Rosa Rivera has always been a trailblazer. Rivera, who emigrated from Mexico to the United States with her family in 1976 at the age of 13, became the first bilingual teller in the history of Garden City, Kan., as a senior in high school.
Over the next four decades, Rivera established herself as a personable banker determined to help immigrants navigate the financial landscape of the United States, forging close relationships with customers and coworkers in the process. Today Rivera, a vice president and retail banking leader at Syracuse, Kan.-based Dream First Bank, is being recognized as one of BankNews magazine’s 2022 “Outstanding Women in Banking.”
Following her 1983 high school graduation, Rivera, a teller at Garden National Bank at the time, continued on at the bank while pursuing her CPA designation. That institution was acquired by Bank IV in 1989.
After eight years of teller work, Rivera became a consumer loan officer, drawing customers from the surrounding communities specifically to utilize her bilingual skills. By making credit decisions, Rivera played a key role in helping customers — including many immigrants — buy their first homes and start their own businesses. She also translated for all of her bank’s departments, helping with commercial, mortgage and consumer loans. Rivera hosted a Spanish-language banking education broadcast on Saturday mornings, explaining how to open a checking account and describing the importance of building a credit profile.
Even as she helped many immigrants with their banking early in her career, Rivera faced challenges of her own as she became fluent in English. She initially struggled to maintain conversations with her customers, leading her to lose faith in her ability to learn the language. As her confidence dropped, her supervisor during the late 1980s, Terry Ginther, helped instill faith in herself, appointing her to supervise a department.
“Thanks to her, I feel like I got that confidence,” Rivera said. “When I kept saying no to her, she said, ‘Rosa, I can’t believe I have more confidence in you than you have in yourself. You’ve gotta change that mindset. You can do it. You have the ability, you have the intelligence, you have the knowledge.’”
Though her parents didn’t have the knowledge to recommend a college to her, her father still expressed his desire for Rivera and her siblings to make better lives for themselves. The decision by Rivera’s parents to find a permanent home in Garden City allowed her to master both Spanish and English, a decision she remains thankful for. “That encouraged me to help my Hispanic community, and say, ‘In banking, they’re not going to struggle, because I am going to be there for them,’” she said.
Four decades into her banking career, Rivera has cemented deep relationships with her customers and coworkers. She takes pride in providing a safe place for customers to confide in and feel close to. “These people are like family to me now,” she noted. “To them, I am their advisor. They come to me with their problems, they ask me for suggestions.”
Following a four-year stint at a local bank, Rivera started working at the $444 million Dream First Bank in 2000. The following year, Dream First opened a branch inside a local Tyson Foods plant, which Rivera was selected to manage. The position was a good fit: 90 percent of Rivera’s customers already worked there.
Dream First Bank CEO Chris Floyd knows Rivera as a banker who asks the right questions and as someone who her customers would do anything for. That dedication was shown in 2019 when the bank was gathering customer testimonials. A single mother who only spoke Spanish drove more than 30 minutes from her house to be filmed for a bank promotional campaign solely to help Rivera, after Rivera helped her secure her first loan.
Rivera’s connection with consumers along with the faith Ginther showed in her decades ago has propelled her career to new levels. Rivera oversees tellers and consumer lenders in five bank branches — meeting with them all every week — while still sometimes working the teller line herself. “I have my people that I manage that I need to be there for them, and I still have my customers, to help them with their loans, with a new account, with that mortgage loan,” she said. “I’m all over the place.”
Rivera has also been active in community boards, including the scholarship-focused Western Kansas Community Foundation and the local Chamber of Commerce. A member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, Rivera was recipient of its 2010 “Woman of the Year” award.