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How Element FCU Defies the Odds with Grit, Humor, and Heart

Linda Bodie, CEO of Element Federal Credit Union, on The Remarkable Credit Union podcast

Welcome to our 100th episode of The Remarkable Credit Union podcast! We couldn’t have asked for a better guest to help us celebrate this milestone—the inimitable Linda Bodie, Chief + Innovator at Element Federal Credit Union.

Linda joins us to share some incredible stories from her over 25 years as a leader in the credit union movement, including how Element FCU became the first financial institution in the country to offer mobile deposit on iPhone; what led to the creation of CU Pride, the credit union association for LGBTQ+ professionals; and how Element FCU succeeds in taking risks and making its members laugh along the way.

We also tackle this month’s BIG question:

How can credit union leaders foster a space—for members and staff—that is both safe and brave?

Key takeaways:

  1. Solving problems doesn’t necessarily require deep pockets—and in fact, sometimes more limited resources paired with a healthy sense of curiosity can lead to more creative solutions. Element FCU’s part-time IT person taught himself how to build an app in six weeks that put Element at the forefront of digital banking technology, ahead of Chase and Bank of America. That’s an amazing story.
  2. Everything starts with knowing your membership. When you know your membership, you can create a sense of inclusion and belonging, and you can also make what some in the credit union movement might consider “risky” decisions — like moving into cannabis banking or making T-shirts with funny hashtags — because you know what will resonate and you’ve already done the hard work of earning your members’ trust.
  3. Building both safe and brave spaces is important at the credit union level and also for the movement as a whole. CU Pride at its heart is simply about helping credit union professionals from the LGBTQ+ community feel comfortable coming together, being themselves, and talking openly about their identity.

Read the full transcript:

Katie Stone:
Welcome to another episode of the Remarkable Credit Union Podcast. We created our podcast to help credit union leaders think outside of the box about marketing, technology and community impact. The Remarkable Credit Union is brought to you by PixelSpoke. A digital marketing agency that works with credit unions to create user-friendly, high-converting, award-winning websites.
As a B Corp and an employee-owned cooperative, we believe that business can and should be a force for good. Each episode, we bring on expert guests from the credit union and broader cooperative movement for conversations about the intersection of marketing and social impact. Our goal is to challenge your preconceptions about business as usual.
And provide you with actionable takeaways that you can use to grow your membership, improve the financial health of your cooperative and better serve your community. I’m Katie Stone. I’m the CEO and a co-owner here at PixelSpoke.

Kerala Taylor:
And I’m Kerala Taylor, I’m the senior marketing manager and also a co-owner here at PixelSpoke. Today, I’m really excited to delve into our big question, which is, how can credit union leaders foster a space for members and staff that is both safe and brave? To help us answer this question, I’m really excited to welcome Linda Bodie.
She is the chief + innovator at Element Federal Credit Union, and she has been at Element since 1998, quite a few years now. She’s also a co-founder of CU Pride, the LGBTQ+ association for credit union professionals. Amongst many designations, has been named an Herb Wegner Memorial Award winner for outstanding achievement.
Linda lives in wild and wonderful West Virginia with her wife, Brenda, teenage daughter, and two canines. Linda, thanks so much for joining us.

Linda Bodie:
Well, thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Kerala Taylor:
We are so excited to have you. We have heard so much about the great work you’ve done at Element. I mentioned that we’re exploring today what it means to create a space that is safe and brave. Speaking of brave, I would just like to backtrack to the beginning of your career as CEO or chief at Element Federal Credit Union.
As I understand it, you had no prior experience in the credit union industry. This opportunity came up and you said, “Yeah, I think I can try to run a credit union.” So that was brave. What did you learn in those early years? Did you ever worry that you were a little out of your depth or maybe suffer from imposter syndrome? Did any challenges come up that you totally didn’t feel prepared for?

Linda Bodie:
Yeah. That’s a lot of questions and I have a lot of answers to those. Yes, yes, yes. For the record, I have an accounting degree and I have a master’s degree in technology management. Even though I never run a credit union, I was a little bit intelligent enough to figure it out. Yeah. In 1998, I got the opportunity to jump into a small credit union, just three employees.
It was a very, very quick learning curve. I believe I’ve done every job in the credit union since that time. It was interesting, because I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was also interesting because I got to figure it out and create it the way I thought it should be. The way our membership thought it should be, so it was good and bad.
I try to look at things that way, like, “Well, this is difficult. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll do the best that I can do and hopefully do it right.” I did get lots of help from credit union professionals and even my NCUA examiner, because they knew that I was new and didn’t know what I was doing, so I accepted that help.
Yeah. Kudos to my NCUA examiner for taking the time to show me the ropes of how to run a credit union. I didn’t think I’d stay, let me tell you that part. I didn’t know much about credit unions, so I’m like, “This is just a job that I’ll take for a little while until I find my dream job.” Well, I figured out I found my dream job, so I’m still here. It’s still my dream job.

Katie Stone:
I saw you even got a tattoo of your credit union’s logo, so I’m guessing you’re probably going to stick around for a while.

Linda Bodie:
Yeah, and I got that tattoo in 2012. We’ve been through six name changes, so that was number six. I said, “We’re never changing the name again. We’re never changing the logo. It’s on here for life, so we’re not going there.”
The next person who takes over when I retire, they can do whatever they want, but I’m still going to have my credit union logo. For the record, I have four credit union tattoos now.

Katie Stone:
Wow, that’s great.

Kerala Taylor:
Well, that’s commitment for sure.

Katie Stone:
Yeah. I love thinking about how you came in without specific credit union experience. I’m guessing that that probably gave you just a blank slate to start with in thinking about how to solve for the problems that the credit union was facing. I’m guessing that you didn’t have that kind of, “This is how we always do things,” attitude.
We talk a lot about similar things here at PixelSpoke around innovation, how it’s so much more than just flashy technology. And how it doesn’t just fall under the purview of fintechs and megabanks to be innovative in the financial space. It’s fairly well known by now that Element was the first financial institution in the country.
Let me just be clear, not the first credit union, but the first financial institution to offer mobile deposit on iPhone. I know that’s changed my life, so tell us about that. How did that end up happening? Was it your goal to be the first?

Linda Bodie:
Yeah. Well, it’s a long story that I’ll try and condense into a proper amount of time. But if you think back to the way checks used to be processed, I assume everyone’s old enough to know how checks used to be processed. You’d take it to the bank and they’d take it and you put it on a plane. You fly to the federal, you’d go through this whole thing of transporting this piece of paper around.
Check 21 passed after 9/11 when they figured out, “Oh, the checks have been sitting on the planes for two weeks. We can’t have this happen. We’ve got to allow banks and credit unions to deposit their images and not actually the paper, and then we don’t encounter this problem again.” That’s what spurred the legislation.
When that happened, I thought, “Well, let’s get on this. How are we going to do these digital images of our checks?” This is before the iPhone, this is like 2005. I figured out a way to capture a digital image of a check, a member scanning their check with a flatbed scanner, because I think flatbed scanners were the only thing that existed. We got our images transmitted through a secure website thing.
I just figured it out, just made something. It’s what I do, I just made something. People were depositing their check images even before the iPhone. So it was, I don’t know, we called it e-deposit. Then cellphones came out and they had a camera on them. But that camera, there was no way to transmit the image of a check securely, because we were like, “Well, how do we do this?”
I had a part-time IT guy, so I’m not doing this by myself. I’m having a little bit of help. Well, I’m having a lot of help, but so how can we transform this into taking a picture with your phone? Well, the iPhone happened, and that’s when it became possible to securely take a picture and submit the image. As soon as the iPhone came out with whatever the programming language was called at the time, which I can’t remember.
My guy, Stefan, he’s like, “I’m going to learn the language. I’m going to make an app.” We made the app and he made it within six weeks. Within six weeks, we had, it wasn’t sexy, but it worked. No, we did not plan to be first. We were just iterating on what we had already done. I did not know we were first until that Finovate article came out.
Then people were calling and saying, “What are you doing? How did you do this? You’re the first.” I’m like, “Well, I didn’t even know.” So I like to be innovative. I’m a geek. I like to do things that others say can’t be done. Then voila, there it is. It was an experience, and we just continue to make products and services that are meaningful, impactful, and just plain fun for our membership.

Kerala Taylor:
As a side note, the Finovate article you referred to, I was chuckling because they have an analysis at the end.
They say, “Although not a feature that will see widespread usage, mobile check deposits will prove convenient for certain customers, especially small businesses.”
So it just goes to show that sometimes technology predictions are hard to make. I would say it’s seen pretty widespread usage.

Katie Stone:
So true. Okay, so switching gears a little bit. Element is also known for winning quite a competitive contract for cannabis banking. We all know that cannabis legalization can be a politically sensitive issue.
We’ve had some clients who are quietly doing cannabis banking but don’t necessarily want to talk too much about it. We’re curious to know, what made you decide to enter the fray? Do you ever have any concerns about alienating any current or potential members as a result?

Linda Bodie:
Yeah. The state of West Virginia, surprisingly, in 2017, passed medical cannabis legislation. As soon as that happened, it was a surprise. I started being very interested in it because it was new and I knew banking would be an issue. I jumped in and just learned everything that I could, because I was intrigued because that’s what I do.
I like to research and explore and learn about things. West Virginia was also the biggest hit state with the opioid epidemic. So having medicinal cannabis as an option, it would help many people in our community. I was also interested from that perspective, is what kind of good can we do? Because I knew banking would be a problem, and it was a problem.
The state’s bank would not bank it, so there was no way that the state could accept the licenses, the taxes. This wasn’t about touching the product, this was just about licenses and taxes. Legislation had to be changed, had to allow credit unions to be able to bid on the cannabis RFP, the cannabis banking RFP. There were five of us who bid.
It’s the first time I’ve ever been through the RFP process for municipality. It was, again, I learned a lot, but I also had a lot of help. But we ended up being the winner of that bid and got the state contract. I think there’s a very cool headline out there somewhere that says, “$35 million Element beats out $2.3 trillion X Bank.” So that was pretty cool.
We did not anticipate this part happening, but it just happened because we were just wanting to bank the businesses themselves and now we’re doing both. Had a long talk with my board, obviously, before we did any of this, because the question you asked, “Are members going to be okay? Are we going to alienate?” I got 100% from the board, “We need to do this.”
They were in support. West Virginia is pretty creative and pretty out there with regard to freedoms, and we knew our membership. Yeah. We were going to lose a few people, but anytime you make a decision to do a certain thing, you could lose members. For the most part, everybody was very supportive.
We also have a cool hashtag that goes with our cannabis banking. It’s #YouOwnTheJoint, which that means you own the credit union, but it also is like, “Oh, this is too appropriate.” We have logo wear for this, so just take it and make it fun.

Katie Stone:
Yeah, that’s great. What an exciting story.

Kerala Taylor:
I’ll say as a side note, I actually meant to mention, this is our 100th episode of the Remarkable Credit Union Podcast. Our very first episode was called Duffel Bags of Cash, and it was about cannabis banking here in Oregon when it was first legalized. These businesses just literally having duffel bags of cash sitting on-site because they couldn’t put it in a bank.
So I feel like we’re coming full circle here. Speaking of just stepping in and seeing a need and trying to fill it, you are also the co-founder of CU Pride, which I mentioned is the LGBTQ+ association for credit unions. You mentioned in the Herb Wegner Memorial Award video, I really love that video. I saw it for the first time at my DE training through the National Credit Union Foundation.
You just mentioned that you noticed credit union professionals weren’t really talking that openly about being part of the LGBTQ+ communities. I’m just curious, what inspired you to take that leap and what are you doing to support LGBTQ+ professionals? Just beyond that, how are you helping to educate and enrich the credit union movement as a whole?

Linda Bodie:
Yeah, there’s a lot in there. From early on in my childhood, because I’m older now, before the internet, before any real electronic communication methods, looking for a role model who was gay or lesbian was very difficult. There weren’t TV shows. It was very hard, so it was very hard to see people like yourself.
For kids and for young people and even older people growing up, they need role models. They need to see that they’re not alone. I’ve been an activist my entire life, so whatever, inequality, any discrimination, no matter what it is. If you’re beating the puppies, I’m upset. I’m going to take action. Being a lesbian, I needed role models.
Now that I’m an adult and in a position where I can be a role model to others, I know that that’s beneficial. When I was speaking or attending conferences in the credit union industry, I noticed that no one was out. The speakers weren’t out. The attendees weren’t out. I never saw anybody out. A few who were very quiet about it, a few who were obvious, but there was no community.
There was a conference called Seawater Cooler. Back in 2018, something around there, 2017, I can’t remember the date. I actually, as part of my talk, disclosed to the crowd. I think that was the first time that I ever said it, because I wanted somebody to say it from the stage. After that happened, so many people came up to me and said, “I’m so glad that you said that. I’m part of the community and that means so much to me.”
From that day forward, I’m like, “Well, how can we get credit union people and professionals to feel comfortable being out, being themselves, because that’s very important?” So fast-forward to 2020 and we’re at the GAC, and that’s when a group of us came together and said, “We’re going to do this. We’re going to make it happen. We’re forming an association. It’s CU Pride.”
That’s we’ve almost been around for five years. The purpose of that was to bring communion and education and family. We need representation. We need people like us, and we need to be able to talk to each other and learn from each other. Spread the love, the joy and the knowledge to not only our fellow employees, our members, our executive teams.
Everybody in the industry, so that it’s not an issue that anybody can feel free to be out and open. That credit unions will take a leap to be more open and accepting of their employees and their members. Because people are still afraid to go out and march in a Pride parade, or do any kind of support because they’re afraid of backlash. If we talk about it, if it’s visible, if we make it normal, it’s going to be easier to do.

Kerala Taylor:
I love that. It’s so inspiring. I think I saw on LinkedIn that there’s a CU Pride Conference coming up. Is that true?

Linda Bodie:
There is. I don’t know when this is airing, but it’s June. There’s lots of stuff going on in June.

Kerala Taylor:
I bet. We’re going to try to get this podcast out very soon, because it is timely with it being Pride Month. Linda, it’s clear to me that you care very deeply about very significant social issues, serious stuff, meaningful stuff. But what I love about you and about Element, is your sense of humor.
You mentioned the YouOwnTheJoint hashtag, which just cracked me up. It not only made me laugh, I’m like, “Oh my God, that is so clever, that double meaning there.” I love that, I’m just trying to think of some of the other things I saw. You have a zombie debit card. You refer to what you do as craft banking, which I love.
I was trying to get some local credit unions here in Portland, Oregon to talk about locally sourced banking, which is a similar idea. People in Oregon are always talking about locally sourced. There’s a banner and an events that you were at that said, “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen.” I could go on and on, but I just found myself laughing a lot.
I’m just curious how that sense of humor has served you? What would you say to professionals in the industry who might be afraid to incorporate that sense of playfulness? I wouldn’t say the credit union industry is known for its sense of humor.

Linda Bodie:
Yeah, that is indeed true. You’ve listed a bunch of things that we’ve done, and it’s taken years to craft these different groups, different hashtags, different causes. It all starts with the first step and being authentic. Don’t try and be something you’re not. You have to know your membership. You have to know your employees.
You have to know who you are and then play off that. Because if you try and just, if anybody tried to do, I don’t know, something that didn’t fit their brand, it wouldn’t feel authentic and legit. What is meaningful and impactful to your credit union, your brand? Then do one thing that might be a little bit fun.
Once you do one thing and learn from that, then the next time you can do something else that’s fun, but brainstorming sessions with people not related. I don’t like hiring credit union people, because they’re in this narrow, little box of they’re only thinking like this. I want people who think outside the box, way outside the box.
So get people from every industry, every walk of life, every age, and get them in a room and get them talking, and the ideas will just flow. But now you don’t need the people. You just need ChatGPT, but I prefer people too. But absolutely, get the ideas, see what fits. Take it for a test drive. Don’t be afraid, but try one thing. Start out with one thing.

Katie Stone:
That’s great. I also love it because one of our core values here at PixelSpoke is authenticity, so remaining authentic to your brand and who you are is super important to us as well. But beyond often being funny, the other recurring theme in your marketing is really about a sense of belonging.
You want everyone who banks with you to be able to be in their element. Your goal, it seems, is to create just a really welcoming, friendly, safe place, otherwise known as #ThePlaceYouBelong. Taglines and hashtags are great. We love those, but how do you go about actually building a space like this?

Linda Bodie:
Yeah. I think that goes back to your culture and your brand, again, knowing your team, knowing your members. Who are you? You’re building that community, and when you’re building it for your members, you’re also building it for your employees. They need to hear the same message. Then if you’re getting your community in, they need to hear the same message. You have to live it every day.
Every single day, you have to live your values. The place of belonging, John Denver wrote a song about it for West Virginia. So it was like, “Oh yeah, we can play on this too, because we are the place you belong in. We can sing Country Roads anytime you want to.” But in financial services and being a credit union, being a low-income designated CDFI, there are so many people that need us.
There are so many institutions that refuse to help the people who need us. They don’t feel a sense of belonging if they were to go to a bigger institution because those institutions don’t want them. We want to help people. We want them to feel welcome no matter who they are, no matter what they look like, we’re here to help. That’s our mission.
So staying focused, living it every day, preaching it, and celebrating when we do things the right way or when we make an impact on somebody. That’s the most rewarding thing is when we’ve made a difference in someone’s life.

Katie Stone:
That’s great.

Kerala Taylor:
Yeah, we’re kindred spirits with the culture. That’s a huge focus at PixelSpoke, is building a culture, both for our team members and our clients, that is really true to our core values. I did want to make sure to ask about, I’ve heard this rumor that it seems like you’re busy running a credit union.
You’re also co-founder of this very well-known and growing association. You’ve got a teenage daughter, which is enough in and of itself, but rumor has that you’re currently running for West Virginia’s House of Delegates. I’d love to hear more about that. Is what inspired you to join the race and what do you hope to accomplish if you win?

Linda Bodie:
Yeah, because I needed another thing on my plate.

Kerala Taylor:
Exactly.

Linda Bodie:
I was actually asked to run for the House of Delegates this session because they needed a qualified candidate to run. I said, “You know what? I don’t know that I can run, but I’ll look for someone to maybe qualify for that district.” I couldn’t find anybody, so I ultimately said yes. I have thought about it in the past, like early in my days, but not recently.
I thought, “Well, you know what? Credit union life, what I do here for this job, it’s pretty similar to what would be happening in the House of Representatives.” Of course, I have to win the election, but it’s all about doing service for people and making the lives of people better. So hoping that I could bring diverse voice to the table.
There are only 12 females out of 100 House of Delegates in West Virginia, the lowest percentage in the nation. Yeah, who knew? A little different voice that might be more representative of over half the population in our state, where women are facing a backsliding of our rights, I guess. That’s the nice way to say of what’s going on? But also jobs, education, equity, equality for all.
I want to improve the state. I want to improve the lives of the people who live here. I want people to want to live here and want to stay, because the political climate is not always the greatest for everyone. It might be good for some people, but it’s not good for all people. It needs to be loving and accepting and equitable for everyone, so I don’t sound like a politician, do I?

Kerala Taylor:
You sound like a great politician.

Katie Stone:
Yeah, you sound very authentic. We’ll be following the results of that election closely and cheering you on from here where Kerala and I are in Portland, Oregon.
All right. Well, it looks like we have some time for a few rapid fire questions, so don’t think too hard. Just whatever comes to mind. If you could have dinner with one historical person, who would it be?

Linda Bodie:
That could be a lot of different people and I am going to say Harriet Tubman.

Katie Stone:
Okay.

Linda Bodie:
I would love to talk with her.

Katie Stone:
That’s great. If you had a different career outside of running a credit union or maybe even a political career, what would you do?

Linda Bodie:
Well, I like a lot of different things, and that’s another hard question, because again, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a credit union person.
But if I had to pick something, I would say something in the IT field, because technology is one of my great passions.

Katie Stone:
Oh, that’s great. All right. What’s your favorite breakfast?

Linda Bodie:
Coffee, eggs and fruit.

Katie Stone:
Okay. Your coffee, do you take it black?

Linda Bodie:
Oh, yes.

Katie Stone:
All right.

Linda Bodie:
As strong and black as you can make it.

Katie Stone:
A purist, okay. Okay. Finally, what’s your favorite rainy day activity?

Linda Bodie:
That’s actually an easy one, it’s table tennis. My wife and I just during the winter months, that’s our exercise.
If it’s raining, heck yeah, we’re going to go play some table tennis.

Katie Stone:
That’s great. I haven’t played in a long time.

Kerala Taylor:
Oh, man, we don’t have a garage or basement big enough, but I would totally do that. We were on vacation recently with the ping pong table and that kept the kids busy for quite a while. It was great. All right, so let’s do our final take.
As a reminder, the big question today was how can credit union leaders foster a space for members and staff that is both safe and brave? I know it’s a huge question, but Linda, in a few sentences, can you just give us your top pieces of advice?

Linda Bodie:
Yeah. Number one is be authentic. Don’t try to be something you’re not, because then you’ll not be who you are and no one will buy into it. Foster transparency, maintain open communications.
That’s the only way you’re ever going to get the openness and love and buy-in from your people. Empower everyone’s voice. Let them stand up, let them be heard and accept them for whatever it is that they say. Take a few risks and lead by example.

Kerala Taylor:
Great. I love it all. Thank you so much for joining us.
Not just joining our podcast, but little known to you, joining us for our 100th episode, but we’re very honored to have you on.

Katie Stone:
Yes, and thank you for just being such a great leader and innovator in this space. We are tremendously inspired by all the work you do.

Linda Bodie:
Thank you. I appreciate that and I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to share.

Kerala Taylor:
All right. Well, it’s time for our three key takeaways, and I’d love to start with Linda’s authentic commitment to solving problems. She shows us that problem solving doesn’t necessarily require deep pockets. In fact, sometimes more limited resources paired with a healthy sense of curiosity, can lead to more creative solutions.
We have Element’s part-time IT person, who taught himself how to build an app in six weeks, that put Element at the forefront of digital banking technology. We’re talking ahead of Chase and Bank of America, that’s just an incredible story. Secondly, everything starts with knowing your membership. We have brought that up before on this podcast, and we’ll keep bringing it up because it is so important.
When you know your members, you can create a sense of inclusion and belonging, AKA a safe space. You can also make what some in the credit union movement might consider “risky” decisions, like moving into cannabis banking or making T-shirts with funny hashtags. Because when you know your members, you know what will resonate, and you’ve already done the hard work of earning their trust.
Lastly, speaking of building both safe and brave spaces, that’s an important undertaking for each and every credit union, for sure. But it’s also really important for the credit union movement as a whole. We talked about CU Pride and how at its heart, it’s simply about helping credit union professionals from the LGBTQ+ community feel comfortable coming together, and being themselves and talking openly about their identity.
I could go on and on, but I will stop there. Thanks again for joining us for yet another great episode, and not only another great episode, but our 100th episode. It’s pretty exciting. The Remarkable Credit Union is brought to you by PixelSpoke. A digital marketing agency that works with credit unions to create user-friendly, high-converting, award-winning websites.
As a B Corp and worker-owned cooperative, we believe that business can and should be a force for good. You can learn more and check out our work at PixelSpoke.coop. That’s PixelSpoke, all one word, .C-O-O-P. Until the next time, I wish you the best of luck in making your credit union remarkable.

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