We are happy to share that our Founder & CEO, Wendy Cai-Lee, is named American Banker’s Most Powerful Women to Watch in 2023 for the second year in a row!
American Banker’s Most Powerful Women program recognizes the many women leaders with strong performance and a commitment to driving outcomes for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Piermont, a digital-first bank focuses on blending banking with innovation, was founded on those principles.
We congratulate Wendy on this honor, and together we celebrate the success of building Piermont to over half a billion-assets in just 4 years with an incredibly diverse team.
Most Powerful Women to Watch No. 25: Wendy Cai-Lee
Wendy Cai-Lee, founder and CEO of Piermont Bank, did not want to be a banker when she was growing up. But since 2019, when Cai-Lee founded the $557 million-asset bank headquartered in New York City, she’s come to appreciate that she’s pretty good at the job.
“Even though banking was not my first choice, I got pretty good at it,” Cai-Lee said. “Frankly, now it’s the one thing I know how to do well.”
Cai-Lee is considered a “half-generation” immigrant, since her parents moved from Shanghai, China, when she was an infant and has spent her entire life in the U.S.
Through college, Cai-Lee dreamed of a career in public service.
But she was led down a different path after being rejected by the U.S. Department of State and getting pressured by her parents to enter a traditionally well-paying profession such as law or finance.
“I never envisioned myself to be the CEO of a bank,” she said. “I wanted to be in the foreign service and serve the country and certainly made multiple attempts. But I was told by my father to take an offer somewhere on Wall Street.”
Her career in banking began at JPMorgan Chase in 1995, and has also included brief stints at Citigroup and the accounting firm Deloitte. She worked at East West Bank, which was originally founded to serve the Chinese American community in Southern California, and was the executive vice president of commercial and consumer banking for nearly six years.
When she founded Piermont, Cai-Lee became one of the few CEOs of a women-led bank and the first U.S. bank to be founded by a female from an underrepresented community.
“For someone like me to embark on this journey has been exceptionally challenging,” Cai-Lee said. “At the same time, I would not do it any differently.”
Over the last year in particular, Cai-Lee has led Piermont through challenging and sometimes volatile market conditions by tightening lending in some sectors such as the fintech space while pursuing strategic expansions in others like commercial real estate. “We are being cautious in terms of how the market continues to evolve,” she said.
Piermont, which was established as a digital-first bank focused on blending financial services with fintech innovation, has seen the overall fintech financing market shrink over the past year amid higher interest rates and a contracting pool of venture capital investors.
At the same time, Piermont has also seized the opportunity to selectively grow its fintech portfolio by onboarding some of the former clients of now-defunct tech lenders that collapsed earlier this year, including Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank and First Republic Bank.
“We serve that ecosystem,” she said.
At the same time, more opportunities have called for tighter lending standards.
“We’ve seen a contraction in the fintech market over the last 12 to 18 months, essentially for some business models that are just not sustainable,” Cai-Lee said. “They’re being weeded out.”
She added,”Fintechs take great pride in breaking things. They call it disruption. Well, banks don’t get to break things. What we’re asked to do is always about enhancement.”
In addition to fintechs, Piermont expanded its business model last November to work more closely with multifamily real estate owners. As a result the bank has had to help clients navigate the Federal Reserve’s steady pace of interest rate hikes.
Piermont bankers have specifically focused on helping CRE clients ensure that their property portfolios maintain diversified cash flows to meet the bank’s investment goals.
Cai-Lee has positioned the bank to respond to new post-pandemic working norms by instituting a hybrid in-office policy that allows employees to work from home multiple days per week.
Despite having developed a passion for banking, Cai-Lee said that she still feels a pull toward public service, but she doesn’t think she’d be well suited for a job at a regulatory agency.
“I don’t think I’d make a good regulator, meaning that I’ve seen all the tricks as well as the pitfalls,” Cai-Lee said. “I think I would be too rough on the banks.”
Still, she said, “when you fall in love, if this is the one thing I’ve wanted to do, then definitely, if somebody offered me an opportunity to be in public service, I would seriously think about it.”
Until then, Cai-Lee said, “I think I’m going to stick with banking and what I know I do well.”