When Sandra Cano joined Navigant Credit Union more than three years ago, the community it served, Central Falls, R.I., was in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings and its mayor had been indicted.
The $1.5 billion asset credit union hired Cano as assistant vice president of business and community development to engage the city’s disillusioned residents.
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“This is a 100-year-old credit union with a strong foundation in the community, but newer residents felt disconnected,” she explains. “They didn’t know what a credit union was or what we did. My task was to come up with ways to engage them.”
One hurdle Cano faced was that people no longer appreciated Central Falls’ advantages. And, in part due to the city’s financial problems, many residents moved elsewhere.
At the same time, underserved and Latino populations were growing.
While some people thought targeting these groups was risky, Cano believed it was an opportunity.
“We weren’t serving the community right in front of us,” she says. “I created an engagement committee for staff so we could work as a team, understanding the cultures around us. I wanted to show them that while we may be different, we have the same basic needs and that no matter the culture, we want everyone to feel comfortable walking through the door.”
To make this happen, Cano encouraged more diversity in staffing. “When we engage with residents, we need people who look like them and speak their language,” she says.
The credit union implemented programs to attract diverse job candidates and, for the first time, Cano says the credit union’s staff now reflects the community’s diversity. “It makes a huge difference.”
To engage with young potential members, Cano started the city’s first-ever young professionals group, which meets at the credit union.
About 200 young professionals from around the state attended the first networking event, which focused on the city’s positive qualities—moving away from the negative events of the past.
Cano also ran with the opportunity to engage small-business owners, many of whom are from cultures that might not trust financial institutions.
As the credit union’s first contact for small-business owners in Central Falls’ underserved community, Cano regularly works with credit unions in other cities. She urges credit unions to change certain policies and create products specific to business owners’ needs.
Case in point: One of Navigant’s lending practices required a business to have $100,000 in annual revenues to qualify for loans. But Cano knew many local businesses didn’t meet that requirement.
“In building relationships with local business owners, I understood those business owners had integrity and would faithfully pay off any loan,” she says.
This conviction prompted Cano to plead her case to senior management, which led to the lending department’s creation of an innovative microloan program.
“We have three businesses piloting it and our leadership is very supportive,” she says.
Without the support of the leadership team and cooperation from the lending group, Cano says these initiatives wouldn’t succeed.
Cano also created Businesses Together for a Stronger Community, which offers resources and educational opportunities to help businesses work together. The group, with nearly 70 members, just celebrated its three-year anniversary.
“It’s important to understand that reaching into new markets will strengthen the credit union’s image in the community,” she says. “I’m blessed that my leadership trusts me to help the community grow professionally and personally, and that it’s a team effort with our credit union’s family culture. The positive impact we’re having has set the standard for other Rhode Island financial institutions.”