Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Decade of Vision

On April 19th Coopera Consulting, one of the companies Warren started while we were married, celebrated ten years. I was unaware. The new CEO tagged me in a post on Facebook that wished the firm a happy birthday and posted a video that I have embedded below. 

Reading that it had celebrated ten years reminded me of the many nights Warren and I stayed up late writing and revising the business plan and marketing strategy. But more than that, I had a vivid image of a conversation he and I had about why he wanted to start Coopera. 

When I met Warren he ran the Latino Leadership Project, a non-profit designed to empower Latino high school students through leadership and community service. Ultimately, his goal was to see these students graduate from high school and be successful in college. He knew he had an incredible privilege in having been able to do so himself, and he wanted that for others. Over the years he took his advocacy to the school board where he worked on an initiative to keep Latino youths in school, and he partnered with other educational support and leadership development groups that served Black youth. In his time working with the students and their families he discovered that the biggest barrier to their education was not that they lacked motivation, familial support or the smarts to do it. He saw financial independence as the key factor.

Families were in survival mode. Parents were working 12-14 hour days and barely earning enough to feed their families, let alone be there for PTO meetings, and playing an active role in their kids' education. Many had risked their lives and left everything behind to give their children better lives, yet their kids were not achieving their educational potential. Students felt pressured to alleviate their parents' financial distress by getting jobs and putting in as many hours as they could. This eliminated their time to be in sports, arts or other extra-curricular activities that would create a strong college application. This also meant that the students' main motivation was to join the workforce as soon as possible, even if it sometimes meant not finishing school.

This realization broke Warren's heart. He loved the students he worked with and wanted them to have more than he had. He went to Grinnell but wanted Harvard for them. He fought and explored various options for scholarships for them. If he had access to an internship, he wanted each of his students to experience at least three. This pushed him to think beyond the students and look at the systemic measures that contributed to their economic disadvantages. 

He and I, along with many of our friends and family had numerous discussions about ways to turn this around so students could focus on the path to higher education and not on finding and keeping jobs. In his quest, he talked to everyone he could think of who might shed some light. If anyone recalls Warren, they know that he was not afraid to call on anyone who shook hands with him and he was forever networking. He called the CEOs of local Fortune 500 companies and the presidents of local banks. 

From those discussions, plus some of the life experiences he, his friends, his family and his students had, came the idea for changing the way financial institutions served Latinos. His idea was that if Latinos had a partner in making their money work for them, they could begin to build financial independence and stop living paycheck to paycheck. Their kids could focus on education and build a path out of poverty. 

It was a long road before Coopera came to be. Warren shopped his idea to banks and got a lot of resistance and very little understanding. He grew frustrated but that fueled his determination that a partnership was out there and that he would find it. It took about three years before he found his niche with credit unions. 

I didn't know anything about credit unions when he first started working with them. I thought they were private institutions that only served exclusive members ages sixty and above. I also had no clue that they were non-profits. The more Warren shared about them, the more perfect the partnership seemed. Their values aligned. Both were most interested in the people, not shareholders. They believed that when the community is financially healthy, everyone benefits and those benefits are measured in more than just dollar signs. 

It all happened quickly. Warren worked his hustle that took Coopera from a local consulting agency to one that served all of Iowa, and soon after, the entire US in less than five years. He added employees, became a partner with the Iowa Credit Union League, and launched a series of products and services aimed at helping Latinos become economically stable and begin to accumulate savings that could one day lead to wealth. As we learned more about financial stability and saving, we also got our own financial affairs in order, for which I am eternally grateful. Shortly before his death, Warren visited Panama with several of his credit union colleagues. His vision had outgrown the US and he wanted to make it easier and more affordable for Latino credit union members to support their families abroad. He was excited and reinvigorated by the willingness he saw within the credit union movement.

I joke and say that Coopera was the mistress in our marriage. She was often his last thought before falling asleep and the first thing he thought about when he woke up. I would tease that he spent more time caressing his keyboard than me as he worked late into the night to grow Coopera and make it profitable. But to Warren it wasn't work, it was a passion so I loved it as much as he did, even though it pulled him away from me and our daughter more than I liked.

I would like to say that Warren is proud of these ten years but anyone who knew him knows that by now his vision would have expanded and he'd be more focused on ensuring Coopera is around for the next ten plus years, serving the next generation of Latinos and looking at ways to ensure that Latinos and their families felt as supported by their credit unions as he had.

1 comment:

  1. Love this! I thought of Warren when they announced the 10 year anniversary, too!


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