DEI: ‘Lean in before you lead’

Use a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion to create equitable financial products and services.

July 1, 2020

Embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) isn’t just the right thing to do, it makes good business sense, especially as the U.S. continues to diversify, says Samira Salem, CUNA senior policy analyst.

“It’s clear that advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion promises access to a growing market for credit unions,” says Salem, who addressed a CUNA Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion e-School offered as a free member benefit.

A DEI approach to market expansion means credit unions must understand the changing marketplace and use a DEI lens to create equitable financial products and services that respond to the needs of people of color and underserved populations.

In addition, credit unions must build diversity, equity, and inclusion within their organizations, Salem says.

“Doing so signals to members they are valued and the services they will receive are more equitable,” she says. “In turn, this builds trust that helps credit unions better understand and serve these groups.”

Angela Russell, CUNA Mutual Group’s vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion, says the work of DEI is to remove social and institutional inequities that create disparities in outcomes for different communities.

By “peeling back the onion” on these disparities, “what we most often find is institutional inequities,” she says.

These inequities, which often are created by unconscious biases, create “downstream impacts” that relate to health, finance, education and other social outcomes, Russell says.

‘Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion promises access to a growing market for credit unions.’
Samira Salem

UW Credit Union’s DEI journey took a big step forward when it hired Sheila Milton as director of cultural competency and inclusion in 2019. Prior to that, diversity efforts at the $3.3 billion asset credit union in Madison, Wis., focused primarily on equity, although it had a strong track record of executive training, branding, community building, and sponsorships built around cultural diversity.

“We wanted more for our members and employees,” she says. “So to be a catalyst we had to do a lot more leaning in.”

An organizational assessment and external survey led to three discoveries:

  • Bias existed within all business practices.
  • The organization needed to be explicit with its DEI vision and let that guide action.
  • DEI should be practiced by all but owned by the leadership team.

DEI now is “explicit” within UW Credit Union, Milton says.

“It was more than words,” she says. “We needed a full-circle strategy that could sustain the important work that was taking place and elevate it to the point of culture.”

Milton offers three takeaways about advancing DEI efforts:

  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Change doesn’t—and shouldn’t—happen overnight.
  • Bring in experts. Treat DEI as a professional development opportunity and be willing to learn.
  • Talk less and listen more.

“Lean in before you lead,” she says.