Partners look to close economic gender gap

Project 257 launches with PNC funding nonprofit’s zero-interest loans to women, nonbinary customers.

PNC Bank recently launched an initiative designed to help close the economic gender gap and expand on the bank’s support for female financial decision makers. 

“Project 257: Accelerating Women’s Financial Equality” launched in mid-September with a name derived from the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report that found that at the current pace of progress, it will take 257 years for women to catch up to men from an economic perspective.

“I don’t know anyone who thinks this is an acceptable timeline,” said Beth Marcello, director of PNC Women’s Business Development. “As a financial institution that prospers when our customers prosper, it makes perfect sense that we would want to help tackle the economic gender gap. Project 257 aligns with our brand purpose — when we accelerate women’s financial equality, we are making a positive difference, leveraging the power of our resources to help all move forward financially.”

Coinciding with the launch of Project 257 is PNC Bank’s partnership with SheEO, a global nonprofit whose mission addresses one of the major factors driving the 257-year gap: women’s lack of access to capital. SheEO provides interest-free loans to businesses, or “ventures,” owned and led by individuals who identify as women or nonbinary and crowdfunds capital from “activators” who fund the loan pool and play an active role in evaluating and selecting the ventures. To date, SheEO has crowdfunded $7 million to support more than 100 ventures in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

PNC Bank’s three-year, $1.257 million commitment to SheEO is the largest contribution the nonprofit has received from a U.S. company, SheEO said. Through the partnership, PNC will work with SheEO to drive awareness and help increase the number of activators who support SheEO ventures. Fifty PNC employees who identify as women or nonbinary have been chosen to serve as activators on behalf of PNC — one per market in which PNC has a presence — and they will play a significant role in the selection, mentorship and success of SheEO ventures.

Sean Welsh. Courtesy PNC Bank

Sean Welsh, West Michigan regional president for PNC, said his team in the local market is meeting to talk about how to give the partnership with SheEO more visibility in the community. Linsi Sandwisch, commercial banking relationship manager in Grand Rapids, has been chosen as the activator for this market. She is coordinating with PNC employees who work with women and nonbinary clients, to help them in building capacity, knowledge and loan readiness.

“To do this successfully, which is the only way we want to do it, we have to create visibility … (and) we have to create infrastructure, which is getting our employees aligned and ready to go, and once we get those in place, then when we go out to the community in 2022, we’ll actually be able to act and make an impact,” Welsh said.

SheEO recently opened the 2022 venture nomination process. Businesses owned and led by individuals who identify as women or nonbinary can visit or SheEO’s website to apply to be a SheEO venture and learn more about the organization’s evaluation, community selection process and global network of support.

“We are thrilled to be partnering with PNC and look forward to what we can accomplish together,” said Vicki Saunders, SheEO founder. “As a large financial institution that already does so much for women, PNC’s reach, reputation and values will help to support our activator and venture growth and create the conditions for women in business to thrive.”

PNC’s longstanding support of women can be seen across the organization, from Women’s Business Development’s executive advisory board to its nearly 4,000 PNC-certified women’s business advocates, who are active in their communities and committed to providing resources to female decision makers. This support also is evident in Women Connect, PNC’s employee business resource group with 11,000 members; Men As Allies, a program through which male employees support the advancement of their female colleagues; and Women’s Leadership Development program, which helps prepare high-performing female employees for leadership roles. These and other resources have contributed to PNC having the most diverse executive committee and board of directors in the company’s history.

“Project 257 and our partnership with SheEO are two great examples of PNC’s support of women across our footprint,” said Lou Cestello, PNC’s head of regional markets. “Whether we’re working with a woman who runs a major business or one who has just opened her first checking account, we strive to have a positive impact. And as a Main Street bank that succeeds when our customers and communities succeed, accelerating the financial achievement of roughly 50% of the population who are women can have a macro effect on the economic well-being of the markets we serve.”

Welsh said internally, PNC has been working on wage equity for a while, and currently women employees make about 99% of the salaries of their male counterparts in equivalent roles. 

“We’d like to see that 100%, but we’re really close, which is way ahead of the industry. … We are holding ourselves accountable because it’s got to be more than more words; it has to be actions. … Good is good, but you always have to strive to be greater every day,” Welsh said.

“To drive and lift up the success of women and women-owned businesses, it’s not only the right thing to do, but it’s an incredibly smart economic thing to do. It’s good for the business owners. It’s good for the community. It’s good for the bank. And I think that title of Project 257 really puts a bright light on why this needs to happen.”

SheEO has committed to transparency over the three-year term of PNC’s financial commitment as far as sharing updates on the venture selection process. Those interested can learn more at

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