Returning to Roots Through Mentorship

Few things in life can feel as gratifying as a full-circle moment. No one knows this better than manager of internal communications for BMO Harris Bank, Aixa Velez.

When Aixa Velez was a senior in high school, she was nominated for a scholarship through the Posse Foundation, a renowned nonprofit promoting college-access and youth leadership development. (Deborah Bial, a MacArthur Award recipient whose work with diverse urban students has been praised by President Barack Obama, founded the Posse Foundation in 1989.) Aixa Velez was one of only 12 students to receive a full-ride scholarship to the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“It was life-changing in a lot of ways, especially as a Latina who didn’t fully understand the process of applying to college,” Velez says.

She now finds time to contribute to the same organization that opened so many doors for her. Utilizing her love for the written word, she has served as Posse’s writing coach. Velez has always loved writing. She remembers as a little girl being endlessly entertained by nothing more than a pen and notebook. It wasn’t really a surprise when she became a journalist out of college. But she found the 24-hour news cycle exhausting with little reward, so she decided to return to school and get her master’s degree. She attended grad school at DePaul University while also holding down two full-time internships, one of which was with Chicago-based BMO Harris Bank.

“As an intern, I was able to explore the company and its culture; I liked what I saw,” Velez says.

Velez joined BMO Harris at an interesting time. Just six months after she was hired in April of 2012, BMO finalized the largest merger in its history with Harris Bank and M&I Bank, effectively doubling its US footprint overnight. Throughout the merger, she was responsible for developing and leading the communications effort for the personal banking line of business, guiding 6,000 employees through the transition.

“I’m very proud of the culture we’re cultivating for Latino employees.”

“I learned so much,” the 28-year-old says with a laugh. “Getting 6,000 people on the same page and helping them understand their jobs and the company culture wasn’t easy, but through strategic planning and collaboration, we empowered employees through the conversion. We worked a lot of hours, but it was worth it.”

It wasn’t just the merger Velez jumped into. Just months after joining the bank, she became vice chair of BMO Harris Latino Alliance, one of the bank’s many employee resource groups. The Latino Alliance was also a key player in a larger, cross-functional team that helped the bank launch a Latino banking initiative in September 2013. The Latino banking team has increased efforts to grow awareness among Latino households. The bank launched Spanish-language collateral, radio ads, and billboards and increased the number of bilingual team members. BMO Harris won the “2014 Corporation of the Year” award by the Hispanic Professionals of Greater Milwaukee and the “2014 Community Partner Award” from Latinos Progresando.

“BMO’s commitment to diversity was a strong pull for me,” Velez explains. Before committing to BMO Harris full-time, she took a microscope to the bank’s core values. “I asked, ‘Do they have a position on diversity? How are they inclusive?’” says Velez. “I’m very proud of the culture we’re cultivating for Latino employees.”

Her two and a half years with BMO Harris have been both fast-paced and fulfilling. Velez became invested in being a mentor partly because she found a great mentor herself, a fellow Latina who has been in the field for more than 20 years. Velez says her mentor has helped her navigate her career and be the best she can be, which is priceless in a profession where Latinas are still few in number.

Velez mentors other Latinas and women of color through organizations like Posse and ColorComm: Women of Color in Communications (she was a member of its inaugural group in Chicago). Velez handles sponsorships for the young organization, which focuses on volunteering, panel discussions, and networking events, among other activities.

“So much of what I’m passionate about is uplifting other women of color in my field,” Velez says. “If we can connect, help each other, and act as a sounding board for one another, that is a very powerful thing.”