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By CNote

Mastercard Expands Partnership with CNote

Mastercard has expanded its partnership with female-founded impact investment platform CNote with a commitment to CNote’s Promise Account, an insured, 100% impact cash management solution. Mastercard and the Mastercard Impact Fund are collectively deploying $20 million into the Promise Account to provide recovery and growth funding for underserved communities across the U.S. 

Supporting a More Inclusive Funding Ecosystem 

Mastercard’s expanded partnership with CNote, which began with CNote’s earlier participation in Mastercard’s start-up engagement program, is a continuation of its efforts to ensure that entrepreneurs have access to the funding they need to start and grow their businesses affordably, safely, quickly, and efficiently, 

Through the $20 million commitment to the CNote Promise Account, funds will be deposited into Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) banks and Low-Income Designated credit unions that focus on supporting communities of color and low-income communities across the U.S. This is part of Mastercard’s broader commitment to help close the racial wealth and opportunity gap, starting in seven cities across the country. 

“The inequalities that exist are deeply ingrained in historic systems and processes, which means we have to make an ongoing, active effort to redesign them,” said Catherine Berman, CEO of CNote. “Financial freedom and economic opportunity should be accessible to all – and not denied because of the color of someone’s skin or where they were born. This is what we are fighting for at CNote.”

A Pathway to Financial Security 

Mastercard’s commitment to addressing inequalities in our financial systems builds on a decade of leadership in financial inclusion. Recognizing the vital role CDFIs can play in providing access to funding and pathways to financial security for underserved communities, the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth has partnered with leading CDFI organizations, including Community Reinvestment Fund USA (CRF), Accion Opportunity Fund, Center for Economic Opportunity and Grameen America, to help them integrate digital technologies so they can connect a greater number of micro and small businesses to the capital they need to grow.

View the Full Mastercard Press Release

By Change Makers Series

Change Makers Interview: Deborah Frieze

Deborah Frieze is an author, activist, and serial entrepreneur committed to the redistribution of wealth and reparations through finance. In 2001, Deborah left her job as a high-tech executive disillusioned by a corporate culture that cared more about short-term results than community. She became the co-president of The Berkana Institute, a nonprofit that strives to empower leaders and activists. That work inspired Deborah to co-author a book in 2011 with Margaret Wheatley called Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now.

With a passion for place, Deborah returned to Boston in 2013, where she launched a community center created for grassroots groups and nonprofits advancing racial justice and equality. That same year, Deborah also co-founded the Boston Impact Initiative, a place-based impact investing fund that takes an integrated capital approach to building resilient local economies.

We caught up with Deborah to talk about systems change, impact investing, and 2020, and we had the opportunity to hear about what’s giving her hope for the future during these tumultuous times.

CNote: How did you feel when you walked away from the corporate world back in 2001?

Deborah Frieze: The dotcom boom and bust caused me to get disillusioned with everything that I had been taught about business and enterprise. It led me to look underneath what’s actually going on because we have a system generating behavior that doesn’t show humanity at its best. I believe that people are fundamentally good, so I wanted to know why it is that we behave so often in bad ways.

That led me to my mentor, Margaret Wheatley, an author who’s done leading thinking around complex adaptive systems. She’s helped me to understand that the world we live in is not causal, linear, and predictable, like a machine. Instead, it’s complex, emergent, and unpredictable, like nature. My work with Meg invited me to unlearn much of what I had been taught, and I came out on the other side with the question: How can we learn from nature about creating change? That question transformed my perspective on business and finance.

CNote: What led you to create the Boston Impact Initiative (BII)?

Deborah Frieze: As a person who managed to win resources in an inequitable system — through the bizarre dotcom moment and being in the right place at the right time — I wanted to know how I could invest those resources in a way that aligned with my values. And as I looked around at my impact investing options, I didn’t see financial products that did that. I saw a lot of ESG and SRI and so-called impact, but if you scratched under the hood, you’d find multinational pharmaceutical companies and banks and consumer packaged goods. I thought, ‘That can’t be it. There’s got to be something that’s aligned with what I care about.’

One thing I care about is my place. I’m from Boston, and when I looked at my place, where I saw the most difficulty was around the racial wealth divide. Doing all the impact investing in the world, at least the way it had been structured, wasn’t going to help that. That’s why I created the Boston Impact Initiative. I wanted to test the hypothesis that we could take an integrated capital or a blended finance strategy and deploy every tool in the capital toolbox to help close the racial wealth divide in my community.

CNote: Can you replicate the work you’re doing in Boston in other communities across the country?

Deborah Frieze: People sometimes say to me, ‘You’ve been really successful with BII, why don’t you expand?’ But what would I in Boston have to say about what should happen in Atlanta or Grand Rapids or Dallas? The old model of scaling up is about finding the best recipe and replicating it. To me, that is a form of colonialist imposition on a place. We’re trying to do the opposite, which is to welcome local conditions of people and place and history and heritage and ecology. So when people ask if BII can come into whatever city and do what we do there, I say ‘We can’t do it for you. We can share with you our process and our tools, but you need your own local investment thesis, and you need your own relationships with the community.’

CNote: How receptive are legacy philanthropic organizations to these ideas you’re talking about that kind of fundamentally challenge their existence as administrators and arbiters of funds? Do you get resistance, and how do you change thinking in that regard?

Deborah Frieze: That’s a great question, and yes, there’s resistance. However, I don’t try to change a lot of thinking. Instead, the model that Meg and I work with uses attraction rather than struggle. If somebody is in the dominant paradigm, they may not be able to hear what we have to say. But if somebody is already questioning the system and looking for another way, when they hear about the things we’re doing, they’re drawn and attracted to them. That’s happening more and more, where funders and investors are looking for us or for some of our cohort members.

The question is this: who is best suited to make decisions about the allocation of capital? Is it the professionals at foundations? Or perhaps is it the very folks that we say we’re trying to help? Maybe that’s who is best suited to making those decisions, in which case a foundation’s attachment to have control of resources in perpetuity might be flawed. What would the community create for itself if it had access to resources?

When we talk about the redistribution of wealth, we also have to talk about the redistribution of power and decision-making. In the absence of that, we are perpetuating the existing system where power is held by philanthropic institutions, and grants are given out with strings attached. I’m beginning to see a small number of progressive foundations start to experiment with shared-governance structures — participatory processes and democratic processes. That’s where the shift also has to occur.

CNote: What are some practices Boston Impact Initiative has adopted that you think could serve as an example to others?

Deborah Frieze: First of all, we need to change the profile of who’s making decisions. We need fund managers of color and women to be in positions of power, making decisions about who gets capital and who doesn’t. We also need to eliminate racialized structures for access to capital. For example, BII never does credit checks or takes personal guarantees. Those are ways of embedding structural racism into lending practices. We do what others call character-based lending. So we don’t need to deal with credit scores, we’ve never done that, and it’s never been a problem in terms of our default rate.

The Boston Impact Initiative Team

CNote: How has COVID changed the dynamic of the racial equity gap and your work to eliminate those divides?

Deborah Frieze: COVID is both shining a light on and accelerating inequities throughout our healthcare system, our education system, and our economic system. This past summer, the New York Fed reported that 41% of Black-owned businesses had permanently closed compared to 17% of white-owned businesses. We also know that every time there’s been a massive government stimulus — whether it’s now, the Great Recession, the New Deal — it’s amplified inequality. A pittance of stimulus dollars go to the bottom compared to the big winnings that go to the top. So COVID-19 is really a massive amplifier right now of something that was already heading continuously in the wrong direction.

CNote: Given that, what advice do you have for individual investors?

Deborah Frieze: First of all, everybody go vote. Then, move your money. If you have investments and savings, ask yourself where is that money invested? Are you invested in companies that work against your values? Where are you banking, and whom does your bank serve? Is there a community bank or a credit union that’s aligned with your values? Imagine the difference it would make if your money were doing good things in your community.

CNote: What’s your take on ETFs and funds that label themselves as socially responsible?

Deborah Frieze: SRI, ESG and impact investing have started to get conflated. Though it’s going against the tide these days, I believe impact investing should meet the criteria of additionality, which means making investments that conventional investors might not make. I think impact investing should also be direct. When you buy a public equity, your money isn’t creating any goods or services. It’s exchanging shares with someone else. It’s trading. I know it’s a narrow definition, but I think that impact investing dollars should be directly tied to the production of goods and services.

CNote: Given everything that’s happening today— the COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest, sharp political divisions —  what’s your take on our country’s future?

Deborah Frieze: There’s a light and a shadow side of what’s happening. We all know the pain of this moment, but what’s also happening is that people are stepping forward and saying, ‘I can’t sit and be complacent anymore. I want to help. I want to move my money. I want to make a difference.’ Every one of the 11 communities that we’re working with in our Integrated Capital Fund-Building Cohort — all of whom are led by people of color and women — are getting calls and inquiries that they’ve never gotten before. As are we. We’re getting unsolicited calls for the first time saying, ‘How can I help address racial inequality through investing?’ Those calls are coming from individuals as well as big institutions.

I don’t know what will happen next. Institutional folks will go through their decision-making processes, and it’s hard to know where that will lead. But there is definitely a reckoning happening right now. We are going to be a New Majority country in 20 years or so, so is there a bigger wake-up call coming. As our demographics shift, will we go down a path of becoming an economic apartheid state, where a white minority controls all the wealth and power? Or will we shift the way we organize ourselves for real this time? That fork in the road is revealing itself, and many people, particularly younger people, are very clearly saying which of those two paths we want to walk down.

CNote: Is there anything you’re seeing right now that’s giving you some hope?

Deborah Frieze: Some really extraordinary coalitions have emerged out of this moment. Boston tends to be a very competitive environment, but right now, people are working together so beautifully: coalitions of small businesses and capital providers and grassroots groups and policy folks. Those relationships are being forged in a very intense moment, they’re becoming more personal, and they feel like they’re creating stronger ties than they would under ordinary circumstances.

That’s what’s being forged in this moment: strong ties in a place across stakeholder groups, trying to work to create inclusion and stability, and prosperity for all. That’s what gives rise to systems change. And as we look ahead at the uncertainty of November and December and the new year, I think these relationships have a chance to outlast this chaos. In crises, people show their generosity first, and then the bureaucracy tamps down on it. So if the bureaucracy really continues to fail, does that create the opportunity for people’s generosity to rise up above the bureaucracy? That’s an interesting question.

CNote: How can others get more involved in the kind of work you’re doing?

Deborah Frieze: My number one thing would be to have people connect with those that are building integrated capital funds to close the racial wealth divide that might already be in their backyard. We can always use philanthropic support here in Boston, but if you don’t live in Boston, maybe we can help you find folks in your community who need your investment and support. If this work isn’t happening where you live, then get in touch with us because we’re happy to share what we’ve learned.

By Borrower Stories

How Vanessa Silva is Recreating Her Recipe For Success During a Global Pandemic

Vanessa Silva has always been comfortable in the kitchen. As an introverted child growing up in Brazil, food was how she preferred to communicate. Cooking became Vanessa’s love language, and by the time she was 10 years old, she was quite fluent in that love language, preparing special dishes for her parents’ dinner guests and family gatherings.

However, despite Vanessa’s talent as a youth chef, when the time came for her to go to college, her parents wanted her to study something that would allow her to have a “serious, money-making professional career.” Therefore, Vanessa went to university and double majored in chemical engineering and food technology. After she graduated in the early 1990s, she headed to Prague for an internship in an organic chemistry laboratory. Although she traveled to Europe to advance her scientific career, Vanessa found herself working night shifts in a small cafe, both as a waitress and as a consultant in the kitchen.

Vanessa Silva, Founder, and Director of Culinary Artistas

“That was the first time I realized that there is a kind of universal language in the kitchen,” Vanessa said. “No matter where you are in the world, if you have some sort of proficiency in the kitchen, you can go and ask for a job.”

Vanessa left the Czech Republic for California around the Dotcom Boom. She pivoted from chemical engineering to web communications, and she took a job at a marketing agency that catered to biotech companies in the Bay Area. For the next 12 years, she spent her days working in corporate communications, and in her free time, she cooked. Over the years, she volunteered at a half dozen different cooking schools and programs, working alongside professional chefs and getting personalized attention.

According to Vanessa, those experiences made her realize that she had a special talent in the kitchen. For the first time, she recognized that cooking was her “language” and that she wanted to find a way to professionally communicate that language. When her daughter was born 11 years ago, Vanessa still had one foot in the corporate world and the other in the kitchen. However, she was ready to make her move.

An Entrepreneur in the Kitchen

Vanessa spent the next few years getting her entrepreneurial feet underneath her. She launched a homemade baby soups delivery business and, later, a bone-broth business. When her daughter entered preschool, she applied for a grant from the San Francisco Garden Society to put in a new garden at the school. Vanessa received the funding, and she started a food garden with the kids. The program was a hit.

“I was literally the most popular mom,” Vanessa laughed. “Moms would say to me “wow, my kid never eats this stuff at home, but with you, they love it.’ It was just so rewarding to work with the kids. I felt like I was onto something.”

At the parents’ urging, Vanessa decided to host a one-week summer camp out of her Mission-District apartment. Every day, she’d take the kids to a different neighborhood destination, including local bakeries, restaurants, and farmers’ markets. Vanessa even took the children to a chocolate factory. After every visit, the group would return to Vanessa’s home and tackle a food-related project related to what they saw and experienced. However, after four years, Vanessa was finding it challenging to make ends meet in San Francisco, especially as a single mom.

In early 2016, Vanessa was approached by a business woman who wanted to open an art and cooking school for children. She told Vanessa that she could put forward the money to open the school if Vanessa would be the sweat-equity partner. The two agreed to run the business fifty-fifty. Later that same year, Culinary Artistas opened in a 2,400-square-foot space in Ghirardelli Square, across the street from the beach. Six months later, however, Vanessa’s business partner had to pull out. Not only that, she left Vanessa $40,000 behind on rent. If Vanessa was going to be able to keep Culinary Artistas open, she was going to need some help.

Learning A Second Language: Business

Vanessa explained her situation to one of her good friends, who happened to be a serial entrepreneur. Together, they sat down to take a close look at Culinary Artistas’ viability.

“I didn’t know how much money we were putting in and how much money we were getting out each month,” Vanessa said. “All I knew was the pulse of the business seemed right. Every month, we were getting more students. I could understand those indicators, but not the rest. Our fixed costs? Sales projections? I didn’t know any of that.”

Vanessa’s friend helped her to better understand the nuts and bolts of running a business, and together, they came up with a plan. Vanessa went to her landlord, who agreed to not only forgive the rent she owed, but to have Culinary Artistas pay a significantly reduced rent for two years. Vanessa signed a new contract, and Culinary Artistas had a new life.

As she grew her business, however, Vanessa realized a couple of things. First, a teaching school for kids was too niche, especially considering that both chefs and teachers are underpaid for their services. Therefore, Vanessa decided to expand the scope of Culinary Artistas to include adult classes, corporate team offsites, and events. It proved to be a good move. Within a year, Vanessa and her growing team doubled Culinary Artistas’ revenue.

The second thing Vanessa realized is that she needed more formalized business coaching. That’s when Vanessa connected with Pacific Community Ventures (PCV), an Oakland-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) committed to investing in small businesses, creating jobs, and making markets work for good. Through the Wisdom Fund initiative, CNote partners with CDFIs like PCV to provide small business coaching, mentorship, and technical assistance to entrepreneurs like Vanessa.

Whereas Vanessa was appreciative of her friend who’d offered her free business advice, having a coach to meet with on a weekly basis made a big difference for Vanessa.

“It was huge,” she said. “PCV helped to groom me to become a CEO, founder, and owner, and they really helped me understand the business-side of my business. Until then, it was a lot of passion and commitment, but I didn’t understand all of the back-office stuff.”

According to Vanessa, her PCV business coach helped her to analyze and understand Culinary Artistas’ finances, as well as how the business’ revenues might fluctuate seasonally. Her coach has also been able to provide legal counsel, and PCV connected Vanessa with someone to assist her with marketing. Although Vanessa occasionally attends PCV’s online events and workshops, she says she mostly takes advantage of her weekly check-in calls with her coach.

“Having PCV has really helped me to understand how to make the business sustainable,” she said, “and how to grow it and to thrive in it.”

Surviving a Global Pandemic (and Thriving)

With a business coach in her corner and Culinary Artistas doing better than ever, Vanessa’s 2020 was off to a fantastic start. Culinary Artistas had 27 employees on its payroll, and Vanessa was considering opening a second location. She was even flirting with the idea of starting a subscription-model business aimed at parents and children wanting ingredients and recipes to prepare healthy food at home.

Then March came, and the COVID-19 pandemic made Vanessa rethink everything.

“Immediately, the business I had was dead,” she said. “One week, our calendar was booked through June, and the next, everything was gone. I went from feeling on top of the world to feeling like everything was running through my fingers and there was no way to hold it together.”

Vanessa wasn’t just stunned, she was scared. She was also resistant to the idea of shifting her business online, given that cooking had always been something that she enjoyed doing in-person with others. However, after seeing how happy her daughter was after taking an online dance class, Vanessa changed her mind and gave her team the greenlight to move forward with online classes.

Eliza Martin, Head Chef & Director of Culinary Education

It was an immediate success. Vanessa and her team have hosted over a dozen team-building events with corporate clients, and in the past 30 days, her team fielded nearly 60 inbound inquiries. Culinary Artistas’ online cooking classes are attracting between 30 and 50 kids per class, and over the summer, Vanessa and her team hosted a 12-week, in-person camp for over 100 students. Lastly, Culinary Artistas has sold almost 500 cooking kits, giving Vanessa an opportunity to begin to get her nascent subscription business off the ground. Amazingly, despite the global pandemic, Culinary Artistas’ revenue is up 25 percent compared to 2019.

“The business looks very different than it did six months ago,” she said. “We’re just thankful to not only still be in business at this time but to be thriving. There’s so much demand, and we’re in a really great position as a business. I feel very fortunate.”

With continuing business coaching and mentorship from PCV, Vanessa feels like Culinary Artistas can leverage its current momentum to continue to expand and evolve. As her business keeps growing, Vanessa wants to strive to take a page out of her role model’s playbook: Alice Waters, of Berkeley’s famous Chez Panisse restaurant.

“Alice really believes in creating a microenvironment of the people that work with her by elevating them,” Vanessa explained. “So, for example, the person who used to be the baker at her restaurant later went on to create Acme Bread, and Alice invested in his business. That’s something she’s done a lot, and I think it’s really beautiful.”

As Vanessa looks to potentially open a second Culinary Artistas location in the Bay Area, and as she ramps up her subscription business, she also wants to be sure that she’s working with her employees to help them actualize their own professional goals, whether that’s acting as an investor, a mentor, or a launching pad.

“In my experience,” she said, “for a business to succeed, it really takes a strong team of people that supports you. I was the recipient of that kind of support, and it’s something that I try really hard to do for my employees and for our students. This is a place where with the right kinds of role models and influences, you can go so much further, because you have people who believe in you and are ready to back you up.”

Learn More

  • Culinary Artistas
  • Pacific Community Ventures is an Oakland-based CDFI that empowers small business owners and helps impact investors make investments that create shared prosperity and sustainable communities through a “Good Jobs, Good Business” model.” 
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like Pacific Community Ventures, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Borrower Stories

Meet Dr. Nola Veazie, the Entrepreneuring Veteran Who’s Growing Her Business around Mental Health and Addiction

Nola Veazie grew up in Panama with the belief that she could do anything she set her mind to. Nola’s mother, who raised her children on her own, encouraged all of her children to dream big; however, when Nola was 16, she realized that the opportunities she wanted for herself didn’t exist in her home country: they were in the United States. At 17, Nola, along with her sister, got her mother’s blessing to move to the U.S. to live with their grandmother.

“We spoke very broken English,” Nola said, smiling. “But we went to school, and we learned the language. My mom had taught us that when there aren’t opportunities, you create your own. I had a vision of creating something for myself.

That drive led Nola to enlist in the Air Force, where she eventually discovered a psychology program that appealed to her. She got her master’s degree in counseling and eventually received her PhD in psychology. She began doing marriage and family therapy, as well as individual therapy. In 1995, Nola and her husband, who also served in the Air Force, left Nebraska to serve overseas. In 1998, the couple was transferred to Santa Barbara County, California. That’s when the Air Force gave Nola the opportunity to become a drug and alcohol addiction specialist.

“It was great,” Nola said, “because as providers, we were treating mental health, but we were not treating, nor did we understand, addiction. And so in order to expand my knowledge, I got certified in that field and was then able to treat people with co-occurring disorders.”

Around that same time, Nola began to moonlight as a licensed therapist and addiction specialist. Initially, she worked in group homes, meeting clients who were struggling with both addiction and mental health. Although she was seeing clients, Nola was also speaking at conferences. That’s what led the head psychologist at the United States Penitentiary, Lompoc, a medium-security federal correctional institute in California, to reach out to Nola to see if she’d be interested in providing training services for the prison’s staff. For Nola, it was not only a new professional opportunity for her, but it was a way for her to begin to transition to civilian life.

Life After the Air Force

After 20 years of military service, Nola retired from the Air Force in 2002. Initially, she worked as a director for a drug and alcohol nonprofit that provided a residential program for mothers; however, Nola also continued to work with children in group homes and to train prison staff. Over the years, Nola developed an offering of continuing education units (CEUs). Drug and alcohol counselors have to take a certain number of CEUs every two years in order to maintain their certification.

Nola’s CEUs were in high demand. Although she’d been working as an independent contractor since 1995, Nola officially structured V-Solutions Consulting as an LLC in 2016. She subsequently got a State contract through The Department of Corrections to provide training, consulting, and staff development in five California prisons. That number has since grown to 23 prisons across the state.

V-Solutions partners with two major companies, Amity Foundation and Phoenix House, and Nola’s team is those companies’ staff development and training specialists. V-Solutions, however, works with anybody with a drug addiction certification, providing the latest treatment protocols and interventions to those who need to maintain their CEUs.

Whereas Nola has created V-Solutions Consulting to be a B2B company, she’s also structured her Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business in a way that empowers others. Nola contracts doctoral students, post-doctoral fellows, therapists, and other drug and alcohol counselors to be trainers. In fact, one of her contractors previously spent time in prison. As such, in addition to providing training to staff, V-Solutions also trains long-term prisoners who’ve received their drug and alcohol certifications while in prison. Nola calls them “peer mentors.”

“I think that’s the most inspiring thing,” she said. “To see people who are justice-involved themselves getting inspired to help other people and to learn beyond what they’ve learned in prison, that inspires me.”

Having The Right Mentorship to Grow

In 2016, Nola was selected to be a part of Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC), a tuition-free executive leadership training program designed by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) to help business owners in under-resourced communities to build capacity for sustainable growth. The training was hosted in Los Angeles, and that’s where Nola was connected with Pacific Community Ventures (PCV), an Oakland-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) committed to investing in small businesses, creating jobs, and making markets work for good. Through the Wisdom Fund initiative, CNote partners with CDFIs like PCV to provide small business coaching, mentorship, and technical assistance to entrepreneurs like Nola.

“I have a great mentor at PCV who listens and gives me ideas that I was able to use to grow,” Nola said. “Before, I was fulfilling these contracts, but I didn’t see myself growing outside of what I knew and outside of my comfort zone.”

PCV assisted Nola with marketing and technology. More so, the CDFI advised her to go to colleges and universities to recruit contractors to work alongside her.

“They said, ‘a lot of small businesses don’t have the capital to hire people, so why don’t you go to colleges and schools, find people who are graduating or postdocs who need experience, and then pay them high enough so that they want to stay on and be part of your team.’”

That’s exactly what Nola did. Today, she has a team of five committed contractors that she works with, and Nola encourages them to create their own training sessions and content that interests them. That’s because Nola recognizes and views her contracted colleagues as fellow entrepreneurs who can bring new ideas and skills to V-Solutions.

Besides specific advice and mentorship, PCV has also provided Nola with reassurance and encouragement. According to her, it helps to have somebody both to act as a sounding board to her ideas and to tell her that she’s on the right track. With the support, she’s confident that she can grow her business. For Nola, that means expanding V-Solutions Consulting’s training offerings to include workshops on how implicit and explicit biases affect the way counselors provide services. She’d also like to expand into different industries, such as the security sector, and to work with businesses that would benefit from learning about how to deal with individuals who struggle with addiction.

Whereas the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating (she lost her sister to the virus), it’s also provided Nola an opportunity to reach a wider audience. This year, Nola got V-Solutions certified in the State of New York to provide drug and alcohol CEUs, and she’s looking for other opportunities outside of California to expand V-Solutions’ work.

“I was given a chance when I came to a new country,” Nola said, “and I want to help give other people a chance to become better. I want to be that person who inspires others to create opportunities.”

Learn More

  • V-Solutions Consulting
  • Pacific Community Ventures is an Oakland-based CDFI that empowers small business owners and helps impact investors make investments that create shared prosperity and sustainable communities through a “Good Jobs, Good Business” model.” 
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like Pacific Community Ventures, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.

 

By Change Makers Series

Change Makers Interview: Liza Fleming-Ives

Liza Fleming-Ives may be new to her role as executive director at the Genesis Fund, but she’s not new to the world of community development finance. Instead, Liza has over 20 years of community development experience, 15 of which have been with The Genesis Fund, a Maine-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). Since 1992, the Genesis Fund has been dedicated to bringing together resources to support the development of affordable housing and vital community facilities, mainly by providing financing and technical assistance.

Liza holds a B.A. in American Studies from Smith College and a Master’s in social work from the University of Michigan. She completed the Citi Leadership Program for Opportunity Finance and currently serves as Chair of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.

We caught up with Liza to talk about her career path, community development, and challenges facing CDFIs, and we got the chance to hear her thoughts on how the industry has grown over time and what she thinks the future holds for community finance.

CNote: What drew you to community development work?

Liza Fleming-Ives: I was drawn to community development work when I graduated from college. I had become aware of racial and economic inequity when I was in middle school and my family moved to New Haven, Connecticut — a city with enormous privilege, and also extreme poverty. Immediately after college, I began working for a housing organization bringing together community resources for the benefit of homeless and low-income families. I saw first-hand how stable housing and supportive services could transform people’s lives. When I moved to Maine after graduate school, I discovered the field of community development finance and the transformative power of increasing access to capital as a way to build more just and equitable communities.

CNote: What big concerns do you have about your communities in Maine?

Liza Fleming-Ives: People in Maine work hard to make ends meet, but many Mainers live on fixed incomes or have incomes that have not kept pace with rising costs of living. Maine faces a serious shortage of affordable housing. Many renter households are severely cost-burdened, paying over half their income on rent. Finding a safe and affordable place to live is an increasing challenge all over the state, and many households routinely sacrifice necessities such as healthy food and healthcare in order to pay rent and avoid eviction.

The global pandemic and economic fallout caused by COVID-19 have exacerbated these challenges for low-income households and exposed the need for a stronger safety net for people living on the margins. And this crisis has taken a disproportionate toll on the health and economic well-being of racial minorities and immigrants in Maine. Many have lost their jobs. Others are among the low-paid hourly workers who risk their health by going to work at grocery stores, nursing homes, and food processing facilities.

The Genesis Fund works to remove barriers to prosperity which stand in the way for marginalized and underserved people. We work to create and preserve affordable housing opportunities and to build and expand community facilities to ensure that Mainers have access to child care and healthcare services, and reliable sources of healthy food. We play a critical role in bringing together resources to address these most pressing challenges in our communities to help low-income and marginalized people thrive.

CNote: What’s unique about The Genesis Fund’s projects compared to other CDFIs?

Liza Fleming-Ives: The Genesis Fund’s mission is to bring together resources to support community development projects, and we seek to support projects that might not happen without our assistance.

One of our driving principles is to go where other financial institutions won’t — or can’t. We aim to be a creative and flexible partner to community organizations by filling critical gaps in financing or in expertise to support community development efforts. We take a collaborative approach to our work, and as a result, often partner with other funders or lenders to make a project possible.

Beyond our support for individual projects, we play a unique role in shining a light on areas of need in order to generate new public and private resources, beyond our own, for the benefit of low-income and marginalized people and communities.

CNote: When you say that The Genesis Fund provides “technical assistance,” what exactly do you mean?

Liza Fleming-Ives: Like most other rural states, Maine has relatively few nonprofit developers and intermediaries specifically focused on improving housing and community development opportunities. To help remedy this problem, the Genesis Fund plays an active role in supporting organizations working on these issues to ensure their long-term success. Often, a small group sees a need in their community and wants to help – but doesn’t know how to proceed – and contacts the Genesis Fund for help.

We customize our assistance to the needs of our community partners, but generally, this assistance can include help with assessing project feasibility, drafting project plans and budgets, identifying funding sources, and securing those sources.

The amount of assistance we provide varies by project. Some community partners need help with a single step in the project development process, while others need assistance from beginning to end. With decades of community development experience, our staff is available to provide whatever level of support is needed to help make a project successful.

CNote: What are some of the challenges you face in your role as executive director of The Genesis Fund?

Liza Fleming-Ives: This is certainly a challenging time right now in our country as we struggle with the impacts of the COVID health crisis, the economic downturn, and continued inequities caused by systemic racism. As a CDFI leader, I feel more committed than ever to seeking out ways to carry out our mission, while at the same time ensuring the well-being of the organization.

At the Genesis Fund, we are fortunate that we came into the COVID crisis in a strong financial position, and despite the uncertainties of this time and the challenges facing many of our community partners, our portfolio of affordable housing and community facility loans remains stable. This strength and stability allows us to consider how we can do even more for the communities that we serve. We’ve been doing that by talking to borrowers to understand the challenges they’re facing and the needs that they’re responding to. As we’ve gained a better understanding of those needs, we’re responding by creating strategies to adapt our financing and programs and raising new capital from private and public sources.

CNote: What headwinds to growth does a CDFI like yours face?

Liza Fleming-Ives: For much of our history, we were considered a small CDFI. But in recent years, we have grown our assets to over $30M and our loan portfolio to over $22M, which makes us a mid-sized organization today. One of the challenges to growth at this stage is raising the capital, both equity and invested funds, to keep pace with the increasing demand for our financing and services. We have been fortunate to find partners like CNote, along with many other institutions and individuals, interested in investing their funds with us for a social and financial return on that capital. In order to continue our pace of growth and achieve even greater scale, we need to increase our visibility so that more people know about the critical role that we play in community development activities and the opportunity to join us as community investors and supporters.

CNote: Why do you think more people don’t know about CDFIs?

Liza Fleming-Ives: The CDFI industry has largely been made up of relatively small organizations, like the Genesis Fund, operating for years in local communities with just a handful of staff focused on carrying out the work. Many CDFIs have worked behind the scenes, investing the first money in to support a project or as a critical gap filler, making deals come together but without significant visibility. In many ways, CDFIs have been a well-kept secret.

In recent years, as the impact of CDFIs has reached almost every corner of this country, our visibility as an industry has grown. However, much more work is needed to tell the remarkable stories of our industry’s impact on individuals, organizations and communities and the transformative nature of the work we do. As an industry, CDFIs must do more to lift up the stories of our work and make them visible in order to attract increased capital from investors who are looking for investment opportunities that provide a social as well as financial return.

CNote: With so many great potential projects out there to fund, how do you decide how to allocate resources?

Liza Fleming-Ives: We really focus on making sure that we’re filling gaps in financing or services that can’t be provided by other community resources. When we’re considering taking on a new project or responding to an inquiry, we ask ourselves, “how can we bring together resources to make this project work? What’s the role that we need to play here? Can our involvement in some way leverage other resources or the involvement of another partner?”

We want to make sure that we’re using our resources where they’re needed most, and we want to bring in partners where it’s appropriate and possible to do so. We do a lot of lending in partnership with community banks, state agencies, peer CDFIs, and other community development organizations. So, it’s really about looking to make sure that the services we’re providing are not only bringing our financing and our resources to the table but strategically leveraging our network of private and public partners as well.

CNote: How has the industry changed or evolved over the course of your career?

Liza Fleming-Ives: While it may be a while still before CDFIs are well-known as a household name, the industry has gained significant visibility and recognition for the impact of our collective work over the last 15 years. CDFIs proved to be an essential part of our country’s financial system in supporting communities through the recovery from the Great Recession, and many CDFIs have grown to a significant scale since that time. The industry in general has succeeded in carving out a place as an essential and highly effective part of the financial sector.

As a result, the CDFI industry has seen a steady increase in the amount of funding appropriated by Congress for the CDFI Fund over the last decade. And in addition to public support, we’ve seen new partnerships with the private sector that demonstrate the degree to which business leaders recognize the significant value that CDFIs bring to effectively and efficiently getting capital to the communities that need it most, with incredible success and results.

While CDFIs have grown and professionalized over the past few decades, it’s really important that we remember that we are part of an industry that emerged from the civil rights movement, with the explicit goal of addressing the systemic racism that denied communities of color access to capital. We are reminded, especially in these past months, of the importance of staying true to our industry’s founding goals through our work: continuing to seek out ways to address racial disparities and financing projects which help marginalized communities overcome institutional barriers to prosperity.

CNote: Any big hopes for the industry going forward?

Liza Fleming-Ives: There are so many ways that CDFIs work to address the most pressing challenges that face our communities and our country. I hope the CDFI industry can continue to build scale in order to do more to ensure that all communities have access to the capital they need to thrive.

As CDFIs gain recognition for the incredible impact of our work, I hope that the industry will be able to create and leverage new resources, including access to equity grants as well as invested capital, to carry out our mission at greater scale. I remain hopeful that as CDFIs get better at sharing stories of the transformation that we make possible, new investors and supporters will be excited to join us and we’ll see significant continued growth in the sector.

CNote: Do you have any suggestions for folks who’re looking to take their first step into the world of community finance and development?

Liza Fleming-Ives: I always encourage people to reach out to learn about our work. When I started at the Genesis Fund, I found so many CDFI peers and leaders willing to talk and make themselves available to share their experiences. I’m so grateful to those leaders, and I definitely try to make myself available for folks looking to take their first step in the field today. I think internships are a great way for people who want to learn about community development finance to get a better understanding of our work. We’ve been very fortunate to have some wonderful interns over the years who have helped us with key projects while getting to know the industry. And as we continue to grow at the Genesis Fund, I’m hopeful that we can create paths into our organization for folks that are excited about community development and finance and want to dedicate themselves to developing their skills and gain experience in the field.

By Borrower Stories

Meet Christine Uwimbabazi, The Entrepreneuring Immigrant Behind The Wheel of Prime Care Transportation

When Christine Uwimbabazi came to the United States from her home country of Rwanda in 2000, she didn’t plan to open a small business. Instead, she came for college.

Christine enrolled at LaRoche University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Six years later, she married Reverien Mfizi, one of her classmates. The two had gone to the same high school in Rwanda, and with their undergraduate diplomas in hand, their next move was to Buffalo, New York, where Reverien had been accepted to a graduate program.

Over the 10 years that followed, Reverien completed a PhD in political science, he and Christine had three children, and she took a job in customer service. Still, it was difficult to make ends meet, and the couple wanted something more — they wanted to be financially independent.

“As immigrants and students,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had a hard time. But at the end of the day, nobody’s going to take care of your family for you.”

In 2017, during a summer free from his academic teaching requirements, Reverien decided to work as a driver for a non-emergency medical transportation service company. Seeing that there was a “huge shortage” of wheelchair vans capable of shuttling patients to and from regional medical centers, hospitals, and doctors’ offices, Reverien convinced Christine to take a week off from her full-time job to give driving a try.

She loved it, so much so that the two decided to start their own company: Prime Care Transportation. They applied to be a NYS-licensed Medicaid transportation provider. While they were waiting to be approved, Christine got her Class C driver’s license and took a job as a service manager at a local mechanic’s shop so that she could learn more about vehicle maintenance. However, once the couple was given the green light to begin operations in March of 2018, Christine left the garage to drive full time.

In the beginning, she drove during the day, and when Reverien got home from school, he’d drive at night. As Christine says, the two started from scratch, but with each new client, contract, van, and employee, Prime Care Transportation began to grow.

“We are risk-takers, and we needed a change in our life,” Christine said. “We needed to be able to support our kids, so we just did it. It’s the African way: you try it, and if it doesn’t work, oh well. If it works, then you continue. We knew that there was a need, and if we took the right approach, we knew people would come. At the end of the day, I wasn’t going to let myself fail.”

Reliable Roadside Assistance

The Prime Care Transportation Team

Christine’s can’t-fail attitude and people-first approach translated into rapid growth; however, she and Reverien still needed help — both financial and non-financial.

That’s when she connected with Pursuit Community Finance, an Albany-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that serves minority- and women-owned businesses across New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. CNote partners with CDFIs like Pursuit in communities across the country, investing dollars into local small businesses and empowering entrepreneurs like Christine.

Christine had previously heard about Pursuit from one of her friends who’s also a small business owner in Buffalo, and in 2019, Christine decided to enter a pitch competition hosted by the CDFI. She ended up walking away the winner. Christine received a $1,000 check, but more importantly, she walked away with a new relationship.

“We were growing and trying to expand into different remote counties,” Christine said. “The problem was funding to get more vans and to hire more drivers, but we also didn’t know if we were losing or gaining money each month. We were working in the dark. Pursuit helped us to find a CPA who could help us balance the ins and outs. After that, we could plan.”

Pursuit also provided Christine with someone to help her improve her company’s marketing and social media strategies, as well as a human relations consultant who helped her draft an employee handbook. Additionally, this past March, Prime Care Transportation received a $32,000 loan from Pursuit to cover the costs of business insurance, operations, and payroll.

As much as she’s grateful for the money, Christine is arguably more thankful for how much Pursuit continues to care about the success and growth of her business.

“I don’t have the right credit score to go to a bank,” she said. “But what bank does what Pursuit does? They come to me and ask: ‘How are you doing? How is business? How can we help?’ These are things no bank will do. It’s one thing to give money, but Pursuit gives peace of mind. I don’t just have someone who gave me a loan. I have a friend.”

Christine says that the personal connection she feels with Pursuit has injected more stability into her business, and the CDFI’s on-the-ground presence and ability to connect dots in the community has paid major dividends for both her and Prime Care Transportation.

Rerouting for the Road Ahead

Despite all of the business support she’d received from Pursuit, Christine and Reverien’s business has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the slowdown of non-urgent medical care and surgeries, as well as a shift to telemedicine, Prime Care Transportation went from having 22 vehicles on the road to six, and Christine had to cut her team of drivers in half, to 11. Although those numbers are higher than they were a couple of months ago, when only Christine, Reverien, and two other drivers were working, Christine doesn’t think that business will return to normal anytime soon.

According to her, that’s okay. She’s finding the silver lining.

“COVID is the biggest challenge we’ve had,” Christine said. “But it’s given me an opportunity to focus on marketing, and it’s given me a break to step back and to rethink and to reevaluate what we can do in the future, because our market is not going to be the same.”

The lull created by the global pandemic has also given Christine some time to reflect on how far she and her small business have come in such a short period of time. She need only look out the window to be reminded of Prime Care Transportation’s very first ride. The van she used to shuttle her inaugural client to the medical center is parked out front, broken down and unfixable. Christine can’t bring herself to part with it — there’s too much emotion wrapped up in it.

“To even still be in business itself is a good thing,” she said, “but I’ll never forget the first day. We make such a difference in peoples’ lives. We are more than drivers. We make people feel comfortable and safe and cared for, and if we don’t transport these people, then the doctors won’t be able to do their jobs, and these people won’t get their blood cleaned or their shots or their surgeries. We’re part of the circle. We complete each other.”

It’s that focus on the big picture that’s driving Christine forward.

“I’m scared about what will happen tomorrow,” she said. “I don’t have money, and I don’t have connections. The only thing I have is me, working hard, and showing that I can do the best I can for other people. If we’re going to outcompete all the other companies out there, then we’ll beat them with tenderness.”

Learn More

  • Prime Care Transportation
  • Pursuit Community Finance: An Albany-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that serves minority- and women-owned businesses across New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like Pursuit Community Finance, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By CNote, Impact Investing

The Impact Investment Case For Cash- Featuring San Francisco Foundation

CNote is happy to release our Impact Investment Case For Cash Case Study, which discusses how the San Francisco Foundation (SFF) partnered with CNote to put pre-deployment program-related investment (PRI) dollars to good use.

SFF, which is committed to improving life in the Bay Area through its Bay Area Community Impact Fund, realized in 2018 that the portion of their funds, which we were not actively deployed, were sitting in a community bank CD deposit- doing little work from an impact and financial perspective.

By choosing to invest a portion of its Bay Area Community Impact Funds in CNote, SFF benefited by getting financial and impact returns from those idle PRI dollars without sacrificing on return or liquidity.

Click here to read more about how CNote can drive more impact for your foundation or company.

 

 

By Borrower Stories

How a PPP Loan From a Low-Income Designated Credit Union Gave This Bay Area Nonprofit The Promise of a Brighter Tomorrow

Barbara McCullough knows a thing or two about nonprofit management. She’s been the CEO at Brighter Beginnings, a nonprofit created in 1984 to respond to the needs of families in resource-poor neighborhoods across Contra Costa and Alameda Counties, for nearly 24 years. With that level of experience comes the understanding that government funding is anything but certain.

Barbara McCullough outside of Brighter Beginnings

Take, for example, what happened during the Great Recession. Regardless of the organization’s altruistic mission to partner with parents to support healthy births, foster the successful development of children, and build strong communities, its program budget was slashed by $1 million. Barbara had to lay off employees, and the nonprofit had to squeak by with 50 percent of its anticipated budget.

“It was really quite traumatic,” she said. “It led me to working with the board to think toward the future and to figure out what we can do that supports our mission but won’t be as subject to these kinds of blue pencil reductions to our budget whenever there’s a setback.”

Brighter Beginnings tried to build itself to be more resilient; however, no one has been immune to the economic upheaval triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Barbara, the nonprofit ended March with $38,000 in its bank account. For an organization with a $5.5 million operating budget, the future never looked more bleak.

Less Money, More Demand

The nonprofit’s uncertain future was once again tied to California’s budget. In six month’s time, the state budget went from a $100 billion surplus to a $50 billion deficit. With the $150 billion swing, Barbara was right to question whether or not it’d be feasible to keep the doors open.

That’s because of the tenuous realities of a nonprofit that survives on government contracts. As it works, the way contracts are typically reimbursed means that organizations like Brighter Beginnings have to maintain two to three months of receivables in reserve — hundreds of thousands of dollars — to cover payroll. That creates headaches, especially during a public health crisis.

“There were months where I had to hold onto my paycheck until we got a payment,” Barbara said. “And if we couldn’t make payroll, I’d call up my medical director and several senior staff to see if they could hold onto their checks too.”

However, despite the economic slump and its shrinking bank accounts, demand for Brighter Beginnings’ services has grown during the pandemic.

The nonprofit operates two federally qualified health centers in Contra Costa County that are funded through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Each clinic provides comprehensive primary care, including prenatal, perinatal, child wellness, women’s services, behavioral health services, chronic care management, and senior care to low-income and minority populations.

“They’re more impacted by almost every health factor,” Barbara said. “That’s due not just to the link to poverty, but it’s also directly linked to the stigma that they carry. Systemic racism exists even in health care delivery, from the types of medications doctors prescribe, to their reception in the waiting rooms.”

Brighter Beginnings’ work also extends into people’s homes — at least they did before social distancing. Now, thanks to the pandemic, instead of in-home mental health counseling, financial coaching, and in-person visitations, all of those same services are now offered over Zoom. Collectively, staff have gone from seeing 50 clients a day, face to face, to between 70 and 80 a day, virtually.

In order to serve its at-risk, high-needs clients and to keep its head above water, Brighter Beginnings needed help — fast.

When The Bank Says “No”

Barbara thought she had a good relationship with the bank that she went to apply for a Paycheck Protection Loan (PPP), a forgivable loan offered through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide economic relief during COVID-19. After all, they’d been working together for well over a decade. The bank, however, thought differently. It said that Brighter Beginnings didn’t meet the funding criteria and didn’t qualify for a loan. Barbara was furious. She decided to change banks and to go to Self-Help Federal Credit Union.

Self-Help is a low-income designated credit union that was chartered in 2008 to build a network of branches that serve working families and underserved communities. It currently has more than 78,000 members across 19 branches in California, 10 branches in Illinois, and one branch in Wisconsin, and it has over $1.2 billion in assets. CNote partners with low-income designated credit unions like Self-Help across the country through its Promise Account program.

Self-Help’s PPP lending is strongly focused on assisting small businesses and nonprofits like Brighter Beginnings that are run by women and people of color, especially those with social justice missions. As of July 1, 2020, Self-Help lent $176 million PPP loan dollars to nearly 1,600 recipients. Of those recipients, over half were led by people of color, and two-thirds of the dollars went to nonprofits. Through its efforts, Self-Help has helped to maintain 19,000 jobs.

“Self-Help gave us permission to apply for PPP lending,” Barbara said. “We applied, and within two days, we were told that we were going to be funded. We got the money in May, and we’re literally here today because of that. We probably wouldn’t have made it without them.”

With the funding, Brighter Beginnings was able to not only rehire the six employees it had laid off in April, but Barbara says the nonprofit has been able to hire additional staff members and grow its team. Better yet, the organization’s bank account jumped from $38,000 to over $1 million in two months.

A Better, Brighter Future

In addition to the PPP support from Self-Help that was pivotal in keeping Brighter Beginnings up and running, Alameda County, following the lead of San Francisco County, began offering advances to contracted organizations.

“Instead of me putting my money out and then waiting two to three months to get paid back,” Barbara said, “We got two months’ worth of advances, and for some of the public health programs, they said ‘you don’t have to pay the money back: we’re investing in your future.’”

Barbara hopes that nonprofits’ days of funding government services, out of pocket, and then waiting to be paid back are a thing of the past. She also hopes to expand Brighter Beginning’s services in Alameda County with a new clinic, hopefully in the next year.

In the meantime, the nonprofit is beginning to offer COVID testing in its two Contra Costa clinics, as well as continuing its other programs. Its early child development program is at maximum enrollment, and the organization’s staff continues to deliver weekly meals, free diapers, and groceries to some of the area’s most marginalized families.

Additionally, Brighter Beginnings is applying for a grant to add financial coaches to sit in its clinics to help people apply for health insurance and to talk about basic financial literacy.

“It’s probably the least-funded public service out there,” Barbara said. “Some CDFI banks have curriculum available, but we work with immigrant families that have experienced generational poverty. They don’t have bank accounts. When no one in your entire family history ever went to college, you grow up with a whole different set of assumptions about what’s possible. It’s a high-need, unmet service that could go a lot farther in terms of helping people move out of poverty.”

The Brighter Beginnings Staff

Learn More

  • Brighter Beginnings
  • Self-Help Federal Credit Union was chartered in 2008 to build a network of branches that serves working families and underserved communities. Serving more than 78,000 members, Self-Help Federal is one of the fastest-growing low-income designated credit unions in the country. 
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like LiftFund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By CNote, Impact Investing

Latino Community Credit Union Case Study

CNote is proud to share a new case study: The Case for Reaching More Impact Investors which explores how the Latino Community Credit Union (LCCU) was able to increase its deposit base by partnering with CNote, through our Promise Account program.

The case study highlights how CNote works with low-income designated credit unions and CDFI banks to grow their deposit base and improve their ability to provide financial resources to the communities they serve.

Here, the Latino Community Credit Union, while in a phase of rapid growth, recognized the need to grow and diversify its deposit base. Enter CNote’s Promise Account-a new, fully insured cash management solution, which gives investors a single place to achieve attractive market-rate returns while fostering positive social impact. CNote’s Promise Account Funds are a way for LCCU to access more investor deposits and meet its members’ growing demand for loans.

By Borrower Stories

Ebony Harris, The Entrepreneur Putting Children — And Parents — In Good Hands

Ebony Harris has a special way with children — it’s a gift. She thought about pursuing a career as a pediatric nurse, but that didn’t appeal to her entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, in 2015, set her sights on opening a childcare center, where she could educate, support, and influence kids.

Her and her husband, John, had a long way to go in order to make that business dream come true. The two, who met when they were 17, both came from families who had very little.

“We really struggled,” Ebony said. “We really worked very, very hard, working two or three jobs each to try to save the money up to start this business. We had to save all of our nickels and dimes while raising our two sons and while I was in school.”

Ebony Harris, Founder of In Good Hands Learning Center

It took three years for the family to save up the necessary funds to open In Good Hands Learning Center in their hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, but when they finally did, it was well worth the wait. Ebony refers to May 14, 2018, as the happiest day of their life.

 

Within six months, Ebony already had a full roster of 60 children, complete with 11 staff members, and a growing waitlist of interested parents. Given how rapidly the business was growing, Ebony and John began talking about opening a second location.

“That feels good, knowing that people want us to open a second location,” Ebony said. “It means I’m doing something right for us to have grown so fast.”

However, because Ebony and John had depleted their bank account to get the first center open, the two needed to first get some financial help before they could embark on opening a second location.

In 2019, the Jackson Small Business Administration referred Ebony to LiftFund, a Texas-headquartered Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that supports businesses in 13 states. CNote partners with CDFIs like LiftFund in communities across America, funding loans to small businesses, and empowering local entrepreneurs like John and Ebony.

One of the In Good Hands team members

“LiftFund provided us a loan, and it came at the perfect time for when we needed it,” Ebony said. “The loan helped us to be able to  buy other supplies and equipment that we needed to meet the quality that I want to provide my kids.”

Although John and Ebony aren’t currently working with LiftFund to open a second In Good Hands location, she says she feels grateful for the support she received from them, and she believes that if they needed help again in the future, whether financial or business coaching, LiftFund would be there as a reliable resource for her and her husband.

Helping Parents During A Global Pandemic

Like other small business owners, Ebony’s childcare center has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since the outbreak began, In Good Hands has only been closed for two weeks.

“I wanted to close, but my parents really needed daycare,” she said. “Most of my kids are from parents who are essential workers, and they don’t have family members who can watch the kids while they’re working in hospitals or nursing homes or at grocery stores. That’s why I built this center: to provide help for parents who need child care. I didn’t want to leave my parents lacking help during this time, and I didn’t want them to lose their jobs.”

Although Ebony and John were worried about the health of her employees, the other kids, and her own family, she says the sacrifice to stay open for children of essential workers was well worth it. Not only have those parents appreciated her efforts, but they’ve shown that appreciation by recommending other parents to take their kids to In Good Hands.

Subsequently, Ebony says that over the past few weeks, In Good Hands’ phone has been ringing off the hook, sometimes as many as 20 times a day. She knows that if they had a second location, she’d be able to enroll those incoming kids; but, that’s not in the cards right now. However, when it does happen, Ebony and John will continue to support both children and parents through the work she and her staff do on a daily basis.

“That’s what makes us very special and different from other centers,” Ebony said. “It’s our passion, and it’s how we involve parents in what we’re doing. It’s not just about making money for me. It’s about really touching other people’s lives and helping them.”

Ebony and her team

Retirement Goals

As passionate as Ebony and John are about her work, she’s equally enthused about discussing her plans to one day retire. Being a business owner isn’t a “forever thing” for her, and in 20 years, she wants to retire alongside John, who works part-time at In Good Hands and full-time as a FedEx driver.

“My long-term goals are for my two boys,” she said. “I don’t want them to have to struggle like me and my husband struggled. I want to build a foundation for them where they can have something that they can go build themselves and have a great legacy. When I retire, I want to be able to look back and say, ‘my kids are good, me and my husband are good, and we impacted a lot of people’s lives.’”

The sentiment echoes the girls’ empowerment work Ebony does in her community. She hosts an annual womens’ conference called “Cool, Classy, and Saved Women,” which shows girls how to grow, have confidence and build a business as a woman.

“It’s always been powerful just to see these young girls’ eyes light up, seeing something that they normally don’t see, and being able to connect with a woman or a mother figure or someone that looks like them,” Ebony said. “It’s something that’s close to my heart.”

Learn More

  • In Good Hands Learning
  • LiftFund is a community small business lender that transforms lives by opening doors and providing capital, financial coaching, tools and resources to entrepreneurs who do not have access to loans from commercial sources. Since 1994 LiftFund has provided over $360 million in capital, propelling the dreams of over 20,000 diverse small businesses throughout its 13 state footprint.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like LiftFund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.