Pan American Bank Earns Trust of East LA Community
In my search to highlight and share stories of successful impact entrepreneurs, a friend suggested I check out the The Pan American Bank in East Los Angeles. I had no idea that I was about to encounter a full thriving community center serving small businesses and families in East LA.
To better appreciate the impact I experienced when talking with the CEO Jesse Torres, I must tell you a bit about the remarkable story of the Bank’s founder Romana Acosta Banuelos.
Romana’s story of leadership is both inspirational and uniquely American. Romana Acosta Banuelos was 8 years old in 1933 when her family was deported from the mining town of Miami, Arizona to Sonora, Mexico. In 1942, when Romana was 18, she returned to America, and settled in Los Angeles. By 1949 she had saved $500 to start a tortilla factory in downtown Los Angeles. Over the next ten years, Romana’s Mexican Food Products, Inc. developed into a multi-million dollar business. Using her success, in 1964, at a time when banks were not lending to East LA business owners, Romana founded The Pan American National Bank so other entrepreneurs within her marginalized community might be able to follow her example. In 1971, thirty-eight years after being deported as a little girl, Romana’s leadership and success led President Richard Nixon to select Romana Acosta Banuelos as the Secretary of Treasury for the United States.
Forty-seven years after its founding, the Bank has approximately $40 million in assets under management and continues to provide face-to-face community banking services spanning across Los Angeles and Orange Counties – a significant accomplishment – but its vision has grown. Under the leadership of CEO Jesse Torres, a former bank CEO and bank examiner at the Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the bank consultant at KPMG Peat Marwick, his staff use banking as the entry point for deeper engagement on financial education and skill-upgrades for community members. Torres believes the most important community service The Pan American Bank can provide today is to help develop financial skills and competence in all members of the East Los Angeles community – the aspiring business leaders of today and the potential innovators of tomorrow. With that end in mind, he has transformed the Bank into a community service hub that houses four non- profit organizations, including eastLAworks, and provides event/training space.
Torres explains the need for their work in East LA – “Culturally our community is not accustomed to banking because where they are originally from the banks are typically corrupt or the government’s banks prohibit the lower class from banking. So you have a cash economy, people walking around with wads of bills, hiding money under their mattress, and not having the tools to save and build assets. Banking to this community requires building trust by earning respect.”
When I sat down with Torres his tie was off, collar open, and suit jacket nowhere to be seen. He looked more like a teacher than a banker. Coincidentally, he had been in a classroom just hours before. Torres was down the street at KIPP Raíces Academy teaching a financial literacy course to 300 elementary school students. Torres tells me, “[The] Pan American Bank earns the trust of the East LA community by being part of it. We’re not just about lending to local small business, we’re about community building.”
Torres sees himself, and the kids growing up around him, as part of the legacy created by Romana Acosta Banuelos. Torres grew up in East Los Angeles and went to school not far from where The Pan American Bank is located today, giving him an intimate view of the challenges faced by children in his community. He shares,
- “By the time I got to seventh grade all of my friends were in juvenile hall. I had very little self-confidence, like the youth I see today. My fortune changed when I was 11 years old. It was a rainy day and I was called in to be a substitute for a state soccer skills competition sponsored by Coca Cola. I didn’t think much about the request because I figured I was a stand in and would not win. As the rain started to come down harder, the judges began to announce the winners. I stayed to hear the third place winner because I figured maybe I could get third. They called the name, and it was not mine, and so I grabbed my dad to leave. As we were walking away, they called the first place winner, Jesse Torres. In that moment I realized how low my self-esteem was and how I had been letting myself down. Feeling good about myself in sports then translated into feeling good about myself in school and quickly my attitude and perspective of life began to change.”
Much in the same way Jesse Torres was uplifted by an acknowledgement of his self-worth through sports, The Pan American Bank honors and recognizes the self-worth of youth by equipping them with financial literacy and access to an upstanding financial institution.
To that end, The Pan American Bank is reimagining a better future for the youth of its community – young people who, Torres says, “have little self esteem because they look around their neighborhood and see people getting shot, arrested, deported, and cannot imagine a future for themselves.” Last year, The Pan American Bank taught 1,000 first and second graders, and this year they are on track to exceed their target of engaging 2,500 students with financial literacy training. Furthermore, starting in 2011, The Pan American Bank has committed $70,000 over a three year period to open free savings accounts with five dollars each for 14,000 first and second graders.
After spending two hours with Torres, it was apparent to me that The Pan American Bank is more than a community service provider. It is an integral part of East LA by being specifically tailored and concerned with the community’s needs and hopes for the future. But what about beyond East LA? How can this amazing work on the east side connect to other initiatives, resources, and people? In part, we know that the Bank on LA sector is thriving and well networked. However, beyond this niche, how can we most effectively combine the ideas of one social entrepreneur with another who is seeking new solutions?
It became clear to me when talking with Jesse Torres that Hub LA has a responsibility to connect these visionaries and work with organizations, like The Pan American Bank, to grow the impact economy in Los Angeles. Part of that work is simply to enhance the connectivity in our region through exposure. We see myriad avenues for connection, collaboration, and co-inspiration between The Pan American and others in the Hub LA community. To that end, Hub LA will highlight and connect the success of impact entrepreneurs across our expansive geography and diverse communities.
Please contact Nick Kislinger, Hub LA CEO for more information on this blog post.
The Pan American Bank’s social media coordinates:
AND check out this great Univision story on The Pan American Bank’s financial literacy program!