The term “influencer” is used a lot these days. It’s a term that has completely evolved, thanks to social media marketing. Once reserved for those who possess a nuanced quality of affecting the actions of others, the term has now morphed into a full-on job title.
Modern-day connotations of the term aside, there still exist within our society authentic examples of what it means to be a genuine influencer. These individuals unwittingly possess the ability to influence others, not by persistence or solicitation, but by sheer earnestness and transparency. True influencers go beyond showing others what success looks like; they teach others how they can become successful themselves, thereby exemplifying the proverb, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Southern Bancorp CEO Darrin Williams is influential. He is a chief executive officer, attorney, legislator, mentor, advocate, husband, father — the list goes on. And while the list of his goals and achievements alone could qualify him for influencer status, it is his character that makes people want to follow his lead.
Williams credits his parents for his innate influential behavior. He says it was a desire to serve and make a difference instilled in him by his parents that led him to become an attorney, to run for public office and even to take the job at Southern Bancorp.
“I hit the parent lottery,” Williams said. “I was adopted by Warren and Catherine Williams [both deceased] who were in their 50s and 40s respectively, when they chose to adopt a 2-week old infant. My father was a Church of Christ minister and mom a high school English teacher during segregation. I grew up with two of the best examples of servant leadership possible. My parents were a gift, and I am grateful for their love and life examples. Watching them and attempting to model their lives of service led me to many of my career decisions.”
Williams’ career is a unique combination of business, law and politics. Currently serving as the CEO of Southern Bancorp Inc., Williams oversees the strategic direction and operations of each of Southern’s three Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI): Southern Bancorp, Inc., a bank holding company; Southern Bancorp Bank, one of America’s largest rural development banks; and Southern Bancorp Community Partners, a 501(c)(3) development finance and lending organization — collectively known as “Southern.”
Prior to leading Southern Bancorp, Williams was a partner at Carney, Williams, Bates & Pulliam PLLC, where his law practice consisted of representing consumers and investors in class actions and sometimes included suing banks. His transition from law to banking wasn’t planned.
“I often say, I went from suing banks to running a bank.”
Williams also served as the state’s deputy attorney general from 1999 to 2003 and in the state House of Representatives from 2009 to 2015. Southern Bancorp was an unexpected stop on Williams’ journey, but one that he felt compelled to make. He says it was Southern Bancorp’s mission to reach the unbanked and underbanked that attracted him.
“I don’t think I would have worked for any other bank,” he said.
Williams got to know Southern Bancorp as a legislator while working with Southern Bancorp Community Partners to pass legislation providing greater consumer protections for people who took out tax refund anticipation loans.
“I noticed all of the tax refund stores popping up in my legislative district at tax time, offering to help consumers get their tax refund quickly,” Williams said. “However, what these businesses failed to tell consumers was that they were taking out a loan, with ridiculously high interest rates and fees, in order to get their refund in two days or less, which they typically could receive for free in less than a week with an electronic filing.”
Williams said what he learned about consumers and tax refunds, coupled with his experience teaching a financial principles class with his wife at church, taught him just how little people knew about basic financial information.
“With just a little bit of education and assistance, I witnessed people make significant improvements in their financial lives. These experiences and my wife’s encouragement led me to accept the offer to be Southern Bancorp’s CEO after initially turning the job down. Like many good decisions that I have made, it was my wife who led me to it.”
Williams has been happily married to Nicole Sippial Williams, from Montgomery, Ala., for 26 years. The two met in Nashville while attending Vanderbilt University School of Law. They now live in Little Rock and have two children — Darrin Jr. (DJ), 23, and Payton, 21, both of whom seem to have inherited their parents’ strong drive and ambition.
“I am most proud that my wife and I, and our village, raised two God-fearing, intelligent and respectful young adults.”
Both of Williams’ children are recent college graduates. DJ, from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Payton from Spelman College in Atlanta. DJ works for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security and is a coach for a high school debate team in Florida. (He was a nationally ranked debater in high school and college.) He plans to eventually follow in his parents’ footsteps and attend law school.
Payton lives in Madrid, Spain, where she teaches English and culture to elementary students and travels throughout Europe. She plans to begin dental school in the fall.
Williams’ passion for using his knowledge to help others spills over into his hobbies, as well. He is an avid reader and usually has one or more books that he is reading at any given time, mostly nonfiction and related to topics of interest. He recently finished rereading How the Other Half Banks by Mehrsa Baradaran, which he said gets at the heart of the challenges that Southern and other CDFIs are addressing in trying to provide equal access to credit and financial services for low-wealth people.
“This book explores our government’s role in the banking system, which really is two systems — one that works well for the wealthy and one for everyone else.”
Williams says Southern Bancorp is working to change that system.
“I am most proud of the culture of impact that we have developed at Southern Bancorp,” he said. “When I arrived at Southern in 2013, it was already doing good work and helping many people. However, little separated us from other good community banks. We spent a significant amount of time reviewing our mission, vision and core values to be more aligned with our founding purpose and even more consistent with the reasons CDFIs exist — to serve underserved people and places, those for whom the traditional banking industry does not adequately serve. I believe it is our consistent focus on culture that has fueled our recent successes.”
He also believes the adage, “Culture trumps strategy; if you have the right culture, your team will develop a winning strategy,” and every day, he is focused on Southern’s culture. In fact, he has a name tag with the title of “Chief Culture Officer” as opposed to Chief Executive Officer. That focus on culture, he explained, has allowed his team to not only have a deep impact in reaching unbanked and underbanked people, but has also allowed them to exceed previous company net income highs for the past three years in a row.
“We believe our mission is our competitive advantage. People of all financial walks of life want to bank with us because we provide a valuable service, but more specifically, because we are focused on doing good as well. We believe that wealth building isn’t just for the wealthy; we are wealth builders for everyone.
“As long as I know that so many people lack access to responsible and responsive banking services, for a variety of reasons — including where they live, what they look like and how much money they have — I will have work to do. A person’s ZIP code, race or current economic status should not be determinative of their ability to access the American dream.”
Williams believes that for far too many people, the American Dream has become a nightmare.
“In America today, we continue to see consistent and persistent wealth and income inequality that is in part fueled by a lack of access to responsible and responsive capital and credit,” he explained. “There is still a great deal of work to do to help make the American dream accessible to all.”
Nevertheless, Williams says the future of the CDFI industry has never been brighter.
“When people ask me what keeps me up at night as CEO, I now say, ‘opportunity frustration.’ Never before has the CDFI industry and Southern Bancorp had as many organizations interested in partnering with us on our journey toward building a more financially inclusive America.”
Southern has long enjoyed the support of philanthropic organizations such as its founding investors, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, as well as national nonprofits like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation, but recently it has attracted new investors.
Williams said Southern is looking forward to opportunities to partner with Square Inc. (now Block) to further develop its digital banking. Block is a global leader in payments from which Southern can learn a great deal, he said.
“We are a technology-forward community bank and are exploring digital banking solutions to solve problems of low-wealth people and those without access to traditional banking services.”
Williams also mentioned investments from banking giants such as Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase; regional banks such as Simmons, BancorpSouth and Regions; and community banks such as Encore and Relyance. He said Southern has even attracted international impact investors.
“I am proud of the work we have done at Southern Bancorp to positively impact underserved people and places, but I think we are just getting our sea legs. The sky’s the limit for us. From 2013, when I got to Southern, to now, we have been laying the foundation for deeper and broader impact. I often say we have been the best-kept 30-plus-year-old secret.”
A secret that is kept no longer.
Today, people know the power and impact that CDFIs can and do have, so they have more opportunities than ever before. America’s largest corporations are now partnering with CDFIs, providing unprecedented capital and partnership opportunities. So don’t expect Southern Bancorp’s impact to soften any time soon.
As for what that means in terms of influence, Williams said, “Being an influencer means I have to be accountable for the ways in which I knowingly and unknowingly impact others. Having the ability to influence someone or a situation in and of itself is neither good nor bad, but how I choose to use my influence is what matters.
“I strive to have a positive influence. Daily, I watched my parents, Warren and Catherine Williams, use their lives to make positive differences for people, without any expectations for a returned favor. Their life examples influence me to be a positive influencer. I hope that I make them proud.”