Lisa Trevino Cummins – Her Leadership Journey from Bank of America to Urban Strategies – Part 1

“Make sure that you know that this is what you’re supposed to do because that’s what’s going to sustain you through the challenges.” -Lisa Trevino Cummins

[00:00:00] Lisa Cummins: I’m Hispanic, and so my growing up was in that context, Mexican American context. My church spoke Spanish. That’s where I learned to speak Spanish, singing through the hymnals. Spanish was not my first language as it was with my parents because my parents had the experience, that was their first language, but they had the experience of being punished in school for speaking Spanish.

So they never taught me Spanish. They wanted to make sure I had English down. Which ironically, now 20 years later, I sent my children to a Spanish immersion school because we recognize the benefit of that.


Tommy Thomas: Today, we’re beginning a two-part conversation with Lisa Trevino Cummins. Lisa spent the first 12 plus years of her career with Bank of America, where she expanded the bank’s community development initiative to become one of the first national corporations to partner with faith-based organizations in underserved neighborhoods. From Bank of America, Lisa was called to help launch the White House Community and Faith Based Initiative to leverage the strength of community and faith-based organizations to serve children and families in need. 

In 2003, she started Urban Strategies where she continues her work to make resources more available to underserved communities. 

Since founding Urban Strategies, Lisa has been a catalyst of several initiatives that has resulted in almost $40 million of new programming focused in low-income communities. 

[00:01:29] Tommy Thomas: Before we dive too deep into your professional life. Take me back to your childhood and what was growing up like?

[00:01:35] Lisa Cummins: I grew up in Houston, Texas and my family, close family ties, my uncles and aunts were there and so when we had Thanksgiving there were about 60 of us on Thanksgiving and on Easter and Christmas.

And so very closely knit. Our church was very much a part of who we were. My grandparents were pastors since they had been married and then had subsequent generations who were also in ministry. So the church was very much part of our activities. So we had Easter services and then Friday night, Saturday and Sunday.  And then our family activities revolved around that schedule. 

[00:02:32] Tommy Thomas: What would you say is the best gift your parents gave you? 

[00:02:35] Lisa Cummins: I think there’s a few. One is a reverence for faith, a reverence for God and secondly, I think very much an entrepreneurial perspective. I’ve been told that some folks have used a slogan for me that says nothing’s too complicated. And I think I learned that from my parents. Looking back, I didn’t know that we were in poverty. I didn’t know that those things didn’t come.

I wasn’t aware of those things. But my father worked long hours and then started a business at home, so another eight hours after his regular job. And mom was able to spend a lot of time with us in between jobs and that sort of thing. But we never noticed. We never missed anything.

But I think I always saw them as very entrepreneurial, always serving. That was a big part of what I’ve learned as well. We always had somebody living with us. There was always a handshake with an offering in it to help someone. So I learned a lot about service. 

I learned a lot about resilience. I learned a lot about faith, and I learned a lot about resourcefulness.

[00:03:47] Tommy Thomas: Can you think of the first time that entrepreneurship showed up in your activities? 

[00:03:52] Lisa Cummins: I think entrepreneurship is the idea of taking initiative.  From just a social perspective, getting engaged in my church and starting things up, and let’s do this and let’s do that, let’s organize around that. That was how it showed up in that way. I think from a business perspective, ironically, the first 12 years of my professional career were in banking.

And so, one job banking, and you wouldn’t necessarily associate entrepreneurship with those two terms, but I was able to really create my job in banking. And by God’s grace, I was able to shape and form something that really was taken from a responsibility that nobody wanted. But the Lord gave me insight in how to do that and what the benefit was. I stayed there 12 years and kept always a dynamic situation. 

[00:04:44] Tommy Thomas: So, what was high school like in Houston?

[00:04:45] Lisa Cummins: I went to two high schools. I started out in engineering with a path for magnet school in engineering. So, it was an all-black school where this engineering program was on the second floor of the building.

I’m Hispanic, and so my growing up was in that context, Mexican American context. My church spoke Spanish. That’s where I learned to speak Spanish, singing through the hymnals. 

Spanish was not my first language as it was with my parents because my parents had the experience of, that was their first language, but they had the experience of being punished in school for speaking Spanish.

So they never taught me Spanish. They wanted to make sure I had English down. Ironically, now 20 years later, I sent my children to a Spanish immersion school because we recognized the benefit of that.  So, I went to an all-black school and it was an amazing experience.

I loved it. And I played sports, I played basketball and volleyball. I was the only one on the team that wasn’t black. But these girls became my dearest friends. And my parents would always come to my games and these girls would see my parents as their parents because they had no one rooting for them.

After my freshman year, I ended up going back to a neighborhood school, which was more mixed white and Hispanic. But when we’d go play the opposing teams, it happened to be that all-black school, and they’d look for my mom first thing, where’s your mama?

Because they saw that she believed in them. Ironically when I went to this school again, basketball and volleyball. My teammates elected me to be the team captain. I was fairly good, but interestingly my coach would never play me.

She favored other girls and even though they all felt like I was a caliber of being on the team. But in high school, I learned through that. I learned about leadership, I learned about friends, friendships, relationships. But I will say that even throughout all of this I was a different one becuase I was very engaged in my church.

And because I was Hispanic, most folks thought I was Catholic, while I was Protestant, I wasn’t Catholic. So just interesting navigating those things.  My church community was very strong, and had a strong youth group. We’d meet together three times a week. I will say that when I graduated, now, this was 1983, from high school. There was a big deal made of graduating from high school as in most churches.

And so you come up to the front and they pray for you. When that happened to me, there’s about 20 of us, and I think I’m the only one that finished college. Looking back, wow. But it wasn’t because they weren’t, they didn’t have a capacity to be there were no, there was no access to resources, no access to the information.

And with my parents, it was just, there was no discussion of it. We were going to be, we were going to go to college, university. And so that was the case with myself and my three brothers. So it’s an interesting background. 

[00:07:59] Tommy Thomas:  When you got to college, how did you decide upon a major?

[00:08:02] Lisa Cummins: I went to high college and I was going to go into engineering until I realized how much calculus I was going to have to take. So, I decided that I wouldn’t do that, that I would do business, and just because that seemed the most practical and actually accounting, which, now I’m going on a podcast saying this.

I don’t tell many people that I was an accounting major because they’re going to expect things of me that I won’t deliver. But I did go into accounting and that was an interesting place for me. 

I actually ended up at Trinity University in San Antonio, which is considered the Ivy League of the South, if you will. And there were very affluent students, they were very affluent and I lived off campus. I was at school and attended every day. And I can tell you, Tommy, I probably had one friend. And there were many days I’d come home and realize I hadn’t said a word.

And it just, I didn’t feel welcomed. I didn’t feel like I fit. Part of that was, I’m sure it was me, right? Not feeling like I’m sufficient enough or good enough to be in the conversations that folks were having. And so, they were having conversations about their summer vacation, going to Greece or somewhere like that.

And I was like what job am I going to have this summer? So there was just not an awareness among the differences. My back fall though was going to church. I went to school, and I worked so that I could be involved in the church in activities there.


[00:09:29] Tommy Thomas:  What’s something that most people would be surprised to learn about you?

[00:09:33] Lisa Cummins: Probably one that I was an accounting major. Two is that there were actually years in my life where I didn’t speak to anyone. And I still play basketball. I play in a women’s group on Sunday nights when I’m in town.

Because of my church background and my church tradition, I always say that you have to come out singing or playing an instrument. And so I did both of those things and, as initially I was learning while I was playing for the congregation, for our little youth group, and so if you could sing in the Ki Sea, then we were, we had something to go with.

[00:10:09] Tommy Thomas: I wasn’t aware of your team sports background. What do you think you brought out of team sports that’s helped you in life? 

[00:10:16] Lisa Cummins: I think it’s perseverance. I think it’s working hard, preparing and I had fun doing that. And so I think enjoying, having fun building relationships and the people.

And I think the other thing is that 

it’s okay to lose, on some teams we had stellar years and others, it was great if we won one game for the season. But it was okay. It was okay to lose, just keep going on.

Which, as I say that to you, it’s not something I’ve ever articulated previously, but I know in this day and age as we work with youth, there’s a high level of anxiety that’s unhealthy.

And I’m just wondering how much that has to do with the culture of striving to win and be the best and not being okay with losing and not being the best. 

[00:11:14] Tommy Thomas: I think that’s something all of us wrestle with. Yeah. I interviewed one of your peers at some level, Christin McClave a couple weeks ago and she talked about how we were creating a culture of always being evaluated and getting this checklist for getting better and better. And she had an interesting thought that she accredited the venture capital world with experimentation. Maybe not failure but the will to do it, and by definition, experimentation means all of them won’t work.

[00:11:45] Lisa Cummins: No, I think that’s important, obviously there are boundaries on all of that. I think for me, the ability to, the willingness and ability to experiment is really based on trust of relationships. Because character matters. Is it somebody who’s going to  just get up and quit?

Or is it somebody who’s going to stay and work at it? And I think that matters. And I know there’s a lot of discussion in our country around race and those sorts of things, and that’s not something I focus on often, but it is prevalent, and I think, for example, me growing up where I did, I never heard of InterVarsity until I was 35 years old.

I never heard of Young Life until I was 30, until I moved to Washington, right? And so, I did. So that’s just an example of the limitation, resources and access. And as a result, relationships that I could trust and would trust me, that would allow me to venture. Wow. That’s another podcast by itself, isn’t it?

[00:12:48] Tommy Thomas: Let’s go back to your banking career. What I know about you from just what people that have told me about you, I would never put banking and Lisa in the same and probably not even service in Washington DC relative to the entrepreneurial, but let’s go back to your banking days.

What do you remember about your first time you had to manage people? 

[00:13:10] Lisa Cummins:  It was interesting. I had my role and  that’s another whole story by itself, but it was just, there’s no question that God had directed my paths, my path into the role that I ended up having. I guess I didn’t manage folks until maybe five years into that role.

Okay, five to seven years into that role. But I will say prior to that, I wasn’t managing folks, but there was a big, large team of people who had an indirect dotted line to me. So, I managed what was called community investment for the bank. And that was the statement underlying that there was an affirmative obligation of the bank to serve the needs of the credit needs of the community.

And our bank and other banks during that time, were willing to take deposits from anywhere they would come. Including churches, but they weren’t willing to make loans to those same communities or churches. And so there was a law that was enacted in the seventies that said, banks need to do something different about that.

And when I came into banking there were a lot of consequences for not doing well in that area. So as a result, the bank had made a commitment that all of the areas of the bank would be more engaged and take more initiative and have affirmative action, if you will, of looking at opportunities for these areas.

That previously had been what’s called redlined, which was specifically, there were maps on the wall that said that instead of an X, they’d cover it with, surround it with a red line and cover it in and say, no, we’re not going there. And so I had the director of mortgage banking, the director of consumer lending, the director of commercial lending, director of real estate, director of HR, part of their performance evaluation included a component of how did you do with community investment?

And it gave me a lot of leverage as a 25-year-old going into the bank where everybody else was 10 to 15 years older than me and majority male. And so that was a leadership experience, but different than the traditional people reporting to me. Again, five, seven years later, I did have a team of people reporting to me, and it was interesting as well because I was given this team and within three months found out one of the key leads was becoming inebriated on the job.

Another was taking afternoons with a bank credit card and going to a hotel on a daily basis, on a weekly basis. So I had challenges that were given to me. But my approach has always been just to be honest, to be as transparent as I can and to be understanding, to listen but also recognize and communicate their expectations.



[00:16:05] Tommy Thomas: Successful people are asked all the time, what makes you so successful? I’d like to frame it this way. What’s a factor that’s helped you succeed that most people on the outside probably wouldn’t recognize or realize? 

[00:16:19] Lisa Cummins: I’m not sure if it would be recognized or not. But I think early on and particularly when I moved to Washington DC after the banking career a pastor said, Lisa, 

make sure that you know that this is what you’re supposed to do, that you feel this is what you’re supposed to do, because that’s what’s going to sustain you through the challenges.

And I think that has been the case for me, Tom. I know I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And so, it’s a calling, right? It’s a calling. And I think in banking I entered it because I needed a job. But I think it wasn’t too long after a couple years where I realized this is where I’m supposed to be.

And recognizing that it was part of an orchestrated plan that the Lord had for me that I could not have ever orchestrated. But things came into place, not by coincidence, but by God’s hand. 

[00:17:15] Tommy Thomas: Going back to that first team, it sounds like you might have had to do some hiring and firing on that inherited team.

When you think about hiring today, what’s the most important quality you’re looking for?

[00:17:26] Lisa Cummins: I’ve evolved in this and maybe to where everybody else is, but I think character is a big piece of everything. Character’s going to tell me about the experiences, the skills you say you have are accurate or not. True character’s going to tell me how much responsibility I can give to someone.

The challenge is character’s hard to measure on the application, right? And what we try to do is really make sure that when we’re hiring, not make sure, but we try to emphasize hiring among communities that we already know and that already know what we’re about. Doesn’t always work well, but there’s a higher probability that someone’s going to be able to fulfill what we’re needing, and at the same time fulfill what they’re calling and purpose is.

We have had to terminate folks. And that’s never easy. But what we try to do is be very clear about expectations. We try to give folks an opportunity to remedy whatever is the shortfall. Obviously, that’s an issue. Depends on the severity of the situation or the factors that are impacted by underperformance or non-performance or misjudgment, whatever it might be.

But we do try to give folks an opportunity to remedy the situation. And we try to provide them with the tools that allow that, in some cases that what works and also let me add, find another position. Particularly if they’re a person that is a great character, but just doesn’t have the skillset.

Is there another way we can work with this individual? So, we try every option we can to allow an individual to flourish and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s the hard part and that’s the cost of being in. 

[00:19:19] Tommy Thomas: Who’s been the most influential mentor in your life?

[00:19:24] Lisa Cummins: I didn’t come from a culture that had one individual or specific individuals that had a designation of mentor. That was not something I understood. But I would say that in different phases of my life, I’ve had different folks who have influenced me. Obviously, I have my grandparents and my parents who were models of service.

When I went to the church that I grew up with, there was, we call them the sisters of the church, who were there faithfully when we needed to do fundraising to send youth to camp. They were making tamales on Friday night, and were bringing their big pots to be able to sell those as a fundraiser.

We had men of the church who were hardworking and after their regular day of construction, they’d come and work on the building of the church. Also had the Sunday school teacher who was faithful. I still remember her name, Virginia Faithful, showed up every Sunday morning and cared about us.

So that was that phase. I think as I’ve grown into professional life and ministry and leading an organization; I think there are various people who have had influence in my life. Some of them I know and they’re good friends, and some of them I’ve read about, right? And so, I don’t think there’s any one source, but I’ve benefited from multiple sources of folks that I can learn from.

[00:20:46] Tommy Thomas: It sounds like you’ve had both the formal and informal – probably more informal mentoring than classical. 

[00:20:51] Lisa Cummins: Yeah. That’s right. Again, that wasn’t part of my culture, but I remember about 10 years ago, a young woman called me and said, I’d like for you to be my mentor, and I really didn’t know her.

And I was like, okay. I’m not sure what that looks like. And she said, can we meet next week? Can we meet next month? And kept it on. And I’m like, oh, okay.  I wasn’t as forward to be able to do that. And I didn’t know what that looked like.  Yeah. So, it was very much informal. 

[00:21:21] Tommy Thomas: I want you to think about some of the teams you’ve led.   What’s been the key to successful team leadership? 

[00:21:30] Lisa Cummins: At least for me I work really hard to make sure every voice is heard for several reasons. One, I want folks to be able to take ownership of whatever it is that we’re working on.

I don’t want to be the one leader. I think that I am probably too trusting. I know I’m too trusting in some places that has bitten me. But I really try to work at a personal level, building trust, building relationships, having people reminding ourselves that we’re on the same team and reminding ourselves of what our common goals are.

I try to have fun in the process of that and really celebrate the wins and want to talk about the places where we didn’t win, where we didn’t achieve what we wanted to. And we’ve had some folks say let’s not talk about the past. No, we’ve got to talk about the past, because that’s how we learn.

And so, I think it’s a combination of factors. Things aren’t always perfect. There are mistakes that are made by me and others, but there’s room for that. And let’s be honest and sincere with one another and reevaluate. Do we want to stay on this team and are we still committed to the same purpose? And if we are, then we can work things out. 

[00:22:43] Tommy Thomas:  You and I come from probably two generations. I finished high school in 68. You finished it sounded like 82, 83. 83. And now you’re leading people or bringing people into the workforce that have finished a generation later than you.

What are some observations maybe if you think of your parents’ generation, your generation, and the people you’re seeing now? Can you draw some contrast there? 

[00:23:08] Lisa Cummins: Sure. I think one of the biggest ones that we’ve been thinking about over the last 24 months is this idea of boundaries.

 I grew up in a culture where there were no boundaries in terms of work life, that sort of thing. Partly because we were in poverty, so you’ve got to do whatever you have to do to make ends meet, right?

And many people are still in that situation. However, I would say that as folks have a more of a mixture of cultures, the young folks that we’ve been hiring, they are very intentional about drawing boundaries so that their work doesn’t end up being seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

We work with a lot of faith-based organizations and we’ve had many talks with our pastors and some of whom have said, yeah. And some had it as a badge of nobility that they haven’t taken a vacation in 20 years. We said that’s not actually a good thing.

And so, we’re learning, my generation, we’re learning from the younger generation about what it means to have more balance, what mental health means. That just has not been part of our vocabulary. So I’m thankful for that because I think that is important for sustainability and the important things to practice, important things to teach and learn as well.

So I think that’s the biggest piece. And the other is that, particularly because a lot of our work requires either understanding of the Hispanic culture, and or speaking Spanish. We’ve just got some amazing people who are the younger generation who are very interested in issues of helping their neighbor and really, I think not leaving parts of scripture out.

Again, we’re not faith-based authorization, but we work with ministries and our people have a desire to do that. So we really are, the younger generation is holding us accountable to what we say we believe biblically and are smart about trying to develop long-term solutions. And I think again, holding a line from a perspective of what is for us as individuals and for the communities that we’re serving. So, there’s a lot to learn there, for sure. 

[00:25:39] Tommy Thomas: Yeah. So go back to the team thing for a minute. What’s the most ambitious project you’ve ever tackled and how did you bring the troops to rally? 

[00:25:48] Lisa Cummins: Wow. One of the things that we do a lot, we’ve done a lot of ambitious projects, Tommy, and I think that by God’s grace we’ve been able to see some, see fruit in some cases, it’s not all the fruit we’d want to see but I think we also have very high expectations of ourselves.

We launched a program in 2014 that was trying to respond to the unaccompanied children who were coming to our border, desperate for help – in desperate need. And we ended up in three months standing up four or five shelters that provided housing for these children, 24/7 care, and hired 200 people in that period of time.

And that was in 2014. We were continuing that work and have grown to other projects since. But I think that when you know you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, and that, for me, I know that this is more than just about me. I can have confidence that God’s got my back.

Yep. God’s got my back. Again, I’m sorry. I’m not sure how faith oriented your audience is, but this is hard. It’s hard for me not to include faith in my story. 

[00:27:14] Tommy Thomas: No, sure. I think a lot of my people, given that’s where I’ve made my living over the past 35 years, I think we do have a probably a primary faith-based group. Okay. But probably not entirely. So you be yourself. 

[00:27:28] Lisa Cummins: Thank you. Yeah. And in our work, we try to demonstrate our faith by our actions. And so, I have a project that we’re working on now that’s going to be a big lift.

And I don’t often step back and say, oh, out of fear this one has caused me a little trepidation. So I’m having to wrestle with that and figure out what that’s about and what’s a smart way to go into this. But most of our work, Tommy we’re first to do it, and so there’s not a lot of, given our circumstances, given the communities we’re working with, there’s not a lot of track records.

We’re not duplicating what somebody else is doing. We might be taking parts of what others are doing and replicating that to fit in the context of what we’re working in, and the resources that we have or don’t have. But yeah, we’ve done a lot of ambitious things.

When I started Urban Strategies, I did not have a goal of growing. I was just trying to do what God called me to do. But I realized that to be a steward, a good steward of what the Lord has, the opportunities the Lord was giving me, we needed to bring other people on the team. So today we have 500 people on the Urban Strategies team.

And that’s not something I ever planned on. I would probably have been frightened about it had you told me that would be the case – because big is not necessarily better. So that’s not what I’m going for. 


Join us next week when we continue this conversation with Lisa. In that conversation, we will dig deeper into her work with Urban Strategies. We’ll also discuss what she has learned about nonprofit board service by serving on the boards of organizations, such as World Vision, and the Christian community.

“It’s okay to lose.  On some teams we had stellar years and others, it was great if we won one game for the season. But it was okay. It was okay to lose, just keep going.” -Lisa Trevino Cummins

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