CEO Profile: Margie Salazar, CEO, Firstlight FCU

CEO Profile: Margie Salazar, CEO, Firstlight FCU

In January 2023, FirstLight Federal Credit Union in El Paso, TX, made a significant announcement, appointing Margie Salazar as their new Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Salazar, previously the Chief Financial Officer of FirstLight Federal Credit Union, assumed the role, succeeding the long-serving CEO, Karl Murphy. Notably, Salazar is among the first Latina CEOs to lead a credit union with assets exceeding a billion dollars.

Founded in 1955 by nine pioneers with a vision to enhance access to credit and financial services for military and civilian personnel stationed at Biggs Air Force Base, FirstLight FCU has evolved into a comprehensive financial cooperative serving over 100,000 members and welcoming individuals from all communities in El Paso and Dona Ana Counties. Furthermore, FirstLight proudly holds the distinction of being a certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, signifying its commitment to providing financial services tailored to the needs of economically disadvantaged individuals within underserved communities.

We recently had the privilege of conducting an interview with Ms. Salazar to gain insights into her professional journey and her vision for the future of FirstLight Credit Union.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What was the road that led you to the top job at FirstLight?   

I have lived in El Paso with all my family, pretty much my entire life. When I was 20 years old, I started working as a teller at FirstLight at the time I was a student at our local university here at UTEP. My grandfather was a maintenance worker at the university, and he introduced me to all his friends on the campus because he was so proud that I was going to college. My goal at the time was to be the first in my family to graduate from college while I was working. My work in the credit union was part-time and it was a really good job for a college student. I learned about the credit union difference and the philosophy of people helping people. When I graduated, I wanted to be part of that and learn more about the credit union. I decided to stick around after I got my degree at UTEP in management and marketing. I applied for a new position in marketing, and I got it. It was great and I loved it. After that, a position came open in leadership in the branches as a supervisor. I had a mentor at the time who encouraged me to apply for the position. This was the beginning of the journey into management and career progression. I was assistant branch manager, branch manager, vice president of branches, vice president of lending, executive vice president, and then CEO.

It is important to say that the board of directors did a national search, they also considered external applicants, and I went through the entire selection process along with the other candidates.  They really wanted to do their due diligence and make sure that they selected the most qualified candidate. It was one of the hardest things I have had to go through, but in the end, I was glad that I did because there was no doubt that they selected the right person.

You are among the first Hispanic women to lead a billion-dollar credit union, ever. What do you believe is the significance of this in the context of the credit union industry and financial inclusion in general?

As mentioned, I have lived in this community essentially my whole life. Also, my family is here. This is my community and I think it is important that we have people in leadership positions that represent the communities we serve because we have a profound understanding of the needs of our community, and we have a deep passion and love to make it better. I have an unwavering desire to improve the financial well-being of our members and my community. I became a member of the credit union many years ago. I came from a family of modest means, so I knew very little about finance. I remember I was working and going to school, and my dad was trying to help me get my first car loan. He co-signed for me to get this car. Years later, I got my first mortgage loan at the credit union and then, when I had kids, I was able to save for their college education. Now, I am able to save for my retirement. FirstLight has been there every step of the way to guide me and help me reach my goals and that is what I desire for every member and for our community.

Even though economic indicators have improved after COVID, there is still a lot of need, especially in underserved communities.  FirstLight is low-income designated and CDFI certified, how's that shaped how the credit union has responded to the needs of the community?

FirstLight has a proven track record of successfully deploying loans into Persistent Poverty Counties (PPC) in the El Paso and Dona Ana counties. Our branches are located in some of these areas and our employees and board of directors live in the same communities. This gives us a profound understanding of the consumer needs in these markets.

The grants we have received from CDFI have enabled us to introduce products like our Credit Rebuilder program where a loan is granted, funds are placed in savings, and the borrower builds credit and savings as they pay the loan back.

We have a Mortgage Readiness program for debt consolidation that helps improve credit, monthly cash flows, and helps borrowers lower their debt so they can qualify for homeownership. We offer 80/20 mortgage loans for those members that do not have enough savings for a down payment and closing cost. We also offer bilingual first-time homebuyers' seminars to educate community members on the mortgage process and what to expect once they are getting a loan. Our goal is to increase financial education and expand homeownership to many people who think this goal is not realistic for them.

Our community outreach has a heavy focus on financial education across all age groups but particularly on youth. We know as members of the El Paso community and Hispanic culture that we have a gap in financial education and many of us did not receive this growing up. We focus heavily on partnerships with our local school districts, colleges and trade schools. We recently launched Zogo, a free mobile app game that teaches our community about money. The app is also available in Spanish and the best part is that it rewards you for learning! As you go through the modules and earn points, you get a gift card.

Through our FirstLight Community Foundation, we have raised funds aimed at providing scholarships for local students. We recently awarded $35,000 in scholarships to local students from all regions: El Paso, Socorro, Chaparral, Mesilla, and Las Cruces.  This continues to grow each year.  We also have a FirstLight giving program, where for every funded loan, a dollar goes back to our local food banks. Since November 2021, we have granted over 39,000 loans equating to 390,000 meals to mitigate food insecurity.

We are providing training for all our branch employees to get certified in financial counseling. Savings is a challenge for many people in the current environment. We also are currently discussing additional programs such as a savings match program for down payment assistance and ITIN lending.

El Paso is ground zero for the immigration crisis. How are credit unions responding to it. What are other major challenges facing local credit unions?

Many of the people in our community have lending needs just to meet day-to-day needs but are fearful of being denied – for a variety of reasons. To help address and relieve their fears, we offer emergency loans up to $2000 where there is no credit check, and the funds are in the applicants account within minutes. You only need to be a member of our credit union.

One of the greatest needs in our rural areas is access to jobs, training, and basic needs like groceries, banking and medical needs. One way we have addressed this is by offering small dollar short term loans (with no credit check) and auto loans for first-time car buyers with little to no credit.

We know there is a great number of needs particularly with our immigrant population. To show our support, we participate in local immigration ceremonies to talk about finance education and understand their needs. We are currently working on a Citizenship loan to support immigrants with their payment of legal fees to obtain citizenship. Trust is a big barrier because sometimes they are fearful of opening accounts or applying for a loan at financial institutions. For us, education is key to developing that trust and improving their financial well-being.

We are working together and partnering with local organizations that have a common interest in supporting our immigrant population will enable us to have a greater impact in our community.

What's your vision for FirstLight credit union and where do you see it going in, say three to five years? 

We are constantly evolving as a credit union to meet the ever-changing expectations of members and keep up with the rapid pace of technology.  And as we know, COVID changed many things. Our vision is to create a meaningful member experience, expand convenience and access for our members through digital channels, but not lose sight of the human touch. We want our members to feel that they have someone they can trust, who has their best interests in mind, and is committed to improving their financial well-being.

Our mission is to improve lives and achieve dreams. We want to expand and reach out to underserved areas, educate, and provide programs and services that are going to elevate members' financial wellness and the overall strength of our community. I am excited for what the future holds for FirstLight FCU and our members and community.

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