A Q&A with Kim Sponem

A Q&A with Kim Sponem

What is the difference between a credit union and a bank? Credit unions are not-for-profit cooperatives, so the more members do business with the cooperative, the more they get back. Because we don’t have stockholders to pay, our board members are volunteers. We track how much our members save by doing business with us versus an average Wisconsin bank. For us it’s in the hundreds of dollars a year. Also very fundamental to credit unions is financial education. We believe anyone can be financially successful.

Describe your approach to financial education. Sometimes all people really need is reinforcement that they’re doing a lot of things right, which most people are. Often it’s just a matter of tweaking, but they’re so close to it they can’t see what those things might be. They do the hard work and we help guide, reinforce and celebrate.

In addition to the popular Project Money, you recently launched the Red Shoes program. How does it work? Red Shoes is designed for women. A parallel to it would be Weight Watchers. Participants get a guidebook and a financial coach, and there are events and educational sessions to support them. The idea is that you can build your million from wherever you are.

You have a robust outreach program for youths as well. We just finished a project called Project Teen Money, where teens put together videos on teaching their peers how to save, spend and give responsibly. The winner received a $2,500 scholarship and the others received $500 scholarships. My challenge to them was, “How can you take these videos that you’ve put a lot of time into and make them viral?” There’s so much satisfaction in seeing young people take their knowledge and talents and share them with others.

You also collaborate with nonprofits. I’m a huge believer in collaboration. I think that when we collaborate we get great synergy and that the results are so much stronger than if we tried to do things on our own. Partnering with the Boys and Girls Club on Star Credit Union is really powerful. It has been a catalyst for helping kids save for college and understanding that college is within their reach. Whenever we work with a nonprofit we try to figure out how can we do something that’s a little bit greater than the need. Yes, we do give money to nonprofits but how can we partner to a greater extent. For example, during the Great Recession we had a foreclosed apartment building and we partnered with Porchlight to help them use that facility in interim emergency shelter situations. That was really powerful.

What prompted your move to create a senior management position to address diversity and wellness? We’ve passively talked about more diversity in the organization but we also put a job out there and we see who applies. And whoever applies that’s who we look at. I started to reach out into the business community, talking to people from different perspectives and realized we can’t just post things and expect to get a diverse workforce. You have to go after who you want.

Why pair diversity with wellness? The two go hand in hand. I don’t just mean racial diversity; I mean diversity of perspective, too. When people experience financial problems it impacts their health and that’s why wellness is a piece for us, too. The more we can help people be financially successful, there’s a correlation with health and wellbeing overall. If you’re not stressing about how you’re going to make your next payment, you can put your energy into your job or your kids or whatever it is that puts you in a more productive spot. I felt like this all touches each other.

You have an awesome LinkedIn profile. Social media is as important to Summit as it is to our members, so our members really drive that. I look at the world very holistically, and social media is a part of most people’s lives in one way or another. We also think it’s important to link other members to each other as part of the Summit community.

How do you decompress? I have found the need to exercise just about every day for thirty minutes. I find that if I try to do an hour every day, that doesn’t work. I give myself permission to exercise for as little as ten minutes—there’s no way you can say you don’t have ten minutes to go for a walk or do something—to thirty. Sometimes it’s more if I’m really into it, but then it’s a just bonus.

Do you feel like your experience as a CEO is different than a man’s? I don’t feel outwardly discriminated against but I don’t get the free passes that male leaders get. For example, if I forget somebody’s birthday, that’s a big deal. If a man forgets somebody’s birthday? “Oh, he’s just a man, he forgot, no big deal.” If we have a potluck and I don’t bring something in, that would be a big deal. A year ago a reporter asked me if I thought that we had an overrepresentation of women in senior management positions, with four females and only two males. I said, no, every other company is underrepresented.