Diversity & Inclusion at Flagstar Bank


How an initiative has evolved into a corporate culture shift

By Leora Ruzin

We have all heard of what it is like to work at places like Facebook, Google, and Yahoo. You walk into their corporate offices, and it is almost like walking into an amusement park; the décor is bright and colorful, playground slides replace stairs, and lounge chairs are dangling from the ceiling. (Kidding…kind of). Employees are encouraged to embrace what makes them unique and special, to include where they came from, what they believe in, and what they truly identify with on a personal level. You might think these changes are nice for some but certainly not a high priority for most.

In the past, many executives have looked at Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) in a similar way—a progressive, unnecessary addition to the workplace. Executives could say “that’s nice for them” and move on. However, D&I has evolved into so much more than “nice.” According to a study conducted by the Center for American Progress based off the results of the 2010 U.S. Census, by the year 2050, “there will no longer be any clear racial and ethnic majority, as the most rapidly growing number of residents in our nation today are of Hispanic and Asian descent.”1 Companies across the country are becoming aware that in this day and age of social media, it is incredibly difficult to fly under the radar when it comes to D&I, but have found that it may be even more difficult to develop a D&I initiative that will be fully embraced by their employees.

If a company wants to create a D&I initiative, where do they begin? How do they determine what steps need to be taken to ensure they build an initiative that meets the needs of all their employees and their surrounding community?

Flagstar Bank

Flagstar Bancorp, Inc. (NYSE: FBC) is a $16.0 billion savings and loan holding company headquartered in Troy, Michigan. The bank provides commercial, small business, and consumer banking services through 99 branches in the state. It also provides home loans through a wholesale network of brokers and correspondents in all 50 states, as well as 93 retail locations in 26 states (data is accurate as of August 2017). As the bank continues to expand its presence, it is focusing on ensuring its nearly 3,000 employees are experiencing a workplace that is more welcoming of diversity.

In 2016, Flagstar CEO Alessandro DiNello approached Zahira (Zah) Gonzalvo, who is the bank’s ERM/Operational Risk Director, and asked her if she wanted to spearhead a new D&I initiative. She accepted, and last year, poured countless hours into reading books and developing strategies for deployment and engagement. The initiative was officially launched in August 2016 and has continued to evolve since then. Surrounded by a core team and Executive Steering Committee, the D&I strategy is composed of five diversity pillars. The foundation of this initiative is the Flagstar D&I vision, with a focus “to build and leverage a diverse, inclusive, and engaged workforce that inspires all individuals to work together towards a common goal of superior results by embracing the unique needs and objectives of our customers and community.”

As a new employee with Flagstar, I was able to quickly visualize the results of this vision while walking through the corporate headquarters, and knew that I wanted to know more about the person who was behind this revolutionary initiative. I sat down with Zahira Gonzalvo recently and learned more about what drives her as a person, and how Flagstar’s D&I initiative has helped thousands in the community.

MWM: As a Hispanic woman who has worked in predominately male-driven industries (automotive and finance), what does diversity and inclusion (D & I) mean to you?

ZG: As a Hispanic woman, diversity means having the opportunity to work with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives, knowing that I will be considered and treated with the same respect as any of my peers. Inclusion, to me, means having a seat at the table, and being able to have a voice and a vote when it comes to new ideas, decisions, and projects. It means that what makes me unique is being fostered and leveraged for the good of the company. It is knowing that my ideas count, and that I’m making a difference. Sometimes that is difficult when you are a minority in some industries, but you have to bridge that gap, reach out, and educate others.

MWM: Flagstar Bank created and rolled out its D&I program in 2016. When CEO Alessandro DiNello approached you to lead the initiative, what were your initial expectations, and how have those expectations changed?

ZG: I knew that our CEO wanted me to develop an overall D&I Strategy that would stick, not just a short-term program. It was evident right away that to accomplish his vision, we needed to engrain the diversity and inclusion concepts in the DNA of the company, making it part of the day-to-day process. Tto do that, I needed help from others in the company. This is not something that you do alone. We are talking about diversity, beyond age, race, and sex. We needed to consider diversity of thoughts and ideas, different perspectives. Working with Human Resources and our leadership team, we engaged as many people as manageable in cross-functional teams to get their ideas and views on diversity and inclusion. The initial expectation hasn’t changed, but we assess and adjust our priorities and approach periodically to keep us on track. MWM: Headquartered in Troy, MI, Flagstar is located in a part of the country that was hit particularly hard after the housing collapse of 2008. Detroit is finally showing signs of recovery, but cities such as Pontiac (which has a heavy Hispanic population) are still dealing with slow growth. This is mainly in part to a lack of companies bringing their business back to the area. What is Flagstar doing to help revitalize this historic city?

ZG: One of the pillars of our Diversity and Inclusion strategy is Community Connectivity. It is to ensure we provide outreach programs to the communities we serve. We do that through our Community Reinvestment Act commitment, our Flagstar Foundation, and our commitment to ensure that the communities in our backyard are revitalized and stable.  For example, Flagstar has developed different programs to revitalize the city of Pontiac, near its corporate headquarters. .

MWM: Flagstar currently has over 3,000 employees, and they come from a wide variety of backgrounds. In what ways is the bank addressing the needs of their diverse employee base? Have you found it to be more difficult to ensure the backgrounds of so many employees are being represented?

ZG: As part of the D&I Strategy, Flagstar coordinates and encourages cultural and other awareness events aimed to engage and educate their workforce. In addition, Flagstar is implementing Employee Resource Groups or ERGs to ensure that employees from different backgrounds are represented, engaged, and included. A veterans ERG is already in place, and we will have a total of five ERGs kicked off by the end of 2017. The difficulty is to ensure that employees feel included regardless of their location, background, affinity with a specific ERG, etc. All Employee Resource Groups are meant to be inclusive, as anyone can participate. We expect that more employee groups will form organically as the benefits of ERGs are realized.

MWM: For other companies looking to create a D&I initiative, what advice would you give on how to get started?

ZG: The most important first step is to obtain commitment from the top. Do the leaders understand what diversity and inclusion means and its benefits? Do they understand the business case for diversity and inclusion? Engage your leaders in developing a vision and an end game for a D&I initiative. If they are committed, they will become the best advocates for diversity and inclusion in the organization. After that is accomplished, the next step is to develop a strategy that meets the D&I vision.  Benchmark your company’s diversity practices against industry best practices and other companies, and incorporate those best practices into your strategy.  Last, don’t do it alone. Diversity and inclusion is about engaging others to have innovative ideas, so start with an engaged team to help define what your D&I initiative will be about.

Investing in the Community

As Zah mentioned, one of the pillars of the D&I initiative is Community Connectivity. Under this pillar, the bank has partnered with the City of Pontiac to revitalize the community. Zah expanded on those efforts.

“Pontiac is in Flagstar’s backyard—10 minutes from our headquarters. Although we’re very much committed to supporting the revitalization of Detroit, we felt we could make a bigger impact in a smaller market like Pontiac. We have a branch and business relationships there, and saw momentum starting to take hold. We wanted to catch that momentum and not just help keep it going, but help take it to a new level.

“The first thing we did was to acquire the naming rights to the historic Strand Theatre in downtown Pontiac. It’s an architectural gem that had opened in 1921 and was long empty. A core of stakeholders was spearheading the restoration of the theater and was looking for a naming rights sponsor. We saw it as an opportunity to get involved in the good things happening in the community. The Strand has now been renovated and reopened as the Flagstar Strand Theatre for the Performing Arts.

“Then last year, we announced an investment of $10 million over five years to promote homeownership, small business development, and financial capability in Pontiac. We recently disbursed the first installment of our $2.5 million small business commitment and approved our first borrower. We followed that up with our Community Comeback mortgage, which is specially designed for Pontiac residents and veterans and has a built-in feature to address the appraisal gap.

“Of course, Flagstar is just one of part of the story. Other companies, together with entrepreneurs, are setting up shop, steadily building a critical mass. The timing is right and the right players are involved. It’s time to get it done.”

Flagstar Bank has made great strides over the last several years in creating a D&I initiative that is not only successful, but is also dynamic. As the needs of the bank, their employees, and their community change, Zah and her team have just what it takes to meet those needs head-on. They know that their work is never done, and they will continue to engage in activities that bring diversity and inclusion to the forefront. Their passion for this initiative is infectious, and it is apparent as I walk through the long corridors of the corporate offices that the employees are 100% on-board.

Including one of the newest employees…me.

Leora A Ruzin is VP, Director of Mortgage Product Development, Capital Markets at Flagstar Bank.
She can be reached at ruzin@cumortgage.net

1 Cárdenas, Ajinkya & Leger (2011), Progress 2050: New Ideas for a Diverse America, Center for American Progress,  


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