Helping the Hurting During COVID-19: A Conversation with Byna Elliott

(Fifth Third Bank’s Senior Vice President, Chief Enterprise Officer, Byna Elliott)

By BreeAnn Hammond

 

As COVID-19 forces people all over the globe to make drastic changes to their work and life routines, I was excited to learn how top financial institutions are strategizing to lend a hand. As we all shelter in place, the basics like a warm meal and laundry supplies have become a burden for so many.

Businesses desire to continue paying their employees but find themselves almost bankrupt after just six weeks of disrupted income cycles. What are the options for these businesses and those hurting in the community?

To shed some light on these concerns, here is my conversation (lightly edited for clarity) with Fifth Third Bank’s Senior Vice President, Chief Enterprise Officer, Byna Elliott:

  1. Finances are at the forefront for most Americans right now during this crisis. With so much job insecurity and many still waiting for stimulus payments, tell us how Fifth Third Bank has stepped up to get involved with relieving some of the financial struggles within the community?

I want people to realize they are not alone. COVID does not discriminate by race, age, sex, income, livelihood or where you live. All of us are experiencing challenges, and I am really proud of the work that Fifth Third has done over the last few weeks to help navigate these unknown waters. Our first action was to proactively reach out to all our customers with no segmentation based on the type of banking relationship—credit card, mortgage or bank account—it’s all a personal relationship to us. So, we reached out to more than a million customers asking how we can help. Secondly, we announced our decision to donate almost $9 million in emergency resources to organizations that help at-risk communities. Thirdly, we have restructured our staffing and protocols to manage the Cares Act and payroll protection program (PPP) loans through the SBA for small businesses.

 

  1. It was so discouraging when we saw the PPP funds in round one allocated to publicly held companies. How did Fifth Third manage PPP disbursements to ensure equitable rescue of all your business customers?

 

We had over 30,000 clients at Fifth Third Bank that applied for PPP. We were only able to serve a third of those clients, helping 10,000 and leaving 20,000 clients unserved with a need

for capital. What did my heart good was the data around our first set of 10,000 clients revealed 27 percent of the funding went to businesses in high minority communities and 22 percent were in low to moderate-income communities (LMI) that we know are traditionally overlooked. It felt really good knowing Fifth Third’s range and commitment made sure that the capital was made available to all communities regardless of demographics. And for phase two we took the necessary action to increase our capacity to process more loans. We started out with 300 bankers that could support the program, and we now have 1,500 bankers. They called clients helping to get their applications ready for the phase two submission. When the SBA opened the loan portal for phase two of PPP lending, we had over 18,000 applications ready to go. And we continue to process more loans. So far from round one and round 2 we have assisted over 31k small businesses with over 85% employing less than 50 people.

 

  1. Several small business owners did not receive PPP in round one. Do you think that overall, there will be no way to rectify the financial impact on businesses and families because of all these weeks of sheltering in place and loss of income? So many small businesses remain at a loss for how they will survive with so few options.

 

There is hope beyond PPP for businesses. Alternative lenders with low-interest rates and community development financial institutions (CDFIs), are available to provide much-needed capital and grant funds as well. We partner in each of our markets with CDFIs who use the funds we provide to them award grants, low-interest microloans and technical assistance for small businesses. This impacts those who don’t necessarily have a deposit relationship with us. We work nationally with the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO) and their member organizations to infuse small businesses with capital as well as strategic support to grow and sustain. AEO has programming that provides cash infusions into small businesses, access to e-commerce solutions, online accounting and mentoring to help business owners understand their financial realities, get them loan-ready, and other resources that can bring them peace of mind in these challenging times.

 

  1. I have read about your upbringing and how the work that you do is mainly centered around caring for the hurting and underserved in communities like the one you grew up in. Many would call these ‘forgotten’ communities that are even more vulnerable than ever with soaring unemployment rates. Please explain how you feel about the opportunity to help empower these communities, and some details around the support.

 

I take that in really two ways Bree. I consider it a blessing and an honor to make sure that the activities of an organization are tangible and real for communities. First and foremost, for me, for Byna Elliott, I honor the work I do, and I consider it my assignment. I’m really honoring the gifts and talents that I have, and I recognize I have a gift of help. Everything I do is centered around helping others. That means that I do this work, not because of my title or the organization I work for, but because I believe that by connecting with communities honestly and authentically with the resources that they need, we can all be better.  Communities cannot be vibrant or thrive without the resources of large and small organizations and institutions, so that’s important to me.

 

When we think about all the things that we’re faced with day to day, personally and professionally, friends and family, and our customers and communities we try to listen, to understand and to provide the resources in meaningful and tangible ways to make a difference. Our commitment to communities for COVID relief is almost $9 million dollars and counting. We’ve already provided four and a half million of those dollars to non-profit partners across all 10 states we serve. So far 64 non-profit organizations received a total of $4.325 million for COVID-19 food assistance, medical supplies, small businesses, non-profit operations and servicing low-to-moderate income individuals with funding for various needs like rental payment assistance. The work continues until we completely distribute the $8.75 million in relief. This will make me proud to know we are touching the lives of LMI families who feel the financial pain of this pandemic.

 

 

  1. One thing this pandemic has clearly done is draw a line in the sand between the “haves” and the “have nots”. As you already stated, we are all hurting in some way, but how are you making the determinations of what exactly to do with all these millions you have been charged with donating? There are so many needs and clearly not an endless fountain of funds. How are you making those hard decisions on who does and does not receive funding?

 

The fact that we committed close to $9 million in a week to helping communities was because we live in these communities.  We are not just sitting in some big building, an ivory tower — you are our neighbors. We go to church with you, we hear your stories, we understand your plight because we live it every day with our friends and families. My team members live in the 10 states we impact, and they want to make sure that these resources are real, that they address the issues of communities and that we answer real needs. We are not doing this in a vacuum, we’re reaching out to organizations that we know are on the front lines serving communities, that are on the ground, in these communities every day making a difference asking how best to help. We do not presume that we know how to do it all.  We know that our community partners that are engaged, that we need to actively work with and support and fund their operations and fund their investments and their charitable activities so they can make the difference.

 

BreeAnn Hammond is freelance writer and host of the YouTube video podcast

“Let’s Talk with Bree” Twitter: @let_bree / Instagram: letstalkwithbree

 

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