for career-enhancing assignments. You’re consistently second-guessed in a setting like that. I remember feeling invisible, even when I had been formally invited to join a meeting, or asked for my input.

You’ve come a long way in your career despite those challenges. Why?
Well, I had very supportive parents who taught me never to give up. Also, as a former collegiate athlete, working hard, competing, and winning was part of my DNA. Nevertheless, I often found it necessary to work harder than most of my peers, and the need for perfection was a must in my case. In the end, it made me a better person and a better legal professional.

What else helped you succeed?
Notwithstanding my own efforts to succeed as a legal professional, I was also fortunate to meet really good people who took an interest in me and my future success. With the assistance of advocates and sponsors, it became easier to raise my hand for challenging and career-developing opportunities and actually get picked for an assignment. With every project I took on and performed well at, I gradually became more visible to my peers and senior leaders.

Did these factors have an impact on job selection? Were you trying to target employers that were progressive on diversity matters?
Early in my career? No. But now, if I was looking for a new opportunity, it would be high on my list. There’s an unconscious bias in hiring decisions. And even after you land a job, there’s no guarantee of your success. The opportunity to work on a high-profile matter or being selected to lead a major project will seem fleeting at times. Not only have I experienced this firsthand, but I’ve also witnessed how unconscious bias negatively impacts the success of females and persons of color both earlier and later in their careers. That’s why I remain passionate about diversity and inclusion, and I want to make a difference.

What attracted you to Wells Fargo?
The merger between Wells Fargo and Wachovia was the largest in banking history. I was a legacy Wachovia employee, but I chose to stay for the opportunity to work on interesting, exciting, challenging, and complex issues. The opportunities for career development and advancement were obvious. It was a great time to be a lawyer working in the financial services industry.

You’re the first African American woman at Wells Fargo to report to the GC. What does that say about you?
Although a cliché, hard work really does pay off. Dedication, perseverance, unremitting effort, and the generosity of others in leadership roles helped me to achieve this accomplishment. It also proves that patience, hard work, and courage of conviction can be rewarding. But—and this is key—it is really important to be respectfully candid when challenging the status quo, measured when providing feedback, and know when to take the high road. Bottom line: I had to learn how to cope and excel even in the most difficult of times and circumstances.

Tell us about your department. Why is it a good fit for you?
The Wells Fargo law department is comprised of seven divisions, each supporting different Wells Fargo products and services. The law department has a global staff of over 900 employees and is led by the general counsel. I manage the banking, operations, commerce, and global risk division. My division is diverse in terms of the talent I lead and legal disciplines I manage. The work is fun, [and] I never feel like I’m not growing professionally. That’s not always the case in a leadership role.

You mentioned Wells Fargo’s diversity journey. What are some elements you’re most proud of?
Our commitment to increase and support D&I efforts starts with setting the right tone and accountability level at the top. Our president and CEO holds himself and senior leaders in the company accountable for making progress in three broad areas: team member (employee) outcomes, marketplace outcomes, and diversity and inclusion advocacy activities. Additionally, the CEO serves as chair of Wells Fargo’s Enterprise Diversity and Inclusion Council (EDIC), which includes executive leaders from each major line of business and certain functional areas. The EDIC coordinates company-wide diversity and inclusion activity. Wells Fargo has adopted a council structure that sustains D&I activity throughout the organization and provides leadership and accountability at the highest level. It’s not just talk.

What’s your involvement?
In addition to serving as the executive sponsor for Wells Fargo’s LDDIC, I’m a member of the EDIC. That structure and level of participation affords me an opportunity to provide input and feedback at the highest levels about diversity and inclusion issues facing the company. Then, I also make sure our departmental goals around diversity and inclusion properly align with the company’s vision and values and, with the help of the members of [the] LDDIC, we work together to solidify the success and future of the law department’s diversity and inclusion strategy.

How do these efforts come together, and how do they benefit the bank and its customers?
Strong diversity and inclusion strategies, when effectively implemented, help to create an environment in which team members feel valued for the unique contributions that they bring to the team and, as a result, drive deeper engagement, productivity, and fulfillment among team members. This makes Wells Fargo a better place to work, and helps us to connect better with our customers and the communities we live in and work.

Is it still a challenge for you as a diverse professional?
In the spirit of candor and authenticity, the answer is yes. At times, particularly when you are dealing with a client or person for the first time, you can tell when you are managing your diversity dimensions versus practicing law.

How and why have you found success and happiness at Wells Fargo?
As a member of the law department’s senior leadership team, I have a unique opportunity to bring a diverse perspective to discussions, influence outcomes, and encourage change where it’s both appropriate and necessary. That’s really exciting because it’s a rare opportunity to be empowered to make a difference in the lives of legal professionals, a company, and an industry.

How have you seen the perception of women and ethnic minorities change?
As companies grow in terms of their D&I awareness and the impact it has on the success of their businesses, more often than not, women and racially and ethnically diverse professionals are being hired by companies and showing up as skillful, capable, and successful leaders. The opportunities for advancement are increasing.

Do you feel like you have a role in carrying the momentum forward?
Simply put, yes. I’m keenly aware of how diversity dimensions may impact the ability to find and strive for a successful career that is personally satisfying and rewarding. While a number of leadership roles are increasing in number, sadly, the statics don’t always reflect the opportunities. Fewer women are becoming partners at law firms. Law school enrollment is down for racially and ethnically diverse students. And at some companies, the highest levels of leadership continue to lack diversity. There is always room for improvement, and I hope to be part of that progress.