Community Engagement

Alexandra Umstead-Wrenn leads nonprofit board

Wrenn ResThe new board president of Cape Fear Literacy Council has a long history of helping others solve problems and gain confidence. In her new leadership role with the nonprofit, ALEXANDRA UMSTEAD-WRENN draws on years of experience in two very different professions.

Although she is now Live Oak Bank’s vice president of closing, Umstead-Wrenn’s initial career path was in the social services field. “I was a licensed clinical social worker,” she says. “I loved my job, working with clients who had such problems as eating disorders or were survivors of childhood sexual abuse.” A big part of that process was helping clients believe in themselves and their abilities to overcome difficulty. But the work could be exhausting.

“I was burned out,” Umstead-Wrenn says. “By the time I got home to my family in the evening, I was kind of given out.”

So, despite having declared earlier in life that she would “never work for a bank,” Umstead-Wrenn in 2014 accepted a position at Live Oak as a loan closer.

“I thought I was just getting a job,” she says, adding that the idea of a nine-to-five situation with no client troubles to haunt her off-duty hours sounded really appealing. But after a short time working with SBA borrowers through Live Oak Bank, Umstead-Wrenn discovered something fundamental about herself

“I realized there’s no such thing as ‘just a job’ for me. And Live Oak is not just a bank. I ended up jumping in full steam and embracing it,” she says of her commitment to helping small businesses overcome roadblocks, survive, and grow.

That commitment intensified when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and many small businesses were facing threats to their existence. By then, Umstead-Wrenn was a manager of SBA loan closers, but when the Paycheck Protection Program launched, the loan processing pace became furious, and it was all hands on deck.

“We all jumped in and closed loans; we were working twenty-four/seven,” she says of Live Oak employees. “I closed over 250 loans myself. No matter how difficult it was, I was grateful I had a job, and my husband and I could manage having a child who couldn’t go to school.”

When she joined Live Oak Bank, Umstead-Wrenn began looking for ways to give back to the community.

“I knew that Live Oak was involved in the community but didn’t understand the enormity of that. There would always be posts about different volunteer opportunities and I saw one about becoming a tutor for Cape Fear Literacy Council. My grandmother was a teacher – I had my grammar corrected as soon as I could speak. I love to read and always have, so (tutoring) seemed perfect.”

The literacy council works with adults in the community on reading, math, and other basic skills. Umstead-Wrenn went through its tutor training and worked with the same client for four years, an endeavor she describes as “phenomenal.”

“Without a doubt, the benefits I received from that experience – to see her whole life change – far outweighed the benefits I provided to her,” she says. “She wasn’t able to read to her grandchildren; she didn’t feel comfortable reading during her Bible study class. Actually, she read better than she thought she did, but it was a matter of believing in herself. She made fast progress and, at our most recent CFLC luncheon, there she was, standing up on stage, performing.”

Several years ago, CFLC Executive Director YASMIN TOMKINSON asked Umstead-Wrenn to join the organization’s fourteen-member board of directors. She did so in 2019, and in January of this year, began a two-year term as its president. She believes the skills she has learned in her career, combined with her experience in helping clients solve problems, are beneficial as she helps lead CFLC.

“Empathy is one of the greatest tools a leader can have,” she says of working with clients of any stripe. “If I am familiar with their strengths and challenges, we can form a team. They can develop themselves personally and professionally.”

CFCL has an ambitious agenda for the next couple of years, according to Umstead-Wrenn. In some cases, it involves regaining ground from the past two pandemic years; in other cases, it involves building on programs that survived well during COVID.

“We typically serve about 500 adults in a year,” Umstead-Wrenn says. “We definitely saw a decrease from 2020 to 2022, but still served 271 during that time and had really good outcomes for them.

“Now we’re engaged in strategic thinking about the future of the literacy council. Are we reaching everyone we need to? Is there room for growth? We need to get our citizenship program back up, as well as our Computers on Wheels digital literacy program,” she continues. “One of the things we’ve talked about quite a bit is how we can leverage the literacy council to help folks with technology.

“Our luncheon is definitely on track for this year, and we’re very excited. It will be on May 19 at Watermark Marina. It’s an open-air venue, which hopefully will make folks comfortable about attending.”

To view more of photographer Daria Amato’s work, go to

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Categories: Women to Watch