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Collaboration, integrity, and inclusivity: These are the core values Sati Smith says helped her become the first CEO of color at $479 million asset Diversified Members Credit Union (DMCU) in Detroit.
Smith uses the image of the “roundtable” from the television series “Game of Thrones”—where leaders of different kingdoms came together to make decisions—as an example when describing her own leadership style.
“I often tell the team, ‘We’re going to the roundtable’ to discuss and strategize,” she says. “It’s important to create an environment where everybody feels valued for what they offer.”
The approach has served Smith well during her ascent to CEO. When her predecessor, Kathie Trembath, hired Smith years ago, she told her to learn everything she could about every department.
Smith took that advice to heart. She previously served DMCU as a teller, data processing manager, information technology manager, operations manager, and chief operating officer.
Her diverse background honed her executive decision-making abilities, Smith says. “I look at things from different perspectives because I’ve been in the shoes of those other departments. I know how making a decision here could affect this department over there.”
Smith notes it’s important to stay teachable. “You’re not going to be the expert on everything, so you have to be smart enough to build relationships with experts,” she says, advising aspiring credit union CEOs to build their own expert network.
She also believes in the value of lessons learned, prioritizing documentation across the organization. “I make sure the team documents each of our challenges, successes, and failures so we have a blueprint to go back to,” Smith says.
Overcoming challenges and growing through adversity have been themes throughout Smith’s life. As a single mother, her goal was to model possibility for her daughter, she says.
Smith put herself through college, earning a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in counseling. Today, her adult daughter also works at DMCU as a loan processor.
Smith says she didn’t focus specifically on how becoming CEO would earn her a place in DMCU’s history. But in reflecting on the achievement, she wants to give hope to others, noting it’s also an achievement for the institution.
It’s especially meaningful during Black History Month, a time to reflect on the challenges, sacrifices, and successes of those who’ve fought for change, Smith says.
DMCU will honor Black History Month by highlighting locally owned Black businesses in its branches. Personally, she’s looking forward to taking her four grandchildren to Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
“Many people have dreams they feel they can’t achieve because there are too many obstacles in the way, or it will take too long,” she says. “I hope when they know my story and see where I am, it will inspire them and let them know they can do it.”