From Belgrade to Washington

Close-up of Jelena McWilliams (© Fifth Third Bancorp)
Jelena McWilliams (© Fifth Third Bancorp)

Jelena McWilliams, a financial-law expert who came to America as an 18-year-old student from the communist-led former Yugoslavia, was nominated by President Trump to head the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a job at the heart of America’s capitalist system.

If confirmed by the Senate, McWilliams will take over an important role in overseeing the country’s banks as Trump pushes to remove regulations imposed on the financial industry after the financial crisis and Great Recession that began in 2007.

McWilliams has spent much of the last decade working on related issues, initially as an attorney at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors and later as the senior counsel to Republicans on the Senate Banking Committee.

Her colleagues in Congress say she brought a special perspective to her work there. “We take a lot for granted, whereas she never takes it for granted,” Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, her former boss as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, told the Wall Street Journal. “She was in a country with a lot of oppression.”

McWilliams was born in 1973 as Jelena Obrenic in what is now Serbia. She grew up during the declining years of communism under Josip Broz Tito and the loosening of the Yugoslav federation that led to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

In 1991, her parents sent her to the U.S. with $500 in her pocket to study. She studied at the University of California, Berkeley.

Close friends have said in media reports that McWilliams got a partial scholarship but to pay her way she had to work, sometimes at three jobs, including as a door-to-door saleswoman, as a hostess at a country club, and as a staffer at a clothing store.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which polices lenders and protects customer bank deposits, is one of the three federal regulators of banks, supervising many smaller institutions.

This article was written by freelance writer David Storey.