For CUs, It Is Not about the Storytelling

By CUToday.info11.05.2018

Credit unions often talk about diversity, yet they don’t really recognize the insights they are missing out on. Credit union leaders may not believe they are up to a challenge, but they are if they know where to focus. Credit unions often talk of telling their story, but it isn’t the telling of the story that is the real key.

Three personal stories, and three lessons for credit unions, were brought to life during the Northwest Credit Union Association MAXX Conference here by three different people from divergent backgrounds. 

Here’s a look at the stories they told, and what it is they said credit unions and CU leaders should take away from each.  

A Dream Up in Smoke–And Then Reignited

Tyrone Poole, founder, OneApp, Portland, Ore.

To understand where Tyrone Poole is now, it’s important to understand where he has been. For Poole, life could not have been going any better. His goal was to be a fireman, and he was the only African-American to be among the graduates in his fire sciences course. He was one of just 80 people chosen from among 600 applicants for the Fire Academy. And then during a training drill he suffered severe damage to his leg, and his dreams of being a fireman went up in smoke. And that was just the beginning of his troubles.

Poole ended up being hospitalized for nine months, with his leg having to be elevated for 16 hours of each day. While in the hospital his car was repossessed, he was evicted from his apartment, and after his belongings were put in storage, they, too, were repossessed.

“When I got out of the hospital I was still on cloud 9; it felt like being out of prison,” he related. “My family was there for me, but how long do you think that lasted? About three months. It goes from ‘Tyrone, it’s nice you’re out, I got you,’ to ‘Is that Tyrone on the phone? He can’t spend the night.’”

And then one night as he took the long walk on crutches to a friend’s house where he was staying he arrived to find “a bad sign”–his stuff was sitting outside next to the front door. The friend did, however, give him a large plate of food, which left him walking 30 blocks back to mass transit on crutches with his own three bags plus the food. Growing lightheaded during the trip he ate all the food, and when he finally arrived at the mass transit station in Portland he sat down, elevated his leg and promptly vomited all he had eaten all over himself. He finally passed out.

A police officer threatened to take him to jail, but after Poole told his story he said the officer offered to take him anywhere he needed to go. “But I had nowhere to go. So he took me to the YMCA homeless shelter,” Poole said.

His experience in trying to find housing would change his life—and that of many others. Poole was given a letter on his first day at the YMCA saying the government would provide up to $1,200 each month to him for housing; all he had to do was find a place to live. He filled out applications and paid the related fees at numerous apartments, only to be turned down every time. 

“I applied to places I wouldn’t want to live at any time, and I was denied at those,” Poole said. “One day out of pure luck I am walking back to the shelter and as I’m walking down the street I see a lady putting up a sign saying, ‘For Rent.’ I applied, and the next day my phone rang and it’s her, and she says, ‘You’re approved.’ I asked her, ‘Why did you approve me?’ She said, ‘You just met our screening criteria.’ And that’s when I realized there is a set of criteria every management company uses to determine eligibility for the property, a set algorithm. I asked for a copy of it and saw what was on it.”

Poole said he began reviewing the materials and before long was a housing “criteria junkie. I got a job at the YMCA, and then I was on the other side of the table. I was giving award letters. I got so good at criteria that when I met with someone I would know in five minutes if they would qualify.”

From all of that Poole said he created his own algorithm that helped to “solve the housing problem” for many people who had housing support from the government but who nonetheless could not find a place to live. He eventually pitched the idea during a Shark Tank-like event hosted by the city of Portland and won the competition. 

He said the pitch he gave to the judges was this: “People can’t find a place they qualify to live in. No matter how many family advocates we hire, we can’t change the numbers. The odds of finding a housing unit for which you are qualified are a needle in a haystack. When you consider the time and money the family has, it’s going to result in failure. But, if I can go out and collect the unique screening criteria of every single management company in Oregon, I can screen people against every vacancy in Oregon.”

In December of 2017, Poole’s new company launched OneApp. He said the service it has provided so far is the equivalent of spending $200,000 on application fees over 11 years, all done in in seconds on a mobile phone.

Since the app went live, it has helped put more than 5,000 people into housing. 

Poole said credit union leaders should learn a lesson from his story and, as an African-American, the experiences he and those like him could bring to benefit a CU.

“What do I look like? What do I sound like? Out of 3,000 start-ups, I was named Oregon’s most promising Entrepreneur, the first African-American to earn that in 25 years,” he said. “I have a challenge for everyone, especially the people in power: when you seek help for the problems you deal with, make sure your appeals go deeper into communities of color and different income levels. They have great experiences and insights for you. Their feedback is invaluable.”

And addressing a cliché often heard at CU meetings, Poole added, “The people who don’t know what the box looks like, always think outside of it.”

He said very often, even though intentions might be good, those who set out to solve problems for others don’t look anything like the people for whom they are attempting to come up with a solution. 

“It’s not always college degrees. It’s not always the things people normally take into consideration that matter the most. It’s the people who have to circumvent this problem day in and day out that make them uniquely qualified to solve it.”

What’s Lacking? Not What You Think

Jill Tracie Nichols, CEO, Tracie Group, Seattle

After showing a slide featuring distinguished people of achievement such as Rosa Parks, Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt and Bill Gates, among others, Jill Tracie Nichols had an admission for her audience: she doesn’t feel like she belongs among those types of people.

It’s a sentiment she said she knows many people also share. 

“I don’t have their talents or wisdom, I’m just me. In many ways I stand here before youlacking–lacking a fancy degree, a fancy title, a fancy transformation story.”

Yet Tracie Nichols held up her own story as an example of what those who lack confidence in themselves if they bring three things to bear: clarity, culture and courage.

“We all carry these issues that I’m not good enough, not smart enough, I don’t have enough experience. I say to myself, let me have clarity in who I am. And having clarity in who you are and what you can accomplish is the first step in doing something extraordinary,” she said.

Tracie Nichols, who now runs her own boutique consulting firm, said her CEO clients all have one-to-three items they are “personally committed to and they let everything else fall away. What are those one, two or three things you have clarity on?”

The same holds true when it comes to having clarity around whose opinions one really values. Tracie Nichols said she used to “chronically” over-care what other people said and thought. But she finally quit Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to block out all that noise and focus only on the views and opinions of a small, select group of people. She quoted Brene Brown’s observation, “If you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback.”

In other words, don’t listen to those who aren’t willing to engage in the same challenges themselves.

Tracie Nichols acknowledged that it’s a well-worn cliché, that “courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the working through the fear.”

To that end, she shared her own story of being in her mid-20s, and working in HR at Microsoft with a degree in creative writing. At the time there was a giant internal HR initiative at the tech giant that had turned into a “train wreck,” off budget and out of scope, with an executive team so panicked the head of the project quit. 

“I got a call from my boss’ boss and he said to me, ‘Would you lead this project?’ I thought me? There is no way I can lead this project? The person three levels above me quit. Word started to spread that I drew the short straw. I got an email from one person who said it’s as bad as you think, but if you stick with it, I will stick with you to the end. And then I got other emails and phone calls, people saying, ‘I know the weight of the world is on your shoulders right now, but we believe in you. If there is anything we can do to help, let me know.’ I was petrified, but I was all in. It’s the power of we.”

That power, she said, can be found in being courageous enough to create a culture that solves the issue. 

“As leaders, one of the most fundamental things we can do is curate a culture that lets people do the best they can do every day,” Tracie Nichols told the meeting. “But another part of being a leader is asking which culture we need to prepare for success five or 10 years down the road. I had the privilege of working with the CEO of Microsoft in taking on this challenge, and the first step is understanding where the culture stands today. There was a lot of frustration, a sense of we know it all, we are the smartest people on the planet, we’re Microsoft. We were siloed and infighting. We said as a leadership team that if we are going to grow and reach new markets, what do we need to change. And we said we need to change from being know-it-alls to becoming learn-it-alls. And the CEO was the first person to live this.”

As for Tracie Nichols, she would eventually go on to become the chief of staff to Microsoft’s CEO.

Third Graders Offer a Lesson

Luis Ortega, speaker, storyteller, artist, founder of Storytellers for Change

Growing up in Mexico City, poor with two sisters, Ortega said he grew up with a single mom who often gave much to others. A teacher, his mother moved the family often in search of work, and the first thing his mother would do was introduce herself and get to know her new community. “She would identify the needs of people and then go out of her way to help those people.”

“I dreaded Christmas as a kid. My mother’s crazy idea was that if I wanted a new toy, I had to give up an old toy,” he said. “But over the years this gave me a moral compass. It allowed me to understand what it means to commit to a worthy cause. St. Augustine once wrote ‘There is a big difference between knowing the good and doing the good.’”

 To demonstrate what it means to do the good, Ortega shared the story of speaking to a group of approximately 100 third graders on the issue of inclusion.

“I asked them, ‘Wouldn’t you like school to be a place where you want to be rather than a place where you have to be?’ And they said, ‘If we all accept each other, then that makes it nicer during lunch time.’”

But he also found that later during a game the very same kids who said it was so good to be inclusive were the same ones who were throwing other kids out of their groups. 

“There is a difference between knowing the good and doing the good,” he repeated.

And then he got a demonstration from a third grader on doing the good.

Another game involved the announcement that the last one standing would be out of the game. All of the kids hit the floor, except for two who remained standing. One of the two kids still standing had figured out that if two did not hit the floor, no one could be out. But Ortega also discovered one of the kids was standing for another reason, as well. 

“My friend cannot hear you very well, he has a hearing aid,” the one kid explained.

“So now I’m thinking I’m terrible. I’m the one talking about empathy. I am thinking this kid is out there by himself, except his friend is there with him,” said Ortega. “I was impressed, but the rest of the kids in the gymnasium were not impressed. They say the two kids standing are cheating. They wanted to do the exercise again, but the two kids were still standing.

“I’m thinking to myself this is courage, this is conviction, this is character. But not everyone is thinking the same just yet. There is still finger pointing and name calling,” Ortega said. “So, I try one more time, everyone sits again, but not these two kids. And then something very curious happened. Four other kids stood up and stood right next to them. Why don’t you sit down, and one kid said, ‘We don’t have to.’ We can behave differently. To make a difference, you have to be the difference.”

Ortega said it would be easy to think it was courage or conviction that motivated the kids, but it was also something else to which credit unions should pay attention. 

“When I asked these students, ‘Why did you do that? Why stand when everyone else is sitting?,’ they said, ‘Mister, because we are close to each other.’”

The lesson, said Ortega, is proximity matters.

“Proximity, both geographically and experientially—makes it easier to empathize, while distance from the lives of others generates indifference,” Ortega explained. “To be great story tellers, we must first be great story listeners. In other words, empathy. It is always so much greater than sympathy. Look to your members to understand the stories of those who have yet to become your members. 

Your members need you to succeed, and that is why they will invest in you,” he continued. “They need to know you care first and foremost about them, and not profits.”

Reprinted with permission from, a leading source of news and resources for credit union decision-makers.