This is the story of Richmond Heritage Federal Credit Union which was founded 84 years ago by Black school leaders. It is the story of my experience with Ippon Technologies, partnering with Richmond Heritage to lend Product and Technical expertise, to help this legacy survive and keep paying it forward.
Once upon a time, ten school leaders started a credit union to offer banking and loan services to fellow Blacks who did not have access to other financial institutions at the time. The year was 1936, right in the midst of the Great Depression. A mix of Richmond, VA-based teachers, principals, and school board members, the founders had a vision that the profits generated by customers taking and repaying loans would be pooled together and reinvested back into the community and into programs to uplift future generations of members. Their “pay-it-forward” philosophy was modern and forward-thinking. Now their future, unfortunately, is uncertain.
I’d like to tell the story of Richmond Heritage Federal Credit Union (RHFCU). I recently joined Ippon Technologies’ Product Practice. One important aspect of Ippon’s core values is supporting education and the community by donating technical and FinTech expertise through our Ippon Foundation. We met Randy Cooper, President of RHFCU, through Chris Simmons, the owner of Affordable Graphics who very generously created the initial website. I stepped onto the Ippon team as Product Manager, along with Ben Sudol, FinTech Engagement Manager, and other Ipponites to begin Discovery.
I was at once captivated by the RHFCU story. After initially meeting with Cooper, I was surprised to hear that this 84-year-old institution was in imminent danger. The initial charter’s restriction allowing them to only target the small geographical area of Blackwell, Manchester, and Swansboro remains unchanged in the last 84 years. On top of the limited potential market, there is increasing competition from larger, wealthier banks with more convenient access.
Richmond Heritage would not have survived the past 84 years without the support of Virginia Union University (VUU), Richmond Public Schools, Bon Secours, and other companies who share the story and offer membership to their employees (see complete list). But to take the next big step, we needed a way to better reach this target market. I met with Ippon colleagues and put my product management, marketing, and technical skills to work to determine how we might make a difference in this institution’s future.
I began Discovery by diving into the RHFCU website and all of the data I could find about their membership. I reviewed the website, the online application forms, and a recent market research study conducted by marketing students at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Finding analytics data was a challenge, but I started to hear a lot of stories from Cooper. I learned about donations made to area schools for supplies and scholarships and stories of impact to multiple generations of families of initial members.
For example, RHFCU helped an original member to establish their first bank account, then helped their child purchase their first car, and then went on to aid that child’s family with a job. The credit union developed an internship program for students of VUU to gain real world work experience and FinTech skills. As a result of the program and the opportunity to network, many have gone on to launch new careers and build long-term financial security. RHFCU partners with several local businesses to provide more affordable and accessible loans for all kinds of purchases, ranging from cars to weddings to vacations to bikes, and any kind of loan a member might need.
In the midst of COVID isolation and, ultimately, sad news, I was happy to spend hours listening to these stories. I recognized the user story that I needed to write — to give RHFCU the space to share its story. The Ippon team got together and moved quickly. Sudol worked with a partner, customer.io, to provide RHFCU a year of free membership to their marketing platform. We set up the tool and began sending email campaigns to celebrate Black History Month and spread the word about events. Partnering with local firm Impact Makers, we initiated plans to improve the website and create the space to share stories frequently with a much wider audience. A recent email campaign advertising the “Mobile Soul Sunday’’ food truck event to celebrate Black history in Richmond showed it was paying off.
Having initially worried that he might be the only attendee, Cooper had a parking lot full of attendees throughout the day. He spent the day navigating the crowd on his hoverboard doing what he does best — both listening to and sharing stories. He gave branch tours to show the wall which tells the story through pictures of the founding school leaders. New members signed up. Cooper was especially proud that the event was attended by a diverse audience, as he firmly believes that the founding members created the credit union to serve the whole community, not just the Black community.
As professor, author and speaker Brené Brown stated, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” My job is all about collecting data and writing user stories to express digital features and solutions. Stories are the human tradition that have connected us since the dawn of time. This is an amazing story of ten school leaders who took on banking at a divided time in history, and started a legacy which has changed so many lives and survived against the odds. The Ippon Foundation’s mission and focus are on education, opening “the doors of knowledge to everyone”, helping to “accelerate the fight against the digital divide”. Ippon is proud to partner and help pay-it-forward with RHFCU — to give them a digital voice and the space to share their story.
I hope you’ll pay it forward too, sharing the story so that this 84-year-old legacy gets the visibility and support needed to reach 90, 100, and a happily ever after, thereafter.
Richmond Heritage Federal Credit Union extends a huge thank you to their supporters and partners, including: Richmond Public Schools, VUU, Affordable Graphics, Bon Secours, VCU, Impact Makers, Tiny Chapel Weddings, The Market @25th, and City to City Automotive Group