Warren Morrow, like many of us, came upon credit unions unintentionally: A Tucson, Ariz.-based credit union helped him and his father obtain a loan when he started college.
The loan paid for the car he would drive from Arizona to Iowa where he attended Grinnell College. What Warren didn’t know at the time was that he would ultimately leave an indelible mark on the credit union movement.
On Feb. 15, 2012, Warren’s family, friends, coworkers, the credit union movement, and the Latino community suffered an inexplicable tragedy when Warren passed away at the age of 34. Warren is survived by his wife, Christina Fernandez-Morrow, and eight-year-old daughter, Ariana.
As we remember Warren’s passing on this tragic date, there will be much sadness and disbelief among the many people Warren touched. But there will also be many things to reflect on and be thankful for as we look back on his immense impact.
During his 34 years, Warren was nothing short of amazing. He accomplished what many of us only dream of.
Warren was the founder of Coopera, a full-service Hispanic market solutions company with a focus on credit unions nationwide. Based in Des Moines, Iowa, Coopera is owned by Affiliates Management Co., the holding company of the Iowa Credit Union League.
Warren embodied the traits of a visionary leader with a selfless heart—a unique combination. He was soft-spoken, caring, wise, passionate, inspirational, and humble.
Born to an American father and Mexican mother in Mexico City, Warren’s identity and love for his Latino community was shaped in part by his experiences as a young person assimilating into the U.S. culture; particularly by the lasting impression left on him as he watched his mother struggle in her transition to American life.
Warren’s family moved from Mexico City to Tucson when he was in grade school. A 1999 graduate of Grinnell College, Warren and his friends formed a nonprofit while in school called the Latino Leadership Project. Its mission was to help underprivileged, young Hispanics attend college.Through his work, Warren realized the base cause he was trying to address was financial instability in the Latino home. In a 2011 interview, Warren told the Des Moines Register, “I came to realize that the disparity in education was a symptom of a larger problem. The root issues are the disparities in access to assets, access to wealth, and economic stability in the household.”
Warren left the nonprofit world to serve as an emerging markets and diversity consultant for Principal Residential Mortgage Inc. from 2003 to 2005. There he helped develop a strategy to increase Latino loan originations and augment the bilingual and minority workforce.
In 2004, he and a friend, Max Cardenas, founded Diverse Innovative Solutions to help businesses partner with the Latino community.
During this time, Warren crossed paths with the Iowa Credit Union League by way of a community development project. Through this work, he realized credit unions were philosophically aligned with his vision and could be the ideal conduit to bring dignified financial services to Latinos nationwide.
As a result, in 2006, his company evolved to become Coopera through a partnership with the Iowa League.
“Warren had a powerful vision that outreach to the underserved Hispanic community should not be philanthropy,” says Murray Williams, chief operating officer for the Iowa League. “Instead, a business could do well by doing good—and everyone would benefit.” Here is a video of Warren advocating his beliefs.
When Coopera was started, the concept was ahead of its time in the credit union movement. It was a progressive idea coming from progressive leaders in Iowa.
While most don’t consider Iowa a Hispanic mecca, it continues to be a gateway for Hispanic immigrants, similar to other Midwest states. Today, Coopera continues to pursue its mission of helping credit unions nationwide serve the Latino community as an opportunity for growth.
A visionary leader such as Warren is someone who holds the future ever-present. “He brought a vision of what could be in a way that I don’t think many other people have,” Williams told the Des Moines Business Record in 2012.
Stagnant membership growth, an aging population, increased mergers and acquisitions, and the rapid growth of fringe financial services are among the many challenges facing credit unions, creating the need for new growth opportunities. Warren connected credit unions’ need for growth with Latino communities’ need for dignified financial services.
Warren, a believer in working together for a common good, catalyzed a spark within the credit union movement. He brought awareness and created momentum around the Hispanic market being a solution to credit unions’ growth challenges.
In a 2008 Des Moines Register article, Warren said, “Working to demonstrate the value of underserved and disenfranchised communities is a lifelong mission that will always motivate me.”
Warren’s passion for serving these communities helped reinvigorate the unique credit union philosophy of “people helping people.”
Warren envisioned a credit union movement that rallied around serving the underserved Latino community. He would often say, “Hispanics need credit unions, as much as credit unions need Hispanics.”
He worked tirelessly to bring together credit union system organizations to expand service to Hispanics through credit unions. In 2009, CUNA and Coopera formed an exclusive, national alliance to help expand credit unions’ outreach to the Latino community.
Beyond its alliance with CUNA, Coopera partners with credit union system organizations including the Network of Latino Credit Unions and Professionals [nlcup.org], the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions, and the World Council of Credit Unions, as well as several state credit union leagues (including New York, Texas, California, and Nevada) as it seeks to expand its mission.
Being the humble person he was, Warren would probably be embarrassed to know people were doting on his achievements. Aside from his work at Coopera, Warren was active in his local community, serving on the board of various organizations.
He also became a partner of the Dos Rios Restaurant in downtown Des Moines. In a 2008 Des Moines Register article, Warren explained his leadership philosophy was to “Lead by example and with integrity.”
In that same article, Warren shared some of the words he lived by: “Pay attention to those who love you; follow your passion; be true to yourself.”
Warren embodied this philosophy. He was a leader that not only talked the talk but walked the walk.
Those of us who knew Warren learned a lot from him while he was alive, and have likely learned still more after his passing as we reflect on the life lessons he’s taught us.
As with any great leader, Warren showed us that no matter where you come from, success is possible if you pursue your passion and make a difference in the world. He taught credit unions to do the same.
While Warren may have left us a year ago today, we still feel his spirit and share his passion as his legacy lives on.