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CEO Leadership: Prospera Credit Union’s Sheila Schinke

The excesses that preceded the 2008 financial crisis and the Great Recession led not only to finger-pointing but also plenty of soul-searching among both financial institutions and their customers.

In retrospect, the outsized gains in the housing sector and the rampant wishful thinking that were prevalent in the 2000s were a fractured fairytale in the making, and the era clearly could have used a lot fewer cheerleaders and a few more level heads.

In this installment of our CEO Leadership series, we talk with Sheila Schinke, the CEO of Prospera Credit Union in the Fox Valley, about her advocacy for financial literacy and affordable philanthropy, two things that have become highly prized in the post-bubble economy.

Why do you feel so strongly about financial literacy, and what steps can be taken to make people more aware of their own finances?
The credit union industry in general has always been a very strong advocate of financial literacy. We see that as part of our mission, and that’s true of credit unions in general. I’ve been a credit union employee for 20-plus years – I sort of grew up in that philosophy – and we specifically get very involved in community seminars, doing seminars for our membership and the public in general, in budgeting and home buying. In the past two years, we’ve spent a significant amount of time on financial literacy for our employees, trying to teach them specifically about budgeting and education, financial literacy, in the hopes that if they’re stronger and more comfortable with it, they would be able to assist our members better.

Do you see it as a really big problem these days, given that a lot of the problems we’ve had over the past four years are pretty much a direct result of people being negligent both on a personal level and in large institutions as well?
I do. People’s financial literacy isn’t as strong as it could be, and society in general has gotten less interested in the topic, I think.

Do you think the latest financial crisis is a bit of a wakeup call in that respect? Do you think people will start paying a bit more attention to financial literacy?
I think so. If you look back to the Depression era and the people who lived through that, they came out of it much more frugal and financially literate, and over the years, that sort of wore off, and now we’ve all gotten that wakeup call again. It is important, learning those values and teaching them to your kids.

Do you see a role for you and other credit unions and other financial institutions for reaching out further? A lot of the banks were the biggest offenders. Do you think people might still be skeptical of some of these institutions?
I think credit unions have been in a different light in all of this. I think the banks had a lot of negative press around [the crisis], but it was less so with the credit unions. Credit unions have always been strong advocates of financial literacy. It’s part of the reason why credit unions became who they are and evolved. Going back to the beginning of credit unions, the banks weren’t interested in helping some of these smaller individuals just getting started, and credit unions were a way to help them establish their credit.

Small businesses are having a hard time in a lot of cases getting loans from some of the larger banks. Do you see that as a role for yourself and some of the other credit unions to step in and pick up some of that slack?
Yeah, we’ve actually been in commercial lending since 1999. We’ve always seen that as a necessary service to our members. And I’m not sure that I would say it’s changed, because in my viewpoint our interest continues to be in serving our members. It just so happens that there’s a significant portion of them in this economy that are small business owners, and we’ve established those relationships with the people. We’ve earned their trust. There’d be no reason to send them out without a service that we can provide for them, that we can give them. And then building on that, yes, if the banks aren’t willing or aren’t interested in serving some of those smaller businesses, and the credit unions can, it sort of makes sense.

There are specific measures before Congress, one of which would increase credit unions’ role in small business lending through the SBA and another that would raise the credit union business lending cap. What’s your opinion of those?
To me, if we’re serving our members, why would I send them away? I’m capable of serving them; I have that relationship. Why should I send them elsewhere? I’m not interested in increasing the cap to go out and compete for big business. I’m trying to serve my members, and you look out and see the number of individuals that are becoming small business owners in today’s environment, we need to be able to serve those people.

You’re a big advocate of volunteering. Large companies have a lot of resources to bring to the table, but it’s often harder for smaller businesses like yours to give back. How do you, so to speak, get creative when it comes to community involvement?
Yes, as a smaller business you don’t have an unlimited checkbook to just start donating money, so in our creative minds we’ve worked more toward how do we as a family of employees promote volunteerism versus just a straight donation? I think that truly starts from the top down, leading by example, the management team getting involved and excited and promoting volunteer efforts, and that’s further infiltrated down into our front-line staff and into our whole organization.

And I’d say we’ve taken a team approach. We have representatives from each branch and we meet as a team and look for opportunities to promote events to drive them within their location. It’s really been about getting everybody involved.

What would you say to smaller companies that might want to get more involved in the community but are strapped for resources?
I know that was one of the issues involved when we started. We wanted to get involved in volunteerism, and a lot of people loved the idea, but they needed someone as the driving force to get it started. They wanted to volunteer but they were afraid to do it on their own. So the team approach has definitely worked for us, even if there’s just two or three people. If you have that one person who’s energized and excited around it, they get the other people excited and involved, and then it’s not so scary as when you’re out on your own. There’s a team of you.

You had started with Prospera as a teller and have been with the company for 23 years. Do you have any advice for people in an entry-level position who might have any aspirations for becoming CEO?
Yes, take all the opportunities you can to learn and expand and try new things, new challenges, and have fun along the way.

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