When Courtney Lewis was finishing college at Southern Methodist University, she was a single mom with two kids and two jobs.
She decided her goal of medical school no longer made sense, switching her path from becoming a bilingual doctor to finance. That change led her to the leadership role she has in Fort Worth today.
Lewis, 44, is the North Texas Middle Market Lending team leader for BancorpSouth bank. She also is the president of the Fort Worth Downtown Rotary Club.
To get to SMU, Lewis said, she had some luck.
“I think we have to all acknowledge we had some lucky breaks in our life,” Lewis said. “I went to an all-white elementary school and got a really good early education. And, so, when I transferred into the Dallas Independent School District in high school, I was pretty far ahead of a lot of the inner-city kids, and if my parents hadn’t split up, I would have been in an inner-city school. My dad lives in Southeast Oak Cliff; and when my parents split, we moved in with my grandfather in the middle of the country, and we got bused into the city of Lancaster.”
Her college education started at junior college, then she got a full ride scholarship to attend SMU.
“A counselor just happened to mention, ‘Hey by the way, you know you can go to SMU for free,’” Lewis said. “My family’s always been super supportive, and I’ve always been a hard worker. I grew up riding horses, and when you have horses, you get up and you feed those horses, you work hard, so I’ve always had an incredible work ethic.”
In her last 18 months at SMU, she had her second of three children, separated from her husband and changed majors.
But her support system, specifically her mother, helped her reach the finish line, Lewis said.
“My mother was my No. 1 supporter,” Lewis said. “She helped me with babysitting or whatever. I had a lot of family support, which is what kept me in the metroplex. I had opportunities to move to New York and other places, but I didn’t know how to do that. Raising children on your own, you need your family …”
Her mother, Carolyn Carter, was happy to help. She loved spending time with her grandchildren and was proud of how hard her daughter worked to overcome the obstacles placed before her, she said.
When her daughter was young and worked with the horses, Carter said, Lewis was a natural at the work and learned a strong work ethic.
“I’m proud that she set her goals, and she was determined to reach her goals,” Carter said. “That’s what I’m most proud of, and that she’s such an outgoing, kind person and she would help anybody if they needed it. She’s just a very good person, period — and I’m very proud of that, too.”
Staying in the area allowed Lewis to live in Fort Worth and work in Dallas. A previous bank manager, Martin Noto, got Lewis involved in the Rotary Club of Fort Worth, which meets downtown.
Noto, 62, is now the chief lending officer and executive VP at Inwood National Bank. He said Lewis saw the value in Rotary beyond a networking and business standpoint.
“She’s always been fairly generous with her time philanthropically,” Noto said. “She did a lot of volunteer stuff through Rotary; she’s actually probably better at Rotary than I was.”
When Lewis was elected as Rotary president, Noto said, he knew she had the skills to excel.
“I knew she would do a great job at it; she’s a very committed person,” he said. “And once she says and raises her hand and says, ‘I’ll do this,’ and she really does.”
Lewis’ introduction to Rotary came eight years ago.
“I just really started for the networking and then just kind of fell in love with the fellowship aspect of it and the club and the people,” she said. “That’s how I got involved and then three years ago they elected me to serve on the board.”
The Rotary motto is service above self, and Lewis does what she can as president to make sure members live that motto. That includes checking in with service committees and promoting events like the Minority Business Awards, which currently is accepting nominations.
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Lewis is proud of how her Rotary Club has diversified in recent years. The district governor visited the club and remarked on how diverse it is compared to other clubs, she said.
“I’m accustomed to being in non-diverse environments; I work in banking. I work in a very non-diverse industry,” she said. “So, for me, it’s just like, ‘OK, you’re the only color in the room, that’s just kind of your world,’ but it’s very exciting when I look out from the podium, and I see that our club is starting to reflect the community that we’re serving, and I think that’s very important.”
Diversity efforts did not come easy to Rotary Clubs. It took a Supreme Court decision in 1987 to allow women to even serve in Rotary. She is the fifth woman to lead the club.
“Our goal is to serve our community, and if our membership base is not diverse, we may miss some community needs that are out there,” Lewis said. “If we’re not interacting with our Hispanic communities and our Black communities, if we don’t have those members within our club to express what those needs are, then we may be blind to some of the needs in the community and miss opportunities to help.”
If she had been asked 10 years ago, Lewis would have said she’s not a leader.
But then she started serving on boards — starting with Ronald McDonald House in Fort Worth as the treasurer — and ended up in officer positions on those boards. One day she looked at all her roles and realized she had become a leader in the city.
As she leads, Lewis wants to do so with empathy.
“You have to be able to understand people, and you have to listen; listen, empathy, grace, all of those things — you’ve got to be human,” Lewis said. “Some of the old, you know, old school business books are, ‘profit above all,’ and that’s not it. If you want people to be engaged, you have to get to know them, you have to empathize with them.”
Courtney Lewis Bio
Moved to Fort Worth: 2012
Family: Husband Damian Lewis of six years; children, L’Darrius Garner, 27, Emilleo White, 24, and Evie White, 20; grandchildren, Jayden and Egypt White and Aydan Garner
Education: Bachelor’s degree in finance from SMU, 2000
Work experience: 21 years in the financial services industry. She started as an investment bank analyst with Chase and made the switch to commercial banking starting with Washington Mutual. She spent five and a half years with Compass Bank, which was acquired by BBVA and now PNC. She worked for several small community banks before accepting the position with BancorpSouth.
Volunteer experience: Rotary Club of Fort Worth, president; Ronald McDonald House of Fort Worth, immediate past president; Housing Channel, chairwoman. Previously served on William Mann CDC, Leadership Fort Worth and treasurer for Camp Fire First Texas.
First job: Scooping ice cream at Braum’s when I was 16.
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Never stop learning.
Best advice ever received: Leave it better than you found it. – Bob Bolen
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.