For Kala Gibson ’94, life is all about relationships. Being a husband and father is everything, and the influences he received from his parents and grandparents helped him to recognize and value the concept of community.
A native of Detroit, Gibson saw firsthand how the relationships between businesses and banks can make or break a community. That awareness led him to become a banker and dedicate his career to ensuring everyone can access and attain business capital and home ownership. The relationships fostered at GVSU, both big and small, have helped him succeed. The value Gibson places in community has kept him engaged with Grand Valley long after graduation as a donor and now as one of the newest directors of the Grand Valley University Foundation.
“I owe it to this community to continue to give and respond, to mentor and be an example, and to continue to learn myself.”KALA J. GIBSON '94, chief corporate responsibility officer, Fifth Third Bank
Can you tell us about your role at Fifth Third Bank?
In my role as chief corporate responsibility officer, I oversee the bank’s corporate citizenship work, which encompasses community impact, economic development, social responsibility, inclusion and diversity, and sustainability strategies. I’m blessed to be with an organization that recognizes the importance of social purpose as one of its core values.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
One of the things that makes my work interesting and special to me is the ability to leverage our diverse strengths as a regional bank and respond at a local level. A good example is our Fifth Third Empowering Black Futures Neighborhood Program, which we launched in 2021. We knew there was a better approach to community economic development. We developed an approach that could be a springboard for economic mobility for residents, small business owners and the commercial corridors that help to fuel progress and define a neighborhood’s legacy. We’re starting to see progress in the nine neighborhoods we’ve invested in throughout our footprint. The community response and participation has been outstanding.
How did you become interested in banking as a career?
Witnessing the changes my grandfather experienced while owning and operating his business in Detroit started it all, as did the experience of living in a community that became a financial desert after its only bank closed. When communities are unbanked and underbanked, it keeps poverty and hopelessness alive. Too many communities suffer like this, and I knew there had to be a better way. Being a banker is much more than facilitating monetary transactions. It’s about building community through relationships, financial wellness, education, support and opportunity.
What was your proudest moment as a student?
During my senior year, I was able to lead a seminar called the Institute for Healing Racism. For me, it was a pivotal moment as it helped me to step back and evaluate myself as a person and to consider how I was currently viewing things and the people around me. That experience expanded me and allowed me to really lean into the topic of racism and talk about things we really weren’t discussing at that time. I realized I had my own biases and I needed to change. The research and preparation I did for this seminar became the starting foundation of my thought process around diversity and inclusion, as well as the empathy I have for others today.
Why do you give financially to Grand Valley?
Ninety-six percent of all Grand Valley students receive some sort of aid. It is only because someone else gave financially and funded the scholarships I received that I was able to earn a college degree and move forward in the way that I have. I will never lose sight of this. It’s important to pay it forward.
Why has it been important for you to continue your relationship with Grand Valley?
Relationships like the ones I have with Grand Valley shouldn’t be short-lived. I owe it to this community to continue to give and respond, to mentor and be an example, and to continue to learn myself.
You recently became a director of the Grand Valley University Foundation. As an alum, why do you feel it’s important to serve in this role?
When I first heard of Grand Valley, I wasn’t sure if it was the right place for me. But someone, some higher power, knew that it was. I was blessed because others saw it, others gave me the chance. I quickly learned how much I aligned with the university’s values and how Grand Valley’s community was special. Like L. William Seidman, I see the future and I want Grand Valley to prosper and thrive, and to stand true to its culture of giving.
What advice would you give to fellow alumni?
You are capable of anything you put your mind to. Advocate for others as much as you advocate for yourself. No one can do it alone; we all need a community to survive and succeed. And the GVSU community is a great one.