Long before Senator Elizabeth Warren made it a word blazoned across t-shirts, Karen Sessions persisted.
At the start of her career, the path to her current position as head of Bank of America Business Capital (BABC) and Asset-Based Lending was not clear-cut. But once she realized finance was her future, she overcame many obstacles by sheer doggedness.
“It took a lot of persistence to even get my foot in the door,” says Sessions, who majored in geology at Cornell University but quickly realized that she didn’t want to be an environmental consultant. She returned to school and studied finance at the University of Indiana.
After graduation, someone told Sessions that Fleet Bank had an opening, and the newly minted MBA was eager to pursue it. “I called, and no one called me back. I called again, and no one called me back. I tried at 5 o’clock. I tried at 7 a.m.,” Sessions recalls. “I don’t remember how many times I called, but any softer soul might have given up. But I was like, ‘what’s the downside? I don’t get the job?’ So I might as well try.
“Eventually it’s 7:30 in the morning. I called, and somebody picked up. I got to talk to someone, and they said it was just a coincidence, but they were having interviews that day and invited me to come in and meet them. And I met this woman who squeezed me into their interview schedule.”
The interview led to her first position in the finance world, and Sessions attributes it to a combination of luck and determination. She acknowledges there is a fine line between being persistent and being annoying, but adds, “You get nothing if you wait for it.”
She looks back fondly on her time at Fleet as she does for every position that led to her current post.
Setting a Foundation for Hard Work
Sessions spent five years at Fleet, working up from associate to vice president of Securities in its Capital Markets Group. ”It was an incredibly engaged group of people who were working hard to build a business. And it was a really fun time to be part of that group. And that’s where I learned about capital markets, and I really learned how to set the foundation for hard work in an office setting,” she says.
Sessions became part of the bank syndications group at Fleet, where she ultimately built her career.
That good time came to an end when Session’s husband, a university professor, was offered a faculty position in California. Like many women before and since, she chose to leave her job and follow him west.
It was not a decision she came to regret.
“When I was at Fleet, I had various jobs in bank loan syndications. I had a great network of bankers and banks across the country. And through that network I was able to find a position at Union Bank, which hired me to help start its bank loan for education business. I sort of switched sides,” she says. “Instead of selling bank loans, I was buying them.”
At Union, Sessions helped the bank modify some of its risk policies, set up an internal book and build an asset-based division that is successful to this day because of seeds she planted.
After a year and a half, she left Union for Wells Fargo’s retail division, another asset-based opportunity. A brief move to Wachovia offered a different type of experience.
“It was a fantastic platform,” says Sessions of Wachovia. “They were a very progressive organization. They were very virtual, not caring about location, and that was incredibly empowering. That was a really good stop for me. I worked on a lot of their bank bond deals because of the capital markets expertise I had. I was underwriting those loans and working as an underwriter. It was also the first opportunity I had to work in personnel management.”
Then the mortgage crisis hit Wachovia, and the bank went into a tailspin. Everything shifted. Wells acquired Wachovia, and Sessions was back at her old shop.
“We got rolled into the Wells Fargo Capital Finance, which was part of the ABL deal shop, and I became an underwriter on the underwriting team at Wells Fargo Capital Finance out of the Santa Monica office.”
Sessions spent a total of nine years at Wells in different roles before moving to Bank of America almost five years ago — nearly a full circle since Bank of America absorbed Fleet just after Sessions moved to California. “It’s been an incredible experience,” she says of her current gig.
Quality of Life Choices
In our current cultural environment, it seems as if men and women are at opposite ends of the barricades, but Sessions is open about the quality of life choices she has made in her career — choices men usually don’t have to make — and she credits the men who worked with her for supporting her and appreciating what she brings to the table.
For her first stint at Wells Fargo, she was hired by Tim Tobins when she was four months pregnant. “Who does that?” she asks, still amazed. “And that was 15 years ago. The truth is, it wasn’t about gender. It was about the ability to get the job done and to be reliable and be responsible and do good work.”
Her choice to move to Wachovia was also partly a quality of life decision.
“I didn’t know how great it was going to really be when I made the choice,” she admits. “I got to work with these great people. Barry Bobrow (currently managing director, head of loan sales and syndication at Wells Fargo Capital Finance) was a mentor, and I have so much respect for him. But I was also able to work in Pasadena and live in Pasadena. I had kids who were fairly young at that time, so if I needed to go to school for an hour I could and then come back. There were things that were more important that I wanted to have, and I had to make some career choices. I guess that’s why I have such fondness for my time at Wachovia. They wanted to make all that work.”
These decisions have made her determined to create an employee culture at Bank of America that reflects the lifestyles of the people who work there.
“People are working really hard in this organization every day, not only working long hours but being responsible. We’re trying to help them have a great career at Bank of America. We want to have conversations about what people’s objectives are. Whether it’s, like I did, prioritizing quality of life right now. Because I have those priorities doesn’t mean I’m not a good employee and that I’m not going to be a great long-term employee. We just need to find ways to help people have career fulfillment here at the bank,” she says.
Sessions is also proud of Bank of America’s diversity and inclusion program.
“I am so proud to work for Bank of America. The last four and a half years have been incredible from the support I’ve received from leadership. I think that Bank of America really is a place where all people can bring their whole selves to work. Certainly it is that way on my team, but I do feel that our bank committed to allowing a diverse and inclusive environment to thrive.”
She credits her predecessor at Bank of America, Jeff McLane, with supporting her in the new position.
“Nobody works harder than Jeff McLane,” she says. “He is incredibly smart and well connected but humble and really has been an inspiration for me and has been my advocate. He was the one who hired me back to the bank. He hired me and has now really introduced me to people, giving me opportunities for exposure.”
As she takes on a larger role at the bank, Sessions says her main goal is “to deliver for our clients. That’s a broader bank goal but it’s so fundamental. Just deliver for your clients. At Bank of America and BABC, that’s what we believe. Our retail finance group, together with our asset-based lending businesses, is going to maintain market leadership and will produce strong results so we can focus on our clients.
“The second goal,” she adds, “is to manage risk as we’re getting long into the credit cycle. We’re very focused on being responsible with our credit.”
These are turbulent times, but even over the phone, Sessions exudes optimism and an upbeat attitude.
“I am so lucky to have entered this position at a time when everything’s good,” she says. “It’s a working, thriving business. All of those businesses who report to me are thriving. It’s intense but really rewarding. I just love learning new things, and I’m figuring out how I can help.”