Unity National Bank and Harris County are officially in the history-making business.
Recently, Harris County announced a $5 million investment in Unity, the only Black-owned and controlled bank in Texas, to provide services managing county funds and to expand its offerings to its traditional customers. This is the first time any Texas county has partnered with a minority-owned bank for services.
On hand for the announcement were several members of Harris County leadership, including Treasurer Dylan Osborne, Commissioners Adrian Garcia and Rodney Ellis and County Attorney Christian Menefee, who joined Michael Pearson, Unity National Bank President and CEO to announce the new partnership including Unity’s investment account.
“Any time that we are able to come together to create economic opportunities for our communities, especially our communities of color, it is a good day,” said Garcia. “This relationship that we are announcing today is a historical one.”
Garcia said that by bringing financial institutions of color into the equation to help manage Harris County-level finances, more personal wealth will be produced at the community level, particularly communities of color.
He added, “None of this would be possible without Commissioner Rodney Ellis. I call him the cheerleader of equity.”
“Unity Bank is such an historic institution in the African American community, the minority community, for people who could not go anywhere else to get a loan,” said Ellis. “This bank has been around since 1963. When people who look like me, spoke Spanish, or if they happened to be female and didn’t have their husband to sign it, they couldn’t go anywhere else to borrow money.
“Most of the Black churches in our city, the older churches, had to get their loan from this bank,” Ellis said. “Most of our Black businesses, when they could go nowhere else, they went to this bank. So, it’s appropriate for us to do as much as we can to help this bank stay in business.”
Ellis noted that there are only 17 Black-owned banks in the nation, only two Hispanic-owned banks in Texas and one recently incorporated female-owned bank in Harris County.
“We want to open these doors of opportunity as much as we can. This is a really big deal. We hope this is a signal to our friends in Ft. Bend County, Missouri City, other counties throughout the state of Texas to do what they can to help,” Ellis added.
Both Ellis and Garcia gave a lion’s share of the praise for this partnership to Osborne, calling him the architect and decision-maker who moved the idea to action.
“We’ve taken just a small bit of initiative and invited someone to the table who normally did not get that invite,” said Osborne. “So, what we’ve done today is a two-part process to make sure that Unity is positioned to be a partner for [Harris County] going forward.
“They are going to accept a [$5 million] investment from us through a seeders program which will allow them to service as an investment partner, but they’re also going to get a small slice of our depository contract and be able to perform services for us in conjunction with our normal depository bank, Candence Bank.”
Osborne said he was simply following the lead of his county commissioners and County Judge Lina Hidalgo as they made equity a priority for the county.
“One thing I was taught in grad school was, ‘Don’t tell me your priorities, show me your budget.’ What that means is, you have to put your words into action. Just saying that we care about equity doesn’t to it. This [partnership] is us putting our money where our mouth is and letting not only our vendors and our partners know that we value MWBE participation, and that it is a different day at the county,” he added.
Though Osborne said this partnership didn’t create a new product, their action of inviting a Black-owned financial institution “to the table” is “game-changing,” and he challenged others to do the same.
“All it took was a phone call. Any other city or county out there watching, it was as simple as that — making it a point to invite somebody in that normally doesn’t get that invite.”
Pearson, while reflecting on his institution’s history, reiterated what Garcia, Ellis and Osborne said.
“Harris County is one of 254 Texas counties, and is the first to establish a formal agreement with a minority-owned and controlled financial institution in this state. For that, we applaud [the county’s] leadership,” said Pearson. “The partnership between Unity National Bank and Harris County will continue to extend this bank’s primary role and community-based mission.
“Unity Bank has been part of and served this community for well over five decades. This institution will continue to focus on supporting economic development across this service area by providing financial products and services, including financial education and literacy to meet the needs of the communities we are honored and trusted to serve,” Pearson said.
“Unity has a commitment to be of service to all members of these communities, particularly those who have been historically and even now underserved, unbanked and those who have faced barriers to accessing capital. As we work and partner together, we are Unity strong,” Pearson said.