In the US, February is Black History Month - an opportunity to acknowledge and celebrate the historical contributions of African Americans in our country. Black History Month’s roots date back to the early 1900s but the dedication of a month to celebrate Black history and honor the accomplishments of Black Americans was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976. At WEX, we talked with a few of our Black leaders to learn what the month means to them, what mentors they’ve had in their lives, and how they’d guide young Black professionals just exiting college and entering the workforce.
Coming to the fintech space via different paths
Courtney Pruitt, Director of Payment Operations for Supplier Enablement and Chair of the Black Growth Council at WEX, leads a team of representatives responsible for onboarding customers that use virtual credit cards. Courtney leads the Payment Processing team accountable for successful payment throughput from receipt of payment direction/data through reconciliation, including delivery partnerships. A key part of this organization is the cross-team coordination and leadership on the collective Payment Delivery Portfolio team, which also includes key partnerships with WEX’s technical, product, finance, compliance and supplier enablement teams. Courtney earned a BA in Political Science and two Masters in Public Administration from Grambling State University. From the beginning of her career, Courtney has been focused on the people with whom she works and has made significant contributions to both operations and customer service at WEX.
Gene Bell, Senior Director of Client Services at WEX directs high-level customer management professionals across all of WEX’s lines of business. Gene has a BS in Industrial Technology and served as a noncommissioned officer (NCO) in the US Air Force for over twenty years. During that period, Gene mentored a young officer named Tre Cage, which unexpectedly led to a fortuitous career opportunity for Gene. “We were both action officers at Langley Air Force Base, and we were in the manpower area and we would talk about maybe one day going into business together.” After traveling the world with the Air Force, including a three-year stint in Japan, Gene moved to Washington, D.C., “I came back to the States and worked for the National Military Command. My job as First Sergeant was to provide enlisted leadership for the folks that provided comms support for the Pentagon, and what is now Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and Joint Base Andrews. The job was very high pressure and high profile.” Gene joined Tre Cage’s company AOC Solutions, in 2008. Gene had no experience working with credit card companies, but was ready to enter civilian life. “AOC Solutions was a family business and Tre’s family members were friends of mine. It was very much a ‘Put me in, Coach’ moment where I jumped in and learned and developed an understanding of fintech which was entirely new to me.” Gene's time at AOC Solutions prepared him for another transition, in October 2017, when Gene joined WEX through WEX's acquisition of AOC Solutions.
How a military background can help you shape your values and lean into your strengths
Gene experienced tremendous growth and learning during his time in the US Air Force. The comprehensive leadership training he received as an NCO gave him a framework from which to build his career. He also appreciated a culture of inclusivity in the military that felt different from civilian living. “That’s the beauty of the military. It's not a matter of the color of your skin, it's how you show up and how you drive your contributions. The goal is that what you offer is something bigger than yourself.” Gene cites the Air Force Core Values, which includes “Integrity First,” “Service Before Self,” and “Excellence In All We Do,” as pivotal to his outlook and approach to his work. “Live with a mantra of ‘Integrity First,’ and always be focused on doing the right thing, all the time, which includes a focus on thinking about others before yourself. You don't have to be in the military to believe that.” These core values formed Gene as he moved from young adulthood into the person he is today.
The best ways to lead today’s workforce
A recent Forbes study published by Tracy Bower in September of 2021 found that empathic leadership has a huge impact on innovation, engagement, workforce retention, inclusivity, and work-life balance. Gene and Courtney share leadership traits that are deeply rooted in empathy.
The most important thing Gene hopes for in a leader is authenticity. “Being authentic and being present are the two most important things I hope to be as a leader and hope to see in leadership that I come into contact with in my job.” Gene describes the belief he held as a younger person that in order to succeed you have to be tough and unemotional. As Gene matured into the leader he is today, he embraced a more empathetic, authentic, and open style, and continues to aspire every day to express those values to his team. “You can learn how to manage, there are books on leadership and there are leadership traits. But it is not an exact science.” He described the dissonance between working for a metrics-driven organization that is at the same time wanting to quantify how a person leads. “Metrics can't tell you how to lead. They can show you what to focus on as a manager and what to manage. But many times you have to lead people through adversity. You have to lead people through ambiguous situations. There's no data that's going to answer that for you. You need to arm your people with the tools to be successful and coach them through the failures and celebrate the successes.”
Courtney values a leadership style that is honest and open, and leaders who treat people well. “The need to treat others with respect sometimes gets lost along the way. Being a good person and being someone who is able to work with people creates huge value in the workplace.” Courtney also thinks the best leaders are those who are viewed as mentors. “The best leaders are those who care about your performance and care about helping elevate people.” Courtney also believes that being authentic and present are key elements to success in any career. She believes that it is important to ensure that as an HBCU graduate and leader she strive to not only be present in the room but ensure that her values also have a ‘presence’ in the room.
Courtney’s current manager, Heather Andrews, VP of Americas, Corporate Payments, and Travel at WEX is someone for whom Courtney feels an affinity and a great deal of respect. “She and I have similar qualities in the way we approach conversations and business. She's very encouraging. She's supportive and her easy approach with people allows her to gain and retain business relationships while remaining successful. I am hard pressed to find anyone that does not truly respect Heather’s business acumen and knowledge within the industry. Most importantly, she’s very honest, and I appreciate that. I know that when I have a conversation with her, it's coming from a good place and that I am walking away from the conversation stronger than when I arrived.” The support Courtney feels from Heather cascades down to Courtney’s team “I tend to have that same collaborative style when working with my team. I want people to feel they can come to me with their ideas. They can say ‘Hey, if I have a idea, even if it's a silly idea, I can bounce that off of Courtney and there's not going to be any judgment there.’”
Of Courtney, Heather says, “Courtney Pruitt is the most connective person I have ever known and this gift shines through her work with her team. Courtney is a leader in many ways at WEX and with our customers, who she impresses with every single interaction with her consummate professionalism and knowledge. In 2022 Courtney moved from her management role on the Supplier Enablement team to a Director role leading the Payment Delivery team, which encompasses bill-pay and AP payment management, payment automation analysis, reconciliation for Bill Pay, agent-pay delivery teams and, recently, the entire Supplier Enablement organization. With this massive expansion of responsibilities, she transformed the effectiveness of all of her teams. This has translated into real dollars for WEX, and has invigorated the organization to up our game in every single thing we do. She is an absolute gift to WEX and to every person that has an opportunity to work with her.”
Finding mentors along the way can shape a career in game-changing ways
Ninety seven per cent of individuals with a mentor say they find the experience to be a valuable one. While only 37% of professionals have a mentor, 89% of those who have been mentored say they'll go on to mentor others. Olivet Nazarene University recently surveyed 3,000 people about professional mentor-mentee relationships and one statistic that came out of their research was that people with mentors are happier at their current jobs than those without.
As Courtney shares, “As a Black woman, I've had challenges along the way, but I've also had incredible mentors that have taken the time to get to know me as a person, helped me grow, and shaped my style along the way.” The mentors who helped her the most were those who didn’t mince words, “The best mentors didn't just tell me, ‘Hey, you're great,’ they said, ‘Here's what you can work on, here's how you can improve, and here's what I see in you.’” She is a believer that with focused efforts and determination, there is no limit to growth and success. Feedback that is both honest and productive defines good mentorship.
Gene Bell shares that he wouldn’t be where he is today without the mentors who helped him throughout his early career. He describes growing up as an only child with deeply loving and caring parents: he did not fully appreciate how good he had it until much later in life. Gene describes his young life as embodying the Oscar Wilde quote, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Being an only child, all eyes were on him and his achievements. Naturally, he subverted expectations: “I was a rebel. I wanted to do exactly the opposite of whatever it was my parents were expecting of me.” They expected him to go to college, so instead Gene enlisted in the military. It was the mentors he met during his time in the Air Force who challenged him to stop rebelling and examine what he wanted out of life.
Soon, Gene came into his own, developing a strong purpose and sense of self, in large part due to his interactions with a higher ranking NCO, Technical Sergeant Vern Williams. “Vern pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, you're personable. I want to take a chance on you.’” Vern set Gene up to go back to school and earn a degree to be able to teach Professional Military Education at the Airman Leadership School. “Whatever chord he was able to strike within me, it was about people caring about me, which turned into me caring about myself, and that was really the beginning of the rest of my story.”
Gene was also guided by significant mentor figures after leaving the military and joining civilian life. Kevin Woods, VP Client Development, EnCompass Program Mgr, took him under his wing when he first joined AOC Solutions and provided him with opportunities and supported his career growth. “Kevin was another person who said ‘Yes you can!’ when I experienced self-doubt and he saw the value in me with me just being me.” Jay Dearborn and Jeff Ackerson at WEX were both impactful mentors to Gene as well. Gene met Jeff three years ago when Jeff attended a Black Growth Council employee resource group event in which Gene was a panelist. Coming out of that event, Jeff got in touch to tell Gene he appreciated his presentation and from there the two built a collegial relationship which resulted in Jeff providing Gene with professional growth opportunities at WEX. “Here we are working together now because of Jeff’s advocacy for me. Jeff has my undying loyalty, and I just have immense respect for him.” Gene values mentors who encourage mentees to self-actualize and be the best version of themselves, which is how Gene tries to lead and mentor his team. Part of the value in this kind of mentoring is the appreciation you develop for all the strengths you bring to the job. You learn to accept the places where you have weaknesses and allow yourself grace.
Jeff first met Gene during a transition time for the organization. “What impressed me most was Gene's ability to adapt. As we can all appreciate, change can be challenging. Gene not only accepted the change, but excelled in response. Fast forward a year and Gene again embraced change and new opportunity. Gene now leads the service organization within the Service and Ops team. His new team brings together OTR, Health, and CPS service teams. Gene's sense of humor and pragmatic approach are two keys to his adaptability; however, what truly drives Gene are his passion and his commitment to his team, down to each individual. Gene has a care and passion for people that is strong and deep, and his commitment to WEX, to his fellow WEXers, and to our customers is unquestionable.”
Finding your passion on the job makes work meaningful
Over the course of her career, Courtney has developed a strong sense of self which has allowed her to hone in on the things that are most meaningful to her in her work. “I understand where I am, I'm comfortable with who I am, and comfortable in my skin, which is why I can have conversations with pretty much anyone and walk away feeling good about it.” Courtney is a naturally curious person: “Leading and managing my team is a big part of my job and something I find rewarding. I’ve always been drawn to management and operations where I can gain exposure to numerous different industries from healthcare to software and now fintech. It has always been a good fit for me and it has made for a great career.”
Gene’s passion came to him half-way through his time in the military with a paradigm shift in his thinking: he decided he was going to stop letting life happen to him. “In the military, through very serious engagement, you have a responsibility to lead others. It was in this atmosphere that I began to sense that I needed to take control and be a leader within my own life.” From there was the spark that eventually developed into a passion for working with people and helping them realize their own strengths. “It's the primary reason why I'm here today. Systems come and go, tech stacks come and go, the latest business speak is always evolving. What remains the same – even with all the technological changes we see happening – is the people.” Gene is passionate about figuring out ways to help people succeed. “Technology is about amplifying what human beings do. It's the people. The people I work with, and helping them develop are why I wake up every day.”
When Gene reflects back on his own experiences with mentors and his own career trajectory, his mission is clear. “That was my story- Which is someone believing in me and giving me multiple opportunities throughout my lifetime – some of which I squandered – but eventually I got it right in enough time to take advantage of it.” It gives Gene’s life purpose and meaning to be playing that same mentorship role for young people today coming into the workforce the way he did. “I want to do the things that bring me joy, while also being compensated, and having interactions with people and watching them grow is a part of the formula.”
Facing career obstacles and remaining resilient
Courtney has witnessed her own growth over time. “I used to say when you are in your 20s, you are presented with situations where you are not so sure how to react - whether it is personally or professionally. When you enter your 30’s, you experience maturity that is exciting and also challenging. Then at 40, you’ve done it all before and suddenly the confidence kicks in at a higher level.” What’s key to gaining that confidence we all hope to gain in our 40s is understanding the work in front of you, and also understanding your worth, which comes with the experience you bring to the job. “I find it rewarding to share my knowledge with individuals that I work with. It gives me a great sense of pride when team members are not only excited about their work but they are finding a sense of purpose and drive. Most importantly, I'm not as eager to simply climb on my own. I'm more engaged and more focused on how I can help people around me.” She manages over 80 people in her current role at WEX which provides her with a lot of opportunity to build up the people around her.
Courtney has also found strength from the challenges she’s faced. “I haven’t let the stereotypes or disappointments let me down. It has made me stronger and savvier. It has made me more mindful of my audience and others' backgrounds; I call it gaining perspective. Race and gender are always in the back of my mind so it's hard to not be impacted, it is all about how you handle and direct those thoughts and feelings, and how you control how you come across to others. In the business world, I show up, I work hard, and I never say no to new opportunities to learn more about the business. It is important that my two sons witness what I’m modeling for them so that they are able to create their own paths and hopefully, become the fourth generation of college-educated individuals within our family.”
Gene looks at the obstacles he’s faced over the course of his life and he chuckles about it. He believes he has been his own biggest obstacle along the way, which is probably true for most of us. Gene says he's had to learn how to be more thoughtful and purposeful with his life. When it comes down to it, it’s about maturity, and self-awareness. “When I finally started taking responsibility for myself, and agency over my life was when I became less of an obstacle and more of an advocate for myself.” He also is inspired by his wife of 23 years, Dinah, who reminds him to ask the question “Why not me?” whenever he’s feeling self-doubt. When faced with opportunity, he reminds himself that he’s just as capable as the next person, and to not hold back.
Black professionals leading the path forward today
While there are still obstacles for Black professionals in the workforce, and that’s a challenge Courtney, Gene, and others still struggle to overcome, there is much to celebrate as well. From Lonnie Johnson’s invention of the super soaker toy, to Dr. Shirley Jackson, whose early work on touch-tone phones, fax machines and the fiber optic cable ultimately led to mobile phone innovations, to those featured in the recent Atlantic article “Black-Owned Start-ups are Flipping the Fintech Script,” there are groundbreaking technological and engineering advancements happening all around us through the vision and minds of Black entrepreneurs and businesspeople.
Another inspiring Black trailblazer is Jesse Russell who graduated college with an Engineering degree and is living a full life replete with over 100 patents, and a long and storied career in telecommunications. As stated by the African American Registry, “His innovations in wireless communication systems, architectures, and technology related to radio access networks, end-user devices, and in-building wireless communication systems have fundamentally changed the wireless communication industry.” Known for his patented invention of the digital cellular base station, Russell also innovated in next-generation broadband wireless communication technologies, products, networks, and services, as well as mobile cloud computing. His work helped shape what was to be the 4G Communication Industry.
Advice to young Black adults entering the workforce today
Courtney provides this advice to young Black adults entering the workforce today: “Never take no for an answer. Don’t be afraid to pursue opportunities that you think might be a stretch. It is important to get the knowledge and experience under your belt but after that keep focused on your goals and don’t give up. You are just as capable as the next person, don’t feel intimidated by the color of your skin.”
Courtney also would impress upon young people entering the workforce today to not become paralyzed by mistakes or a fear of making mistakes. “Everyone is bound to make a mistake at some point in their career professionally, but that mistake can be turned into a positive by not repeating it. Learning from mistakes and considering them valuable experiences can also help individuals gain confidence and overcome their fear of failure. Regardless of how mistakes make people feel, consider it to be a teachable moment and a learning opportunity. Most importantly, be thankful for everything that happens in your life and consider it all to be a lifelong experience.” When we make mistakes, acknowledge them, and get beyond them, we can build our confidence and continue to grow and learn in our careers.
Gene has a few different pieces of advice for young people entering the workforce now. One is to not squander the opportunities that come in front of you. “You don't get back this time, and time is one of the most precious resources. Maximize the opportunities, and find a way to do things that bring you joy while also being compensated for it.” The other piece of advice Gene offers comes from his dad who always said “The destination is not important, it's how you live your life.” As Gene philosophizes, “Everybody's destination is death. Not to be morbid, but when you come to the end of your life will you look back at all the things with which you’ve surrounded yourself, will you look at your accomplishments, or will you enjoy memories of the journey you experienced? You've got to savor the journey, really soak it in, and savor those you're with.” Gene also recommends documenting your goals and tracking them, while being patient that these things take time. “Write them down, but understand that there is work to be done to create your professional foundation. Be willing to invest in what is not glamorous. Stay focused and understand that you have to put the time in. You have to give yourself a foundation to build upon.”
WEX has the great fortune of counting leaders like Courtney and Gene among its ranks.
To learn more about WEX, a dynamic and nimble global organization, please visit our About WEX page.
WEX has nine employee resource groups (ERGs) which serve as active communities, acting as touchpoints for various groups across WEX that share interests, cultures, identities, and backgrounds. These groups include: WEX NexGen, Women of WEX, Parents@WEX, WEXPride, WEXVets, Black Growth Council, WEXcessibility, Women in Tech @ WEX, and Latin X @ WEX.
African American Registry
The Mentor Method