Virnitia Hendricks may have grown up in financial services, but her professional career has been steeped in relationships.
As Santander Consumer USA’s inaugural Chief Diversity Officer — a role she assumed in February — Hendricks is looking to push the industry’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives further.
“I’ve always been passionate about people and helping them be their best selves and reach their potential,” Hendricks told Auto Finance News.
After spending 20 years at Travelers Insurance, Hendricks’ career veered into organizational management, where she worked as a consultant for Quotidian Group, advising executives at Fortune 500 companies.
“What kept coming up was diversity, equity and inclusion, and the challenges that [my clients] were having in pushing the needle in that space,” Hendricks said. “Many of them had been on the race for many years and had put lots of initiatives and programs into play, but were not seeing the progress they really wanted.”
Hendricks sat down with AFN to discuss her vision for DE&I advancement in auto finance, as well as financial literacy, and her priorities for her first year at the helm of SCUSA’s diversity division. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Auto Finance News: Where do you see the greatest opportunity for advancement of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the auto finance industry?
Virnitia Hendricks: As it relates to auto finance, I think we need to focus in on doing something different and being disruptive in diversity, equity and inclusion. That starts by listening to our customers, to our communities and our employees, and then taking bold actions. So, evoking policy changes, thinking about the way in which we operate today, and making some changes around that based on the needs of our customers.
I would say that today, obviously, we have work to do as it relates to equity and ensuring that there is no bias in our processes.
It really starts with not feeling like we have all the answers or that we know; we have to ask the questions, engage and really listen to our consumers and the communities that we serve, and incorporate their feedback in setting our strategies and our policies.
As we are going through this pandemic, and we are all coming out of this together, I think it is important for us to think about what we’ve gone through and be patient as we evolve into this next stage of our, “new normal,” as people will say.
Specifically, we should be looking at our processes as it relates to originations and how we are going about the first part of the auto finance journey.
That’s a spot where we can challenge ourselves to think about how we are doing those originations, how customers perceive the auto finance industry, and begin, as I said, to challenge that and be disruptive to make sure we’re meeting the needs of the customer. Originations are the beginning part of our relationship with customers, and a place that we can begin to look at equity.
Another spot that comes to mind is financial education and financial literacy: Ensuring that consumers and customers have the information that they need to make good decisions and good choices as it relates to their finances and to the contractual obligations that they have.
Auto lenders have an obligation in that space to make sure that we are proactively helping to increase the financial literacy of the consumers and customers that we serve. We can do better to offer additional tools and resources so that consumers and customers can increase their financial literacy and be empowered with that knowledge. That serves us as a society if more people are mature in their financial literacy.
AFN: Does SCUSA currently have a financial literacy program? If so, what does it look like?
VH: Santander Consumer has partnered with Operation Hope, which is a nonprofit organization. We are offering all our employees seminars around financial literacy topics like money management, credit, even going through the earned income credit, home ownership. We are also providing our employees — free of charge — personal counseling so they can sit with a financial counselor and talk about their own individual needs. Promoting internal financial literacy has a long tail in terms of the benefits: Our employees would benefit, but ultimately, our customers will benefit from that as well. We are building out external resources to help financial education, and credit counseling for our external customer base as well.
AFN: As you mentioned, these changes don’t happen overnight — DE&I is a multiyear journey. What are some of the mile markers SCUSA is looking to achieve along that road?
VH: It starts with inclusion. It starts with culture. I talked earlier about making sure that we were listening, and that we’re in a position to incorporate feedback and the voice of our employees, our customers and our communities.
The beginning of our journey happened many years ago as our organization thought about its culture. We are committed to being simple, personal and fair as it relates to how we treat employees — and our communities and customers as well. We are continuing on that journey.
This year, we’re really focused on inclusion. And that is something — in my opinion — that will drive equity and diversity: That sense of belonging — everyone feeling valued and appreciated for what they bring to the table.
As we begin this year with things like a mentorship program, Operation Hope and our inclusion campaign, we start by asking our employees — and boldly listening — how they feel, in terms of their sense of belonging. And our focus this year is on taking a hard look at representation and challenging ourselves to think about how we can push the needle in that space.
Auto Finance Risk Summit, the premier event for risk and compliance in auto finance, returns May 11-12, 2021 as a virtual experience. The virtual experience will offer the quality networking and education of past events, all through an online platform. To learn more about the 2021 event and register, visit www.AutoFinanceRiskSummit.com.