Beneficial State Foundation Perspectives

Our thoughts on changing the banking system for good and building the new economy

Celebrating Women’s History Month with our Executive Director, Erin Kilmer Neel

Celebrating Women’s History Month with our Executive Director, Erin Kilmer Neel

Women’s History Month originated as a local event in Santa Rosa, California. In 1978, the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women initiated a “Women’s History Week” celebration. This initiative quickly gained momentum, spreading across the nation as various communities started hosting their own Women’s History Week events the following year. Now, every March serves as a time to honor the achievements of women, acknowledge their pivotal roles in our society and history, and celebrate how they continue to inspire us every day. 

This year, we’re taking a moment to highlight our Executive Director, Erin Kilmer Neel, in recognition of her significant contributions to economic justice. 


What brought you to this work?

EKN: I’ve been very interested in economic democracy for a very long time. I think the very first sparks happened when I was very very young; my parents would take my brother and me to the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, where I would walk past the booths and feel a kinship and a desire to support the people sitting behind their tables, showing the items that they put their hearts and souls into. That, combined with the fact that my parents were also involving us in civil rights efforts, wearing signs and t-shirts as they fought for the rights of various groups, and licking stamps and stuffing envelopes to support progressive candidates, local and national. It was ingrained in me that we needed to fight for equality for all and to always support the small, creative makers in society.

As an adult, I focused my work on this, focusing on Oakland, CA. I started a non-profit that offered an e-commerce site where you could buy from multiple locally-owned independent businesses and artists online. I wanted to combat the trend of online shopping that funneled more and more money into a few huge businesses. When I began looking for support for the non-profit, I encountered OneCalifornia Bank. It wasn’t long before I began working at the foundation, bringing my non-profit programs with me. At OneCalifornia (now Beneficial State Bank & Beneficial State Foundation), I began to learn that all of our financial decisions are critical for building a better, more equitable society—our power, our ability, and responsibility aren’t just in where we spend our money, but in where we save, and get our loans and credit cards. I realized the power of banking to impact society for worse and for better.  


How have women helped shape a more equitable world or society?

EKN: I think that many women, when they are given—or take up—their full, authentic space, and not forced to compete and act as our corporate culture has expected, they tend to lead with care, and with the goal of everyone being cared for and joyful. I always loved the sentiment from Emma Goldman, which is apparently not a direct quote, but is essentially, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”


What role do women have in the future of banking?

EKN: I believe that women can help to change banking and corporations to be more and more human. The goals of our institutions don’t need to be to compete, and to accumulate and hoard wealth and power, but instead to offer meaningful products and services that make everyone’s lives better, to spread wealth and power, and to create healthy, caring, and productive work cultures as well. It’s common for women to not see empathy and productivity as incompatible, but rather as complementary and compounding to a better result. 


What challenges do you face as a woman in the male-dominated banking industry?

EKN: I’m not sure… I’ve definitely had a few micro-aggressive moments where I’ve said something that was ignored but then when the same thing was stated by a male colleague, it was heard and considered or praised. I’ve been lucky that the people and places I’ve worked with and for have generally not seemed to be as sexist. I likely also feel less of a challenge because I haven’t had kids—I’ve never had to juggle maternity and parenthood with work. Overall, I appreciate that every day, I get to work with colleagues who are actively celebrating and championing the benefits of diversity–including gender diversity–not just at work but throughout society.