The first defining moment in Carol Schillios’ life came at the ripe age of 12. Her father, employed by Boeing in Seattle, was chosen to work in the corporation’s Switzerland office for six years. The family moved with him, and the children enrolled in the International School of Geneva.
The school “was the framework within which I developed the cooperative philosophy that would influence the rest of my life,” she says. “We were children from more than 89 countries; a melting pot of cultures that opened a global view of the world in which we lived. The diversity of the teaching staff was as colorful as the student body.
“I left after six years with an education that came not just from books but from living in a global community where cooperation among cultures was modeled,” she continues. “The tapestry of my life would be forever changed.”
The return to Seattle and the American culture was difficult. Schillios was “restless” in the homogenous population, and found it difficult to relate to what she viewed as “excessive consumption,” she says. “I was a fish out of water and yearned for the simplicity of life outside the U.S. I fled to Germany where I stayed for a year to learn German.” (Schillios is also fluent in French and American Sign Language.)
When Schillios once again returned to Seattle, she found a home in the credit union movement—first as a secretary, then as director of marketing and corporate business development at the Washington Corporate Central Credit Union. In the credit union movement, Schillios says she “learned the power of volunteering and people working together for a common goal. And I saw a worldwide network that cared about the needs of people globally.”
After her corporate credit union position, Schillios was hired as consultant and director of training with the Washington Credit Union League in Bellevue. In 1982, she moved to Madison, Wis., to serve as the first full-time director of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) Foundation—which later became the National Credit Union Foundation (NCUF)—and as director of CUNA’s National Credit Union Roundtable.
These posts further developed her leadership skills. She designed think-tank discussion forums for the largest U.S. credit unions and directed development, grant projects, and results monitoring for various cooperative credit projects around the world.
In 1984, she moved back to Seattle and planned to take a sabbatical. But colleagues wouldn’t allow it. “My phone began to ring,” she says, “with calls for help with this or that project, and opportunities for short-term technical assistance to other countries. Within three months…without realizing it, I was in business for myself.”
Fabric of life
Schillios began a new phase of her life as a sort of global microfinance “entrepreneur” and established the Schillios Consulting Group. In this role, among other projects, she has:
• Consulted with World Education, Freedom From Hunger, and the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU);
• Collaborated on the design and implementation of a credit and financial management train-the-trainer program for 22 field officers and technical service advisers from eight African countries;
• Served as a nonprofit economic development volunteer, teaching cooperative credit concepts in Ukraine and Moldova; and
• Collaborated on the development of a six-module credit union professional development training series—an in-house educational sales and service program for employees of credit cooperatives.
A trip to Bamako, Mali, in 1996, brought another defining moment in Schillios’s life. While waiting in traffic at a stop sign, she noticed begging children surrounding the car. As she reached for coins for the children, her friend Kaaba Soumare, CEO of a small Bamako credit union, “elbowed” Schillios, reminding her that handouts perpetuate the dependency cycle.
The two had discussed this issue many times before, and they shared a vision of bringing credit unions to the poorest of the poor. Through the conversation, they agreed to apply the principles of cooperatives to open a school in Bamako for begging girls to learn skills to become self-sufficient.
The school opened in 2005. Each enrollee receives the equivalent of $20 a week to pay for expenses while in school, and must also start a savings account. In addition to health and nutrition, AIDS prevention, and literacy, the students learn skills to help them earn a living.
“In 18 months, the girls go from begging to self-sufficiency,” says Schillios. Since 2006, the program has graduated 20 students. After graduation, students can choose to join the artisan cooperative, and are paid a full wage plus health-care benefits. Ten students so far have chosen to stay at the center as full-time artisans, creating products from their hand-dyed African fabrics and traditional beading.
As Schillios began to make presentations about her travels and projects, she says, “I would decorate the meeting rooms with colorful fabrics collected from my travels. The last question was always the same: ‘How can we help? ’Americans are the most generous people. At the end of a presentation, invariably people would shake my hand and slip a check or a $20 bill into my palm. I started putting those dollars away in a special account—at my credit union, of course. Soon there was $1,000 in the account. And I started giving it away.”
Schillios established the Fabric of Life Foundation in 2002 to foster cooperative partnerships. And in 2008, the Fabric of Life Boutique opened in Edmonds, Wash., and online at fabricoflife.org. Fabrics and other wares produced by local artisans in the countries she assists are sold through the boutique. Fully 100% of the sales go directly to Fabric of Life projects.
“I take no profit from the store,” she says. “I take no regular salary from either the store or the foundation. It’s important that as much as possible of what’s raised goes back to take more begging girls off the streets.”
Carol Schillios, nicknamed “Ms. Credit Union” by her peers, has received numerous awards including:
• The NCUF Herb Wegner Memorial Individual Achievement Award;
• The WOCCU Silver Award (three-time recipient);
• The Northwest Cooperative Federation DiMarcello Cooperative Spirit Award;
• The Credit Union Women’s Association of Oregon Anna Read Award; and
• The Washington Credit Union League Ambassador Award.
To learn more about Carol Schillios and her current and ongoing projects, visit schillios.com.