A Bank President Who Embraces the Unconventional
Priscilla Sims Brown's childhood was atypical, which has helped her lead Amalgamated Bank from a different perspective as its chief executive.
This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that profiles women leading the way on climate, politics, business and more.
Priscilla Sims Brown, chief executive of Amalgamated Bank, said it was her uncommon upbringing that put her on the path to running the country's largest union-owned bank.
She was born in Ethiopia to Ethiopian parents in 1957. Her father was a New Mexican student. Marta Gabre Tsadick, her mother, was Ethiopia's first female senator. She lived with an American military family for the next ten years in a small German town located between two American bases.
Her parents fled Ethiopia after a coup in 1970 and they returned to the United States. Ms. Brown was also with them and they moved around a lot while setting up a Christian non-profit to aid Ethiopian refugees.
Ms. Brown stated that her past gave her the confidence and ability to follow a path that might be challenging for women, especially women of color.
She said, "Having spent my formative year in Germany, there were many people from a variety of places,". People can feel inferior because of differences. It was quite cool to be made to feel that difference was cool.
Ms. Brown stated that racism was not something she had experienced until she was fourteen years old and returned to the United States. "I discovered that racism exists, but I didn’t have the inferiority or the prejudice. I learned to accept differences and be a little unconventional.
She is a confident person who has been able to climb the financial ladder and speak out on sensitive political issues like abortion and gun control.
Ms. Brown studied journalism in San Francisco State University. She then got a job at KQED (the local public radio station and television station) in the Bay Area. She said, "I was the first person hired to work on the nightly news. I can remember being promoted to $4 an hr."
What attracted her to journalism, she said, was the storytelling possibilities. She covered small business but quickly realized that she would rather engage in business than report on it.
Starting as a broker at the investment bank Paine Webber, she moved on to other companies, rising in the investment world hierarchy with each change. Her last position before moving to Amalgamated in 2021 was as group executive at Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
Ms. Brown (65) said that Amalgamated was a great fit for her. She said, "I identify so strongly with the history." It was started by mostly Eastern European textile workers, who couldn't be banked. They opened a bank, which is a bold move.
The bank's founders not only wanted to make sure that they provided opportunities for people like them, but also 'to make sure that when it invested outside of their needs, it did so in a responsible way,' she said. 'And that continued throughout history.'
Her company's homepage lists 10 "Issues We Care About", which includes workers' rights and immigration rights. While many companies have adopted environmental, social, and governance benchmarks (known as E.S.G.), Ms. Brown went further.
Amalgamated successfully petitioned International Organization for Standardization for a new merchant code for gun shops. Although codes are available for many types of merchants, the code was not applicable to gun shops.
Ms. Brown said Visa, Mastercard and American Express had already agreed to adopt the code, which she said could make it easier to flag suspicious activity, such as building up arsenals by buying guns from different stores.
Ms. Brown said her company's role was not to advocate for gun control or challenge the Second Amendment but 'to do more to implement the code — and it's a messy process,' she said. 'We need to try to mitigate the use of our systems for illegal behavior.'
The bank's initiative drew attention to the institution and Ms. Brown in particular. Not all of it has been positive: She said she has received death threats.
Ms. Brown was also outspoken about last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Health Organization, which overturned abortion rights. Amalgamated was one of the first companies to announce it would cover costs for any employee who needed to travel out of state to receive an abortion. 'This is a workplace equity issue,' she said.
In 2021, she said, one-third of the bank's lending portfolio went toward climate- or sustainability-related projects. The bank also prioritizes affordable housing for its real estate investments and works with funds that are geared toward closing the Black wealth gap.
Ms. Brown said she recognized that other institutions did not have the size or mission of Amalgamated, which was a relatively small bank with $7.7 billion in assets (the largest four banks in the United States had assets in the trillions). Amalgamated — which has branches in California, New York, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. — went public in 2018. 'I have a luxury most people don't have,' Ms. Brown said.
Wes Thompson, a retired chief executive of M Financial and former president of Sun Life Financial U.S., said he had known Ms. Brown for decades. He said their backgrounds, as Black Americans who had both lived overseas for years, bonded them.
'What struck me is the ease with which she has kept her authenticity but also could navigate through a whole range of people and personalities and culture,' he said. And as she has moved to the top of her industry, he added, 'she's the same person I met in 1998. She's always the same person.'
Another friend, Thasunda Brown Ducks, the president and chief executive of TIAA, an investment firm that runs retirement plans for educators and others, said they connected years ago, in part because they are both Black women and leaders in the financial industry.
'Priscilla fully appreciates, as I do, both the promise and the weight of being in this seat,' she said. 'We understand what it means to occupy and excel in a role where the playbook was not written with a person like you in mind in terms of gender, race and ethnicity.'
But Ms. Brown has carried that weight lightly. Years ago on one 'Casual Friday' at work, she wore a dashiki-type garment from Ethiopia. 'Most Black Americans don't dress down too much because that affects respect,' she said. 'But I didn't get the memo.'
'This was Fort Wayne in the 1990s,' she added. 'I got a lot of questions. But I'm pretty comfortable with weirdness.'