CUNA News is running a series of Q&As with female leaders in the credit union movement in honor of Women’s History Month.
Maria J. Martinez is president/CEO of Border FCU, Del Rio, Texas. She’s a founding member of the Network of Latino Credit Unions and Professionals, the 2012 Del Rio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Business Woman of the Year, a 2015 Woman of Distinction of the Texas Association of Mexican American Chambers of Commerce, Cornerstone Credit Union League’s 2016 Professional of the Year, and a 2017 Herb Wegner Memorial Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement winner. She has been in the credit union industry for almost 32 years.
Q: In honor of Women’s History Month, what does diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mean to you?
A: To me, DEI means treatment which is considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations and opportunities. We all know, and studies have shown, that women are sadly underrepresented in many areas, especially in the higher wage paying positions and in executive and C-suite positions for larger organizations.
Although women representation has increased over the years, we still see a big concentration of women working in the lower ranked positions and experiencing difficulties of advancement.
As fair employers, we, credit unions, need to make a commitment and embrace gender equity as part of our company culture and we can begin correcting our inequities in our hiring and promotion processes.
Q: Why should DEI matter to the credit union movement?
A: By incorporating a DEI culture, credit unions will be more competitive and will win over and retain top talent. Prioritizing DEI will enable us to act on our responsibility to reflect these inclusive values as a company. The labor force shortage is becoming a real challenge and every day we compete to win top talent.
Women and minorities are a remarkable underutilized talent pool that is widely available. We must attract them into our credit unions by offering them leadership opportunities and an environment where they can grow professionally.
Q: Tell us about a hurdle that you overcame during your career and how it shaped your drive to succeed.
A: My siblings and I were raised by a single mom who brought us to this country when we were of elementary school age. We were undocumented for many years, including through the beginning of my professional career. Being undocumented limited my possibilities of landing a job and much less of moving up the ranks within any organization.
However, I never let that obstacle interfere with my dream of realizing the “American Dream”! My mom made the sacrifice to bring us here; therefore, I had to excel. I never took for granted the opportunities and trust bestowed on me by my employers.
I value the opportunity I was given through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 when my family and I were able to legalize our immigrant status in this country. This important government intervention granted me the freedom to apply the education I had acquired and to further my knowledge and experience in the USA.
And then I joined the credit union movement, which gave me the opportunity to serve others through mentoring and the establishment of programs that have benefited entire communities.
My experience and involvement in the financial industry have allowed me to reach out to the financially underserved and most especially to the Hispanic market.
Q: What piece of advice would you give to other professionals in the credit union movement?
A: Never undervalue yourself. You can only reach your goals if you are determined to work hard to reach them.
Evaluate yourself. What position do you aspire to play? What type of leader are you? You must have courage to take on additional responsibilities and become actively engaged.
Many years ago I wrote down some things that I wanted to accomplish in life. One of them was that I wanted to be a bank president. Well, I think I did better than that.
I’m a credit union president, and I love it.
But this didn’t come easy, I always looked for opportunities to learn more, to be a team player and to volunteer to serve others.
When a volunteer was needed to head a project, I always raised my hand and I delivered positive results. If finishing the job demanded more of my time, I committed and completed it.
Q: How can credit unions best serve their members from diverse backgrounds?
A: Credit unions are the “perfect fit” for anyone looking for the best financial institution to do business with. We are for the people! Credit unions must do everything possible to diversify their personnel in order to attract members from diverse backgrounds.
Members like to identify themselves with the people they do business with.
For example, a credit union that is looking into serving a Hispanic community should hire Hispanic staff. If the residents or business owners in the community that the credit union wishes to serve predominantly speak Spanish, then hire bilingual staff.
DEI should be about cultivating a culture where everyone, including people with diverse backgrounds and identities, can thrive.
Q: How do you promote diversity and inclusion within your organization or in your personal life?
A: Equal and fair treatment for all. People are the core of everything we do. Ensure that your team is diverse.
People with other passions and identities will bring different perspectives as well as lived experiences and skills that will fill in the gaps and guarantee that your team and the DEI work you do is balanced. When you have an inclusive work culture, everyone benefits.
You retain top talent, attract new talent and create a more efficient and profitable environment that allows us to remain competitive. As for fair pay, every year around budget time, we do an analysis of our job positions, including job grades, salary, experience and educational requirements and responsibilities.
This allows us to maintain fair and competitive pay among our staff without any form of discrimination. DEI is good for business and we must ensure that our employees are aware of our commitment of embracing DEI.