Witad Awards 2019 Write-Ups: Trailblazer (Lifetime Achievement) Award—Catherine Bessant, Bank of America

Cathy Bessant, chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America, wins this year's lifetime achievement award at the annual Women in Technology & Data Awards.

Cathy Bessant, Bank of America
Bank of America's Cathy Bessant won the final category of the 2019 Witad Awards, the trailblazer (lifetime achievement) award.

When WatersTechnology first wrote about Catherine Bessant, in a 2011 profile interview, we told the story of an English major who “sent shockwaves through Wall Street” when then-Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan made her global technology and operations executive. Eight years on, Bessant is still making waves, both at the bank, and at the highest levels of government.

Indeed, this “trailblazer” award is aptly named on several levels. Bessant has been at the forefront of technology leadership for some time, starting when female tech executives at major banks were few and far between. Since then, she has continued her leadership role, not only engaging with, but implementing, emerging technologies—Bank of America’s artificial intelligence (AI)-powered assistant Erica, was launched under her watch, while on the retail side, she has overseen the integration of payments technology such as Zelle with the bank’s mobile app. On the infrastructure front, she has spearheaded the firm’s rationalization program, with her staff retiring over 18,000 applications, consolidating 65 datacenters to 16 by year-end, and reducing expenses by 26% since 2013.

Critically, however, Bessant has also been an important voice in the debate over the future of AI, as the industry begins to understand the impact this technology will have. In 2018, she initiated the Council on the Responsible Use of AI, led by the Harvard Kennedy School, which led to her receiving an invitation to the White House in May 2018 from the Trump Administration to participate in the summit on AI for American Industry.

Outside of technology, she has been a strong advocate for diversity within Bank of America, serving as executive sponsor for the firm’s LGBT Executive Council, as well as the LGBT Pride Global Ally Program. She was the bank’s figurehead for its famed opposition to North Carolina’s House Bill 2, joining forces with other tech companies to force a repeal of the “Bathroom Bill.” She has also been a key sponsor for the bank’s initiatives around promoting female engagement with technology. At the heart of her success, she says, particularly as a woman in this field, is personal honesty and belief.

“The world has a lot of yardsticks, but there’s only one that matters, and that’s your internal yardstick,” she says. “Realizing when you look eye-to-eye at yourself in the mirror, you’re the only one who really knows how you measure up—it will provide that confidence, that self-belief allowing you to take risks. It will allow you to be impactful; it will cause you to reach your full potential; and it will make your relationships deeper, because you won’t be motivated to find that confidence in other people that you can’t find in yourself.” 

In 2011, during her interview with WatersTechnology, Bessant said that she felt her greatest accomplishment was “yet to come.” Despite all she has achieved to date, her impressive career and continuing trajectory make it seem like even the sky is not the limit for one of the most powerful and influential people in technology today.

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