How A Little Innovation Helps Coastal FCU Support Budding Businesses

A partnership with a business incubator puts the North Carolina credit union in touch with 220 companies and 900 employees.

Coastal Federal Credit Union ($2.7B, Raleigh, NC) is based in Raleigh, NC, but its roots stretch throughout the state’s Research Triangle. In fact, it was tech employees who founded Coastal in 1967 to serve the Triangle’s IBM community. And of the credit union’s 17 branches, all but two are located within the Triangle, which encompasses the communities of Raleigh, Durham, Cary, and Chapel Hill, among others.


Coastal FCU
DATA AS OF 03.31.15

HQ: Raleigh, NC
MEMBERS: 215,292
ROA: 1.06%

A high concentration of tech companies such as Verizon, Cisco Systems, and Qualcomm have offices in The Triangle, and as more tech, research, and financial enterprises have entered the area, the populations of its largest hubs have grown significantly. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, in the past 20 years the populations of Durham and Raleigh have increased 67% and 90%, respectively.

The Triangle is a perfect area for a business incubator to thrive.

Opened in 2010, American Underground is a startup ecosystem that provides the region’s largest co-working space for entrepreneurs. When Coastal signed on as a founding partner in 2015, the space was home to more than 220 companies and their 900 employees.

Living The Sustainability Movement

According to Creighton Blackwell, Coastal’s vice president of corporate affairs, he and American Underground’s chief strategist, Adam Klein, first discussed in earnest a potential Coastal sponsorship in the latter part of 2014. Both men believed, and still do, in the sustainability movement and the triple bottom line that companies should focus on economic stewardship, environmental stewardship, and social justice to create sustainable communities.

Credit unions have been living the triple bottom line for more than a century. These values manifest themselves in the strategies, decisions, and outcomes credit unions juggle every day. And they are increasingly influenced by innovation, by new and different ways to solve problems.

“Innovation is something we strive for,” Blackwell says. “We want to drive change. When we saw American Underground turn into an innovation hub, we knew we wanted to be a part of it.”

For Blackwell, economic prosperity rings synonymous with financial education. So the credit union assists these young companies with questions about financing, budgeting, and building a business.

“Our goal is to give our financial expertise and experience to every individual who is a part of the Underground,” Blackwell says.

Working In The Underground

The American Underground is a Google for Entrepreneurs tech hub, one of seven in North America. It offers offices and co-working space as well as events for networking and opportunities for collaboration.

Even before signing on to sponsor American Underground, Coastal had an eight-person community engagement team that worked to deepen relationships with its nearly 1,600 select employee groups using financial education as one of its many avenues.

This team now also represents the credit union at American Underground. Twice a month, members of the community engagement team spend a full day on-site at the Underground’s campus, a three-story co-working space based in a historic tobacco factory.

When Coastal’s team is on-site, its members provide one-on-one personalized advice, speak to groups of entrepreneurs, or sit on committees that help refine entrepreneurs’ business plans.

I’m a part of one committee that listens to and judges pitches from organizations before they make regional or national presentations to request funding.

Creighton Blackwell, Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Coastal Federal Credit Union

“I’m a part of one committee that listens to and judges pitches from organizations before they make regional or national presentations to request funding,” Blackwell says.

The credit union’s sponsorship also includes naming rights to a conference room at American Underground. Coastal holds one-on-one sessions and gives presentations in this room, but entrepreneurs can also use it as needed.

Finding Benefits In Financial Health

Blackwell considers Coastal’s sponsorship of American Underground another major avenue for the credit union to encourage innovation and positively impact members in the Triangle.

By helping local entrepreneurs build businesses, he hopes the credit union is able to increase the financial health and well-being of its community. And that, he says, is the key.

“The plus factor for us is to be able to have more members who are financially healthy by impacting businesses that are able to give more and better products to these consumers,” Blackwell says. “This isn’t about putting our logo out there. That’s not a great use of funds. We’re trying to have a stronger and more tangible impact.”

Blackwell declined to provide the terms of the sponsorship, calling it substantial and describing the return on investment as tremendous.

At this phase of the relationship, Coastal looks for qualitative success stories, companies who have come through the Underground and left in better shape than they started.

For example, Coastal participated and advised in a pitch competition to help shape the presentation for a company called Neuro+, which manufactures brain-controlled video games that help children and adults with ADHD build attention skills.

Through American Underground the credit union also connected with an entrepreneur who facilitated a partnership between Coastal and North Carolina Central University’s business entrepreneurship program.

Moving forward, Blackwell would like to see Coastal advise a more diverse array of businesses.

“Every type of business, every type of industry is in the Underground,” Blackwell says. “One of the lessons we’ve learned is to not think too narrowly about how we can make an impact.”

May 16, 2016

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