Fostering connections, whether among young professionals, college students, fellow staffers or members has been what drives Lisa Totaro, marketing associate at the $363 million Sunmark Federal Credit Union in Latham, N.Y.
“Our generation is looking to be a part of something bigger that feeds our sense of social responsibility, and we can be passionate about,” said Totaro. “You think about the credit union philosophy, and here’s this business model that fulfills what we are looking for. So I enjoy helping other young professionals find their passion. For me, in terms of work-life balance and being able to truly affect change and make a difference, that’s been at a credit union.”
While a lifelong credit union accountholder, like many, Totaro didn’t plan to enter the credit union industry.
“In college I wanted to get into sports public relations and interned with the New York Islanders and National Baseball Hall of Fame,,” said Totaro. “It wasn’t quite the right fit, but I knew I enjoyed communication and marketing so started looking to transition somewhere I could use my transferable skills. Sunmark needed a specialist in writing and graphic design, and while I stumbled into credit unions, it’s been so rewarding and a great learning opportunity.”
Looking ahead, she said some of the biggest challenges facing credit unions have less to do with bankers and more to do with awareness.
“So much attention is being thrown to big banks, but I think a big challenge we share as an industry is that consumers still aren’t aware of us. We’ve gotten a lot more attention since Bank Transfer Day, and that’s been great for the industry. But the challenge is how to keep that momentum moving forward while getting more young people aware of us as an alternative as well,” said Totaro. “I know the talk of a national brand campaign has been challenged, but if we could get behind a common theme, it might work on a smaller level. One huge asset as an industry is our willingness to work cooperatively, it’s just a matter of finding a way to leverage that.”
She added that at this critical time in the industry, the need for innovation has never been greater.
“I think it’s important for credit unions to remember good ideas come from anywhere. As a whole, we talk about service, but what does that mean? Is it a differentiator or the standard consumers expect today? There are so many benefits we do provide, so why not look at what else makes us stand out and focus on and market that?” said Totaro. “For the young professionals in the industry who are passionate about wanting to affect change when sometimes there isn’t always a clear career path, why not look at it as a chance to innovate your own way and get involved, volunteer and be a part of different projects? We can focus on creating solutions that make banking easier for our members. Sometimes, because we are so entrenched in it every day, it’s hard to remember how scary one’s finances can be for the average consumer.”
In early 2010, she joined the Credit Union Association of New York’s Young Professionals Commission. It was created by the association to help member credit unions develop their future leaders and find ways to recruit, engage and retain young professionals under the age of 35. The commission’s involvement has ranged from meet-ups and partnering with the New York Credit Union Foundation to help plan reality fairs to partnering with the Cooperative Trust to create mentorship opportunities among young credit union professionals and industry experts. In addition, last year at the 2011 CUANY’s annual meeting, the commission held a reverse panel to discuss the future of its generation in the credit union industry.
“Working on the commission has been one of the most rewarding experiences especially when you see that change in members, who maybe are the only young professional at their credit union and aren’t sure what to expect,” said Totaro. “And then they get fired up as they network and collaborate with others to make change happen. I love that as other states create their own young professionals group, we can se that we’re part of something that’s growing and hopefully fosters more interstate collaborations.”
She’s been pleased with the progress in raising the general consciousness of involving more young professionals and the exchange of ideas across generations.
Totaro currently chairs the 30-person commission, which has recently unveiled the Young Professionals Network as a way to add more value by sharing information, ideas and opportunities via e-mail. Members of the YP network will receive monthly updates from the commission, find out more about the latest events and professional development opportunities, and have access to a listserv as a forum for discussion and collaboration.
“We wanted to bring in as many young professionals as possible statewide,” said Totaro of the YP network. “We’ve launched the website to make it easy for them to sign up and have a place where they can find information about any upcoming conferences, conventions and other educational opportunities that they may not otherwise be aware of. The association has played such an important role in supporting us, building our exposure and even helping to expand our presence at last year’s annual convention. We had T-shirts like at Crash the the GAC, and we hosted an evening network event with upper management and volunteers as a way for them to get to know us. Everyone was so receptive to it and the feeback was wonderful. It was so rewarding to see how the mindset has been changing and know what we’re doing is working.”
A big believer in paying it forward, Totaro has also been involved in the local Women’s Business Council and has spent time helping students at Hartwick College and Siena College transition into the workforce, and discover their passion.
“We don’t really have job training in school anymore, so how do you progress? I’ve always been interested in helping others fulfill their potential and find their passion,” said Totaro. “I think it goes back to recognizing that every individual has so much potential and yet sometimes that gets lost. I know Millennials need a lot of feedback that isn’t always given. So in seeing that gap I try to fill it. I’ve had people do that for me; my mentors have been such an inspiration in helping me take on more of a leadership role and an invaluable resource. You’d be surprised what a difference a little note of encouragement and thanks can make. After last year’s convention we sent handwritten notes to the young professionals who attended thanking them for being awesome and being excited about where we’re headed. It takes extra time yet it’s worth it knowing that I could help them feel energized and pass it on.”
She added that riding that energy derived from attending conferences and conventions can be a challenge for young professionals when they get back to their credit unions.
“I think to keep that fire going, it’s important to find likeminded individuals who are just as hardworking and passionate and networks like the Cooperative Trust are crucial,” said Totaro. “Knowing that if you’re frustrated or if you need help with a project or just to be reminded of the big picture that you have a network of peers you can go to any day at any time ready to listen, share and collaborate makes all the difference.”