By Andrew Cohen
Patience is often preached to law students. How it takes time to fully grasp the law school learning process. How the path to high-profile cases is paved with unglamorous work. How there’s no replacement for experience.
But Cloey Hewlett ’79, commissioner of the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, sang a decidedly different tune during a recent lunchtime presentation for Berkeley Law students.
“Don’t hesitate to make the change you want to see,” said Hewlett, appointed commissioner by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September 2021 after serving as the first person of color to direct the California Alumni Association. “Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself, and don’t be afraid to dream big. And if you get a little power, don’t be afraid to use it.”
During and after her captivating presentation, sponsored by Berkeley Law’s Center for Consumer Law & Economic Justice and Consumer Advocacy and Protection Society and moderated by center Executive Director Ted Mermin ’96, students discussed timely issues with Hewlett.
She grew up in both rural and urban poverty, and while living in Philadelphia her mother packed up the family in a rented U-Haul. She put mattresses in it for sleeping and drove to Canada, “which she felt was the promised land,” Hewlett said.
But with no job secured, they weren’t allowed to enter Canada. After her mother spent two weeks on the border trying to get in, she asked Hewlett — the oldest child — where she wanted to go.
“I remembered those Rice-a-Roni commercials with the great cable cards. In my mind, California didn’t have the drugs and gangs we saw all the time in Philadelphia. It was the state of sunshine,” Hewlett said. “So we drove to San Francisco, and through the help of many charities we found a place to live in the Fillmore and life began anew. I was driven to make it out of poverty, to create a new world for my family and people that had grown up like me.”
Finding her path at Berkeley
Hewlett enrolled at UC Berkeley, went to Berkeley Law, and became an assistant district attorney intent on helping change the criminal justice system. In her first week on the job, her mother — who had become a fierce advocate for the disadvantaged — was photographed on the front page of a newspaper with others protesting a redevelopment agency.
“I became a fearsome prosecutor, particularly in areas in which underserved communities were taken advantage of, and I tried to balance out being the voice of equity, diversity, and inclusion wherever I went,” she said. “At every career turn, I’ve worked to bring in many different voices, to create an environment that’s truly open to engaging in discussion and dialogue.”
Hewlett worked to implement community-based policing and police officer de-escalation training. Later, she went to the State Bar of California and created the Moral Character Unit for admission to practice law in California, which is still in place today.
Hewlett also worked as a lobbyist, a partner at both K&L Gates and Nossaman, and a high-level crisis manager. She litigated over 100 cases, co-founded and was first president of Black Women Lawyers of Northern California, is a San Francisco 49ers Foundation board member, and has received numerous awards for her public service work.
After six years overseeing the California Alumni Association, which serves over 550,000 UC Berkeley graduates, at age 68 Hewlett embarked on a whole new career.
“I’m not done yet,” she says. “When this position came up, I went, ‘Whoa.’ I could be the enforcer on the issues I wanted to enforce, the regulator who advocates for students given our oversight of student loan services … I could get right to the heart of it.”
Fighting for fairness
Leveling the playing field was a recurring theme during her talk, which touched on regulating state-chartered banks, foreign-chartered banks operating in California, mortgage lending, student loan servicers, fintech lending, debt collectors, cryptocurrency, and more.
“I went to India and they’ve figured out how to get financial services to remote areas, and the U.N. can provide financial services to refugee camps, yet here we are in the United States, the richest country in the world, and we can’t provide financial services to the underserved communities?” Hewlett said. “Something is really wrong.”
“Everyone thinks it’s so easy to get a bank account, but that’s not true for everyone. A lot of people are unbanked or underbanked and have little or no access to financial services. In some cases it’s because of bad credit, mistrust, or various other reasons. So what do you do in situations like that? You use the power of government to create market competition.”
She explained as an example, you give incentives to community banks that are more accessible and willing to engage with underserved people — opening up a new market for such banks and planting seeds for generations of future customers — as well as incentivizing ethical behavior.
Some time after, her agency reached out to banks and mortgage lenders during the pandemic urging them not to foreclose on people’s homes. Hewlett said a federal agency asked why California had a low mortgage foreclosure rate.
She responded,”We had that initial conversation with mortgage lenders and banks. We also did a survey of all our mortgage lenders about their foreclosure numbers.” She said, “no one wants to be last on the list, so that incentive helps people stay in their homes. Now we’re working to provide generational wealth in underserved neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods of color that are historically blocked out. I will use every tool in my toolbox to accomplish that objective.”
In concluding her remarks, Hewlett urged law students to take the same approach: use your passion for a better world to meet the challenge.
“It’s OK to challenge yourself,” she said. “It’s in the challenge that you’ll find your mission.”