In the world of finance, where profit margins and percentage points often dictate agendas and priorities, there are those rare moments when a leader emerges, challenging norms and redefining purpose. Such is the case with Dominik “Dom” Mjartan, the President and CEO of Optus Bank. In a recent interview, I had the privilege of peeling back the layers of Dom’s story, and what unfolded was a narrative of passion, transformation, and an unwavering commitment to closing the wealth gap through Mission-driven Banking.
(Columbia, SC) – The interview started with a glimpse into Dom’s personal journey — an immigrant from Czechoslovakia who moved to America at the age of 16. Now living the American dream, his life’s mission is to ensure that all Americans have access to the financial resources needed to achieve their dreams. His eyes sparkled with a certain fervor as he spoke about his journey, and it became evident that this was more than just a job for him—it was a calling.
An interview that was initially scheduled for ten minutes, evolved into a wide-ranging, half-hour conversation. In that time, we covered topics like the proud lineage of the bank, its rebranding from South Carolina Community Bank to Optus Bank, and the legendary African American families—like the Leevy’s, Stephenson’s, and Simkins’s—that founded the bank’s predecessor, Victory Savings Bank, and helped lead the way towards financial freedom from Columbia’s black residents. Dom spoke extensively about the history of Optus Bank, closing the wealth gap, and mission-driven banking.
To say that this was one of the most empowering and insightful interviews in my 15-year career might be an understatement.
The conversation began with how Dom came to be at the bank. In a bold move in 2018, Paul Mitchell, a longtime investor and now Chairman of Optus Bank, raised eyebrows and turned heads when he selected Dom, a non-minority, to lead the historically black-owned institution.
While at the time, not everyone understood why Paul worked so hard to convince Dom to take the job, as one of Optus Bank’s early investors and a key member of a group that spearheaded an initiative to save the historic financial institution, Paul knew exactly what he was doing when he lobbied for Dom to take the reins. Over the next several years, as Dom settled into his role and the narrative around the future of the bank unfolded, it became clear that Paul was not just out to break stereotypes with his decision; he was determined to break barriers and propel into the future a company that held a legacy of financial empowerment for African American communities in South Carolina. Paul was proved to be prescient. Dom was the right man for the job.
As Dom shared with me the challenges the bank faced and the subsequent metamorphosis it underwent, his words were laced with humility. He spoke of negotiations, recapitalization, and the collective efforts that stabilized the institution, emphasizing that he personally invested both his own money and his human capital into the bank. It was a journey from a troubled past to a promising future, and Dom was the navigator steering the ship.
Amidst the financial jargon, what struck me was the underlying philosophy—a belief in community development banks and mission-driven institutions. Dom painted a vivid picture of their importance, not just as financial entities but as catalysts for change. It was about creating opportunities for all Americans, especially those marginalized by traditional financial systems. He emphasized that while banking and banking services are often perceived as commodities in the financial industry, he disagrees with that characterization. Dom’s philosophy is that banking transcends being a standardized and interchangeable service. Instead, he believes that where individuals choose to bank has a direct impact on the economic well-being of their community.
A pivotal point in the conversation was the collaboration with the South Carolina MBDA Business Center. Dom spoke with gratitude, acknowledging the center’s role in not just providing financial aid but in understanding the multifaceted needs of entrepreneurs. The partnership, he emphasized, went beyond transactions; it was about comprehensive support, a lifeline during challenging times.
As Dom spoke of awards and recognition, there was no air of arrogance. Instead, there was humility—a recognition that these accolades were not just about him but a reflection of collective efforts. The Robert J Brown Minority Business Enterprise of the Year was not just an award; it was a shared triumph for the community, customers, employees, and shareholders.
In those brief moments, I found myself not just learning about banking and finance but understanding the essence of leadership. Dom’s vision was not confined to balance sheets and profit margins; it extended to the very fabric of societal change. He painted a future where banking choices weren’t just transactions but acts of impact—a future where capitalism worked for everyone.
As the interview concluded, I was left with a profound sense of admiration. Dom wasn’t just a CEO; he was a visionary, a leader with a heart for the community. It was a narrative of transformation, collaboration, and an unwavering commitment to a future where everyone had a seat at the table.
In the world of finance, where numbers often eclipse people, Dom stood as a symbol of inclusive capitalism, resilience, and the transformative power of mission-driven banks. And in those moments, I couldn’t help but be impressed—not just by the President of Optus Bank but by a Financial Philosopher who was promoting a philosophy that transcends banking and touches at the very soul of societal change.