From welfare to the boardroom: how Sati Smith became the first Black woman CEO of Detroit’s oldest credit union

BY Preta Peace Namasaba December 12, 2023 7:56 AM EDT
Sati Smith. Photo credit: DMCU

Sati Smith, 53, was recently appointed CEO of Detroit’s oldest credit union, Diversified Members Credit Union (DMCU) in a historic move that makes her the first Black woman to lead the credit union in its 94-year history.

Smith’s early life was marked by challenges. As a young single mother on welfare, she faced adversity that could have easily stifled her dreams. However, her indomitable spirit and commitment to success propelled her forward. Refusing to succumb to the limitations of her circumstances, Smith embraced hard work and harnessed her passion and drive to overcome obstacles.

“I was on welfare, I was a single mother. You just have to continue to work hard, and utilize the passion, have that drive – and you will succeed. Don’t ever give up,” said Sati Smith to FOX 2 Detroit.

Her professional journey started at Kemba Financial Credit Union, where she started as a teller. Climbing the ranks, Smith transitioned through various roles, including data processing clerk, IT manager, branch manager, operations manager, and eventually Chief Operating Officer at DMCU. Throughout her ascent, Kathie Trembath, her predecessor, played a pivotal role as a mentor, guiding and encouraging Smith for nearly two decades.

Embracing Trembath’s counsel, Smith pursued further education to equip herself for greater responsibilities. Despite not having graduated from high school initially, she earned her GED and diligently put herself through college while juggling her demanding career and motherhood. Her academic achievements include a Bachelor of Social Work from Wayne State University and a Master of Arts from Ashland Theological Seminary.

Now at the helm of DMCU, Smith assumes a crucial role in shaping the credit union’s leadership and strategic vision. Collaborating with the Board of Directors, she upholds DMCU’s commitment to a community-based approach to financial services. In her capacity as CEO, Smith oversees the institution’s operations, ensuring the delivery of the highest standards of service and the effective implementation of member-supported policies and procedures.

The impact of Smith’s story resonates deeply within the DMCU community. Her colleagues and employees are familiar with her journey, and she uses her personal narrative as a source of motivation to coach and develop others. Smith’s passion lies in empowering individuals, helping them recognize their true potential, and fostering an environment where they can advance and achieve greater heights.

With a membership base of almost 30,000 and assets totaling $500 million, DMCU plays a significant role in providing full-service financial solutions. Established in 1929, the credit union has stood the test of time, evolving into a pillar of support for its diverse membership. Smith’s leadership position puts her in a prime position to further enhance DMCU’s commitment to its members and the broader community.

Sati Smith’s appointment as CEO not only represents a groundbreaking achievement but also symbolizes the inclusivity and diversity that DMCU stands for. Her journey from a challenging beginning to the pinnacle of leadership serves as an inspiring narrative for individuals facing their own trials, emphasizing that with hard work, determination, and support, success is indeed attainable.