Ricardo Romero was 4 years old when his mother brought him and his brother from Peru. He was 17 when he was told he had to anglicize his first name on a name tag.
Today, Romero is president and CEO of Seattle Credit Union ($1.0B, Seattle, WA). He has spent the past nine years at the helm of a cooperative that firmly embraced the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion even before the nationwide focus on DEI. Here, he shares insight about his cooperative’s commitment to DEI as it serves a culturally and economically diverse membership.
Richard Romero, President/CEO, Seattle Credit Union
On being shaped by an immigrant upbringing …
My upbringing was heavily influenced by many of the challenges that immigrants have coming into this country. My immigrant story is not based on fleeing persecution, crime, or war. My story is about my mother pursuing the American Dream and believing that her two sons, being fatherless, would have better opportunities for education and be able to thrive.
I was fortunate my mother was able to get reduced tuition for me and my brother at the local Catholic school, which kept us out of a challenging public school system. This opportunity helped shape who I am today and led me to want to give back to the community and to those who need assistance to prosper. This also is a key component of DEI.
On defining diversity, equity, and inclusion …
DEI has a personal meaning to me because of what I’ve lived and what I’ve seen. I’ve always believed in needing diversity of opinion and point of view. I believe we operate better at every level when we do not think as a group and when people help us see beyond our experiences.
Equity to me means having an opportunity to participate. I had the opportunity to participate in a private education because my tuition was reduced — that’s one example of how I benefited from equity.
CU QUICK FACTS
SEATTLE CREDIT UNION
HQ: Seattle, WA
DATA AS OF 03.31.21
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 20.8%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 11.9%
Inclusion was a bit more challenging for me. I was a non-English speaking 4-year-old thrust into public kindergarten with no ESL program [editor's note: Romero attended Catholic school from first to 12th grades]. I had to learn English on my own and struggle through school. It was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool to learn how to swim.
I was often ridiculed for speaking Spanish and for having a Spanish name. When I got a job at the age of 17, I was told I would have to change my name from Ricardo to Richard to get a name tag. This influenced how I assimilated, and these experiences help me understand what inclusion is and isn’t.
On member-owned financial cooperatives and DEI …
Financial cooperatives were created to bring resources together to help people in need. Being member-owned provides the ideal platform for DEI. The caveat is that we must ensure our boards, our management, and our staff members are diverse. If members elect the best board members, and board members hold their management teams accountable to DEI fundamentals, then DEI will be the cornerstone of our movement.
Read more about how Seattle Credit Union applies its commitment to DEI to its highest level of leadership in “How To Build A Diverse Board.”
On DEI at Seattle Credit Union …
SCU has intentionally focused on DEI for almost eight years. Through the diversification of our board of directors, implementation of DEI principles at the board level, and continued focus on diversity among our management team and staff, we continue to expand in our journey.
On our horizon now is the integration of DEI practices into our policies, procedures, hiring process, and governance. My role is to ensure we have the right team focused on the implementation and to ensure we continue to focus on our mission and vision.
On DEI principles and the creation of community impact …
Seattle Credit Union is well known for stepping outside our comfort zone and for creating custom programs that speak to our communities. Our approach is to ask communities to design their own “ideal product.” We work from there, creating the perfect program that fits their needs and not one that only fits ours.
Read more about how Seattle Credit Union identifies, designs, and deploys products and services targeted to its community’s needs in “Purpose + Data = A New Take On Product Development.”
On leadership style and DEI …
I’m a big believer in being a servant leader. My role is to assemble the best team I can and provide them with the tools, space, and support they need to do the best job they can. I provide guidance, point to our vision and mission, and make sure the organization is aligned from top to bottom.
My goal is to have employees that want to work at SCU to support our vision and mission and not because of our benefits or location or because we have a bus stop in front of our HQ.
“The majority of the employees in our new employee orientation program are here because they believe in what we do and they want to be part of the impact we have on the community.”
Today, the majority of the employees in our new employee orientation program are here because they believe in what we do and they want to be part of the impact we have on the community. This has been one of the biggest indicators of our success.
On advice to rising credit union executives …
You have to be authentic and intentional. You have to be self-aware and willing to identify where the hard work has to happen. You have to be fearless and relentless and always focus on doing the right thing. It’s a hard journey, and I’ll be the first to admit I will never be finished learning.
Lastly, be patient and give people grace when they are trying to learn and do the right thing.
Join the Impact Network and take advantage of the resources in the Credit Union Impact Center. Both are initiatives from Callahan & Associates to help member-owned financial cooperatives put greater focus on “the credit union difference” they make in their communities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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