Incorporation through Cooperation

Miriam De Dios

As CEO of Coopera, Miriam De Dios uses her personal experience and background to help credit unions reach the underserved

When Miriam De Dios counsels a credit union on engaging with the Hispanic community, she has an invaluable, intangible benefit: she’s lived it. While many of the Coopera CEO’s childhood friends probably received suckers each time their parents visited the community bank, De Dios waited in line with her father at the nearest check-cashing outlet and interpreted for him when language put up a barrier.
Immigrating from El Grullo, Mexico—a town in Jalisco— to Perry, Iowa, for better work, the De Dios family made sacrifices and adjustments to build a life in America. But one area from which they, and many families like them, remained outsiders was the mainstream financial industry.

For De Dios, this problem and her work as CEO of Coopera, which helps credit unions reach out to Hispanic communities, are personal. And it was through an internship that she realized she could blend the two. While studying at Iowa State University, De Dios joined State Farm Insurance as a marketing intern. Even though she had lived as a member of the financially underserved Hispanic community, it was this internship where she first realized the scope of the issue. “It made me realize I wanted to find a career where I could use my upbringing and language in a business capacity,” she says.

the statistics hispanics + Banking

Hispanics in the United States are unbanked

Hispanics in the United States are underbanked

Hispanics in the United States have never had a bank account

According to a 2011 survey by the FDIC, 20.1 percent of Hispanics in the United States are “unbanked,” meaning they don’t have any kind of deposit account at an insured depository institution. The same survey states that 28.6 percent are “underbanked,” or they have an account, but also rely on alternative financial services (AFS) such as nonbank money orders, nonbank check cashing, and nonbank remittances. More than 14 percent of Hispanics have never had a bank account.

There is a lot of uncertainty, says De Dios, about financial institutions among Latinos. Some who have immigrated here may have had bad experiences with banks in their former countries. Others may have been mistreated or preyed upon by institutions here. If a bank or credit union doesn’t offer service in Spanish, communication can be a hindrance. Even simple factors such as hours of operation, lack of fees, and red tape make many Hispanics choose AFS over traditional institutions. “It’s definitely a large issue,” De Dios says. “I can’t imagine how credit unions would have affected our family growing up had we known about them.”

Before a credit union decides to host a fiesta or revamp its products and services to meet the needs of its Hispanic community, Coopera administers an assessment called the Hispanic Opportunity Navigator, which draws detailed information from a credit union to form a plan of progress. That may involve the Coopera Card, which is a prepaid reloadable card for which most people can qualify with no credit history and without traditional ID and documentation (for those Hispanics who may have a passport but not a driver’s license, for example). The fee structure has also been adapted to serve the Hispanic community. “We know individuals might use the card to transfer money to relatives abroad,” De Dios says. “They can use it internationally without fees [that are typically] associated with calling the interactive voice system and transfer support.”

Through more than 200 best practices, Coopera is working to resolve the disconnect between Hispanics and their credit unions across the nation. “Our philosophy has been to empower credit unions,” De Dios says. “We have the capability to do outreach for them, but we’re not the ones working there every day.” For this reason, Coopera urges its clients to build relationships with their Hispanic members and Hispanic community partners to build trust.

Coopera’s late founder, Warren Morrow, brought years of service in advocacy for the underserved and built Coopera’s mission on the belief that financial stability for Hispanics could lead to stability and success in other aspects of their lives, such as health care and education.

De Dios continues to serve her community outside of consulting on Monday and Wednesday nights when she teaches English as a second language (ESL) classes. For her, the feeling of teaching someone a skill that will change their life over the long-term is similar to the satisfaction of helping someone achieve financial stability or reach goals that banking with a credit union facilitates. “It makes me feel a part of something much larger than myself and Coopera,” De Dios says. “There’s something very fulfilling about knowing that you can be a voice for a community. That’s something I learned directly from Warren, and I feel very fortunate to be able to carry that into what I do in the business world.”