I Can Do That: What Does a Commercial Banker Do?
For most of us, a visit to the bank entails a quick transaction with a teller or an inquiry about a new credit card. Yet, the world of banking is a vast one. One that touches almost all aspects of our lives. From the simple act of using a debit card to pay for a soda at a convenience store to investing in college, you can be sure a banker is working behind the scenes to ensure those processes continue to run. Further, commercial bankers (individuals who provide banking products and services designed for corporations, institutions, and sometimes governments) are also responsible for projects that require big and innovative thinking. For bankers, generating new ideas can help guide individuals and economies through good times as well as the bad.
In addition to their mathematical and number crunching skill sets, commercial bankers regularly draw upon the fundamental literacies—critical and analytical thinking, expressing ideas powerfully in writing, and using mathematics to understand real-world problems.
To learn more about this career, we spoke to Yelias Bender, Vice President, Community Development Division, at JP Morgan Chase and Companies. We talked to Yelias to learn how he serves underserved communities as a commercial banker.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF. YOUR NAME. WHAT YOU DO. WHAT YOU’RE WORKING ON.
My name is Yelias Bender, and I live in Seattle, Washington with my lovely wife and two cats. At my job, my team and I help provide many financial products and services to organizations and low-income communities throughout the country that want to build affordable housing and other resources like community centers or schools. My specific work provides financing in the form of loans to affordable housing developers throughout the West Coast.
HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THIS CAREER?
When I was working my way through college and graduate school—where I was pursuing degrees in urban planning and accounting—I had two primary interests: broader social issues and environmental issues. When I attended grad school, I wanted to focus on social issues. To me, that meant working to help communities with lower incomes and fewer resources address their everyday needs.
Within urban planning, there is a track in most programs known as affordable housing community development. And I knew that to address housing inequality properly, I really needed to learn as much as I could before jumping into the workforce. This made my passion for affordable housing very apparent.
WHAT KIND OF HUMAN-CENTERED SKILLS DO YOU NEED TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN THIS FIELD?
That is an excellent question, and I think human-centered skills are the most important component in this line of work. For one, I think the key skill in this career, as well as many others, is the ability to communicate with understanding and empathy.
Honestly, the skills that I developed in English class have been the most crucial component to my career and current role—learning how to write well and efficiently will always be important and relevant.
Commercial banking is a relationship management business. I spend most of my time communicating with people who want to put proposals together to build affordable housing. To communicate and have an understanding with my client, we’re not just talking numbers; we’re talking about how I can understand their needs and try to meet them. This involves thinking about how I can provide a product or a service that helps my clients move forward on their projects.
That process is rooted in communication. It’s effective writing, interpersonal communication in meetings, and understanding that the end-users of this affordable housing are residents that may not look like me and may come from a very different background than me. These soft skills are often more important than the number-crunching that I do behind the scenes.
WHO OR WHAT DROVE YOU TO BE SUCCESSFUL?
I would say it was a combination of things. Number one is my father. My father was an intellectual, he was a professor, and he was constantly inquisitive. He was always reading and constantly pursuing knowledge. I saw him as an example of life-long learning. He never sat me down and told me to be curious. He just provided an example.
Learning was always really important for him because he grew up in pretty stark poverty and in a small town in Pennsylvania. He understood that education was one way to get himself out of that situation. He eventually went to college, got a professorship, and received funding to travel around the world to do work that fascinated him.
My father’s story taught me that if you are curious and interested in understanding things, this passion rarely backfires, and often can really help you in life.
The second thing that drove me to be successful is the people who grew up with me. I tell the young people in my life that the people who you surround yourself with are often the greatest indicator of your own success. They not only push you to achieve your goals but are also people who can support and help you.
IF A YOUNG PERSON WERE INTERESTED IN DEVELOPING THEIR SKILLS IN THIS FIELD, WHAT RESOURCES WOULD YOU RECOMMEND?
There’s a lot of stability in this industry. The finance industry is a necessary component of our economy, so there are long-term career paths depending on the institution you join and the specific role.
There are so many different roles you can play because any institution like banking needs support beyond relationship management. For instance, our institution has a substantial IT division, and it’s growing all the time. So if you’re interested in computer science, you can probably find work in many different places, you don’t have to work at a big tech company. You could work at a bank where you’re providing support to the rest of the institution or bankers such as myself.
So if you have a passion for numbers and you have an interest in finance in general, banking is always going to be one of the principal divisions within that. Specifically, people in this line of work often study accounting, business administration, and finance.
HOW CAN YOUNG PEOPLE GET PAST THINKING THAT WHAT YOU DO IS TOO HARD?
That’s an excellent question. I think that’s really important because if you’re going to have long-term success in anything you do, including your career, you’re going to reach those moments when you feel things are really hard. How am I going to get through this? There are a few things I can offer as advice.
One is probably the best advice that my father ever gave me. And it was a very simple saying which was, this too shall pass. It’s just knowing that no matter how hard things are right now, in time, we’ll likely be able to look back and say, “Man, that was really tough at that moment.” But as long as I had the perseverance to try to see through it and keep working, I got through it.
Number two is just developing a muscle, which I will call grit—it’s the muscle that keeps us pushing even when things are hard. I don’t know if it’s because I’m stubborn or persistent, but I learned early on that if I just keep trying different solutions to the same problem, I’ll eventually solve it.
The third critical component to working when things get difficult is having a good support network. As humans, even as an introvert and private person, I recognize that we are not designed to attack the world on our own. We work best in groups. We work best in cooperation with others.
WHAT DO TEACHERS NEED TO KNOW TO HELP THEIR STUDENTS CONSIDER YOUR LINE OF WORK?
What would really be nice is to provide examples of school subjects in the real world. I think that could be done by partnering with community partners and showing how skills are utilized in the real world. It’s also important to show how the skills and subjects intersect.
For example, if I was in high school and my social studies teacher had a one-day session with my math teacher and said, “Hey, with these math skills that you’re learning in accelerated algebra, you could lead you to be a banker that works in a portable housing.” That is addressing some of the issues that my social studies teacher is talking about like housing and showing connections between subjects.
I think it could bring both of those subjects to life for students. How often do we hear students say, “Why am I even learning this? What is the point of this? When am I ever going to use it?” Providing those concrete examples at a younger age would give kids motivation to say, “Oh, this is why I should be interested in this right now. Because there is X career where I can use this daily.”
GIVEN THE CURRENT UPHEAVAL IN THE U.S. ECONOMY, WHAT’S YOUR VIEW ON WHERE WE ARE NOW AND WHERE WE’LL BE IN THE FUTURE?
As hard as things are right now, it’s important to remember that the U.S., overall, is pretty fortunate. The country, and economy, have preserved through much, much worse. And the economy will rebound, regardless of who’s running the government.
Still, it’s worth saying to not forget this when times do improve. Remember that another downturn will come, so as the economy rebounds, adjust your habits—as much as possible—to spend less, avoid debt, and save in an emergency fund. You’ll need it.
Last but not least, consider this fiasco as a case study in why the country needs a stronger social safety net and universal programs that benefit all residents. Knowing that, become more politically active.
Are you a student and want to hear more about a specific job? Do you have ideas about how to better prepare yourself for your career? Send an email to [email protected].
Check out the Rethink Together Forum to connect with high school students, educators, and families about what’s possible. Here are some of the hot topics people are talking about on the forum: