Last year, while running training sessions for community bank CEOs and senior lenders, Lauren Sparks noticed something: homogeneity. Although women make up about half of the workforce, that didn't transcend to the C-suite, she found.
Sparks, president of the Houston-based risk management firm 3PR, is leading a group of organizers to launch Agility Bank, a digitally focused women-owned and women-run commercial community bank. The group, which filed paperwork this month with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., plans to raise $30 million in initial capital and open this fall.
"It became clear that we needed to set an example and provide opportunities for women to be at the level they deserve to be at," Sparks said.
The proposed opening date is significant on two fronts, Sparks said. First, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Second, "20/20" represents clear vision.
"Both men and women see the need [to elevate women]," Sparks said. "Even if they didn't see it before, when they think back on their experiences, they remember not seeing women at high levels."
The bank places an emphasis on technology. It plans to offer interactive videoconferencing to help customers work on loan applications if they live outside the area or can't visit the bank in person. Agility also wants to enable digital account openings for loans and deposits.
"We are building a tech stack that is as forward-leaning as we can be and still get regulatory approval," Sparks said. "It's about taking consumer efficiencies in a consumer-facing world and bringing them to the people."
It’s the kind of technology that could be handy in the age of social distancing, Sparks said. The coronavirus pandemic hasn't affected the bank’s timeline to open because, so far, the safety and soundness of the banking system hasn't changed, she said. But the health crisis has underscored how important Agility’s tech-forward vision is for the future of banking and small businesses.
"On a personal note, I’m frustrated we're not open yet because our tech staff would be so intrinsic to people to help them know this will all be OK," Sparks said. "It’s a tremendously exciting time for us, and I think we all need something exciting right about now. It's further proof that on the other side of this is good business and that good things will happen, which is refreshing."
Sparks, who has three decades of experience in community banking, said she aims for Agility not only to tap into an underserved market of women but to be a bank for everyone. Agility's community bank model may also make it more flexible to appeal to small-business owners who don't check all the boxes with larger banks, Sparks said.
The bank's home city, too, could be ripe for a de novo. A number of Houston’s community banks were sold to larger companies. And several small banks in the area were acquired after Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017.
"We're convinced this is the modern profile of the community bank: knowing your customer, understanding the environment, understanding the technology," Sparks said. "This needed to happen in Houston and will hopefully redefine the community bank all over the United States, not just Texas."