By Susan Hitchcock
Founder & Host Emerita of Women in Leadership
A podcast featuring Nikki Lanier on the topic of “racial reckoning” makes it crystal clear: there’s something special about this particular leader. It’s her words, her persona, her passion, and her intellect. It’s also easy to understand why she’s been recognized among Louisville’s Power 50, Most Influential Women, and Notable Financial Executives while also receiving a Distinguished Business and Leadership Award. Ms. Lanier (Nikki) is currently the SVP and Regional Executive of the Louisville Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. She also serves as the Chair of the Board of Directors for OneWest, Inc. and is on the board of the Presbyterian Seminary.
Nikki has earned her wisdom and credibility as a thought leader from a multifaceted life and career of leadership, service and advocacy. Multifaceted is an apt description of Nikki’s background and professional journey. Included along the way are journalism and storytelling, employment law and human resources, as well as community and corporate racial equity advocacy. Perhaps what’s most compelling is how she weaves it all together in an almost seamless whole – along with a personal life of family, friends, and impactful engagements.
Early life influences
Nikki grew up as the only child of two parents rooted in the importance of education and the critical importance of advocacy – particularly for the downtrodden, minorities, and especially black people. Clearly her parents played a significant role in shaping Nikki’s world view, her resilience, and commitment to the greater good, characteristics that still define her today.
As highly respected academicians, her parents held positions at various colleges and universities, primarily HBCUs. Nikki was born in Jefferson City, Missouri, but her family moved to Illinois for a few years, and later relocated to Hampton, VA which became “home.” With her parents teaching at Hampton University, Nikki was literally raised on campus. Her mother also served as Chair of the English Department.
Imagine what it was like to grow up in a home where icons of the literary world and beyond, luminaries like Maya Angelou, were typical dinner guests! Nikki developed an interest in storytelling pretty early as she experienced first-hand the power of the word to convey and evoke deep emotions, to inspire and to connect with others. Her love of storytelling became a major factor in Nikki’s choice of journalism for her undergraduate major.
After receiving her BA degree in Mass Communications / Media Studies, Nikki wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. Encouraged by her father, she took the GRE and the LSAT. Her LSAT scores were higher, so soon she was off to the University of Miami School of Law. Her thinking was that she’d merge media and the law as a career choice, but something of an epiphany took place during law school. Living in Miami, Nikki began to see and hear a lot about political asylum and the difference in treatment for Haitian immigrants and Cuban immigrants. Her epiphany: “I saw a neutral policy applied in a racially discriminatory way and realized how this changes lives for generations.”
From this life-altering awareness, Nikki’s future path emerged. She focused on labor and employment law in order to direct her attention to the workplace. She believed – and still believes – that “decisions made at work impact people emotionally, physically, economically, and spiritually.” That includes decisions made about any “ism,” i.e., race, sex, age, etc.
Career progression – challenges and rewards
When Nikki graduated law school, she was already a wife and mother. She began her career as a junior associate at a Boca Raton employment law firm and in the next few years, experienced some challenges both professionally and personally. First, she and her family moved a lot, from the west coast to the east coast. As a result she said her bio reflects a rather “choppy” first 10 years. Struggling as she tried to do it all, Nikki said her biggest regret was missing so many of her son’s childhood events and the guilt that goes along with it (her son’s an adult now and all is well). Of course, many professional women share Nikki’s feelings. It wasn’t / isn’t easy to achieve that illusive state of work-life balance. “For me,” she went on to explain, “the biggest struggle came from my own expectations of how motherhood should manifest itself.”
“There was also a second major challenge during the first 10 years of my career. It was battling messages and constant questioning about my credibility as a black woman, a black professional. It was frustrating.”
Moving past her early career experiences, Nikki turned with obvious excitement to the serendipitous opportunity that brought her to her current employer. She wasn’t looking for a corporate role in Louisville, but, through a connection with the mayor, she found out about a particular leadership opportunity due to a retirement. The role really resonated with her. Nikki liked the idea of being able to “demystify and reset the narrative” around the FRB in the community and throughout the region. Suffice it to say, she got the job.
Seven years later, Nikki knows it was the right decision. When asked about her most rewarding career experiences so far, she replied, “The job I have now! My employer allows me to be excellent, visible, accessible, transformational and innovative! My employer lets me be me – with a presumption of my intelligence and without being muted. Of course a certain level of decorum is understood.” (Wow, isn’t this the dream of every leader?)
Compelling insights and lessons learned about racism and inequity
“There is a potency and power in this moment of reckoning. People are finally getting it – the plight and pleas of black people. It’s cathartic, and has made a lot of white people uncomfortable. Regarding actions plans and best practices, lots of things are taking place in corporate and civic settings. Hopefully this will lead to a new world order where black and white are on an equal playing field.”
“There’s also a larger appetite and amplified energy around remedy. Racism has dramatically impacted business outcomes from reduced workforce readiness, to health, wealth gaps, etc. The impact on the economy is clear because black people have not been able to live the full post-slavery promise. But, we need not look for an easy fix.”
“When it comes to the workplace, I think most organizations tend to focus on ‘what we’re doing’ rather than ‘what we’re being.’ Going forward, it should be about how we challenge and reset the belief systems, e.g., what we’re being taught about black people, black people included. We’ve been taught that there’s a deficit somehow associated with existing in black skin.”
“Behaviors come from our belief systems; these belief systems show up at work and we need to change them. We don’t want people to be non-racist at work and go home and use the ‘N’ word. The remedy is simple but not easy. Typically the workplace hasn’t been the place where people come to change their belief systems. Some people don’t want to have that conversation at work. However, the workplace can be the place to have an impact and help people dig out of our racial inequality and achieve economic wellbeing for everyone – not just social justice. ”
“We must ask ‘what are the social norms that lead to success versus ones that don’t? Which ones determine who matters and who doesn’t?”
“Regarding DEI strategies and actions, I’d love to see organizations decouple D from E. There are different modalities for different people, e.g., in recruiting blacks versus Hispanics, etc. The best companies are de-segmenting or compartmentalizing their thinking in strategic ways.”
Best advice for the next generation
“Be passionate about equity and remedying racism. Secondly, be passionate about how work works for people, the psychology of work. Lastly, be bold around balance and what you need.”
“The next generation requires a reset because they have their own requirements of their employer. Employers have to adapt.”
A closing note
Among many ways Nikki gives back and inspires others is to hold frequent gatherings in her home. One of those is called “Pizza and Pouring.” Seasoned women gather with younger career women and men, students etc. and “pour” into them. Just another reason she’s earned SHEro status.
June 2021 – Interview and profile by:
Creator of the “Age of SHEroes”