Paying it forward
Hawaii First Federal CU CEO draws from personal experience as she helps members overcome their challenges.
Every hero has a backstory, and Laura Aguirre is no exception.
President/CEO of Hawaii First Federal Credit Union since 1992, Aguirre rose through the ranks by working hard, putting people first, and facing every obstacle head-on with a “why not?” attitude.
Now she leads the only credit union in Hawaii that grants mortgages allowing native Hawaiians to build homes on native lands.
The $39 million asset credit union in Kamuela also is a nationally recognized low-income designated credit union and a certified Community Development Financial Institution.
Aguirre has received numerous industry awards, including the 2009 Dora Maxwell Award for Social Responsibility, CUNA Rock Star recognition in 2013, and the Circle of Honor Leadership Award from the Opportunity Finance Network in 2014.
But her story started humbly, with Aguirre living in her car and struggling to get a job.
Whereas many people work hard to hide their trials and tribulations, Aguirre is happy to talk about the challenges she faced and how she overcame them.
Aguirre credits a counselor in a job placement agency for helping her land her first job. She considers him her own hero, and decided to always approach her work the same way—to help each and every person in need.
“I think we all have the power to be a hero to someone,” Aguirre says. “I’m an example of someone who had a hero in my life. It changed my life forever.”
Aguirre figured out how to bring her service mindset to life after attending Western CUNA Management School in 2002. She developed programs that allowed individuals with bad credit to get auto loans so they could buy cars and get to work.
And Hawaii First Federal generated an alternative to payday loans—the Pot of Gold reserve account—that gives members access to funds through a product that simultaneously builds a savings account.
“We’ve been able to invent some really unique products and services that our community needs,” Aguirre says.
Her willingness to think creatively about problems has also led to some innovative programs within Hawaii First Federal.
Aguirre saw some employees leaving their jobs after having children because of the staggering cost of infant child care.
So Aguirre created the Infant to Work program, which allows employees to bring their babies to work until they’re six months old. The arrangement reduces employee stress and eliminates child care costs while improving employee retention.
Aguirre is also proud of the two Community Resource Centers (CRCs) she launched through Hawaii First Federal. The CRCs offer financial counseling, job placement support, and other services to help people find the support they need to solve problems—financial or otherwise—in their lives.
Hawaii First Federal is now expanding the CRCs. The credit union has partnered with local employers to bring financial literacy programs to on-site employee training, and Aguirre is looking for more ways to reach more individuals.
“It’s so exciting,” she says. “We’re taking the CRC to the streets.”