The Hebrew phrase Tikkun Olam means everything to Hope Mehlman. The literal translation is “repairing the world,” but it has become synonymous with the ideals, values, and action of the social justice movement. Action, Mehlman says, is a key word, now more than ever.
“It’s great to have platitudes, but they don’t matter at all unless you can back it up,” the current general counsel and corporate secretary at Bank of the West and corporate secretary at BNP Paribas USA. Inc. explains. “That’s how I’ve always approached my work, and it’s something I’m very passionate about because of my desire to make the world a better place.”
Before examining just how deep Mehlman’s commitment to those ideals has played out both in her near-fifteen years with Birmingham-based Regions Bank and Bank of the West, where the GC came in 2020, it’s imperative to understand the early experience that helped shape the future leader and change agent.
Mehlman’s father, a Holocaust survivor, was helped by strangers during World War II, willing to put their lives on the line for human rights. When her father made his way to America to start a new life and raise a family, she bore witness to a man determined to pass on the humanity he had received.
“My father came here with nothing, but he was incredibly generous in everything that he did,” Mehlman explains. “During Thanksgiving, we would go to the supermarket and buy hundreds of turkeys and then drive them around to give them to people in need. In the winter, Dad would take off his hat and gloves if he saw someone on the street who needed them. I wanted to be able to make that same kind of impact in my professional life.”
The lawyer has truly lived that legacy. The in-house counsel has used her role both as attorney and corporate secretary to challenge organizations to lean into environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives, well before the wider adoption and attention garnered in the last five years.
Coming to the Bank of the West wasn’t an accident or happenstance. Mehlman had had her eye on the progressive company for a while. Bank of the West proudly displays its reputation on its website: “We are a local bank with a global outlook, with restrictive finance policies to help protect people and the planet, and we are led by one of the few women CEOs in the industry. We are the bank for a changing world,” its ESG page reads.
The company highlights its refusal to finance onshore or offshore Arctic drilling; partnerships with organizations, like the Sustainable Ocean Alliance; and investment in diversity.
“The commitment here is clear and starts with our amazing CEO Nandita Bakhshi,” Mehlman explains. “I call her the ‘CEO of the people’ because I’ve never seen a leader who cares so much about her employees and her customers. She does things I’ve never seen a CEO do before and just lives her commitment to her people.”
In just under two years, Mehlman has made her own mark. Since being hired, Mehlman’s advocacy to diversify the board at Bank of the West has resulted in two women becoming chairs of committees.
“Hope is always a pleasure to work with,” says Jared Fishman, partner at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. “Her deep industry experience and, in particular, her focus on ESG matters, has been invaluable. She is a true team player, who works though an issue by looking at it from every perspective and making sure all viewpoints are considered, while also keeping the company’s overall objectives a priority. There’s never a loose thread when she’s involved.”
The lawyer also has helped highlight the incredible diversity of Bakhshi’s team, including a video illustrating the ten different languages spoken by the leadership team. More broadly, Mehlman helped implement tiger teams—cross-functional teams designed to confront a specific challenge—of committed volunteers within the legal and regulatory relations departments, who can put their passion for ESG into action. The four teams focus on strengthening communities; encouraging the use of sustainable vendors; advancing sustainable practices; and cultivating diverse, equitable, and inclusive work environments. Their efforts have made significant headway in short order.
One of the tiger teams collected over $170,000 in unclaimed funds from across the country that have been able to put back into the communities in which the bank operates. The teams also partnered with organizations close to their heart. Mehlman’s commitment to helping victims of human trafficking has been emboldened by her ability to seek training for bank associates to recognize those who might need help.
“Whatever causes people care about most, I want them to come to me so I can help make them happen,” Mehlman says. “Whatever you think might be a crazy idea probably isn’t so crazy.”
Mehlman’s seemingly boundless energy is best illustrated by her executive sponsorship of the Women’s Initiative at Bank of the West. The effort started with Mehlman literally requesting the names of women at the company of over nine thousand employees. She and a colleague reached out to women on the list, seek ideas to advance women in the company, concerns with their careers, or ambitions of development.
“I just looked at it like a wellness check,” Mehlman says. “What are your struggles and challenges? How can we help you? I think that personal contact is incredibly important.”
“I just want people to try and think differently,” Mehlman says. “Sometimes it just takes someone to push.” That hope and action is reflected in her faith, her father, and in the way that Mehlman lives every day.