Wells Fargo’s Martinez: Empowering People With Disabilities

May 13, 2015 6:05 pm

By Barbara Frankel
Kathy1After only five weeks on the job, Kathy Martinez – the leader of Wells Fargo’s People With Disabilities segment – had already:

• Met with 800 Wells Fargo recruiters to talk about their disability recruitment strategy.

• Began a dialogue about customer service, including financial literacy for people with disabilities.

• And started working with Regina Edwards, Head of Corporate Supplier Diversity, to increase the number and viability of vendors owned by people with disabilities.

“I think the real question is not the ‘will’ but the ‘how’ – we talked about where to go, what to do to find talent,” she said. For example, she cited working with non-profits and government sources as two good options.

For Martinez, such government collaborations make a lot of sense given she served as Assistant Secretary for the Office of Disability Employment Policy for five years before going into the private sector.

It was important to her to work for a company that was committed to diversity (Martinez has been blind since birth, is a Latina and a lesbian). She also wanted a company that was ready to be a leader in relating to people with disabilities as employees, customers and suppliers.

She found the right organization in Wells Fargo, the top bank on the DiversityInc Top 50. Wells was ready to launch a major initiative for people with disabilities and hired Kathy to lead the effort.

“I believe in economic empowerment and I know Wells Fargo does too. With the 25th anniversary of the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) this year, we have seen a lot of progress with physical challenges …. Wells is in a place now where they are really making a commitment to serving all people on every level,” Martinez said.

Current Position
Leader, People With Disabilities segment, Wells Fargo, No. 11 on The 2015 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity
Previous Position
Assistant Secretary, Office of Disability Employment Policy, U.S. Department of LaborExecutive Director, World Institute on DisabilityEducation
Bachelor’s degree, San Francisco State University

Why This Became Her Passion

Martinez’ life story illustrates how people with disabilities can overcome both cultural stereotypes and systemic obstacles.

One of six children, she was born blind (as was her younger sister) and grew up in Southern California, where her father worked for defense contractors and her mother cleaned houses.

Her mother was determined that her two blind daughters would not go to special schools.

When Martinez went to public kindergarten, “for the first time I realized I was different,” she said. “I would hear other kids on the playground, rush toward them and crash into other people or toys. I realized I would have to negotiate the world differently.”

She learned to do that and was determined to help others achieve maximum potential. “I have first-person experience with the low expectations and assumptions of the majority,” she said.

After the ADA, Next Horizons

With the ADA hitting the quarter-century mark, Kathy believes the most important current issue is increased employment of people with disabilities.

“When people see us as productive members of society – contributors not charity cases – it will change,” she explained.

The ADA, she noted, set out what it was supposed to do – create building accommodations and transportation systems that improve accessibility. “It allows people with disabilities to have a presence in society today – it is no longer a shock to see a person with disabilities on a plane or in a restaurant while 25-30 years ago, it was pretty rare.”

But as Baby Boomers age into disability the importance of this demographic is increasing, she says. We are the largest minority, we cross age, race, gender, etc. We all will have a disability or someone we know will if we live much longer, and we are all living longer than before,” she said.

It is more difficult for people who are not born with disabilities to navigate the workplace. “I was born blind so this is what I have always known,” she said.

What’s most important is to look at the value individuals bring.

“I try to get recruiters to see the accommodations process as helping employees with productivity tools,” she said. “People come to work expecting lights, chairs, coffee. They don’t consider that an ‘accommodation.’ We need to get people with disabilities off the ‘special shelf’ and have them woven into the fabric of the workplace.”