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  • Writer's pictureW.B. King

Women in Technology: Suncoast CU’s Darlene Johnson

In what is a recurring feature, Finopotamus spotlights innovative women who are positively impacting technology applications in the credit union industry, and beyond.


For this issue, we visited with Suncoast Credit Union’s Chief Growth Officer Darlene Johnson.


By W.B. King


Over the last 34 years, Darlene Johnson has held a myriad of positions at Suncoast Credit Union, including posts in consumer lending, member solutions (collections), learning and development, member experience and as chief operating officer. More recently, she assumed the role of chief growth officer.


“My areas of responsibility include Suncoast’s digital strategies, experiences and delivery, including fintech, where close collaboration comes into play with our IT teams,” she told Finopotamus.  


Darlene Johnson

“While I don’t have direct oversight of our IT division, we work in very close collaboration as it relates to our digital strategies and product and service delivery. There has been a transformation within our project delivery teams, with the credit union embracing a scaled, agile framework,” she continued. “This strategic shift prioritizes member-centric design, expedites speed to market, and builds capacity through process redesign. The result is a robust infrastructure capable of handling the substantial growth we have experienced.”


The $17.5 billion Tampa, Fla.-based credit union supports more than 1.1 million members and 78 branch locations.


Minority Majority Employer


Over the course of her career at Suncoast CU, Johnson has had a number of mentors and champions, including former Chief Lending Officer Vicki Lovett, who has since retired.


“Vicki was always there to provide guidance, listen to my stories and prop me up when I needed it. I have a passion for mentoring individuals of all levels within our organization,” she told Finopotamus. “Creating opportunities for the next generation is very important to me, which led me to create the Leadership Excellence Achievement Program, which, to date, has elevated over 120 team members into management roles.” The two-year program was designed to cultivate management and leadership talent within the credit union.


Suncoast CU, she added, “prides itself” on being a minority majority employer. To this end, 54% of leadership (manager and above) is under the age of 40, she offered.


“We are seeing more women working in digital strategies. At Suncoast, 66% of our digital strategy team are women, compared to only 12% women in our IT department, where the industry continues to be dominated by men,” Johnson noted.   


The Power of Collaboration


To ensure the credit union’s members are availed the best technology offerings, Johnson said Suncoast CU is continually seeking like-minded fintech partnerships.


“One standout collaboration is with Prizeout, a high-growth fintech venture endorsed by future driven investors, including Mark Cuban, empowers consumers to boost their purchasing power with participating merchants,” she explained. “The platform offers an avenue for merchants to connect with a targeted consumer base. By enticing consumers with premium rewards for their purchases, Prizeout augments buying power and creates a novel income stream for credit unions.”


In 2023, Suncoast CU was among nine credit unions that helped found the New York-based Prizeout, a credit union service organization (CUSO).


“When we learned about Prizeout’s technology and what it could do for our members and community, we were so excited,” Johnson noted at the time. “We wanted to implement it as quickly as possible and were very excited to join the CUSO as we believe it will truly help our local merchant community grow, and our members save more money.”


Another area of interest for Johnson and Suncoast CU is artificial intelligence (AI), which led to a partnership with Zest AI. With the goal of increasing revenue, reducing risk and automating compliance, the Burbank, Calif.-based CUSO’s software purportedly helps lenders make better decisions and better loans.


“AI has many business uses that help build capacity, create efficient and support inclusion,” she said. “Using more data, better math, and smarter software, it helps us safely expand credit access through more accurate risk prediction, faster credit decisions, and more inclusive lending.”


In Johnson’s view, it is this focus on collaboration with fintechs that differentiates the credit union industry from other financial institutions operating in the same space.


“When a new technology hits the market, we are energized when we bring credit union leaders together to evaluate, innovate and support implementation,” she said. “We don’t always have to be the first to market, sometimes it makes more sense for us to learn from each other through the sharing of best practices and pit falls and our industry is always happy to do so.”


To ensure Suncoast CU keeps an open mind to new service offerings, Johnson said her team always asks the following question: How do we bring more financial value to members through innovation?

 

“The foundation of our credit union is to improve the financial lives of our members and the communities we serve,” she continued. “So we needed to figure out how to save our members money and help them keep the money they had, which is why we look for unique partnerships with fintechs that hold our same core beliefs.”

 

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