National JACL Credit Union President/CEO Dean Hirabayashi

Q&A: Dean Hirabayashi

National JACL Credit Union president/CEO on APA Heritage Month and leading a small credit union.

May 1, 2023

National JACL Credit Union President/CEO Dean Hirabayashi has been a credit union guy his whole life. A 38-year veteran of the industry, Hirabayashi served on the board for years before joining the staff in 2006.

Over the past 17 years, Hirabayashi has ingrained himself with the culture of small credit unions, particularly the unique culture of National JACL in Salt Lake City. The 80-year-old institution, which formed out of the Topaz Internment Camp and a relationship with the Japanese American Citizens League, continues to fight for Asian Americans’ civil rights.

As part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we recently caught up with Hirabayashi to discuss National JACL, the $39 million asset credit union’s membership base, the movement’s diversity efforts, challenges facing small credit unions, and more.

CUNA News: How did National JACL Credit Union start?

Dean Hirabayashi: There was an internment camp called Topaz in Delta, Utah.

Toward the middle and end of World War II, the government allowed some of the internees to leave the camp as long as they had jobs. Once they earned money, none of the financial institutions allowed them to put money in a savings account, let alone get a car loan, home loan, or anything for business.

A group of individuals in the Topaz Internment Camp heard about this and thought, “We need to do something. What can we do to help these individuals?”

They did some research and found this thing called a cooperative financial institution—a credit union. They decided to pull their money together, start a credit union, and help those who needed it.

Q: What does Asian Pacific American (APA) Heritage Month mean to you?

A: It brings up a few words:

  • Awareness. It's important for not only the APA communities to learn about other AAPI groups, but also for the general population of the U.S. It's important that others are aware of APA groups and that we're just like everybody else, but we have an unusual and interesting cultural history and background.
  • Education. We need to educate people about cultures and our commonalities rather than the differences among us.
  • Community within those groups. As generations move on, unfortunately we lose some of the historical and cultural knowledge. So we have programs or activities during the month to teach kids about their own culture.
  • Unity among the community.

Q: How have diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts changed since your career started?

A: It’s expanded tenfold. When I started in the credit union industry, it wasn't anything anybody talked about. It's been awesome to see the rising awareness. It's a 180-degree turnaround.

There's a lot of work to be done, but it’s much better now and it's great to see that awareness.

Q: Where is there room to improve?

A: I'd love to see more diversity in executive positions within our industry. There's obviously a few, but I would love to see many more.

The same within the political arena. I'd love to see more diversity and multicultural individuals in politics and advocacy.

‘There's a lot of work to be done, but it’s much better now and it's great to see that awareness.’
Dean Hirabayashi

Q: What has kept you in the credit union industry for 38 years?

A: One thing I've always loved and appreciated about the credit union industry is that it doesn't matter how small or large you are, we're a community and we’re willing to share resources and ideas.

There’s no way community or large banks are going to share their practices.

I can call America First Credit Union or Mountain America Credit Union and they'd be more than happy to share ideas and steer me toward some place to help with whatever I'm asking for. I love that about credit unions.

Q: What do you like to do outside of work?

A: I love to golf, and I try to get out fishing as much as I can. I didn't do any ice fishing this year, but I try to go at least once during the winter. I love to do outdoor activities, and Utah has lots of great streams, lakes, trails, and everything.

And then I love being around the family and getting together with friends. That's my relaxation outlet.

Q: What’s the last good book you’ve read, or movie or TV show you’ve watched?

A: I like to read, but my time is so limited. One of the things I look forward to when I retire is being able to read a book again.

I know it’s been a craze for a while, but recently my wife and I got into these J-dramas or K-dramas. These Japanese TV dramas are addicting. I get home late, so my wife will stay up and we'll watch an episode of one of these dramas.