SECU’s Chief Culture Officer Emma Hayes ‘97, ‘13 Bridges Passion and Purpose
By Caroline Barnhill
While growing up in Garland, N.C., a small rural town in Sampson County, Emma Hayes always planned to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. When she visited campus during her junior year of high school, however, something didn’t click. Two years and a big red envelope later, she settled into life at NC State – carrying a newfound appreciation for open-mindedness with her.
“Though I didn’t originally want to attend NC State, it ended up being the best university for me – the only place that ever felt right. I had to be open to the possibility that what I thought I knew was not completely accurate because I didn’t have all the information I needed to make an informed decision,” Hayes explains.
Today, Hayes serves as the chief culture officer for State Employees’ Credit Union (SECU), where she oversees diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, leadership development, employee engagement and internal brand marketing. And as a two-time graduate of NC State – having earned a bachelor’s in business management from Poole College of Management in 1997 and a master’s of education in training and development from the College of Education in 2013 – Hayes recognizes the important role the university has played in her career.
She first started her journey at NC State with plans to become a computer engineer, but after spending two semesters in the computer lab in the basement of Leazar Hall, she had that familiar feeling – something just didn’t click. Transferring to the Poole College of Management, Hayes began her studies in finance and realized she was on the right path.
“It was another one of those defining moments when I realized that I was exactly where I was supposed to be,” she says.
She spent the next four semesters building a home and making memories in Nelson Hall. And looking back, she can’t help but remember room 204.
It’s where I met some amazingly smart people, formed friendships and built a strong network. In fact, I’m still connected with some of the people I bonded with there.
“One semester, all five of my Tuesday/Thursday classes were in that same room. It’s where I met some amazingly smart people, formed friendships and built a strong network. In fact, I’m still connected with some of the people I bonded with there,” Hayes says.
After graduating from Poole College, she began working for a small systems integration company in downtown Raleigh before beginning as a technical writer for USPS. A few years later, she started at SAS Institute – working as a technical writer and business analyst and eventually transferring to SAS’s Rockville, Md. office. Then, while living in the Maryland area, she began working for the Administrative Offices for the Federal Courts in Washington, D.C. After a while, though, she sensed that North Carolina was calling her home.
“I really missed the southern hospitality I grew up with and had become accustomed to, so I moved back to Raleigh and began working for the Department of Transportation, providing technical training across the state,” Hayes says.
Then, seven years in, Hayes stumbled across a job description for a technical trainer posted by the Local Government Federal Credit Union (LGFCU) – and she realized she was ready for a new challenge.
“They were looking for someone to build a training department from scratch – and the opportunity to build something that would impact an entire organization really ignited my passion,” Hayes explains.
While at LGFCU, she built an internal training department supporting two separate credit unions and launched an in-house leadership development program. And, through a partnership with the African American Credit Union Coalition (AACUC), Hayes also served as chief diversity officer – facilitating DEI training sessions and workshops and consulting with credit unions across the nation to implement and scale DEI efforts. Additionally, she designed and launched a new certificate program – the DEI Leadership Academy for Financial Professionals.
“While working there, I fell in love with the credit union and cooperative movement. I love the principles guiding how they do business and the people they serve. My passion has always been serving, especially the unserved and underserved. And I believe that knowledge should be shared, not hoarded – which is something that Poole College ingrained in me. So working with a credit union has allowed me to bridge my purpose and passion,” Hayes says.
Reflecting on the evolution of her career, Hayes notes that following her passion and listening to her gut guided her every step of the way – and is ultimately what led her to her current role with SECU.
“I’d love to say that I had an intentional strategy for my career path, but that’s not really the case. I did what felt right in the moment – just like I did when I decided that NC State is the university that felt like home, or when I transferred into Poole College,” Hayes says.
I did what felt right in the moment – just like I did when I decided that NC State is the university that felt like home, or when I transferred into Poole College.
So when a colleague passed along a job posting for a chief culture officer at SECU, she knew it was the right step.
“The opportunity to do something new, exercise creative autonomy and build something from the ground up, in particular, really fuels me – so when I read the job description, it felt like it was written with me in mind. It spoke to and ignited all of my passions pertaining to DEI, leadership development and employee experience,” she says.
As chief culture officer, Hayes is eager to foster a sense of belonging and create a culture of trust, transparency, collaboration and innovation at SECU – with the goal of making SECU a certified Great Place to Work.
“DEI is a hot topic right now and many organizations talk about wanting to do something – but few are willing to put the necessary resources in place to really create an impact. At SECU, we’re committed to fostering a culture that is more diverse, equitable and inclusive than it has ever been. We seek to give team members a voice so that they feel seen, heard, valued and appreciated for the diversity of perspectives they bring to the table,” Hayes says.
“I’m also focused on helping our leaders build capacity and resilience so that they can develop other leaders. In doing so, I hope to engage our team members in deep and meaningful ways, making them feel that they have a place with us and that they can bring their whole selves,” she continues.
Looking back, Hayes admits that finding her true passion and purpose once seemed like a far-fetched concept or distant dream – but being open, being brave and leaning into opportunities to grow have made it a reality.
I spent many uncomfortable days in Nelson Hall stretching myself, learning and developing – and I’m glad I didn’t shy away from those opportunities.
“The things that build character, growth and development are not comfortable. I spent many uncomfortable days in Nelson Hall stretching myself, learning and developing – and I’m glad I didn’t shy away from those opportunities. If it hadn’t been for leaning in and embracing those challenges, I wouldn’t be here today.”