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At This Tech-Forward Credit Union, People Still Come First

Chylon Pappas of First Tech Federal Credit Union joins The Remarkable Credit Union podcast

As AI has wriggled its way into more nooks and crannies of our everyday lives, we’ve been hearing quite a bit of chatter about technology versus humanity. We’re not here today to speculate about possible dystopian futures, but we are here to talk about why it’s so important for even the most technologically advanced credit unions to keep the focus on their people.

Chylon Pappas, VP of Corporate & Government Engagement at First Tech Federal Credit Union, joins us to share how First Tech does just that. She helps us unpack this month’s BIG question:

What does a people-first focus look like in practice, and what are the key things more credit unions should be doing to better serve their employees, members, and broader communities?

 

Key takeaways:

  1. Inclusion is important, but we shouldn’t overlook belonging. We shouldn’t just be talking about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) but DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging). What is the difference between inclusion and belonging? Think of inclusion as being invited to the table and asked to contribute; belonging is about feeling comfortable at the table and confident about speaking up.
  2. If a financial product serves a demonstrated need, even if it might not apply to most members, it’s still worth pursuing. Chylon’s story about First Tech’s checking and savings account specifically for youth who have aged out of the foster care system is a perfect case in point. First, it’s a shining example of going beyond the proverbial Big Check to collaborate with a community partner in a tangible way, and second, there were fewer barriers to creating and launching the product than First Tech anticipated.
  3. A people-first focus is vital for both members and employees. We all know of companies that purport to be very customer-centric but are miserable to work at. Employees who feel valued and taken care of are going to do a better job of valuing and taking care of your members. And even with all the chatter about technological advancements like AI and automation, we can’t lose sight of our people.

 

References:

 

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 am the CEO and a co-owner here at PixelSpoke.

Kerala Taylor:
And I’m Kerala Taylor. I’m also a co-owner at PixelSpoke and the Director of Marketing and Impact. I’m really excited today to delve into our big question, which is what does a people-first focus look like in practice and what are the key things more credit unions should be doing to better serve their employees, members and broader communities? To help us tackle this big question, I’m very excited to welcome Chylon Pappas. She’s currently the VP of Corporate and Government Engagement at First Tech Credit Union. She’s also served in many other roles during her two plus decades there. Those include VP of Marketing, VP of Membership, and Senior Director of Corporate Communications and Community Engagement.

And beyond her professional experience, she’s fostered key industry relationships with community and non-profit partners. She currently serves as the Board Chair of With Love Oregon. It’s a really great organization that’s supporting foster families and children. Chylon, thanks so much for joining us.

Chylon Pappas:
Thanks for having me. I’m excited.

Kerala Taylor:
So you’ve worn a lot of hats there at First Tech. I’m just curious how your various roles have helped to inform your perspectives, both of your own credit union, First Tech, but also the broader credit union movement?

Chylon Pappas:
Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve had the opportunity to take on a lot of responsibilities at First Tech, and I think it speaks to that people first theme. I’ve been given an opportunity to grow my skills, continue to build relationships, thinking about going from a role like corporate communications and giving. I’ve been able to really stand up that part of our business, and then going on to then work externally with our membership team and connecting the outside world into First Tech. Obviously, marketing is a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the brand and how to amplify our brand and our reach, but also learning more about how the business works internally.

And now in my current role, I’m getting to really bring all of those skills into one role. So it is a lot of fun. There’s never a dull moment and I love working in the credit union industry. I think that we’re doing some really good work and I want more people to know about the credit union difference so that we can all live a better financial life.

Kerala Taylor:
I love that. And Katie and I have both worn a few hats here during our respective tenures at PixelSpoke, and I really do think it helps just to get a broader lens into how the organization operates. It’s one reason we’re both very invested in our own employee-owned cooperative model because we have our day-to-day roles, but then we’re also co-owners and that comes with its own set of responsibilities. So I definitely support serving some different roles at your credit union and bringing that diversity of perspective, for sure.

Katie Stone:
Yeah, I was watching the video from America’s Credit Union’s Government Affairs Conference, the GAC Conference, if you will, and I think it was in that video that you mentioned about how your role in marketing and that role of being a storyteller has also really played a part in your current position as well, and I just love the synergy there. But pivoting a little bit, speaking of that video we watched, you talked about how at First Tech, you add a B to the DEI, meaning that you’re focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. And I think that’s a really key difference from a lot of organizations. So I’d love it if you could tell us a little bit more about why belonging deserves its own letter in the acronym? How it’s different from inclusion and how you approach that at First Tech?

Chylon Pappas:
Yeah, we were very intentional when we started to build out our DEI and B journey at First Tech to include belonging. For us, that is really about making sure that our employees can be themselves at work and they belong there and it’s all of us collectively, all 1,600 of us matter at our organization. So that was really important to us and it’s been really awesome to see employees come up to me or come up to other employees and say, “I’ve never been myself at my employer before. I’ve never used my proper name. I’ve never been able to identify how I personally choose to identify.” And it’s been very powerful.

We know we have a lot of work to do in the DEI and B space, but we’re trying to make our journey be truly authentic to who First Tech is. We’re not going to put out anything outside of First Tech until it’s believable and true internally. And so we’re spending a lot of time educating our employees, educating ourselves, celebrating each other’s differences, similarities, learning more together as a group. So it’s been phenomenal. We just launched all of our employee resource groups a couple of months ago, and it’s been fantastic to see not only employees joining these networks, but they were built by employees and they’re being led by employees. It’s not the leadership team casting this to anyone. It’s all being done organically and it’s fantastic to see.

Katie Stone:
That’s really exciting. I think it just reminds me a lot of one of our core values at PixelSpoke, which is authenticity. You mentioned that word a couple of times, and I just love the idea of employees doing something with employees, not to or for them. So that’s really powerful. So speaking of GAC, I’d love to hear what legislative and regulatory priorities you were there to advocate for? Why were those important and how would they help you improve your members’ lives?

Chylon Pappas:
Yeah, I believe truly that number one, going to GAC is such a great opportunity. It was my second time going. So I had learned. I had learned from my first visit, and really, my job is to show up on behalf of all of our members at First Tech and those that are not members and ensure that we’re talking about protecting the credit union tax status, we are talking to our legislators about pieces of legislation that could have an impact on families. And at that time, we were talking a lot about protecting overdraft protection and those courtesy pay services. Obviously for credit unions, we want to build those services to be in support of our members who need those services and not put them in a position where they’re going to find harmful alternatives that could really damage their family. That’s really important.

And on the other side of that, talking about things like data protection, data security, talking about interchange, and again, how is that going to impact my members? Will they now be in a situation where their credit cards are not as secure as that they were and they won’t get the features and benefits in their cards that they expect today? So that’s the reason that I like to show up and like to be able to spend some time with our legislators and just make sure they understand why the credit union difference is important. And the fun part is a lot of folks that we met with, they agree with us, their supporters, they’re our own members. So it was a really good time and just getting to spend time with the credit union industry in that space feels so amazing. I hope more credit union professionals get the opportunity to attend.

Kerala Taylor:
I’ve not yet attended GAC, but definitely interested. And I do feel like the credit union movement is a rare movement that seems to enjoy bipartisan support in this era of very divisive partisan politics. So one bright spot, right?

Chylon Pappas:
Exactly. We always need one bright spot.

Kerala Taylor:
You’ve talked about First Tech being a, “committed community partner.” I love that phrase, and I’m just wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that actually means in practice? We all know that credit unions are very committed to their communities, and we all see lists of organizations that credit unions are donating to. Often we are putting together those pages or helping our clients on their websites and all of that is wonderful. But I’m just curious, do you have examples of partnerships that have gone beyond that proverbial big checks, so to speak?

I think donations are wonderful first step, but they can also feel a little transactional. We struggle with that at PixelSpoke. We donate 10% of our annual profits, but we want to make sure that it’s not just a check. We want to make sure that we’re also building some meaningful partnerships. So I was just curious if you have examples of that from your work at First Tech?

Chylon Pappas:
And I appreciate what you said about getting away from the big check because that’s easy to smile and wave at a check. But really, at First Tech, it’s really built into our core and how we operate as the company. So on an annual basis, we do allocate 2% of our annual net income or $2 million, whichever is higher, to non-profit, social impact organizations across our footprint where we do business. Because we are the credit union for the people in tech, we focus in two primary areas. One is education. So thinking about STEM, early childhood literacy, financial educations, getting you the basics. And then fundamental needs, hunger, shelter, community health, ensuring that kids can show up to school in an environment where they feel comfortable and safe and they can learn and unlock the potential to move into STEM careers. So that’s one piece of that, but really, First Tech takes it a step further.

So employees are… We’re all serving a lot of time in our community. So you mentioned that I’m on a board for our local non-profit here in Oregon, but that’s very common across First Tech’s footprint. Our employees, they’re reaching… I think we’re already at 9,000 in volunteer hours this year, and we’re at the top of July. And that’s amazing to see our employees actually giving time, but also giving money back to the communities where we live and work. It’s part of something that we talk about all the time. Our biggest fundraiser that we do every year is coming up in a couple of weeks with the Northwest Classic that supports credit unions for kids.

And again, it’s everyone leaning in trying to either get sponsors for the actual event or every year, sadly, someone’s going to take a pie little face for some donation. So we get creative, but it’s great to see that everyone gets involved. It’s not a space where people just say, “No, I don’t care about the community.” And that’s just not going to work at First Tech. We like to give back wherever we can.

Kerala Taylor:
I love that. We were talking right before the podcast about the DE program because I know you just came out of that, and I participated last October, and you’re actually doing it with our president, Dave Drouin. Did any new ideas come out of that program? You may still be processing. We both know it’s very intensive. A lot of that is about bringing these development education principles to your credit union. So I’m just curious if that’s gotten some gears turning for you?

Chylon Pappas:
It did. So we spend a lot of time in DE talking about fundamental issues that exist across the United States and beyond. And so in the program, I really started to think about, okay, how can a credit union like First Tech in the tech space, serving tech employees, help support some of those barriers and issues? So there’s that piece, but on the credit union impact side of things, it really opened my eyes to an opportunity like DE. So going back and really understanding why credit unions exist, taking us all the way back to the basics and starting to unlock some of that education for our own employees and future leaders.

I almost wish I had done it five years ago. Had been in the industry for a while. I hadn’t been exposed yet to a broader GAC space and really starting to meet this broader group of people. So it really opened my eyes that there’s so much more work to be done and so much opportunity that exists just beyond my own credit union. It was a great time. It was the best class ever. So if anybody’s curious, we did have the best class ever.

Kerala Taylor:
I beg to differ, but-

Chylon Pappas:
You might have a different opinion, but I would say our class was the best class ever.

Kerala Taylor:
I love seeing credit unions involved in their communities, and I also love to see that commitment to the underserved reflected not just in donations and partnerships, but in your actual product offerings. And I noticed that you’ve created a checking and savings account at First Tech, specifically for youth who have aged out of the foster care system. I think some might argue that’s a niche market for a financial product. Maybe it won’t really have a huge ROI for your credit union, but how would you respond to that and what was the why behind developing that product?

Chylon Pappas:
Yeah, I love this question and it goes back to beyond the big check. This particular opportunity came to us from an employee directly during the pandemic. Candace [inaudible 00:14:01] shout-out. She spent some time just learning about non-profits. We have different impact opportunities where employees can get together and learn about some of our non-profit partners, and Youth Villages was on the call and she felt compelled to raise her hand and get more involved. And so she engaged some of our leadership team. I was in marketing at the time and said, “Could we create an account so that these young individuals have an opportunity to have a checking and savings account of their own before they’re aging out of the system?” And at first, we thought there would be a lot of barriers and roadblocks to being able to do that, but it turned out it wasn’t. There was a lot of documentation we needed to do, making sure our procedures made sense, educating our employees, and it would’ve been really easy to just say, “No, not this right now,” but we got it done.

And so I have been spending some time with some of my credit union partners just to learn how we did it and we’ll make that information available to anyone that wants to learn more, so that other organizations can stand up accounts that are similar to that. And I am seeing that a lot of credit unions are. So I look at it as it’s not about just making money, it’s about people first. And if there’s a need and we as credit unions can solve it, it’s what it’s all about.

Katie Stone:
Absolutely. It’s really inspirational. So Chylon, as you might know, a lot of our podcast listeners are actually credit union marketers, and we were just talking about your previous role in marketing. And so we’d love to hear a little bit more about that. Is there a marketing initiative you embarked on at First Tech that was perhaps a little bit outside of the box, so to speak, and what did you learn from that?

Chylon Pappas:
Yeah, I so loved my time in marketing. It was so much fun and being able to have my hands on the brand that I’ve been in love with for many, many years. I love our brand. And so, one of the things I would say, it’s not super out of the box, but super fun was during the pandemic, we knew that we needed to really think about, yes, we’re doing our broader brand marketing, but also, we had an opportunity within our seg base to serve employees that maybe work for fulfillment centers at a company like Amazon. And so we knew that we were bringing in a good percentage of these individuals, but how could we target them differently and better in a time where we’re all locked in our homes?

And so it was fun to put the campaign together. We went on site a few times to Amazon. We learned from their employees what things did they need, specifically financial services related? What things were they not quite thinking about yet? And then we created a geofencing campaign digitally that really fed our content to these warehouse employees. And the membership growth was showing great promise, not even just on the warehouse employee side, but also on the corporate employee side. So it was a quick demonstration that my marketing was working and that’s what I wanted to see. And it was a test and learn. It wasn’t anything that we wanted to run forever, but I love a quick test just to see if your marketing message is actually landing well, and it was. So it was a lot of fun. It gave us something to really focus on during a time where there weren’t a lot of shiny spots at that moment.

Katie Stone:
That’s great. And I don’t know, what really stood out to me about that story was that you started by asking what do they need? I think that’s just such a crucial piece. Instead of making assumptions, asking potential members, “What do you need from us?” And designing a program around it. So it’s incredible.

Chylon Pappas:
What we learned was really interesting as we started talking to people. As we scanned the parking lot at the Amazon Fulfillment Center that we visited, we noticed that everyone had either new cars or new used cars. And I thought, “Okay, that’s interesting.” And so we asked about it and employees were sharing with us, “Well, we have our brakes in our car. We’re sitting in our car for our breaks and lunches.” And so, “Okay. Well, there’s something credit unions can help with.” So just by talking to people and understanding their needs and letting them survey us or us survey them, we got some really valuable things out of that. And I think it speaks to sometimes you don’t have to have these big budgets to do something that’s impactful.

Katie Stone:
Yep, that’s the truth.

Kerala Taylor:
And that actually speaks very well to my next question, which maybe you’ve already sort of answered, but one thing I do hear a lot from our clients is that they can feel sometimes siloed in the marketing department. And also, marketing tends to be tasked with owning brand, so to speak. But so much of how a brand is perceived actually happens on the frontlines. It’s not happening amongst the marketing team necessarily. It’s happening when anyone at a branch has an interaction with a member or someone calls the call center.

So I’m just curious if you have thoughts, going back to how many different hats you’ve worn, just how marketers can break out of their silos and really get an opportunity to talk directly to members, or at least talk to the frontline employees who are interacting with them daily?

Chylon Pappas:
Yeah, I would say talk to your members, leave your desk, get off of Zoom, go talk to your members. We have a program at First Tech where we go into the field in different parts of the organization once a month and just shadow with employees and learn about what’s going on and, “How can I help you?”

Kerala Taylor:
Oh, I love that.

Chylon Pappas:
For me, that was successful in marketing as a marketing leader, let your door be open to your employees to come in and give you their ideas. And sometimes, sure, they may not work out, but in a lot of cases, they do. And they have a lot of thoughts, a lot of thoughts about our brand, ways that we can be showing up differently, how our campaigns could be structured. So I would get everyone involved in marketing. It shouldn’t be a siloed world. I know sometimes it can be and sometimes reviewed as expensive, but I think there’s a lot of opportunity for breaking down those barriers and working across the enterprise.

Katie Stone:
All right, time for some rapid fire questions here. So my first one is, what is your favorite ice cream?

Chylon Pappas:
I’m really boring. It’s vanilla.

Katie Stone:
Toppings? Any toppings at least?

Chylon Pappas:
No, just plain. I like a handmade… A real vanilla ice cream.

Katie Stone:
Okay.

Chylon Pappas:
That is my favorite.

Katie Stone:
Great. Okay. All right. If you could wave a wand and change one thing, this is very broad, one thing in the world, what would it be?

Chylon Pappas:
I think if I could wave a wand, I would like to make it so there is no need for children to be in foster care in this country, that they all have warm homes to go to and meals on the table every night so that we can improve the lives of children. That’s so important to me.

Katie Stone:
That’s amazing. Gives me goosebumps. All right. If you had a different career, what would you do?

Chylon Pappas:
Well, everyone tells me that I have a newscaster voice and delivery. And I promise, it’s nothing I put on, but maybe I would be a newscaster because people say I sound like one.

Katie Stone:
I can see that.

Kerala Taylor:
Yeah, me too.

Chylon Pappas:
News at 5:30 starts now.

Katie Stone:
All right. If you had a life slogan, what would it be?

Chylon Pappas:
Well, behind me and my desk, there’s a little sign that says, “Do good work.” And so I look at that every day because I just want to make sure everything that I do, that I do it well.

Katie Stone:
Love it. I love the simplicity too. All right, last question. You mentioned you’re about to go on vacation, so maybe this ties to that. What’s a place you’d like to visit that you’ve never visited?

Chylon Pappas:
I’m embarrassed to say that I have not visited this place, but I would like to go to New York City. I haven’t been. I don’t know why I haven’t been, but it’s on the top of my list to go and explore.

Katie Stone:
It’s definitely one of my favorite cities in the world. So I hope you get there someday soon.

Chylon Pappas:
You can help me with a list.

Katie Stone:
Okay, great.

Kerala Taylor:
I recently came back from the Inclusive Conference in New York City. I had not been for many years, but my 12-year-old daughter is obsessed with New York even though she hadn’t been. So I took her for the first time. It was fun. I have a tolerance of a few days in that city, but it’s very enjoyable. All right, well, let’s do our final take. Just as a reminder, our big question today was what does a people-first focus look like in practice? And what are the key things more credit unions should be doing to better serve their employees, members and broader communities? So I know it’s a big question indeed, but I’m wondering if in just a few sentences you can summarize your thoughts on this?

Chylon Pappas:
Yeah, like many credit unions, putting people first is the most important thing, whether that’s your employees or your members and you’re constantly coming to the table to talk about them. And as we’ve talked a little bit, understanding what people actually need and figuring out ways to solve those challenges. They don’t have to be these huge initiatives that take years to create and cost a lot of money. There’s small things that we can be doing to help employees and to help our members and the broader community. And I think more of us as credit union leaders and professionals come together and figure out ways that we can be helping each other. It’s only going to benefit all of us. So that would be my quick response to that question.

Kerala Taylor:
I love it. Your credit union is focused on the tech industry and I just love the reminder that people in tech can work together and be synergistic. Definitely, there’s possibility to keep the humanity alive in tech. I love it.

Chylon Pappas:
Always.

Kerala Taylor:
Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Chylon. We really enjoyed having you.

Chylon Pappas:
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Kerala Taylor:
Well, before we wrap up here, I just wanted to share a few key takeaways. First, inclusion is important, but we shouldn’t overlook belonging. And I’ll admit, sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the acronyms out there these days. It seems like some acronyms keep getting longer and longer, but I really did appreciate Chylon’s point about the B in DEIB and about the distinction between inclusion and belonging. I think of inclusion as being invited to the table and asked to contribute, but belonging is about feeling comfortable at the table and confident about speaking up.

Secondly, if a financial product serves a demonstrated need, even if it might not apply to most members or might not have a big impact on a credit union’s bottom line, it’s absolutely worth at least looking into. Chylon’s story about first checking and savings account that is specifically designed for youth who have aged out of the foster care system is a perfect case in point. First, it’s a shining example of going beyond that proverbial big check to actually collaborate with a community partner in a tangible way. And second, the team feared that there might be a lot of barriers and roadblocks when it came to creating and launching the product, but they’re actually far fewer than they anticipated.

And last takeaway, a people-first focus is vital for members, but equally vital for employees. I think we all know of companies that purport to be very customer-centric but are actually pretty miserable to work at. You don’t want that to be your credit union. And let’s not forget that employees who feel valued and taken care of are going to do a better job of valuing and taking care of your members. And also, even with all the chatter out there about technological advancements like AI and automation, we can never ever lose sight of our people.

Thanks for joining us today for another episode of the Remarkable Credit Union podcast, which 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 employee-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, .coop. Until the next time, I wish you the best of luck in making your credit union remarkable.

 

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