Banks, Paula A.

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Paula A. Banks


Foundation executive

Paula A. Banks is a top-ranking foundation executive whose résumé include stints with the BP Amoco Foundation Inc. and PepsiCo. Banks's line of work involves overseeing corporate philanthropy for these companies, and the jobs have taken her to many places around the world. Establishing new educational opportunities or health initiatives are just a few of the types of programs funded by corporate foundations. "In those places where we do business, we are going to try to ensure that the people in those places are better than if we weren't there," Banks explained to Kimberly D. Davis in Ebony when Banks worked for BP Amoco.

Banks was born on February 4, 1950, in Chicago, Illinois, and grew up in the Chatham neighborhood of the city's South Side. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology from Loyola University in 1971, attended the University of Illinois, and then taught math for a year at a school in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago. In 1972 she was hired by Sears, Roebuck and Co., whose headquarters were in the Chicago area. At the time, Sears was the largest retailer in the United States and had established a management training program that appealed to Banks. She began as a merchandising manager and was one of a handful of women in management positions at Sears and one of even fewer African Americans in supervisory roles.

Banks stayed with Sears for the next twenty-four years, holding various positions in human resources before becoming director of community affairs and corporate contributions in 1988. A year later she was named president of the Sears-Roebuck Foundation, the separate entity that conducted charitable-giving efforts on behalf of the company. She became president of the Amoco Foundation, another Chicago-based powerhouse, in November of 1996. When Amoco merged with British Petroleum in 1998 to become BP Amoco, Banks was appointed president of the newly created BP Amoco Foundation Inc., known formally as BP's Global Social Investment unit. She moved to London for the job and became the first African American to serve as head of the foundation. In an interview with Crain's Chicago Business, she conceded that there were few African-American women operating at her level of corporate philanthropy. "Because so much of the need is around people of color and women, I have to ensure that the people I'm working with see me as a professional in the field, not as someone who is on a campaign," she noted.

The BP Amoco Foundation had a budget of $50 million and doled out grants to an array of scientific, educational, and medical organizations. It ran math and science training programs in schools, for example, but was also underwriting some of the costs for the excavation of the tomb of Ramses II in Egypt. Environmental and social-justice activists, however, were sharply critical of some of the company's profit-motivated decisions. In 2002 Banks delivered a speech at a social-responsibility conference sponsored by Britain's Commonwealth Institute and "wowed her audience," wrote Terry Macalister in Manchester, U.K.'s Guardian newspaper. "It was a punchy performance on the growing importance of corporate social responsibility. She left the hall to loud applause with words like ‘inspirational’ ringing in her ears."

In 2003 Banks was lured by PepsiCo to take over as senior vice president for global diversity and organization partnerships. Her role was to promote diversity efforts in all facets of the beverage company and its workforce. She also served on the boards of several institutions, including Fisk University in Tennessee, the National Urban League, and the National Council of Negro Women, and presided over the Executive Leadership Council, a group of two hundred African-American executives. "We have built a strong resource network among our members to facilitate the exchange of ideas, we support programs that will ensure a pipeline of African Americans to follow us at the top of leading organizations," she explained to Harvard Business School African-American Alumni Association about the council's mission, "and we are becoming a strong voice on national and international economic and public policy issues, particularly in the area of inclusion and workforce diversity."

Banks gave credit to her parents for being her most influential role models. "My family was my inspiration and strongest mentors," she told Harvard Business School. "We were taught to be the best we could be while supporting others." Though much had changed since she began her career at Sears back in the early 1970s, she recognized the need for companies such as PepsiCo to maintain programs and internal initiatives to work to meet the goal of having the company reflect the community it serves. "I can't get terribly excited for myself when I look around and see that there's still so much further to go," she told Davis in the Ebony interview. "If you ever believe that you don't have to work harder, hang in there tougher, that the playing field is rougher, then you're kidding yourself, because none of that is true."

At a Glance …

Born on February 4, 1950, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Ralph D. Robinson and Vivian L. (Tillman) Webb; married Gary L. Banks, April 22, 1978. Education: Loyola University, BS, psychology, 1971; University of Illinois, postgraduate work, 1976-77; Harvard University, International Advance Management Program, 1982.

Career: Taught school in Chicago, IL, early 1970s; Sears, Roebuck and Co., began as merchandising manager, became director of equal opportunity, mid-western territory, 1977-78, staff assistant for employment and labor relations, 1978-80, personnel manager, catalog distribution center, 1980-82, manager, human resources midwestern territory, 1982, manager, human resources distribution, 1986-88, director of community affairs and corporate contributions, 1988; Sears-Roebuck Foundation, vice president, 1988-89, president, 1989; BP Amoco Foundation Inc., president, 1996-2003; PepsiCo Inc., senior vice president, global diversity and organization partnerships, 2003—.

Memberships: Fisk University, board member; National Urban League, board member; National Council of Negro Women, board member; Executive Leadership Council, president.

Addresses: Office—PepsiCo Inc., 700 Anderson Hill Rd., Purchase, NY 10577-1401.



Crain's Chicago Business, December 9, 1996, p. 10.

Ebony, February 2000, p. 138.

Guardian (Manchester, U.K.), April 27, 2002, p. 22.


"African American Student Union Conference 2000—Paula Banks Profile," Harvard Business School, February 29, 2000, (accessed March 14, 2008).

—Carol Brennan

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