Heart of gold

On her off hours, banker and CLU MBA student Monica Mills runs a nonprofit assisting sick children and their families.

Beyond the numbers

Monica Mills, a vice president at Bank of America, at her Agoura Hills home office, where she runs the Hopes Haven charity.

Photo: David Sprague/ San Fernando Valley Business Journal

Monica Mills, an MBA student at California Lutheran University, likes to say that she doesn’t know how to sit still. At 39, she has forged a career that is part finance, part marketing as vice-president of mortgage lead generation for Bank of America, even though she has little formal business training. She has a bachelor’s and master’s in screenwriting and did some public relations at Amgen Inc. before a temp job answering phones at the front desk of a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage branch got her into the lending business. She later went to work for Countrywide Financial and ended up at BofA after its 2008 acquisition of the failing lender. But that’s not what makes Mill stand out. Despite a hectic work schedule, she has found time to found Hopes Haven, a non-profit that benefits seriously ill or injured children. A stint as a Make-A-Wish volunteer led her in 2008 to start her organization, which provides financial assistance to families and organizes events for children in Ventura County and the Conejo Valley. She also finds time for extreme sports and mixed martial arts, and when she finds time to take a breath, Mills likes to travel. As a child she baton twirled competitively, which led to a love of ballroom dancing. She’s been swing dancing in Italy and traveled to Argentina to tango.

Question: What do you do at Bank of America?

Answer: At the heart of it, what my job entails is creating lead generation programs. My team and I look for ways that we can bring more business to loan officers. I manage alliances and relationships with business partners who can bring us more business.

That seems like a long way from a children’s non-profit.

Back when I was working at Countrywide, I found out through the Make-A-Wish Foundation that being a volunteer wish grantor allowed me to do all the things that make you feel good about waking up in the day. So I became a volunteer wish grantor and did that for a couple of years.

What does that entail?

As a volunteer wish grantor you do all the really great things and none that suck. They’ll send out a list of kids – who they are, how old they are, what they are suffering from – and two wish grantors go out. You buy presents and you show up and the presents are ice breakers. You hang out with the family and the kid and try and figure out what their true, heartfelt wish is.

And you saw a need beyond trips and gifts?

One of the first families I went to, the mom was literally shaking because I’m giving her the money for a trip and she’s never had this much money ever. And oh, I’ll never forget that. The dad was over in the dark corner, this stoic man, just had these tears rolling down his cheeks. Mom is here, and the family is here, and dad is in the back, just trying to hold it together. And you think, what can I do to help these parents? What can I do to make things just a little bit easier? You know, I used to say, “I can’t cure cancer, but maybe I can make this suck less.” And suck less isn’t going to be every day.

So you founded your non-profit. What does it do?

What Hopes Haven does is provide financial assistance to families. If we can make it so that they don’t have to worry about their mortgage, then we do that.

Can you give an example?

Actually, we just paid for one father to have his car repaired. He’d had it taken in, and they did the repairs, but he couldn’t get it back because he didn’t have the money, and he’s the sole provider. Mom doesn’t drive and they couldn’t get the sick child to doctors’ appointments. Anyway, I can take that burden just for that second so that they can take a breath and think, OK, what is the next thing.

How much assistance have you given?

We have helped more than 45 families.

Do you do it all yourself?

I used to. At first it was really just me. Now we’ve expanded and we have a board of directors who are doing a lot of the fundraising.

How do you raise money?

We get donations from corporate and individual donors, including donations of goods and services. We also do fundraisers. Next month we have a poker tournament event to raise money and later in the year we have a softball tournament and a gala.

How much time does it take?

I spend about 20 hours a week with Hopes Haven.

Tell us about your day job. Mortgages are a long way from screenwriting, which you studied. What happened?

I found out that the things that you’re good at aren’t always the things you like to do. That’s the lesson I found out with the writing. I was good at writing, I enjoyed it, and everyone urged me toward writing. And I followed the path for so long until I realized I didn’t have fun doing it.

Why wasn’t it fun?

Getting my MFA was a really good, expensive lesson in how collaborative creativity meets business. Where business meets creativity in a collaborative art form is so difficult. You watch these things that you write and you love get skewed into this horrible medley of crap. Then you have to sit up there in front of your peers watching a script you gave to someone just get mutilated.

What type of things did you write?

My shorts were usually romantic comedies or dark comedies. My features were kind of all over the board. I wrote some dramas. My last one was an animated feature based on “Rear Window” by Hitchcock, but it was with cats and animals and it had a lot of adult humor in it.

So what made you take the leap into business?

I got out of school with an $80,000 bill and a kick to the curb, and six months later, the student loan people wanted their money. That was in 2001 and it was the height of the refi boom. I went to a temp company and said, “I have to get a job, I have to pay my rent, I have to pay my student loans.” So they placed me at the front desk of a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage branch.

And you started the position when your division was still with Countrywide?

Yes. I built what now exists as our foreclosure auction division. We looked at how we can capture deals when we foreclose on people and put those properties out into the market. We built an entire program on trying to recapture those loans from the people that were buying them. When we transitioned to Bank of America, they weren’t a big servicer, so they didn’t really have foreclosures, they didn’t have auctions. So they needed our program.

So Bank of America continued the division?

They took on Countrywide’s giant portfolio, so the problem still existed, which meant the opportunity for our program was still there. We came in and were like, “Oh, you don’t have this? OK, we’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing.” Slap a new logo on it and call ourselves Bank of America, that’s fine.

Are you still focused on foreclosures?

We now look at other creative ways to bring in business. We create national programs to bring more business to the loan officers.

As part of moving to Bank of America you get to work from home, I can see.

Yup. I can work in my Cookie Monster pajama pants. Just have to get my projects done and make sure my team is getting their work done.

Is this usual for a bank?

Bank of America as a company has really transitioned to that, but now they’re pulling back the reins a little bit, and I think that’s a good idea.

Any time for hobbies?

I started working with a trainer years ago so that I didn’t die in my first triathlon, and (running) just kind of has been something I do.

Is that your only physical outlet?

I also do mixed martial arts training. I love hitting things. It’s the equivalent of an adult temper tantrum. So that’s how I get it out. My friends say I’m not a human being, I’m a human doer, because I don’t sit still well.

Do you continue to do the triathlons?

Well, fish freak me out, and I’m afraid of the ocean, so I do runs, but not a lot of the triathlons. The ocean freaks me out not because I’m afraid of sharks but because I’m afraid a fish even really little might touch me. But I do a lot of things that scare me and I don’t know why.

What makes you so determined to get over those fears?

One of my best friends, Matt Burton, was a firefighter who died in the line of duty in 2007. He was like a brother to me. He always believed I would do great things so in the wake of his death, Hopes Haven was born. He also thought I was afraid of everything – I was a total wimp as a kid – and tried to make me brave. On the day he died, every year, July 21, I do something that scares me to honor his memory.

What have you done?

When you’re terrified of heights, you don’t want to go skydiving. I did it. You don’t want to go hang-gliding. I did it. I climbed Half Dome. Every year I do one thing that scares me, just to learn how to manage fear. I do a lot of things just because I don’t think I can and I want to prove to myself that I can.

I’ve heard you’re a big dancer.

Yes, my grandfather taught me how to dance. The nice thing about dancing is that it’s universal. So I went on a trip to Italy and it just so happened that this little town I was in was having this huge swing festival. It was this little beach town on the Adriatic Sea and there was a different swing band from all over the country playing each night out on this plaza next to the ocean. I don’t speak Italian, but I danced all night long because you don’t have to speak the language to dance with somebody.

Do you still write?

I just started writing again – as a hobby – so it doesn’t put any pressure on me to make it great or successful or profitable. It’s just a hobby.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space reasons.

- Published in the San Fernando Valley Business Journal on Feb. 18, 2013