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Sarah Brenner - Get Involved to Get Inspired

We met Sarah while in Durham, North Carolina at her inaugural i3 Big.Bright.Minds. After hearing her introduction and the ice breaker about her first car, we knew we had to get to know her better! She most recently won the CUNA's 2019 Emerging Leader Award, volunteers on CUNA's Member and Business Development Council as well as the Engagement Council and is fresh off of a trip to GAC. We were able to catch up with Sarah to talk about all things credit unions and how our generation can help to pave the way for the next generation of young professionals.

How did you get your start in the credit union space? What keeps you here?

I sort of found my way into credit unions by accident. I had graduated with a journalism degree and had been working as a journalist throughout my college experience (among other jobs). But when I graduated and looked around I was searching for a way I could really give back to my community. I ended up working for the Center for Independent Living where I worked as a health and school advocate to help people with disabilities live independently and get connected to the services they need. It’s a really fulfilling experience, but it definitely took an emotional toll and there wasn’t much I could grow into at this job. During all this time I was also doing their marketing and revising brochures, and found I really enjoyed using that creative side of my brain a lot. I happened to see a position open at the credit union I’d belonged to for over 10 years and I was hooked.

I’ve stayed in the industry in large part because of the people in this industry. I’ve met some of my very best friends and mentors through credit unions. The drive and passion we have as an industry to make a difference is truly beyond compare. We know financial services isn’t sexy and nobody wants to talk about a budget, but we use our services to empower people to achieve their dreams. There’s something very magical about that.

So many others have very similar career paths, stumble upon something and never want to leave. You have a lot of experiences in the movement, tell us about GAC and being an i3er, and what these experiences have done for you?

There are so many opportunities within our industry to take advantage of, learn from and grow with - it can sometimes be hard to pick just one. Being part of the 16th wave of Filene's i3 program is an amazing experience because it challenges you to step back from your day-to-day work and think about the communities and people around you, and how credit unions could better serve them. Challenging the way we provide services and serve our communities is a powerful proposition, and it’s one that almost instantly changes the lens you apply to everything. We kicked off in November 2019 and it is already full-steam ahead! Not only am I meeting amazing people, but we’re working on real, tangible issues facing all of our members and communities. Plus, there’s a confidence boost that comes from getting more ingrained with these issues that are often outside of your day job. You really have to put on all the hats (operations, finance, member experience, etc.) and not just the one you usually wear (marketing, for me). I’m finding myself already gaining insights and knowledge that I can apply at an organizational and strategic level. I’m growing in ways I didn’t even expect to grow, and that is truly exciting.

GAC is always a great event to be a part of. Not only are there great content and learning opportunities, but you get to experience it all with the backdrop of Washington, DC. I think my favorite part of GAC is being with over 5,000 other passionate credit union professionals! The energy of that many like-minded folks is just incomparable. This year was especially significant for me, as John Fiore (Andigo’s previous CEO and current board member) was recognized as a recipient of the 2020 Herb Wegner Memorial Outstanding Individual Achievement Award for devoting more than 50 years to this movement. It was truly awe-inspiring to see him recognized for the work he’s done throughout his career, and to see his passion in action.

Beyond that, the message of GAC is pretty resounding – we must tell the stories of what we do at credit unions and how we advance our communities. Whether we’re on Capitol Hill or in our hometowns, we need our communities to recognize us a valued and trusted partner, who has been there for them throughout their highs and lows. We help small businesses and main streets thrive. We finance homes and autos. We help you save for retirement. Credit unions do it all, and we do it with heart. As CUNA rolls out the Open Your Eyes to a Credit Union Campaign nationwide, I hope we can grab more consumer attention and consideration for what a credit union can do for them.

John is not the only one winning an award lately, congrats on winning the 2019 Emerging Leader Award, tell us what it meant to you to earn that award?

Thank you so much! It was and is definitely an honor to be recognized through our national association. Not only does it help validate that the work and effort you’re putting is being recognized, but it also just feels really nice to be told you’re going a great job! My current boss nominated me, and it meant the world to me that she was willing to do so. I feel very lucky to be in an environment that encourages and recognizes both personal and professional growth. That’s part of what I love about the credit union movement – we really celebrate successes as an industry. Of course, it’s also a lot to live up to! I’m still growing and figuring out how to best lead in a multitude of situations and shifting environments. But I think that’s part of what sets great leaders apart – they recognize what they do and don’t know, and they’re not afraid to seek out new answers to the challenges they face.

I love the mentality of looking at things from a different viewpoint and through another lens like you mentioned earlier. Staying involved and thinking outside the box are sometimes overlooked park of YP growth. What other committees or groups are you involved in and why are the important to you?

I volunteer with the CUNA Marketing & Business Development Council, as well as the Engagement Council. I think it’s important to get involved and work within your industry as much as possible. There are so many creative people in our space, trying new things and the more you get involved, the more you get inspired!

Personally, I also value volunteering in my community in many different ways. Whether it’s connecting kids and art, raising funds for a variety of efforts, or helping abused and neglected animals find trust and new homes – whatever you get excited about, you have to participate in! It helps fill your energy tank and makes long days’ worth it.

Volunteering is a great way to build your skill-sets as well. I’ve often taken on roles within a volunteer organization that challenged me to get out of my comfort zone and try something else. These experiences are invaluable as you’re growing as a leader.

Very impressive work in the community and helping others. It really is all about people helping people, who are your biggest mentors in the CU space?

Oh this is a hard one. There have been so many people in the CU space over the years that have influenced my growth. The three people below though definitely stand apart and have had a huge influence over the leader I’m becoming.

Steve Jones, CEO & President of Concepts Unlimited makes this list for sure. Steve and I have worked together for over 12 years off and on, and throughout that time he has always been available to bounce ideas off of, share opportunities and really just help me see the potential he saw in me. That was instrumental in my having the confidence to shoot for the jobs and opportunities I want. He’s always willing to give me authentic feedback, and that is certainly invaluable.

Susan Toalson, VP of Creating Awareness at CUNA, has also been an extremely valuable role model. Susan and I worked together at our first credit unions in Champaign-Urbana, IL. I had known Susan already because she was involved in our local business association. Working together, I learned the power of connection and how powerful it can be to just get the right people in the room. Susan and I have stayed in touch, and I’m always in awe of her energy and enthusiasm for what we do. She’s also extremely creative and always has some ideas for how you might do something a bit differently.

Lastly, and certainly not least, I would have to recognize Jean Theis who is my current boss at Andigo Credit Union. Jean is extremely strategic in nature and a truly thoughtful leader. She’s given me opportunities to help lead and participate at a high-level very quickly in the organization. She is an open and authentic person and leader, which inspires candor and contribution without fear of failure. While we’ve only worked together a little over a year now, I know that this is a relationship that is shaping who I am continuing to develop into as a leader.

That is a great group of mentors in the credit union space. Next, tell me your favorite people helping people story.

I have so many moments that have been inspirational. From the scholarship programs, to staff coming together to support another team member, my stories run the gambit. Because I’m in Marketing I don’t often get to see the day-to-day member moments but through some of our sweepstakes and initiatives over the years we’ve helped parents and kids reunite for the holidays or rebuild after fires and natural disasters and raised funds for thousands of charitable organizations.

I think that overall if you find people in need in a community, you’ll find some of our industry coworkers not far away trying to make a difference. I think that’s what makes this industry so very special, we are motivated to do good in the world and we find some amazingly creative ways of doing just that.

Love that. What are the struggles we have as young professionals and how can we overcome them and help each other?

As YPs, we’re often the youngest and sometimes also the most inexperienced in the room. It can be extremely challenging to feel like you’re being given the opportunity to contribute at the same levels as others who might be a bit older with more experience. A lot of that friction can go away with the right advocate on your team. So as we continue to grow, we need to make sure to help create a welcoming environment for those that are coming up behind us.

We also have to be open to constructive criticism and the opinions of others. While you should never morph yourself into something inauthentic, the power to shift portions of ourselves up and down is a talent that we have to cultivate. This will serve us in knowing what to bring to the table when.

I think the best thing any YP can do is find a mentor. Find someone who has been where you are or understands a part of your story. And ask them for feedback. Actually ask a lot of people for feedback, and get comfortable hearing things about yourself that you have to work on. It’s the only way you’ll know what needs growth. That being said, also find a group of YPs who are going through the same things so you can let your guard down and brainstorm how to navigate your career. You’re not alone, but sometimes depending on your situation at work and at home it can feel that – so fill in the spaces intentionally where you can.

Being open to criticism is so vital to growth. On a lighter note, what is next for you?

I’m going to keep learning and growing! I have another year and a half of Filene’s i3 program to complete and I can’t wait to see what we’re able to accomplish there. I also have an exciting merger on the horizon at my current credit union, and it’ll be my job to help navigate the branding and marketing as we transition and for the new organization going forward. I can’t wait to help shape that new story for our members and team.

CUltivate is people helping people with our mission to spread the word, connect the people, and give an outlet to share your stories. Know someone in the industry we should interview? Drop us a line at


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