Deb Baker: Pioneer – Promoting Diversity in Equipment Finance

by Markiesha Thompson Sept/Oct 2022
Deborah Baker has been a champion for women and other underrepresented groups during her 30-year career in equipment finance. Through her leadership at ELFA, she has transformed her commitment to DE&I into meaningful action for the industry.

Deborah Baker,
Head, Worldwide Leasing and Financing,

Deborah Baker faced a dilemma the summer before she began college. She was all set to work alongside her best friend at Ponderosa Steakhouse when her mother, who worked for AT&T Capital, arranged a summer contracting position for her. Baker was initially devastated by this news. But after a call with her older sister, Baker quickly figured out which path she wanted to take.

Working in an office doing administrative work to support three senior collectors who chain smoked was less than glamorous, but Baker returned to the job on breaks and every summer. She enjoyed being there so much that after receiving increasing responsibilities every time she went back to work, Baker decided she would finish college part-time and work for AT&T Capital full time, much to the chagrin of her mother. Her mother drafted a contract for Baker to sign, guaranteeing that she would complete her undergraduate degree. “She actually went through the pomp and circumstance to have it notarized in the office in front of witnesses, to really influence me,” Baker says.

Baker kept her word and went on to obtain her MBA from Farleigh Dickenson University. She stayed with AT&T Capital and its successors, including Newcourt Capital and CIT, for 10 years before accepting her first role as a people manager at HP Financial Services where she was able to develop her leadership style. After another decade, she was recruited by Cisco Capital to lead Americas Operations for a director role that moved her family to North Carolina. After seven years Baker landed in her current role at HP. As a leader she has made an impact on many people in the industry.

“When it comes to using your power and influence for good, few people live this as masterfully as Deb Baker,” Nate Gibbons, chief experience officer, QuickFi, says. “Her approach to effecting positive change is very thoughtful and calculated — involving insights about the current state, a vision for a possible better world that benefits everyone and immediate steps we can take to reach our human potential.”

Role Models

Baker has encountered many leaders that have influenced her leadership style and have indirectly contributed to the ways she effects people in the industry, and Bob Neagle, president and CEO at Finova Capital, was one of them. Earlier in her career, after being impressed by the level of knowledge Neagle demonstrated during a presentation, she approached him and said, “I want to work with you one day.” She eventually made that happen and Neagle has remained a great resource for her over the years.

Baker found other role models early on in her journey. Two of them changed her view on the possibilities available for women in equipment finance. At AT&T Capital, Baker looked up to her then manager Mary Beth Haggerty. Taking an opportunity to work with Haggerty at CapitaPlus, a startup organization within AT&T Capital, Baker learned the ins and outs of inside sales. “I appreciated her perspective and her strength as a female leader,” Baker says of Haggerty.

Anne Henry was another role model at Cisco Capital after whom Baker has aspired to emulate. Baker says Henry was an incredibly strong and supportive leader who ensured each of her leaders were given the same level of exposure and opportunities as their counterparts within the organization.
Promoting Diversity

Baker has a habit of scanning every conference room or virtual meeting room she enters for women and people from other underrepresented groups. She noticed that more often than not entry level and early management were “beautifully diverse,” but the numbers quickly became skewed at higher levels.

And this observation is not just anecdotal, a survey published in Finance Monthly found that while women represent 50% of the workforce in financial companies, they comprise only 28% of senior management roles, 26% of board of directors seats and 18% of executive teams.

Baker sees the lack of diversity and opportunities for underrepresented groups in the industry as a challenge that can be solved through effective leadership. As one of a small number of women in executive leadership in the industry, she advocates for more women in leadership in the industry.

While Baker was with Cisco Capital, her colleague, Sanjay Kumar, called her to let her know that the Equipment Leasing and Finance Association (ELFA) was creating a Women’s Council. Kumar knew that Baker was a diversity champion for women at Cisco and wanted to recommend her for the council if she was interested. She was.

After being a member of the ELFA for years, Baker says this was her first overt move to truly participate and do more with the association. After participating in the Women’s Council, she went on to become its chair and eventually joined the ELFA Board of Directors and the ELFA Equality Council as well. Baker and her colleagues on the councils have worked diligently to make the association and its events a welcoming place for women and people from underrepresented backgrounds.

“In Deb’s industry leadership roles, which are too numerous to count, she consistently seeks and finds ways to create opportunities for women and minorities that didn’t exist before,” Gibbons says. “Her contributions to the ELFA Women’s Council, Equality Council and ELFA Board of Directors (to name a few) have helped improve the look and feel of our industry in a material way.”

“After not having seen Deb for a decade, I ran into her, predictably, at a Women’s Council reception at an ELFA annual conference,” Neagle, president and CEO at Finova Capital, says. “She had taken her commitment to equality and inclusion and moved it into action as a volunteer. As a board member and officer of the ELFA, I saw the enthusiasm with which Deb chaired the Woman’s Council, served as a member of ELFA Equality and a board member.

“The industry has benefitted greatly from Deb’s efforts in this regard, as under her direction the Women’s Council continues to grow, and to motivate the association to keep its focus on making sure the association and the industry continue to evolve with respect to these issues. Deb’s greatest impact on other’s industry leadership is that she inspires people like me to stay focused on service to the industry in areas of critical importance. She is a model member of the industry that I am proud to serve alongside of.”

From Commitment to Action

What can companies in the equipment finance industry do to recruit and bring more diversity into the industry? Baker suggests companies recruit from a diverse pool of potential candidates and ensure a diverse group of interviewers. Baker also recommends companies take advantage of remote work and embrace diversity from a wider geographic pool of candidates than before.

“That excuse is gone, because you don’t have to just pull from your small, geographic-commutable reach,” Baker says. “Now you’re expanding perhaps to the entire United States or perhaps globally.”

Baker also believes companies should be making deliberate retention efforts and making sure the types of conversations about retaining diverse talent and promoting that talent in the workforce are happening.

Baker offers the following advice to women who are early in their careers: “Raise your hand.” She encourages these women to amplify their exposure and learning opportunities and to grow their networks. “Join an industry association. Join a community association,” Baker says. “Don’t rely solely on the network of the company that you work for today. Establish a network that is beyond that and that has multiple interests and multiple exposures. Don’t leave the conference at five o’clock when it ends and skip the happy hour, and skip the dinner and skip the closing ceremonies. Prioritize things outside of work that may influence any opportunities in the future.”

But as women ascend the corporate ladder, Baker notes that is becomes more important to say no and to avoid overextending or overexposing yourself by volunteering for every opportunity and vying to do more and give more. Baker says it’s important to learn where the greatest opportunities are and what makes sense for you as an individual, where you can add value or receive value.

“After being in this industry for 30 years, I don’t know where the time has gone, but I continue to grow and learn in the industry. It’s just such a dynamic field. And I think there’s still an opportunity to continue to bring in diverse perspectives, diverse characteristics, diverse leadership in the field. And I intend to try to support that as long as I participate in the industry.”

Markiesha Thompson is associate editor of Monitor. Rita E. Garwood, editor in chief, interviewed Deborah Baker for this article.

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