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  • Writer's pictureW.B. King

Women in Technology: Unitus Community Credit Union’s Jessica Smith

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 of Remote Experience Jessica Smith.

By W.B. King

While “technology” isn’t theoretically in the title she assumed in February 2022, Unitus Community Credit Union’s Assistant Vice President of Remote Experience Jessica Smith leverages tech on a daily basis to “discover, implement and refine products, services and processes,” she told Finopotamus.

Growing up in the 1990s, Smith had the “unique opportunity to see technology evolve and improve the way we do things,” she noted.

“From dial-up internet to Wi-Fi, floppy disks to the cloud, and even the Walkman evolving into music streaming, the progression of technology over the decades allows us to better access products and services, especially in the financial industry,” Smith offered. “We are available 24/7 in the palm of our members’ hands, providing convenience, security, and customer service no matter where they may be.”

Jessica Smith

With dual degrees in applied sciences/sociology and radio broadcasting/advertising, from Mt. Hood Community College, Smith held a number of positions before joining Unitus CCU in October 2017 as a branch manager. 

“I began working in the financial industry in 2007, moving from branch management roles into credit union administration,” she explained. “Having hands-on experience through different positions gives me the ability to anticipate our members’ needs whether they are in a branch of conducting business remotely.”

The $1.7 billion Portland, Ore.-based Unitus CCU supports more than 104,682 members at 13 branch locations (12 physical branches and one virtual branch).

Tech: A Tool to Innovate

Whereas she once viewed technology as a tool to accomplish basic tasks when she began her career, today Smith said tech is an all-encompassing means for innovation that touches all departments. As examples, she recalled sending a fax to close a loan or using an MS-DOS program to process a check.

At Unitus CCU, she said the goal is to always evolve. The credit union, for instance, has developed “id-go” at its call center, which ties a member’s device/biometrics to the number they are calling in from. When the system recognizes the member’s number, she explained a text is sent to the member for authentication.

“We pride ourselves on innovation. We offer financial education tools for members, many of whom have historically been unable to access this critical information,” she continued. “We created a virtual branch that offers an in-branch experience from the comfort of a member’s home. Our security tools help fight fraud.”

Technology, she added, “has opened the door to a superior member experience, a more efficient workforce, and the convenience and security that members demand from their financial institution.”  

Overcoming Obstacles

Along with noting the changes in member expectations, Smith has witnessed a good deal of transformation in how women operate within the tech space.

“Since beginning my career in the mid-2000s, I have seen a drastic shift with women in leadership positions in our industry,” she told Finopotamus. “Not only are more women holding these positions, but they are now accepted and empowered by colleagues and the general public.”

As a branch manager, however, she recalled a low point in her professional journey — an experience that unfortunately wasn’t uncommon for women.

“Some customers wouldn’t speak with me simply because I was a woman. Once, a customer drove to a branch across town to speak with that location’s manager because he was male,” Smith shared. “I didn’t have a female manager until 2014. The industry has evolved a lot, especially in the credit union and fintech space.”

Access to mentorship is critical for women working in technology, she added. Smith pointed to her champion, Corlinda Wooden, Unitus CCU’s former chief retail officer who is now president of Wooden Consulting.

“She saw my potential and encouraged me to challenge myself in my current role, offering me the opportunity to grow as a professional and as a leader,” she said. “Corlinda has had a significant impact on my career, teaching me to be my authentic self, which is so different than when I started my career when women in finance and technology were almost taught to hide their talents.”

Among other lesson learned from Wooden, she added, is that women can be both successful at work and as working mothers. “Seeing her humanity in both of those roles helped me feel more comfortable being myself and leading with grace.”

As Smith moves forward in her career, she intends to pay these lessons forward.

“My mission is to actively look for opportunities to highlight, give credit, showcase, collaborate, challenge, and support aspiring women in our organization and our industry,” she noted. “I intentionally give my employees the opportunities, empowerment, empathy, trust, and respect that I received from Corlinda.”

Unitus CCU, she explained, has “strong female leadership in decision-making and technology roles,” which has created an inclusive environment.

“Women deserve to be in all areas of leadership, including technology,” Smith said. “We have women leading our strategic partnerships, portfolio management, member experience, product management, digital banking, business analysis and systems solutions.”

Determining Member Needs Through Collaboration

Along with Unitus CCU’s id-go offering, Smith is proud of the credit union’s AZIE Mobile App, which won the 2023 World Council of Credit Unions Digital Growth Award as well as launching the first Spanish-speaking chatbot in the Northwest, among other tech initiatives on the horizon.

“The branch transformation excites me. We are shifting to smaller, modern facilities with a heavy focus on technology. Our new branches offer digital screens, innovation stations, community rooms, and areas to video conference with a banker, mortgage specialist, or financial advisor,” she said.

“Of course, artificial intelligence is also exciting,” she continued. “I am eager to see how it develops and how we can leverage the technology to enhance fraud detection, onboarding, financial planning, loan/account origination, and improved member experiences.”

Along with noting the importance of adhering to the credit union mantra of “people helping people,” Smith said the credit unions stand apart from other financial institutions because players in the industry are always willing to collaborate.   

“The development of id-go involved a collaboration of credit unions. We shared learning, challenges and technological options to create a CUSO (credit union service organization) to shape the product,” she said. “This relationship has been valuable, offering us the ability to request customizations, share feedback and determine what credit union membership needs.”


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