Seattle Credit Union’s DEI Commitment is Good for Consumers and Good for Business

Richard Romero is a man on a mission. And it’s a very personal one for the President and CEO of Seattle Credit Union. He arrived in America as a four-year-old immigrant being raised by a single mom. He made it to the C-Suite of a major financial institution that has been recognized as one of the most equitable organizations in the Puget Sound. He has been nationally honored as a Trailblazer CEO of the Year. And still, he says his journey to make the overall banking system more accessible to all is not over.

After George Floyd was killed last year by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, public outcry for racial and social justice increased to levels never seen before. During that time, Romero reflected deeply.

Seattle CU had been teaching its team about empathy and the impact racism has on its members for years, but Romero said, “It was kind of like, we have been doing the right thing and at the same time, we could double down.”

One thing he feels strongly about is reforming lending regulations such as those that require loans based on credit scores and debt ratios — a formula that may exclude historically disadvantaged people.

Romero supports advocacy to remove such regulatory barriers. He serves on the board of Inclusiv, an organization focused on helping low-and-moderate-income people and communities across the nation to achieve financial independence through credit unions.

And while he set his own credit union on an intentional purpose-driven mission years ago, it is, he says, work that continues to evolve.

Building Trust with Underserved Communities

Seattle CU’s members come from all walks of life — metropolitan professionals, families, small business owners, and underbanked and underserved consumers. Many Latinx, immigrants, and people of color have previously experienced financial abuse either in the countries they came from or by predatory financial entities. They’re skeptical, at first.

The credit union’s strategy is to “be very present in the communities we are trying to serve, and we do that by building relationships,” Romero says.

A shining example is its partnership with El Centro de la Raza, which began with Romero’s personal outreach to the organization’s CEO.

“I had to prove I was there to help and would not promise them the world and then back away just because it might be difficult,” Romero said in a recent interview with Anthem.

A Seattle CU branch is now located inside El Centro de la Raza’s headquarters. The credit union committed to developing products and services El Centro de la Raza requested, including citizenship loans, real estate, and auto loans to noncitizens who are unable to obtain Social Security numbers.

Being able to offer such loans was a process in and of itself. To start a path toward citizenship, or to get a loan, noncitizens have to obtain an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). That’s a difficult first step for many immigrants who have been afraid to come forward for fear of being deported.

“We recognized that pain point,” said Barney Herrera, Vice President, Strategic Partnerships.  “We’d been hearing there is little to no trust in going into a federal building because of fear they might not be able to go home.”

So Seattle Credit Union employees helped consumers apply for ITINs and even stood in lines at post offices to send members’ applications to the IRS via certified mail. When the IRS was backlogged and not processing the applications, Seattle CU worked with the Northwest Credit Union Association and an aide to Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal (D-WA 7th District) to raise awareness with the government about the need for a timelier turnaround. There was progress.

Both Romero and Herrera point out that not only is inclusive service to communities of color in perfect alignment with credit unions’ “People Helping People” founding principle, it is also good for business.

“When you look at the performance of ITIN loans, they have upwards of 90% repayment and payments made on time,” Herrera said.

The credit union has more than 100 community partners and remains actively engaged with 25 that are focused on priorities such as post-secondary education, small-business support, food and housing insecurity, youth services, and services to LGBTQ+ and communities of color.

“There is no end to the journey. Every year we realize we just uncovered another journey, another road we need to go down,” said Romero.

Editor’s note: Seattle Credit Union’s community engagement strategy is one of the case studies considered by the Northwest Credit Unions’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force. Hosted by the NWCUA and the Northwest Credit Union Foundation, the Task Force collaborated to identify DEI-related tools and practices credit unions can consider as they advance their DEI work as employers, financial institutions, and community partners. The Task Force’s recommendations will be shared with the Northwest Credit Union Movement next month.

Posted in CU Difference.