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Celebrating ‘Women’s History Month’ with Stephanie Cuevas

March is Women’s History Month, and the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues would like to take this time to recognize and celebrate women’s contributions across American history, society, and culture. The credit union movement is fortunate to have many female leaders and professionals serving members every day, including here at the Leagues.

Stephanie Cuevas, Leagues Senior Vice President of Federal Government Affairs reflects on her own career, her entrance into the credit union industry, and how we can better support future women in credit unions.

Tell us about your career history and how you got started with credit unions.
I was first exposed to credit unions while working for Congressman Pete Aguilar. At age 25, I was a new legislative assistant and developing my policy chops. Credit unions were some of the strongest and kindest advocates that visited the office. I looked forward to our biannual meetings and learning about credit unions’ commitment to the community.

What attracted you to credit unions and what have been some things that surprised you?
I was attracted to the credit union industry because of my family’s positive experience with my local credit union, which is CU SoCal. When moving back home after working in DC for eight years, I reached out to a board member I knew (my middle school teacher!) and applied to join the board.

It may sound cliché, but I’ve been most surprised about how friendly the credit union community is. Every conference feels like a family reunion. Coming from the advocacy space, I didn’t expect the high level of collaboration we see between credit unions. It’s a reminder that the credit union movement is about more than a single financial institution, it’s about uplifting communities.

What women leaders have you admired throughout your career? 
Congresswoman Linda Sánchez, one of my former bosses, stands out to me as someone who I’ve looked up to for my entire career. She is a trailblazer in many ways – she and her sister are the first pair of sisters elected to Congress and she’s the first Latina to serve on the Ways and Means Committee. I admire the way she balances motherhood and her job as an elected official. She was on the House floor voting the day before she delivered her son! She is committed to the community, smart as a whip, and has a great sense of humor.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have my mom, Cindy Cuevas, as a role model. She  started her career as a teacher, was promoted several times, and became the assistant superintendent of a school district. She managed multiple departments, including HR. I was fortunate to join one of the first bilingual immersion programs in the state because she started the program. She was the first Latina to reach her level of management in the school district’s history. Her leadership style has positively influenced my life and career, and I’m so grateful for that.

What advice would you give women looking to start their career in credit unions?
Early in my career, I felt intimidated by the unknown. It was easy to fall victim to
the death spiral of “what if?” questions. As an example, “What if I make a mistake? What if I embarrass myself? What if I get fired?” and so on.  At some point, I learned to turn it around – “What if everything works out as planned? What if I am successful?” In circumstances when I’m having a harder time breaking the negativity cycle, I bring humor into my thought process.

This change in mindset has been a game changer for me and helps me to avoid feeling overwhelmed and stuck. Instead, I charge ahead with what needs to be accomplished. And if things don’t work out, I know I’m capable of pivoting as needed.

What have you learned about women in credit unions?
My experience is that women in credit unions are visionaries and fearless leaders. As an example, I’ve been fortunate to work with Diana Dykstra. She has created a strong legacy in the credit union movement as someone who brings people together to have productive discussions. She’s innovative and a problem solver. From her, I’ve learned the importance of listening to others and incorporating feedback into future decision making.

The financial services industry is male dominated – but there is no shortage of female leaders in credit unions. At the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues, half of the board members (when combining both boards) are women. I’m grateful to work with women on these boards. They ask thoughtful questions that inspire me to think strategically.

What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your professional career that you know now?
When I started my career, I didn’t have family members to look to for examples on how to pave a career path in advocacy (or in credit unions!). If I were to give career advice to someone in a similar position, just know that paving your own career path is incredibly rewarding. Each “unknown” is an opportunity to grow and learn. Then when a new goal is reached, don’t forget to pass on lessons learned to the new generation of leaders.

What are your future goals?
As a professional in advocacy, my goal is to protect the credit union business model. Credit unions exist because our legislators allow us to. For example, our non-profit tax status is granted through federal law. With the stroke of a pen, that can go away.

Advocacy is essential to maintaining the credit union movement’s momentum into the future. As discussions on artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies unfold in Congress, the voice of credit unions cannot be lost. In the long term, my goal is to train and mentor as many credit union advocates as possible. Every single credit union employee and member should feel empowered to be an advocate. For some, Congress and politics can feel  intimidating – or worse, boring! My goal is to make advocacy fun and recruit more people to participate in the legislative process.

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