Warren Morrow, like many of us, came upon credit unions unintentionally: An Arizona-based credit union helped him and his father obtain a loan when he started college.
That loan paid for the car he would drive from Tucson, Ariz., to Iowa where he attended Grinnell College. What Warren didn’t know then was that he’d ultimately leave an indelible mark on the credit union movement.
On Feb. 15, 2012, Warren’s family, friends, co-workers, the credit union movement, and the Latino community suffered an inexplicable tragedy when Warren passed away at the age of 34. Warren is survived by his wife, Christina Fernandez-Morrow, and eight-year-old daughter, Ariana.
As we remember Warren’s passing, there is much sadness and disbelief among the many people Warren touched. But there also are many things to reflect on and be thankful for as we look back on his immense impact.
During his 34 years, Warren was nothing short of amazing. He accomplished what many of us only dream of.
Warren was the founder of Coopera, a full service Hispanic market solutions company with a focus on credit unions nationwide. He embodied the traits of a visionary leader with a selfless heart—a unique combination. Warren was soft -spoken, caring, wise, passionate, inspirational, and humble.
Born to an American father and Mexican mother in Mexico City, Warren’s identity and love for his Latino community was shaped in part by his experiences as a young person assimilating into the U.S. culture, particularly as he watched his mother struggle in her transition to American life.
Warren’s family moved from Mexico City to Tucson when he was in grade school. While in college, Warren and his friends formed a nonprofit called the Latino Leadership Project. Its mission was to help underprivileged, young Hispanics attend college.
Through his work, Warren realized the base cause he was trying to address was financial instability in the Latino home. In 2011, Warren told the Des Moines Register, “I came to realize the disparity in education was a symptom of a larger problem. The root issues are the disparities in access to assets [and] wealth, and economic stability in the household.”
Warren left the nonprofit world to serve as an emerging markets and diversity consultant for Principal Residential Mortgage Inc. from 2003 to 2005. There he helped develop a strategy to increase Latino loan originations and augment the bilingual and minority workforce.
In 2004, he and a friend, Max Cardenas, founded Diverse Innovative Solutions to help businesses partner with the Latino community. During this time, Warren crossed paths with the Iowa Credit Union League by way of a community development project. Through this work, he realized credit unions were philosophically aligned with his vision and could be the ideal conduit to bring dignified financial services to Latinos nationwide.
As a result, in 2006 his company evolved to become Coopera through a partnership with the Iowa League. “Warren had a powerful vision that outreach to the underserved Hispanic community should not be philanthropy,” says Murray Williams, chief operating officer for the Iowa League. “Instead, a business could do well by doing good—and everyone would benefit.”
When Coopera was formed, the concept was ahead of its time in the credit union movement. It was a progressive idea coming from progressive leaders in Iowa.
While most don’t consider Iowa a Hispanic Mecca, it continues to be a gateway for Hispanic immigrants, similar to other Midwest states. Today, Coopera continues to help credit unions nationwide serve the Latino community as an opportunity for growth.
Warren held the future ever-present. “He brought a vision of what could be in a way that I don’t think many other people have,” Williams told the Des Moines Business Record.
Stagnant membership growth, an aging population, and the rapid growth of fringe financial services are among the many challenges facing credit unions, creating the need for new growth opportunities. Warren connected credit unions’ need for growth with Latino communities’ need for dignified financial services.
Warren catalyzed a spark within the credit union movement. He brought awareness of and created momentum around the Hispanic market being a solution to credit unions’ growth challenges. In a 2008 Des Moines Register article, Warren said, “Working to demonstrate the value of underserved and disenfranchised communities is a lifelong mission that will always motivate me.”
His passion for serving these communities helped reinvigorate the unique credit union philosophy of “people helping people.”
Warren envisioned a credit union movement that rallied around the underserved Latino community. He would oft en say, “Hispanics need credit unions, as much as credit unions need Hispanics.”
He worked tirelessly to bring together credit union system organizations to expand service to Hispanics through credit unions. In 2009, CUNA and Coopera formed an exclusive, national alliance to help expand credit unions’ outreach to the Latino community.
Coopera also partners with credit union system organizations including the Network of Latino Credit Unions and Professionals, the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, the World Council of Credit Unions, and several state credit union leagues, as it seeks to expand its mission.
Being the humble person he was, Warren probably would have been embarrassed to know people were doting on his achievements. Aside from his work at Coopera, Warren was active in his local community, serving on the board of various organizations.
He also became a partner in the Dos Rios Restaurant in downtown Des Moines. In a 2008 Des Moines Register article, Warren explained his leadership philosophy was to “Lead by example and with integrity.”
In that same article, Warren shared some of the words he lived by: “Pay attention to those who love you; follow your passion; be true to yourself.”
Warren embodied this philosophy. He was a leader that not only talked the talk but walked the walk.
Those of us who knew Warren learned a lot from him while he was alive, and have likely learned still more after his passing as we reflect on the life lessons he’s taught us.
Warren showed us that no matter where you come from, success is possible if you pursue your passion and make a difference in the world. He taught credit unions to do the same. While Warren may have left us last year, we still feel his spirit and share his passion as his legacy lives on.