Q&A with Wells Fargo’s Otis Rolley, president of the Wells Fargo Foundation



(The Financial Journey is a unique series focused on financial education and opportunities. These stories have been created through a strategic partnership between Wells Fargo and Word In Black.)

WIB: Can you describe your role at Wells Fargo?

Rolley: I oversee the Wells Fargo Foundation, one of the largest corporate foundations in the country, and lead the bank’s strategic philanthropic vision on advancing community impact around housing access and affordability, financial health, small business growth, and community climate resilience. I also oversee our employee volunteerism and giving for 250,000 employees, which is a huge part of how we show up in our communities. Last year, Wells Fargo employees volunteered over 700,000 hours and the bank donated roughly $300 million to strengthen local communities so ensuring our philanthropy has meaningful impact is a major priority for me. I am the first African American to hold this vital role.

WIB: What would you say is the best part of the work you get to do?

Rolley:  Coming from a long career in urban planning, public service and economic development, I’m really excited about the opportunity to impact systemic change from within the financial services sector. It’s an economic imperative for us to help address some of the policies and practices that have prevented historically marginalized people and communities from growing wealth through starting businesses or purchasing homes.

At the Wells Fargo Foundation, we’re not interested in just making grants. Within philanthropy, we’re often able to take bigger risks than the company can take on the business side. So we really want to work with community partners that are already in the trenches and doing innovative and transformational work.  Then we can come in and provide catalytic philanthropic capital to help those solutions take off, impacting more communities and lives.

WIB: What does diversity and Inclusion mean for you?

Rolley: I was born and raised in Jersey City, NJ, one of the most diverse places in the U.S. where I had the privilege of learning about different cultures and the cornucopia that is our collective humanity.

For me, inclusion does not mean that we should be neutral or blind when it comes to race, gender, sexuality, and other differences. People should be able to show up as they are. And inclusion means accepting and recognizing the uniqueness and different life experiences that every person brings. Equity and inclusion is not a lens through which I see our work. I wear glasses and know that you can take lenses off. Real diversity and inclusion has to be centered in the work we do. Also, I’m the head of a corporate foundation.  I recognize that our ability to give is dependent on my corporation’s ability to make a profit.  I firmly believe that we can do good and do well, and there is clearly an economic imperative to investing in and building up diverse market segments that have been historically ignored or underinvested in.

WIB: What is one piece of career advice you can give to our readers?

Rolley: Fail fast, learn fast, fix fast.  Mistakes are going to happen.  And you won’t have to seek them out—they’ll find you.  When you fail, find the lesson in your failure— quickly—and make sure you don’t repeat it the next time. Then make a decision and follow through without dwelling on the past.

WIB: Having a role in banking can seem daunting at times, what do you enjoy most outside of work?

Rolley: I’m an audiophile.  Music of all types —gospel, jazz, classical, rock, pop, hip hop, tribal, house, neo soul, etc.—they all are therapeutic.  I also love hiking and traveling.  Experiencing the outdoors and various places, cultures and people.  Finally, I’m all about the four F’s— Faith, Family, friends and food. These things ground me and keep me sane and healthy.  They allow me to charge the battery and live with purpose.

WIB: Describe your proudest moment to date.

Rolley: I have had many moments for which I have been really proud in my professional career, but my proudest moment at Wells Fargo thus far has been contributing $3 million to fill a capital gap for supportive housing in Brooklyn so that people experiencing homelessness can have a stable home.

WIB: What would you say is the most important lesson about finances?

Rolley: Being part of the mainstream banking system is absolutely key to advancing historically marginalized communities.  My biggest piece of advice would be to start saving early. It can be minimal at first—even a few dollars—but it will build a discipline and mindset over time. Placing a value on savings can set you up for bigger opportunities like college or owning a home, which then put you on a path to generational wealth. It’s also never too late to start – but I’d definitely tell my younger self to put money aside for my goals.

WIB: Can you describe a pivotal moment in your career?

Rolley:  A pivotal moment in my career was when I was working on a project early in my career and I failed.  I failed big time.  I was supposed to do a business process analysis and I used the wrong baseline data.  My boss had very high standards and I was so embarrassed and frustrated.  My boss took me to the side and told me that failure was part of what is necessary to go from good to great.  He said failing is okay, but staying down when you fall is not!  He taught me the tenet that I live by now, “Fail fast.  Learn fast. Fix fast.”  It was a pivotal moment that I know changed my professional trajectory.

WIB: What does having an “authentic voice” mean for you?

Rolley: Fully being who you are, all of the time, at work and at home.  I am a Christian.  I am a father. I am Black. I am gay.  All of these things contribute to who I am, and an “authentic voice” is one that allows all of these things, and all of my other traits, experiences, education and training to unapologetically be heard in my work.  

(Otis Rolley is the head of Philanthropy and Community Impact at Wells Fargo & Company and president of the Wells Fargo Foundation, one of the largest corporate foundations in the United States. At Wells Fargo, Otis guides the strategic vision behind the company’s social impact strategies with an emphasis on housing affordability, small business growth, financial health and a low-carbon future.)

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