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ny1.jpg (52341 bytes)August 6, early Friday morning, at 125th Street near Lenox Ave., a.k.a. Malcolm X Boulevard. It's barely 8 a.m., and window washers are already at work on Carver Federal Savings Bank. The bank is headquarters stands on a bustling block of 125th Street that tells the story of Harlem today, with its themes of hardship and progress. Boarded-up windows, pawnshops, and the unemployment office juxtapose restored historic buildings, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corp., and a sparkling new Starbucks Coffee.

This is familiar stomping ground for Deborah Wright '84, Carver's new president and CEO. Until June she worked across the street from the bank, as president and CEO of the Empowerment Zone, where she pushed for dozens of small business, nonprofit, and commercial real estate projects throughout Harlem. But then the job she’d set her sights on for years opened up. She became the first woman leader of the nation’s largest African American-managed bank, with the charge to re-energize a troubled institution struggling to compete with today’s megabanks.

Carver was founded 50 years ago, when African Americans couldn’t get financial services. Rebuffed by the state, the bank’s founders got a federal charter and opened the first branch. For years they had the market to themselves.

Then came the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, revised in 1995, which required banks to invest in the communities through which they derive deposits. “The irony is, this tiny institution, whose market was generated by discrimination, now finds itself competing with the very folks who wouldn’t give services or set foot in New York’s minority communities,” Wright says.

Carver’s new chief faces the fascinating challenge of meshing the bank’s traditions with mainstream capitalist tenets. While Carver is a publicly traded company, with a mandate to make money and increase shareholder value, it’s also a community fixture. “I have to find a way to bridge those two worlds,” Wright says.

To generate new revenues, and keep Carver unique, Wright will launch one-stop financial services tailored to inner-city customers. She plans to offer seminars to teach Carver clients how to use bank services and select products that fit their personal goals. She will clean up Carver’s bad loans and tap her community ties to find new investment partners and depositors.

Wright will also maintain the bank’s role as an entry point to the financial services system. “There are still an enormous number of community members who need that,” she says. For example, Harlem has a large immigrant population, and many fear bank bureaucracy and that their money will be confiscated or that the INS will track them down if they open bank accounts. "We have a significant elderly population also, with people still keeping cash under their pillows."

The bank president's strong sense of community was shaped by family example, she says, particularly the public works of her minister grandfather and grandmother, her minister father, and her aunt Marian Wright Edelman, the famous founder of the Children's Defense Fund and White House adviser, who once worked for the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi.

After finishing a joint J.D./M.B.A. degree at Harvard, Wright practiced law for a short time but found that it didn’t hold her interest. She switched to investment banking on Wall Street, but it didn’t satisfy her desire to make a difference in people’s lives. So she chose a new path, in community development.

After a stint as marketing director of a Harlem apartment complex, Wright was appointed to the New York City Housing Authority Board by Mayor David Dinkins. In 1994 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani appointed her commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), where she led New York's redesign of housing and tax foreclosure policies and introduced key reforms that helped return properties to community residents and entrepreneurs. In 1996 Wright led the startup of the nation's largest Empowerment Zone, overseeing a capital budget of $250 million in city, state, and federal funding. The projects were zooming along and then that once-in-a-lifetime Carver offer came.

With a Y2K meeting soon to start, Wright steps outside for a quick photo session. While the photographer snaps away, she talks enthusiastically about the neighborhood: the great new buildings coming in, the venerable ones slated for restoration, like the historic Lenox Lounge just down the block. That Starbucks site on the corner was about to become another pawnshop, until Wright single-handedly fought to bring the upscale franchise to Harlem.

After a long, dry spell Harlem is booming, and Wright will ensure the bank benefits and does its part. The window washers are finishing up; Carver’s facade sparkles in the sun. “I’m going to shake it up, polish it up, and take it to the next level,” she says.

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