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Worthy of recognition

The latest CUES Hall of Famer, Kim Sponem, talks credit unions, role models, and playing polo!

Photograph by Derrick Look, Creative Look Studios

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Last November, Kim Sponem, president and CEO of Summit Credit Union, was named to the Credit Union Executive Society’s (CUES) Hall of Fame for her lifetime achievement and dedication to the credit union movement. For 18 years, she’s led the former CUNA Credit Union through name changes to Great Wisconsin and then to Summit in 2008. Now with 42 branch locations, Summit Credit Union has grown to become the second largest credit union in the state.

We recently asked Sponem about her rise from Madison LaFollette High School to her passion for helping small businesses, especially women entrepreneurs, and learned some interesting nuggets along the way.

What does this honor mean to you, and what qualities do you have that have led to your success as a businesswoman and leader?

This recognition is truly an honor, and it makes me proud to be acknowledged for my work in an industry that has been so important to me.

I think one of my greater strengths is the ability to create a vision, strategy, focus, and alignment throughout the company to work toward that vision.

As a leader, it’s also important to stay connected and collaborative with everyone in the organization. Creating an atmosphere in which people feel empowered and inspired to voice ideas is the foundation of a great work environment, and I strive to do that not only at Summit but throughout the credit-union industry.

I also try to consistently push myself out of my comfort zone. I’m committed to challenging myself as a person, professional, and leader, and sometimes making yourself vulnerable and trying something new is the best way to do that.

Did you always feel you were destined for a career in financial services?

In middle school, I wrote out a list of goals for the future, and one of them was to start my own company or run a company. At the time, I didn’t necessarily think I’d run a financial institution, but my first job out of college was at CUES, and I quickly saw how credit unions can make a real impact in members’ lives.

It seems you have a passion for supporting small businesses and women entrepreneurs. Where does that stem from?

As the largest growing sector, small businesses are vitally important economically and more women starting and sustaining their businesses will eventually transform the business world to be more diverse.

I took women’s studies classes, which gave me an early understanding of what holds women back and the opportunities we can create through long-term changes, some subtle, some not so subtle. I also recognize that we have more ground to cover and we can do that in a purposeful way.

Was Project Money your idea, and how did it come about?

About 15 years ago, I participated in a study that we commissioned through Filene as one of three credit unions studying how consumers view the concept of membership, the value we can bring through membership, and what membership means to them. We piloted a member card program while another credit union in Texas piloted a savings challenge.

The savings challenge was showing success, and after about three years of pilots, we put together our own program called Project Money. I was directly involved in the study so yes, I brought the idea forward as something Summit should also create. We wanted to help members take control of their finances and make meaningful changes in their financial habits so they could save more and reduce their debt. We’ve had countless success stories with Project Money. Financial education is a passion of mine.

Did you have a favorite teacher in high school or college?

I had a favorite biology teacher in high school who made the class so interesting and fun, I almost thought I’d go into science. What I did take away long term was the passion he brought to his work.

My fifth grade teacher was my all-time favorite. She brought storytelling to the classroom, helped develop my leadership skills through opportunities she gave me, and I liked her so much I remember going back to see her early on in sixth grade to ask if I could come back to her class!

At UW, I had an internship with Al Guyant at the Public Service Commission — a great writer who offered to edit my college papers one year. I remember getting them back filled with red ink. At first, I was devastated and then I realized he was giving me a great gift. I learned to write in a way that has helped me throughout college and my career. Red ink is a gift!

Did you have a role model in your career? If so, whom?

The three who stand out the most to me are my dad who was always a wise guiding force; my uncles who ran businesses; and my predecessor, Mary Cunningham, who was a tremendous leader of our credit union and the credit-union movement and gave me opportunities to learn, grow, and flourish.

Having just completed IB’s 2020 Book of Lists, it’s interesting that, at least in Dane County, top executives at area banks are primarily male, while women run three of the five largest public credit unions. Any thoughts on why that might be? Is it changing?

There is a lot of talk about “capitalism 2.0” today, where for-profit companies are finding the value in making money for stockholders while doing social good. Credit unions were formed with capitalism 2.0 in mind. The idea around businesses satisfying a social good in addition to shareholder returns will drive additional change and open up opportunities for more women leaders as boards and CEOs look for diverse perspectives and skill sets.

UW–Madison recently announced a partnership with Annex Wealth Management to provide financial literacy  education on campus. Evidently, research has shown that college students lack information about financial literacy and investing. Does this surprise you?

This certainly doesn’t surprise me. Managing and investing money is a learned skill. Consumers need the necessary knowledge to be confident in the choices that they make financially. That starts with the basics, like budgeting, saving and borrowing, using credit, and it extends into investing and preparing for retirement.

The majority of Americans don’t have more than $1,000 in a savings account. That makes it hard to build a solid financial future. Knowledge, a plan, and consistent tools used to save will lead to financial independence.

What’s the best piece of business advice you ever received?

Assume best intentions and err on the side of action.

What might people be surprised to learn about you?

Two years ago, I took up horseback riding, and last summer I learned how to play polo. It’s good to learn new things and wrestle with the uncomfortable feeling of being incompetent at them for a while. We expect kids to do this all the time but as adults we tend to not put ourselves in these situations as often.

My small success playing polo was that if I could get my horse to the ball, my success rate of hitting it was pretty high!

EDITOR'S NOTE:  By the time this article was published on Feb. 1, Summit Credit Union expanded to 43 branches.

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