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Business Observer Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021 1 month ago

Strong roots: Credit union exec overcomes steep obstacles

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Achieva Credit Union’s new market vice president started her working life as a migrant farmworker. That memory is motivation — and lessons for other executives.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

Rocio Smith, Achieva Credit Union’s new Hillsborough County market vice president, has the kind of life story that will rekindle your faith in the American Dream. The daughter of migrant farmworkers, as a teenager she spent her summers picking crops with her parents and siblings in Midwest states. Then the family would return to Wimauma, east Hillsborough County, where she, her brothers and two half-sisters went to school.

“We followed the crops,” Smith says, “and then we returned to school, to study. Because that was our way out.”

A way out to a better life, that is. Smith’s hardscrabble upbringing also taught her lessons that have helped her get ahead in her financial services career. Prior to joining Achieva in September, Smith, 50, was with Wells Fargo for 17 years, working her way up to a regional manager position. She then served as a BMO Financial Group branch manager in Ellenton, north Manatee County, for about a year and a half before making the leap to the world of credit unions.

How did Smith, the first person in her family to graduate from college, get to where she is today, and what can her experiences teach other professionals? To begin with, she was forced to grow up fast, going to work at just eight-years-old and having to quickly learn English so she could interpret for her parents, who spoke only Spanish.

“We had to be our parents’ lawyers, for lack of a better phrase,” Smith says. “That made me learn a lot faster.”

‘We followed the crops, and then we returned to school, to study. Because that was our way out.’ Rocio Smith, Achieva Credit Union’s Hillsborough County market vice president

Smith’s ascent in the banking industry can also be attributed to her ability to find motivation in everyday experiences, even negative ones that might otherwise affect someone’s confidence or self-esteem. When she was a little girl, she went to a bank with her mother to exchange dollar bills for quarters so the family could do laundry. She remembers being utterly shocked at how she and her mom were treated.

“The teller didn’t want to touch our money because it was dirty,” Smith recalls. “We had been picking tomatoes all day, and when you pick tomatoes, you get all gooey and green. That stuck in my mind, and I never wanted that to happen to anybody again.”

Smith’s arrival at Achieva coincides not only with the Dunedin-based credit union’s expansion into Hillsborough County — a Carrollwood branch is expected to open early next year. It also comes as the $2.35 billion-asset credit union drives forward on its push to reach more Hispanic residents, who comprise 29.7% of the county’s population.

The Hispanic community, Smith says, can be underserved by banks and credit unions in some markets. Achieva’s commitment to growing its already 13,000-strong member base in Hillsborough County by marketing to more Hispanic residents was a big draw for her when she weighed her next career move. (Achieva, founded in 1937, has 154,000 members, according to National Credit Union Administration data.)

“I know the language; I know the culture,” Smith says. “And I grew up in the county, in Wimauma. What better way for me to help Achieva reach that goal of serving more of the Hispanic community.”

Smith's hiring certainly dovetails with moves Achieva has been making. In a statement, the credit union says it has translated its entire website into Spanish, published educational articles and television segments in Spanish and has run Spanish-language ad campaigns. The credit union also has a standing committee led by Hispanic employees focused on identifying additional ways to engage with the Hispanic community.

Smith, meanwhile, has volunteered her time with Redlands Christian Migrant Association, a nonprofit that provides child care and early education to children of migrant farmworkers around Florida.

“Nothing can be done without community involvement,” she says. “One of the main points that struck me about Achieva was that they’re made up of and work for the community. I want to continue to be involved in the community and find out what are the rocks that they want to move, and then build strategies around that.”

Another compelling part of Smith’s story is her refusal to use her difficult upbringing as an excuse for not vigorously pursuing her dreams. She says she’s always believed in “extreme ownership” of both her successes and failures.

“I’ve never been one to say, ‘Oh, well, my family came from here,’ or ‘I never had this’ — none of that,” Smith says. “To me, you work hard and you get rewards for that. I never want anyone to use the handicap of saying you can’t do something. It just takes hard work.”

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