Innovation: You Have to Start Somewhere

July 26, 2010

Denise Gabel, chief innovation officer, for the Filene Research Institute, says the U.S. credit union movement could learn about innovation from a French Canadian singer from Montreal.

CU Mag: Who in the world is Bernard LaChance? 

Gabel: He's a French Canadian singer from Montreal. He used his personal ingenuity and initiative to capture Oprah Winfrey's attention two years ago by posting a video on YouTube in front of the Chicago Theater.

I saw him on Oprah's show and felt an immediate connection. I remember thinking: Now that's innovation on a shoestring.

Like Bernard, I like to ask questions, to experiment, and to take a risk. So, I contacted Bernard and invited him to Filene's "Big.Bright.Minds" meeting in Montreal last year.

Together, Bernard and I took a risk that day. Bernard was a singer, not a speaker and I needed him to deliver solid brain food to credit union executives.

Bernard was a bit unexpected. And the experiment paid off. Since then we have become friends. Bernard landed a manager, and together they inspire people to reach their dreams by starting somewhere.

Bernard has had a fantastic journey so far: He learned English by watching the entire series of "Friends" five times with the captions.

He set up card tables in Times Square to sell his CD. The first time he called the Chicago Theater and inquired about renting the place for a concert, they hung up.

Wearing a T-shirt with the concert hall seating chart printed on was an idea initially born out of need since he didn't have a free hand as he was placing headphones on passersby so they could hear his voice. Turns out that the T-shirt became the icon that gained a great deal of attention and the thing people remembered.

He always says, "You have to start somewhere."

CU Mag: What part of the credit union business is most ripe for innovation?

Gabel: Small business. Growing people, ideas, and entrepreneurs.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the average length of official unemployment increased to 24.5 weeks, the longest since the government began tracking this data in 1948. The number of long-term unemployed has now jumped to 4.4 million, an all-time high.

The longer people are out of work, the more creative they get. They begin to discover new ways to make money.

This is an opportunity for credit unions to help people in their communities. Like Bernard. He admits he wrote a check to rent the Chicago Theater that would have bounced that day. But, he went to the street and sold some tickets.

What if Bernard had partnered with his credit union from the start to grow his idea, his talent, and his business?

CU Mag: What does a successful North American credit union look like in 10 years?

Gabel: I don't know, but I can tell you the skills people will need to get there.

The future is uncertain—that's clear. A strong credit union system will be built on small bets and experiments by people who say, “Why not?” and “What if?”

Most important, the consumer and member must remain at the center. That's how cooperatives stay grounded.

Earnings pressures will continue as the competition from traditional financial services providers will persist. New pressures will emerge as nontraditional competitors enter the stage.

Think about the payment and transaction business being provided by mobile phone companies, new startups, or employers, all with the swipe of your badge. Why not? These things are actually being done today.

What if credit unions continued to help members reach their dreams, but instead of starting with finances first they began with the person and helping them build their ideas? What if?

You have to start somewhere.