Helping Women and Youth Create a Secure Financial Future
La Follette High School class of 1985 alumna Kim Sponem is CEO/President of one of Wisconsin’s largest credit unions, Summit Credit Union. Under her leadership since 2002 (then named CUNA Credit Union) it has grown from $200 million to $4.5 billion in assets; its branch network has expanded from four locations to 46 across South Central and South Eastern Wisconsin, including four in Madison high schools.
Summit has become a leader in financial education, the number one mortgage lender in southern Wisconsin and the number one Small Business Administration loan provider by number of loans amongst credit unions in Wisconsin. At the time of becoming CEO nineteen years ago, Kim was named one of the youngest in the country to run a large credit union.
Kim grew up in Madison, attending Elvejhem Elementary, Sennett Middle and La Follette High. As Kim reflects on her time at La Follette and what impacted her most, she immediately recalls a women’s studies class that she had the unique opportunity to participate in. Kim comments:
“I’m pretty sure the class was a fairly new offering at the time, and it was unlike any other class I had taken. The format was discussion-based where the teacher would bring up topics and we’d dive into them in-depth – the teacher and my classmates were all so engaging. It really piqued my interest and opened my eyes in terms of the challenges women faced in society, and in business. I took that further by continuing my women’s studies into college at UW-Madison and graduated much more knowledgeable about the challenges women face, especially at that time. With that background, I have embraced female empowerment and made it my mission as an organization, and a leader, to always focus in on the things that can be changed at the margins.”
Embracing Female Empowerment
Over the past decade and a half, Kim has honed in on helping women create a secure financial future. “What I noticed 15 years ago is that women wanted help, but they weren’t comfortable talking about their finances nor did they feel financial institutions were talking to them. Women still make less than men but by tailoring our programs around women and their banking needs we’ve been able to make a really big impact,” she states.
“I’ve been passionate about women’s equality since I was a kid, and I love that I have now been able to bring that into my career.”
Kim’s position is that when it comes down to it, empowered women empower women and, therefore, getting more women into higher positions is crucial. Women need to lift each other up and inspire one another. She is well aware that women who see her in the top role at her business view Summit Credit Union as a place where females can advance. With that, Kim has worked alongside Marsha Lindsay, founder and chair of the marketing firm Lindsay, Stone & Briggs, now CEO of Lindsay Foresight & Strategem, to research and write about women on boards in the hope of offering ideas to help. Kim is also an occasional guest speaker at the UW-Madison on different topics about women in business, discussing both subtle and overt topics.
Kim also points out that business consultants and various academic studies tell us that having diverse business boards is good for the bottom line and helps organizations attract and retain a diverse array of top talent. Yet women and others are still underrepresented on business boards. That disconnect is what led Kim in 2019 to co-chair (alongside Kristine Euclide, current board chair for WPS Health Solutions) the launch of Project REACH through TEMPO Madison, a 250-member peer-to-peer organization for professional women. Project REACH is an initiative to increase the number of TEMPO members on business boards – not just to make them more diverse, but to make them better by making them more diverse and to create a template for other professional women’s groups to follow in helping their members pursue board service.
A Strong Dedication to Youth and the Community
Under Kim’s leadership, Summit has won dozens of awards recognizing its work in the community including the 2019 Governor’s Financial Literacy Legacy Award. This honor recognizes that Summit’s purpose and heritage is ingrained in sustained financial literacy and capability. Kim is especially happy that MMSD nominated Summit for this lifetime award. Summit has partnered with the district for many years and in 2011 by request of the district, Summit opened an in-school branch at La Follette High School. In the years since, in-school branches have been opened at Memorial, East and West high schools, giving over 7,500 students access to financial education resources. Summit’s presence provides students the opportunity to interact with qualified financial professionals as they develop sound money management and financial literacy skills.
Students at these schools have access to financial education workshops, in-class presentations, educational videos and online tools. Summit also offers opportunities for students to gain real-life employment and money management experience by fulfilling an internship role or opening a checking account of their own. Further, students at high schools with Summit branches can participate in Project Teen Money, Summit’s annual interactive competition for students to inspire and educate one another about healthy financial habits. Summit has awarded over $30,000 in scholarship prizes to MMSD students through Project Teen Money since its inception in 2013.
“The best time to learn healthy money habits is early in life, and our presence in Madison high schools helps us provide students with the tools they need to succeed financially. This foundation of knowledge and skills will help them make smart financial decisions for the rest of their lives.”
When asked to reflect on what she considers her greatest professional accomplishment, Kim responds: “It has to be leading an organization that gives so much back to its members and community. We are an innovative team with a shared vision to empower our members to improve their financial lives. Having been named one of the area’s best workplaces for two years in a row now and nationally for 2021, I look at that kind of thing and think that while it starts at the top, it’s really about working alongside our employees to create a meaningful, challenging and fun work environment that promotes diversity, inclusion and equity.”
Kim has a B.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MBA from Edgewood College. She is married to Mark Sponem and they have three children: Aspen Jo, Mason and Ross.
Madison’s public schools are proud to count Kim Sponem among their alumni!