Summit Credit Union Focuses On Women

The Wisconsin-based institution sets itself apart by focusing on the needs of women, helping them gain financial independence, and, most recently, helping people take steps to close the gender pay gap.

A special piece of art hangs in the home of Patricia D., a member of Summit Credit Union ($4.9B, Madison, WI). The work, professionally framed and matted, measures 12 inches by 13 inches, and shows dozens of pieces of flat plastic, all of them cut into different shapes. The collage was an unexpected gift from the credit union and celebrates a turning point in her life.

Patricia spent 18 months working with Summit to become free of oppressive credit card debt, and after finishing that process, representatives at the credit union assembled the cut-up pieces of her credit cards into a collage and had it framed as a gift to remind her of what she had accomplished over a year-and-a-half period.

Kim Sponem, President and CEO, Summit Credit Union

Although most credit unions help members escape debt and improve their financial lives, Patricia’s story is emblematic because it reflects Summit’s commitment to serving women.

According to CEO Kim Sponem, Summit began its specific focus on women in 2007 following a strategic planning meeting with her senior management team.

“We were discussing the area where we could make the most meaningful impact, so we turned our attention to the unique challenges women face from a socioeconomic perspective,” Sponem says. “We found women often felt ignored by the financial services industry, especially the investment-advisory area. The ads at that time depicted white men, but virtually no women. In ads that did show a woman, she was in the background with no seat at the table.”

The irony behind that is that while most FIs don’t directly focus on serving that consumer segment, women frequently make the greater percentage of purchasing decisions within a household, and make many of the day-to-day economic decisions in families, buying everything from birthday gifts to groceries, and more.

Approximately 20% of U.S. small businesses are owned by women, but that figure is growing, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We felt we could help women grow the businesses they own,” Sponem says. “The financial system is tilted in favor men. It wasn’t until 1974 that a woman could legally enter into a bank loan on her own; she needed to have a male relative or business coworker co-sign any contract prior to 1974.”


DATA AS OF 03.31.22

HQ: Madison, WI
MEMBERS: 227,353
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 14.8%
ROA: 1.10%

Sponem says it made perfect sense for Summit to be a financial institution for women. The credit union has always taken a comprehensive approach to designing actionable plans that women can use to make changes in their lives to achieve financial security and the prospect for a comfortable retirement, she says. Summit representatives ask detailed questions of members in an attempt to get personal and understand members’ concerns about money. The goal is to better understand how women view risk and what it means to them to borrow money. Not surprisingly, Sponem adds, women exhibit an aversion to risk and consider borrowing to be an expense instead of a necessary risk, especially when it concerns building and growing a business beyond a home-based operation.
“Women tend to ask themselves how doing business that requires a purchase or an investment fits in with the welfare of their family,” she says. “They tend to have a practical, inclusive, and more personal approach to money, showing more concern with how their decisions benefit their family rather than just themselves. Men more often look at finances on a product basis instead of the higher purpose of what the product may do for them and their families.”

Summit’s team of financial coaches conduct evaluations of women who want to learn more about the benefits of saving, reducing or eliminating debt, and investing for the future. In particular, Summit reps are trained to listen for the frustrations that woman express about money.

“If after a discovery interview they leave the office or the phone conversation with unanswered questions, that tends to put the woman in an inaction mode,” says Sponem. “With outstanding questions and no clear action plan, a woman is likely to take no action at all and remain frustrated.”

Put On Your Red Shoes

Since making the decision to focus on women, Summit has launched a variety of programs aimed at helping those members improve their financial wellbeing.

The Red Shoes initiative is aimed at helping women gain confidence and control of their financial decisions through a regimen of financial coaching. Participants learn valuable tips and habits about how to increase savings, create budgets, control spending, reduce debt and manage credit — all lessons that teach enrollees to make smart money decisions. When they go through the program members know where they want to go, where they are now, and what steps they need to follow to reach their destination.

Project Money, another wellness program, offers teams the chance to win a grand prize of $10,000, along with awards of $2,500 for three other teams. Throughout the process, which takes several months, Summit tracks each team’s progress and shares their stories on WKOW TV in Madison so that the entire community can get inspired, along with weekly blogs, monthly video blogs, and more. The program is wildly popular.

“We created Project Money to help participants better their daily lives in a format that also inspires thousands of our neighbors to improve their financial wellness and lives, too,” explains Sponem. “At its heart, Project Money is a public financial education program that helps people, families, and larger communities become financially stronger through real-life financial tips they can put into action.”

Summit also created an offshoot of Project Money called Project Teen Money to educate younger, high school-age youth about the benefits of responsible money management. The program is modeled after Project Money, with six students from four local high schools selected to compete. The students create three short videos that inspire their peers to save, spend, and give back to the community. Each 30- to 90-second video brings participants one step closer to winning a $2,500 scholarship, while the runners up each receive a $500 scholarship.

Along with those programs and others, Summit’s latest efforts are focused on narrowing the pay equality gap and helping women address that issue. As part of those efforts, says Sponem, the credit union will be “working to encourage younger women and girls to look at jobs in formerly male-dominated professions, such as information technology, for example.”

She notes that many professions dominated by women — such as personal care workers, administrative assistants, customer service representatives, and retail sales associates — are also fields where pay inequality is more pronounced. The key to advancing equal pay, says Sponem, lies in ensuring women continue to advance their education, including going back to school to retool their knowledge base and reinventing themselves to reach higher competitive salary levels.

August 22, 2022

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