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Maryland’s only Black-owned and -managed commercial bank became a go-to resource during the pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to rattle businesses nationwide and the federal government launched its Paycheck Protection Program, businesses in Maryland and beyond struggled to process their applications.

The PPP program was launched in April 2020, but some businesses said their applications were delayed — in part because they could not find banks that accepted applications, and many banks weren’t set up to do so.

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John Lewis, president and chief operating officer of the Harbor Bank of Maryland, said his bank not only accepted PPP applications, but his employees went out of their way to help qualified business owners, regardless of whether they were Harbor Bank customers.

Harbor Bank — co-founded by Baltimore native Joseph Haskins Jr. 39 years ago — is the only Black-owned and -managed commercial bank in Maryland. Haskins is the chairman and CEO of the company, which was founded to provide capital to individuals who historically lacked it, Lewis said. Headquartered in downtown Baltimore, Harbor Bank now has six locations, mostly in the city.

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While small, the bank has grown steadily over the years, reaching $338 million in assets as of March 31, up from nearly $251 million eight years ago.

John Lewis is president and chief operating officer of the Harbor Bank of Maryland, the only Black-owned and -managed commercial bank in the state.
John Lewis is president and chief operating officer of the Harbor Bank of Maryland, the only Black-owned and -managed commercial bank in the state. (photo provided by Camera Ready)

Throughout the pandemic, the bank put significant resources into funding PPP loans. It funded 694 loans through the program, available nationally for just over a year and concluding at the end of May. Harbor Bank’s PPP lending totaled $66 million, with most of the loans issued to businesses in the Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Virginia region.

With the loans averaging around $100,000, Lewis said that meant Harbor Bank primarily reached community businesses, such as churches and restaurants. Lewis declined to specify which businesses in the area received loans — which are forgivable — due to privacy regulations.

Additionally, Harbor Bank, working with music mogul Sean Combs’ company, Combs Enterprises, helped create Our Fair Share, an awareness-raising campaign about PPP loans aimed at minorities, Combs Enterprises said in a news release.

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Among those who needed Harbor Bank’s assistance was Park West Health Systems Inc., a West Baltimore practice for doctors and dentists, said Elizabeth Lee, the practice’s chief financial officer. The $1.2 million PPP loan it secured from Harbor Bank helped Park West with utilities, payroll and rent, among other things.

“[Harbor Bank] is small, where they can serve small companies. And there’s comfort in that, whereas when you go to a larger bank, if you don’t have a certain amount of revenue, they don’t even want to talk to you,” she said.

The bank does more than provide traditional banking services and help with federal lending programs. Its Harbor Bank Community Development Corp. aims to accelerate development in underinvested communities throughout the region.

For example, it invested $50,000 in Black Brain Trust, co-founded in September by CEO Angel St. Jean to help companies track and improve racial inequities.

St. Jean, of West Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill, met Lewis while working in the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development. He mentored her and made her believe starting a company was something she could do, she said.

Having historically worked 9-to-5 jobs, leaving her position in the Mayor’s Office was a scary prospect, she said. But Lewis’ mentorship helped her realize dedicating time to her company was going to work.

Lewis, 44, grew up in Williamsville, New York. While at Cornell University, he landed his first internship as an analyst for Fleet Bank in Buffalo, New York. He was simply looking for opportunities — not necessarily a path in business — because he was an industrial and labor relations major, he said. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard Business School in 2004.

Lewis, who now lives in the Annapolis area with his wife and two children, has worked for Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management, M&T Bank and Credit Suisse First Boston, among others.

Growing up, he said his parents told him: “When you are prepared and [have] done the work, there aren’t places that you don’t belong in. You belong in places the same way that anyone belongs in those places.”

It’s a message that Lewis said he passes onto others he encounters in his work and those aspiring toward a career in finance — or otherwise.

“Work hard. Take advantage of every opportunity to invest in yourself,” Lewis said. “Make sure you’re in [a] situation where the organization that you belong to is creating a pathway for you to be successful.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

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