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 Unitus Community Credit Union’s Assistant Vice President, Member Experience, Char Sears. The $1.7 billion Portland, Ore.-based credit union supports more than 107,000 members and 11 branches.
By W.B. King
What first attracted Char Sears to the credit union movement? The realization that it’s possible for people to come together as a community, pool resources and make a difference.
“I came into the credit union space in 2004 as the result of the best kind of peer pressure. I have family and friends who have worked in credit unions and shared their wonderful experiences,” Sears said. “What really won me over was the ‘people helping people’ philosophy and opportunity to positively impact my local community.”
Beginning her professional career at Unitus Community Credit Union as a member service representative, Sears would go on to become an assistant manager, branch manager, contact center manager and assistant vice president and remote experience manager before assuming her current position in 2021 as assistant vice president of member experience.
“Nearly 20 years later, I’m still thrilled with my decision to enter the credit union industry,”
said Sears, who graduated from Mt. Hood Community College and later received degrees from Portland State University (CEPE Program) and Pomona College’s Western CUNA Management School.
Creating Space for Women
The same year Sears began her career in the credit union industry, the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) launched. According to its website, NCWIT “is the farthest-reaching network of change leaders focused on advancing innovation by correcting underrepresentation in computing.”
Sears, a supporter of the organization, told Finopotamus that NCWIT was chartered “with the goal of supporting women in technology, completing research, and creating a space to analyze the data and its subsequent impacts.”
In 2004, Sears said women comprised roughly 25% of the tech sector, noting that there has long been “significantly fewer women” in leadership positions.
“That’s shamefully low, and unfortunately the numbers are about the same nearly 20 years later,” she continued. “Companies need to reclaim the talent — and significant influence on future innovation — from women and other underrepresented groups.”
While anecdotal, Sears pointed to Unitus Community Credit Union and its collective effort to try to increase the noted percentage of women in tech and leadership roles.
“At Unitus, I have had the benefit of seeing strong representation [of women] on our board of directors, and in several executive positions held by women throughout the years and today,” she said. “These relationships are highly valued as these women have ‘paid it forward’ by supporting emerging female leaders at Unitus and beyond.”
Among Unitus Community Credit Union’s inspiring women, Sears offered, is Senior Vice President and Chief Retail Officer Corlinda Wooden.
“Corlinda has always encouraged me to raise my hand when I may not have believed in my own abilities. I learned from her that we are the architects of our own stories, and can do amazing things. The hard work is in the strategy, preparation, daring to be bold, and never being afraid to fail,” Sears continued. “Corlinda gives others an opportunity to grow, take the stage, and learn along the way as she cheers on from the stands. Our relationship over the years has been so valuable personally and professionally.”
Sears does her best to carry Wooden’s supportive, inclusive philosophy forward. “I serve as a mentor, advocating for and sponsoring women, encouraging them to keep going, never give up, and believe in themselves, fearlessly.”
And with 40% of its 25-person tech department women, Unitus Community Credit Union stands well above the noted national average. Employees in the tech department are 12% boomers, 28% Gen Xers and 60% millennials, Sears noted.
Pulling Tech From Other Industries
When Sears is determining what technology applications and trends are worth a look or adopting, she takes a “global” view into member experiences across every delivery channel, while also paying attention to employee/member interactions.
“Our team prioritizes analyzing data and research to identify what gaps may exist and then works diligently to fill those gaps. It is important to dig into research and stay in tune with trends that are not solely focused on the financial industry,” Sears continued. “There are cool things happening in healthcare and other industries that we can pull from and explore. Attending conferences, trainings, labs, and workshops are key to networking and finding individuals to ‘co-create’ for the future.”
Sears and her colleagues also rely on “trusted external resources” for consultation and guidance.
“We lean on our technology partners and industry associations such as CUNA,” she said. “In fact, I just got back from Western CUNA Management School, which never fails to spark ideas and inspiration that we bring back to the credit union.”
Collaboration and Community
Recent tech initiatives that excite Sears include leveraging Glia’s Digital Customer Service platform. The New York City-based company helps financial services companies modernize how they support customers in a digital world.
“This allows us to provide human connection within digital channels,” she noted. “With Glia, we’ve been able to launch a virtual branch that has proven very successful, reducing handle times, and improving member satisfaction.”
Unitus Community Credit Union, in conjunction with two other regional credit unions, has also worked with Cozera. The Portland, Ore.-based company provides an identity-authentication-as-a-service solution.
“We’ve partnered with the company to build a product from the ground up,” she said. “We participated in UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) design, user testing, and launched the product to our members – collaborating every step of the way.”
The result is a solution named “id-go,” she said.
“It’s a product that provides simple, secure member verification through a device’s biometrics. We now utilize id-go in our call center and through several development cycles the product is expanding,” she explained. “It is exciting to see what impact the product is having to deliver a better member experience.”
In Sears view, this collective effort speaks directly to the power of the credit union movement and underscores the industry ethos she first encountered in 2004.
“The credit union movement’s origin story is powerful; people in the community coming together and pooling resources to help each other. Communities are built and sustained on this model, and it’s reflected in the credit union mission,” she continued. “Even though credit unions technically can be seen as competitors, we recognize that the credit union movement is larger than any one organization, which fosters collaboration and community.”
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