Mentoring and Diversity
By Lorna Oppedisano | Photography by Mary Grace Johnson
Julia O’Donnell and Lindsay Weichert have a lot to share, be it about banking, diversity or local economic development. Though they might be young, they’re mentors.
“It’s about sharing your knowledge and your experience with others,” Julia said.
The two met through their careers at M&T Bank. While different paths led the women to their jobs, they’ve both become invested in the Syracuse community.
The importance of communication
Julia, a self-proclaimed “north country girl,” grew up in a transient military family, eventually settling in Watertown for her high school years.
Having moved every few years as a child, Julia was always the new girl in school. Through learning to put herself out there, she developed communication and people skills at an early age.
She thought her path after high school would lead her to a career in the military, like most of her family.
“For some reason, I just couldn’t jump fully on board, though,” Julia said. “I felt like I needed to see what my other options were.”
She decided to start with baby steps, earning an associate degree at Bryant & Stratton College. Then, while beginning her professional career, she earned a bachelor’s degree, starting at Le Moyne College and completing through University of Phoenix Online.
Julia eventually took a position with ADP. While it was an intense experience, she learned to build thick skin, talk to people and overcome rejection, she said.
“It helped to build on some of the skills that I’d already learned naturally from just having to meet people and put myself out there,” she explained.
Working in that field enabled Julia to build relationships with bankers. One day, a man she worked with asked her if she’d every considered being a banker.
“No way,” she answered. “Definitely not.”
But she was willing to have a conversation about it.
“Sometimes you don’t really know the direction your life is going to take,” Julia said. “But what I love is that I was in a place in my life that I was just open.”
She decided to dive into the banking industry, taking a position at HSBC. Adjusting to the new field took time. There was much to learn, and though ADP had taught her a lot, Julia still felt she wasn’t necessarily coming to the table with the same set of skills as everyone else.
Eventually, she realized she’d forgotten an important fact: people skills are invaluable. She’d been developing those for years.
“When I realized that, it was a huge weight off my shoulders, because I could embrace it,” Julia said.
After she parted ways with HSBC, Julia didn’t want to jump right back into banking. She needed to go where she thought her heart was, she said. After some research into M&T Bank, though, she decided it would be a great fit.
It’s been a great experience so far, Julia reflected. The people she’s worked with have shown her how to succeed not just in her career, but in life.
Breathing life into the cityscape
Lindsay’s path to the banking industry was slightly different from Julia’s. A Syracuse native, she only left the Central New York area a handful of times before going to college at St. Lawrence University.
Wanting a different experience after college, she ventured to New York City, where she began her career at Fitch Ratings and earned a master’s degree from New York University. She enjoyed the city and her job, but realized she missed the community and connectivity of Central New York.
Eventually, she returned to the area. The work she’d done at Fitch Ratings, analyzing a variety of investment products, was one step away from the banking industry, she explained. She’d known people who had transitioned from rating agencies to work for a bank. Like Julia, she researched M&T Bank, and then took a position as portfolio manager.
Upon becoming reacquainted with the city, Lindsay realized what her hometown had to offer.
“I feel that this is actually a world-class city,” she said.
She’s proud to have been involved in projects that helped breathe life back old downtown buildings.
“We can look out the window, and M&T probably financed or had a part in half the buildings up and down Salina Street,” Lindsay said, gesturing to the cityscape. “It’s a really awesome feeling.”
One of the projects Lindsay was involved with was Ed Riley’s revitalization of Hotel Syracuse, now Marriott Syracuse Downtown. While other people in her field didn’t see the plausibility of the project, she thought, “Why can’t it happen?”
Lindsay and the team spent time with Ed and his team to understand his vision and aid in the creative process however they could.
It was really a collaborative community project, she said, adding that the hotel has generated about 260 jobs (not including construction jobs), approximately 140 of them employing people from low-income areas.
“This is why we do this job,” Lindsay said, “to be able to enable impassioned entrepreneurs from this community to build economic development projects in this community, just to help everything around them — it’s incredible.”
CNY Mentorship Program
Lindsay and Julia got to know each other better by co-creating M&T Bank’s CNY Mentorship Program. The program’s goal is to promote accessible career paths for diverse candidates. The idea grew out of experiences and conversations the women had with other women in the community, such as women’s forums. The need for and importance of mentorship opportunities was evident.
Being the first person in her family to earn a four-year degree sometimes made Julia feel like she was lacking, she remembered.
“I needed to get rid of that story,” she said, “because when I talk to my coworkers and I share about my life and I learn about them, I realize that we have something in common.”
That’s what diversity means to her. As a Latina woman, it’s important to Julia to promote workplace diversity, she explained. She hopes to be an example not only to other young women, but also her young daughter.
Lindsay is currently chair of the mentorship program committee and Julia serves as a mentor.
In the half-year since the program was launched, it’s already made an impact, Lindsay said, citing Julia’s mentee as a prime example.
“In the four to six months since this program has started, some of the people walking around this bank just carry themselves differently,” Lindsay said with a smile. SWM