Chris Cain, Chief Experience Officer at Alternatives  Federal Credit Union &  SCN Communications CoChair

Chris Cain, Chief Experience Officer at Alternatives Federal Credit Union & SCN Communications CoChair

SCN Communications Co-Chair Chris Cain recently made a big move: from rural Staunton Virginia, where she was the Director of the Staunton Innovation Hub, to Alternatives Federal Credit Union in Ithaca, New York. It seems as though no matter what ecosystem she’s in, Chris is passionate about cultivating programs and spaces of inclusion. Before she left Staunton, she was integral in helping the Shenandoah LGBTQ Center get started. You can read more about the efforts on the Kauffman Foundation blog here.

Now, settled into her new role as the Chief Experience Officer at Alternatives Federal Credit Union, Chris is helping to provide life-changing resources for the LGBTQ community. This week,  Alternatives just announced the launch of its TransAction Financial Empowerment Program, a program to provide financial loans to transgender and non-binary community members.

“This program is one of the first in the United States that is specifically for transgender and non-binary community members. It’s a huge deal and I am excited to be a part of it,” says Chris.

TransAction provides access to funds to support gender affirmation, such as hormone therapy, vocal coaching, new wardrobes, legal documentation updates, and surgeries/procedures—without the risks of high-interest credit or predatory lenders.

There are two kinds of loans:

  • A personal loan for one-time expenses related to gender-affirming surgeries and related costs and one-time expenses for transition-related clothing, vocal training, and other needs.

  • A line of credit for ongoing transition-related care and expenses.

This is just one example of the life-changing - ecosystem building type of work Alternatives does -  and it’s part of the reason Chris left Staunton Innovation Hub and relocated to Ithaca. But the story is a little deeper than getting a new job. Chris actually developed her passion for community building at Alternatives. After attending VCU in Richmond and getting a job at Capital One, a few things became apparent to her.

“I learned a lot about money at Captial One - and a lot about what I didn’t want to do.”

Chris left Capital One, moved to Ithaca, and became a teller at Alternatives. She learned a lot about community development and learned how to use traditional financial tools to help people out of poverty. She took what she learned to help run the student credit union and teach financial literacy courses to kids in the community. She then moved back to Richmond and became the Director of Asset Building at New Richmond New Ventures, a Women’s Business Center. From there, she went on to be the Executive Director of the Staunton Creative Community Fund, then became Director at the Staunton Innovation Hub in Staunton, Virginia.

“I have helped people out of poverty, helped teach the power of financial literacy, and helped fund companies for people in marginalized communities. I learned how to do all this amazing work at Alternatives.”

Tell us about your new role and why you are excited about it

“As the Chief Experience Officer, I head up the marketing department, development department (fundraising), and community programs (like financial literacy classes, free tax prep, small business development education). But what that really means is I help raise the money to launch innovative initiatives that help people out of poverty and then tell the world about it.”

Tell us about Alternatives Credit Union and what drew you to back the organization

“Alternatives has been fighting for economic justice for 40 years and is a model credit union on a national level. We believe that true financial inclusion and empowerment is a fundamental right. We create programs designed to close the gap and remove barriers to financial stability and success. Our services are geared towards people who have been marginalized and have little resources. We have checking and savings accounts where people who have had a rough financial history can start fresh. We have small business loans that are character-based lending rather than credit based lending. What that means is we look at your business strategy and non-monetary connections within your community.

At Alternatives, I have an opportunity to really push the envelope on how money can help impact the community. I’m coming back to be a part of the next generation of leadership. This is real. It’s taking money, education, and support, and fundamentally changing peoples lives. I couldn’t wait to be able to do that. Being able to get money back into the hands of people who have been disenfranchised their entire lives is what I want to do with my life.”

And she’s doing it!

How can people within the financial services industry serve as entrepreneurial ecosystem builders in their communities?

“They are. They just don’t know that they are. Financial institutions can play important roles within their ecosystems by simply listening to the needs of entrepreneurs and creating the tools to help them. VCs and Angel Investors are awesome, but they aren’t the answer.”

Chris believes that financial institutions should pair up with coworking spaces and accelerators to offer the financial tools that entrepreneurs need.

“There is a disconnect between services for entrepreneurs and banking services because most mainstream banks don’t have the resources to do the one on one support entrepreneurs need. And, it’s not profitable. The attention generally goes to the high growth tech startups and not to the small startups that need that kind of help.”

Here’s one huge impact Alternatives has made in their community. They were one of the first financial organizations to do a living wage study in order to ensure they were paying their employees a fair wage. Their living wage study has become a tool of industry throughout the country for 25 years!

“We took a hard look at how income inequality works in our organization and are taking a stance on that by closing the gap with both our pay and raise structure.”

How can entrepreneurial ecosystem builders leverage financial institutions to better serve their communities?

“Ecosystem Builders should start by having the internal dialogue for how they can pair up with financial institutions that care about entrepreneurship, and have the tools or have the capacity to create the tools, to help move the ecosystem forward.”

Chris encourages fellow ecosystem builders to seek out the credit unions who care and engage them.

“Do an asset inventory of your region and find out who is doing the work that places like Alternatives or the Staunton Creative Community Fund are doing. Talk to them about who their clients are. See how you can partner.”

What is an entrepreneurial ecosystem builder to you?

“An entrepreneurial ecosystem is the way to connect people and resources together in a way that is organic to help entrepreneurs. An ecosystem builder is the person right in the middle of all that - orchestrating connections to people and resources. You could work at a credit union and be an ecosystem builder. You could work at City Hall and be an ecosystem builder.”

We can’t wait to see what Chris’ expertise and passion will bring to Alternatives Federal Credit Union, and the communities she seeks to empower.