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By Borrower Stories

Tackling the Complexities: How A CDFI is Helping Knox County Homeless Coalition Address Affordable Housing in Midcoast Maine

When Steph Primm left the for-profit world and moved to Maine, she wanted to do something more meaningful than help other people make money. Although she’d grown up in the New York metro area going to summer camp in Maine, it wasn’t until she moved to “The Pine Tree State” after a successful career in marketing that her eyes were opened to one of the state’s biggest struggles: poverty. In her new community, Primm met people her age who hadn’t made it through sixth grade. “It was evident we desperately needed a more equitable landscape,” she said, “so that every hard-working family has a chance at meeting basic human needs and education so that they have a chance for a hopeful future.”

Primm had found something more meaningful than helping companies turn a profit.

Stephanie Primm, Executive Director of Knox County Homeless Coalition

Coming up on eight years ago, Primm was asked to help re-open the Knox County Homeless Coalition ( KCHC)  Family Shelter, Hospitality House. Today, KCHC is a homeless services organization that includes a family shelter, comprehensive case management, and a youth program offering a drop-in center, outreach, case management, and shelter solutions for youth. As executive director, she’s grown her team from two and a half employees to a caring, courageous, and professional team of over 50, and the coalition currently provides case management for over 500 individuals. Additionally, Knox County Homeless Coalition offers educational services, and transportation services, as well as operating a food and emergency supply pantry and depot. “Sadly,” Primm said, “we’ve ramped up significantly over the past eight years to meet the increasing need.”

That “increasing need” has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Primm, who also serves as the chair of Maine’s Statewide Homeless Council, says that pre-pandemic, homeless shelters were crowded, and most often overcrowded, and always under-funded–especially during the winter months. However, because of the virus, those configurations no longer work, meaning that shelters like the ones operated by the Knox County Homeless Coalition have had to “decompress” their capacities in order to maximize safety concerns surrounding COVID-19.

(From Left to Right) Rich Norman (Board Member), Stephanie “Steph” Primm (Executive Director), Laurie Mills (Housing Manager), and Jesse Shimer (Assistant Shelter Manager).

“There’s a lot of strain on the system,” Primm said, “and the demand is spiking. We have to reduce capacity for health and safety, yet there are no other resources in place. People are losing jobs, hours are being cut, and people cannot pay rent. And on top of that emotional stress is at an all-time high—anxiety, depression, substance use disorder are at exponentially increasing and complex levels making our jobs extremely challenging. ” According to Primm, these realities, coupled with the exponential increase in home prices and sales to out-of-staters, have helped to create a perfect storm for homelessness and a crisis of lack of affordable housing in Maine, especially along the Mid-coast.

Building Affordable Housing for the Future

Therefore, one of the Knox County Homeless Coalition’s major tenets is to identify and secure permanent affordable housing in the communities where it works. Unsurprisingly, to be successful, Primm and her team rely on a network of community partners, including Midcoast Habitat for Humanity, Maine State Housing Authority, and The Genesis Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). Since 1992, The Genesis Fund has been working to develop and support affordable housing and community facilities across Maine, mainly by providing both financing and technical assistance to increase the supply of affordable housing. CNote partners with CDFIs like The Genesis Fund in communities across the country, channeling capital to fund social missions like affordable housing, women’s empowerment, entrepreneurial funding, and more.

Primm has been working with The Genesis Fund since Knox County Homeless Coalition’s early days when the CDFI helped the nonprofit acquire its first shelter and plot of land. A couple of years later, The Genesis Fund financed Primm and her team so that they could purchase the adjacent property, which now houses the coalition’s offices, food pantry, and supply depot. The collective land, which Knox County Homeless Coalition owns, is big enough for the nonprofit to one day build tiny houses, which will expand its shelter capacity. Additionally, early in their partnership, Knox County Homeless Coalition had a line of credit with The Genesis Fund, which has since been paid off. “Genesis really invested in getting to know our mission, our aspirations, and us early on,” Primm said. “They’re always so generous with their time, wisdom, and advice.”

Today, Knox County Homeless Coalition and The Genesis Fund are working together on two affordable housing projects. The first project is to purchase a newly renovated duplex in Rockland and to make it a “forever affordable property.” A Genesis team member assisted Primm with the intense process of applying for a housing trust fund grant that, if received, will allow Knox County Homeless Coalition to not only purchase the property but to own it as an affordable housing project, in perpetuity, with zero debt.

“These grant application processes are very complicated,” Primm said, “and most of us who run homeless organizations are running around like one-armed paper hangers doing our best to stretch resources and save lives in the face of increasing need—especially during a pandemic. We have very little administrative bandwidth, so Genesis is really helping us.”

The second project is a bigger affordable housing project in Rockland that will include roughly 20 units of affordable housing, including four to six Habitat for Humanity home-ownership homes. The development will be situated on a single piece of land, within walking distance to town, that was purchased with $500,000 from the Maine State Housing Authority. According to Primm, the housing will be a mix of duplexes for families and small-footprint cottages for individuals or couples. Once the project is completed, Knox County Homeless Coalition will own the affordable housing units, and the nonprofit will incorporate them into its program offerings, where renters will benefit both from not just a roof over their heads, but professional support on their path to stable sustainable independence, and the opportunity to build equity over time.

Once again, The Genesis Fund is helping Primm and her team navigate the complexities of the endeavor, including grant applications and overcoming zoning, planning, and development hurdles. She’s hoping that when it’s all said and done, the project will be 100 percent debt-free. “They’re providing the technical assistance,” Primm said, “but it may be that we tap into some of their financing to bridge any timing gaps between the grants so that the project can stay on track with construction. That’s a wonderful option to have on the table.”

Because of their ongoing partnership with The Genesis Fund, rather than get bogged down by the tedious technicalities of applications, Primm and her team can focus on a different set of complexities: helping unhoused individuals and families get back on their feet.

“It’s complicated to put a life back together without help,” Primm said. “Navigating the homeless sector feels like this unmanageable bowl of linguine for people who are already traumatized and struggling, so that’s what we and others in the state like us do: we are caring professional partners who help put those pieces together for people. We find strengths and build upon them, building confidence, possibilities, and hope for a better future.”

The Knox County Homeless Coalition, like homeless shelters and organizations across Maine, are bracing for a long, challenging winter intensified by the coronavirus pandemic; however, Primm hopes that COVID-19 illuminates the state’s lack of an organized emergency response system that addresses homelessness as part of protecting the public health. “The silver lining is that COVID has shed light on this for the first time,” she said. “People are more aware of it and more aware of what we are working on, and affordable housing needs are definitely on the radar—where they should be.  I hope that’ll help in the years to come.”

Learn More

  • The Genesis Fund provides innovative financing by soliciting investment loans from individuals, churches, corporations, and foundations, and then re-lending the money at favorable terms to nonprofit organizations developing affordable housing and community facilities for underserved people and communities throughout Maine and beyond.
  • Knox County Homeless Coalition is a homeless services organization that includes a family shelter, comprehensive case management, and a youth program offering a drop-in center, outreach, case management, and shelter solutions for youth.
  • CNote is a women-led investment platform that empowers individuals and institutions to invest locally to further economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and address climate change.
By Borrower Stories

Meet Cheri Witt-Brown, the ‘Accidental Entrepreneur’ Leading a Habitat for Humanity Affiliate to New Heights

For as long as Cheri Witt-Brown can remember, she’s known her way around a residential construction site. Her father owned a home-building and real estate company, and Cheri landed her first construction job — albeit picking up nails — when she was just three years old. She was paid a penny per nail for her efforts. Cheri has come a long way since those early days helping out with her family’s business, but the love that she developed for building homes is as strong today as it was when she was a child.

It might even be stronger.

Cheri Witt-Brown, Executive Director of the Greeley Weld Habitat for Humanity

Cheri is the executive director of Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity, an affiliate of the international home-building nonprofit in Weld County, Colorado, a roughly Connecticut-sized county located on the state’s Front Range. Whereas the mission and organization are a natural fit for Cheri, she didn’t join the nonprofit until just over five years ago. Prior to that, she’d spent 25 years growing her family’s home-building business. Cheri spent the first 10 years working alongside her father; however, in the late 1990s, she bought the company from him and continued to run it until her retirement 15 years later. During that time, she simultaneously owned and operated a couple of design businesses and retail stores, and she dedicated a lot of time to doing volunteer work in her community.

A self-identifying “accidental entrepreneur,” Cheri didn’t consider a career in the nonprofit world until after she retired from her various for-profit business ventures and returned to Greeley, the town where she was born. Cheri’s first nonprofit job was with the local food bank, where she spent “three amazing years;” however, once the local Habitat for Humanity affiliate heard about Cheri’s construction background, they made a point to offer her a job every few months. Finally, the nonprofit’s persistence paid off. In October of 2015, Cheri left the food bank and took over the reins of Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity. According to her, it’s been one of the best decisions that she’s ever made. “When you’re kind of wired to build things,” she said, “that never leaves you, and you always just want to be building something.”

That doesn’t mean that the transition was easy for Cheri. Instead, Cheri soon learned that there was a stark distinction between the food bank and Habitat for Humanity in terms of being able to meet the needs of the community. Whereas the food bank had a steady supply of food coming in and the nonprofit could meet the needs of almost every family that walked through its doors, Habitat for Humanity was the opposite. Cheri says that for every 100 families that approached her and her team, they could maybe help one of them — in two or three years. “That wasn’t good enough,” she said. “And that became my personal motivation.”

Fortunately, unlike a lot of other areas in Colorado (and across the country), Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity still had affordable land around it. Cheri leaned into her background in building communities and real estate development, and she and her team set out to build affordable housing for as many community members as they could: an expensive deliverable, but an essential one considering that currently, one in five Americans pays more than 50% of their pre-tax income on housing.

An Eye-Catching Partnership

Luckily, before Cheri even joined the organization, Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity already had a long-standing partnership with Impact Development Fund (IDF), a Colorado-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that creates economic opportunity by delivering flexible capital to develop and preserve affordable housing and nonprofit facilities in under-served communities across the state. CNote partners with CDFIs like IDF in communities across the country, channeling capital to fund social missions like affordable housing, women’s empowerment, entrepreneurial funding, and more.

Cheri Witt-Brown with Megan Ferguson, Director of Operations for Impact Development Fund

According to Cheri, IDF was instrumental in her onboarding at Habitat, and they helped her to navigate and understand some of the complexities of her new job as executive director. More than that, however, the CDFI has been an essential and ongoing source of capital and technical assistance for the nonprofit. For example, IDF extended a $500,000, 1% interest loan to Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity so that Cheri and her team could meet the match requirement to receive a $1 million federal grant to fund an innovative development project in Evans, which was devastated by floods in 2013. Whereas Habitat now owns those single-family homes and their co-developers Commonwealth Companies own high-quality apartment rentals, Cheri credits IDF with making it happen. “We would not have been able to meet those federal requirements and do that without that half-a-million-dollar loan,” she said.

A ground blessing ceremony for a future zero net energy home in Evans, Colorado

Since then, Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity and IDF have embarked on several projects together, and IDF has assisted Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity with strategic planning, messaging, and applying for grants. The CDFI has been particularly helpful in developing long-term financial modeling for Cheri’s team so that the nonprofit doesn’t over-leverage itself. That includes helping Habitat with technical matters ranging from legal requirements to underwriting to getting families into their homes. “They’ve been phenomenal at looking at the projects we have underway,” Cheri said, “and understanding what kind of financing and mechanisms we will need to bring those projects live.”

According to Cheri, IDF’s ability to make sure that Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity doesn’t just look good on paper but actually is good on paper has allowed it to attract larger projects, investors, and donors. For example, recently, a reputable, multi-density development and building company approached Cheri and told her that it wanted to donate 30 acres of land — a $16 million value — to Habitat so it could build 184 lots of affordable housing in Greeley. The mix of single-family homes and affordable rental units will be similar to what the nonprofit is currently completing in Evans. “Had we not been able to cast the vision for what a quality project like this could look like with Impact Development Fund,” Cheri said, “we wouldn’t be attracting these kinds of investors into our work at Habitat.”

Building Affordable Housing for Everyone

In its 30-plus years of existence, Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity has built more than 160 homes; however, according to Cheri, prior to her arrival, the affiliate averaged building between three and five homes in a single year. Not surprisingly, that average has increased dramatically during her tenure as executive director. Incredibly, not only have Cheri and her team built more homes and housed more families during the COVID-19 pandemic than ever before in the nonprofit’s 34-year history, but they’ve done it without their usual army of volunteers. As is expected, slowing down isn’t in the blueprints. “My hope,” Cheri said, “is that we can eventually take this model of building a continuum of affordable housing and duplicate it all across Weld County and across the nation.”

Since returning to Greeley, Cheri has grown deep roots in the community, and it’s not uncommon for her to walk down the street on any given day and run into a donor, an investor, a volunteer, or a family that she’s worked with at Habitat. Despite the joy that those encounters bring her, Cheri says that the most magical moments continue to be when she gets to introduce a family to their new home. “There’s just a look in their eyes,” Cheri said. “It’s relief, and it’s gratitude, and you can just see the sense that they can breathe knowing for certain that this is their home and that things are going to be okay for their future. It’s just such an honor and privilege to be a part of that.”

Learn More

  • Greeley-Weld Habitat for Humanity is part of a global, nonprofit housing organization whose vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live.
  • Impact Development Fund (IDF) is a Colorado-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that creates economic opportunity by delivering flexible capital to develop and preserve affordable housing and nonprofit facilities in under-served communities across the state.
  • CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like Impact Development Fund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Borrower Stories

How a Business Resiliency Course Helped Michea Rahman, an Entrepreneurial Speech Pathologist, Take Her Business to New Heights

Since Michea Rahman was a child, she always knew that she wanted to one day work with children. She idolized teachers, adored Sesame Street, and, unsurprisingly, grew up to become a middle school arts educator in her hometown of Houston, Texas. One day, a fellow teacher asked Michea if she’d be willing to work with her autistic students on a theatrical performance. It was a life-changing experience. Michea got to know the students’ speech therapist, and, long story short, she fell in love with it.

The experience filled Michea with excitement and led her to alter her career trajectory. The Howard University alumna enrolled in a graduate program at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) and set out to research what would be the most effective way to blend language and services with children with autism and language delay. It was through her clinical placements at TWU that Michea discovered that she had an innate talent for working with young children as a speech-language pathologist.

While she continued to gain skills and learn techniques in early intervention clinics for medically fragile children, Michea realized that there was a tremendous need in her community: kids from underserved and underrepresented neighborhoods didn’t have access to quality services where they lived. Instead, they had to leave their neighborhoods and travel to more affluent parts of Houston to see a speech pathologist, which placed pressure on parents who were already strapped for time and resources. “There was this need,” Michea said, “and I thought there has to be a way to bring convenient, quality services to children where their families don’t have to leave their neighborhood and sit in traffic and get stressed out to be there on time.”

The clear mask that Michea is wearing allows children to visually observe her as she produces sounds and words. These clear masks have enabled the continuation of quality in-person services during the pandemic.

In late 2018, with the support of her husband and 13-year-old daughter, Michea opened the Children’s Language Center, where she could offer sensory-based play to children with language delay and autism at price-per-sessions much lower than elsewhere in the city. For Michea, she wanted to prove that she could blend quality care and affordability in a clinic located in the same underserved community where she was born and raised. “Personally, if I want other people to make investments in my community and to respect my community and to make these kinds of services more accessible,” she said, “I felt like then I needed to do it too. You need to practice what you preach.”

We’re In This Together

Whereas Michea admits that it took some time for her clinic to get up and running, February 2020 was easily her best month. Within a month’s time, however, her business ground to a halt. As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, Michea was faced with cancellation after cancellation until the lockdown effectively shuttered her business. According to her, she was woefully unprepared.

That’s when Michea saw an advertisement for TruFund about a business resiliency course. TruFund is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that invests in small businesses in New York, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. CNote partners with CDFIs like TruFund in communities across the country, funding loans to small businesses, and empowering local entrepreneurs like Michea.

Although Michea thought that it would be ironic to take a class on business resiliency while at the same time thinking about closing her clinic, she signed up. During the first session, Michea was so stressed and nervous, that she put on her headphones and began to clean her house while listening to the call. By the end of it, however, she was sitting on the chair in her bedroom crying. “They weren’t sad tears,” she said. “That call gave me so much hope. Until then, I felt like the only one going through the pandemic and that I was losing everything. But TruFund was saying I wasn’t alone, and that was beautiful.”

That night, Michea sent TruFund an email. Like other entrepreneurs enrolled in the CDFI’s resiliency class, she was able to receive real-time information about PPP loans, and she was able to get everything that she needed in order so that when the time came to apply for assistance, she was ready to go. In the end, Michea received her PPP loan from TruFund, and although the amount wasn’t much, it was enough to give her business the momentum it needed to survive.

Another source of motivation, however, was her teenage daughter, who dealt Michea the tough words that she needed to hear in those trying times. “I told her that I thought I’d need to close the clinic, and she said ‘if you’re going to give up and it’s that easy for you to give up, then call all of your playmates and tell them you just gave up and they have nowhere to go after this,’” Michea said. “It was hard to hear from a child because of course, I don’t have the courage to make that phone call, but I raised her like that, and I was proud of her for giving me that swift kick in my emotions and reminding me that failure was not an option.”

With the financial support and resiliency plan from TruFund, along with the tough love from her daughter, Michea pushed forward into 2020 with a renewed sense of purpose. Because she couldn’t provide her services online, she secured the personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies she needed to safely reopen her clinic. After the resiliency class ended, Michea took a marketing class through TruFund, which helped her to begin to grow her business. Additionally, because so many people lost their jobs in the early months of the pandemic, families who didn’t live around the Children’s Language Center came to Michea’s clinic, because hers was the only one in Houston that they could afford on a single income.

Today, Michea’s clinic is not only thriving, it’s doing better than ever before the pandemic started. She is both hiring her first full-time staff member and looking for a larger space so that she can expand and serve even more families in her community. “I’m just so fortunate,” she said, “and I feel proud and excited. I really have TruFund to thank, because I was drowning in the ocean, and they saved me.”

Michea Rahman and her assistant, Jannah Shurafa

Going forward, Michea wants to continue to grow the Children’s Language Center and expand into other underserved areas in Houston — and beyond. She’s driven, in part, by the same sense of togetherness and camaraderie that she received from TruFund.

“If we can’t give parents hope, then what are we here for?” Michea said. “I tell parents that we’re in this together and that I’m invested in their child’s growth, because their growth is my growth and Houston’s growth, and our city gets better when our children get better.”

Learn More

  • Children’s Language Center has a mission to provide quality pediatric speech therapy services to children while bringing hope to families and strengthening our collective communities.
  • TruFund – is a 501 (c) 3 certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) headquartered in New York City with field offices in Alabama and Louisiana. TruFund tailors its financial and technical assistance to the unique needs of each site—from contractor mobilization lending in New York and Louisiana to rural Black Belt initiatives in Alabama.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like Michea’s? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like TruFund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Borrower Stories

Meet Julia Sleeper-Whiting, Whose Undergraduate Volunteerism Became a Nonprofit Dedicated to Youth Empowerment

When Julia Sleeper-Whiting moved to Lewiston, Maine to attend Bates College, she never could have imagined that she’d be a small business owner in the community more than 15 years later — and not as a veterinarian, which she originally planned to become as a first-year undergraduate student. Julia intended to specialize in animal care, but after struggling in her introductory chemistry class she realized that she needed to try something different, and her community is certainly thankful she did.

Julia Sleeper-Whiting

That something different turned out to be gender issues and an education course with a service-learning commitment of 30 hours. According to Julia, her placement in an English Language Learning (ELL) class was her first exposure to Lewiston, the state’s second-largest city. It was an eye-opening experience for the Bangor native. “I didn’t even know what ELL was,” Julia said. “I had grown up in Maine and had access to a high-quality education, yet, there were so many things I did not know about. Being two generations in from my own family’s immigration story from Lebanon, it was crazy to me that I knew nothing about refugees’ or these kids’ lives.”

Julia became intrigued with education, and her experience working with ELL students dramatically changed her career trajectory. She pivoted away from veterinary sciences and majored in psychology and education. Her initial service-learning placement in Lewiston, however, didn’t end after those first 30 hours in 2005. Instead, that was only the beginning of Julia’s work in the community. In fact, because she and her classmate, Kim Sullivan, spent so much time in the community as undergraduates supporting kids and providing homework help, the two joked that Bates was their extracurricular activity and Lewiston was their educational focus. “The experience was a privilege,” Julia said, “and I began to feel connected to a community in a way like I had never experienced in my whole life.”

Not surprisingly, when Julia graduated from Bates, she didn’t end the work she was doing in Lewiston. Instead, she continued to offer homework help and tutoring in the community while she completed her master’s studies in leadership and organization studies from the University of Southern Maine. In the summer of 2011, she co-founded Tree Street Youth with Kim Sullivan, her Bates alumna, to be a summer youth camp for the same students they worked with throughout the school year.

Whereas Julia and Kim didn’t have a business model, they both had plenty of passion, not to mention a strong commitment to the Tree Street neighborhood in downtown Lewiston. They were fortunate to find a vacant property (a former daycare facility) to host their camp, and even luckier that the landlord was willing to give them a two-month-for-one special on rent. Although the old commercial building needed some work, the community came out to support Julia and Kim, and with a fresh coat of paint, Tree Street Youth was up and running.

A Google Search, and a Lucky Encounter

Two years after opening Tree Street Youth, Julia received word that the building they’d been renting was being put on the market. She worried that if the property changed hands, a new landlord wouldn’t want to keep Tree Street Youth in the building; but, she also knew that her organization didn’t have the capital to purchase the building.

Not knowing where to turn, Julia Googled “how a nonprofit purchases a building.” The Genesis Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), popped up. Julia, however, was unfamiliar with CDFIs. Instead, she chose to reach out to traditional banks to explore different lending options. Each told her that it wasn’t going to happen. Yet, as chance would have it, Julia ran into Bill Floyd, then executive director of The Genesis Fund, a few weeks later at a workshop in Augusta.

“Bill said ‘why don’t I come see what you’re doing,’” Julia said. “I’ll never forget the day. Our old building had very little airflow, and it was 90 degrees in there. We met in what we treated as an office, which wasn’t really an office, overlooking the play yard. We were both dripping sweat, surrounded by screaming kids and basketballs thudding against the wall, and he goes “you’re going to own this in a year.’”

Bill was true to his word. Within 12 months, Tree Street Youth owned the building. Since 1992, The Genesis Fund has been working to develop and support affordable housing and community facilities across Maine, mainly by providing both financing and technical assistance to community organizations and nonprofits like Tree Street Youth. CNote partners with CDFIs like The Genesis Fund in communities across the country, channeling capital to fund social missions like affordable housing, women’s empowerment, entrepreneurial funding, and more.

After purchasing the building in 2014, Julia and her team set out to fundraise the necessary capital to renovate the entire facility. Through both a public campaign, which received contributions from nearly 400 community members and a major gifts campaign, Tree Street Youth was able to raise the money it needed for construction. By November 2019, after three years and two phases of construction, Tree Street Youth unveiled its renovated building to the community. The nonprofit is currently in the process of raising funds so that it can burn its mortgage by the end of 2021.

In addition to providing the loan itself, The Genesis Fund provided Tree Street Youth with bridge lending so that the nonprofit didn’t have to stop construction while it continued to fundraise. More so, Bill and his team worked alongside Julia throughout the construction and renovation experience, lending their industry know-how and expertise. “Providing those loans was critical,” Julia said, “but having Bill and Liza [Fleming-Ives] as my point people was invaluable because it gave me more confidence. We would not be where we are, or potentially even exist if they had not essentially taken a risk to want to support us.”

Rooted in the Community, Ever-Growing

With the stress, uncertainty, and distraction of not having a guaranteed long-term space in their community behind them, today, Julia and her growing team at Tree Street Youth are able to focus on developing programming, forging new partnerships, and better serving their students. From the very beginning, all of Tree Street Youth’s programming has emerged out of needs voiced by the community. For example, according to Julia, Tree Street started its college prep program because kids wanted support to go to college, and the nonprofit started its leadership program because students wanted jobs helping other kids.

“Our vision is to cultivate leaders who fear less, love more and dream big, and build communities united across lines of difference,” Julia said. “The idea is that by supporting youth to recognize their passions and reach for their fullest potential, what that essentially does is cultivate them into leaders who then will go out and solve the issues around them.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tree Street Youth served between 600 and 700 children (pre-kindergarten to 12 grade) annually. Today, however, the organization is only able to serve roughly 100 students in person, and given the realities of the pandemic, much of the current work being done by the nonprofit is related to supporting students struggling with remote learning. Still, Julia is thankful that she and her team have a building where kids can come, spread out, and be safe, and despite the pandemic, Tree Street Youth is committed to offering year-round programming grounded in academic support, leadership development, and social-emotional enrichment, the latter of which was created and designed in partnership with Maine’s Department of Corrections to be both preventative and responsive to youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

As much as Tree Street Youth has evolved over the years, one of Julia’s favorite things is when youth come back to work for the nonprofit as staff members. According to her, a number of Tree Stree alumni have worked for the organization (including two current staffers), and it’s always special for her when she can entrust a kid who’s “grown up with Tree Street” with a key to the building.

“Tree Street literally grew out of the community, no pun intended,” Julia said. “There’s been so much influence from so many people over the years. It’s an example of what can truly happen when every member of a community comes together to support their kids, and how empowered kids can truly change a whole community.”

Learn More

  • The Genesis Fund provides innovative financing by soliciting investment loans from individuals, churches, corporations, and foundations, and then re-lending the money at favorable terms to nonprofit organizations developing affordable housing and community facilities for underserved people and communities throughout Maine and beyond.
  • Tree Street Youth supports the youth of Lewiston-Auburn, Maine through academics, the arts, and athletics.
  • CNote is a women-led investment platform that empowers individuals and institutions to invest locally to further economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and address climate change.
By Community Partners

How the Power of a Shared Voice is Pushing the First-of-its-Kind African American Alliance of CDFI CEOs to New Heights

Lenwood Long has been immersed in the world of community economic development since the 1980s, and until 2019, he was the CEO and President of Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), a North Carolina-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) committed to fostering economic development in underserved communities. However, despite a long career in community finance dedicated to shrinking the racial wealth gap, Lenwood doesn’t have any plans of taking his foot off the gas anytime soon. Instead, he and other Black-led CDFI leaders are organizing like never before through the African American Alliance of CDFI CEOs (the Alliance).

“The reason for us coming into existence was to address the issues of inequality and the racial wealth gap,” Lenwood said. “There was a recognition that all of our communities suffer from an unequal distribution of resources, and we came together to have a voice to address those inequalities in this moment.”

The inequalities alluded to by Lenwood are staggering. According to Brookings, the median wealth for a white American family is $171,000, while the median wealth for a Black American family is $17,150 (in 2016 dollars). The resource and wealth gap spans homeownership, loan approval rates, education, and health, and the disparities are evident in Black-led CDFIs’ and Black entrepreneurs’ unequal access to capital and opportunities to scale. As Lenwood points out, the $6-to-$1 disparity between white and Black-led CDFIs didn’t happen overnight: it’s systemically been created and perpetuated over the course of centuries. The Alliance was launched in 2018 to help change that.

Of the Alliance’s three strategic goals, a major priority within its network of Black-led certified CDFI CEOs is to strengthen their fiscal and impact capacity using best practices to facilitate social and economic advancement in their communities. The nonprofit has grown from 21 members in its initial meeting in 2018 to 48 members in 2021, and Lenwood anticipates that the Alliance will have over 50 Black-led CDFI CEOs by the end of the summer. Although the Alliance’s members have physical presences in roughly 30 states, they provide services in all 50 states. Considering that there are an estimated 55 to 60 Black-led CDFIs in the U.S., the Alliance’s impressive membership numbers are indicative of the level of interest in knowledge sharing and difference-making.

It’s also demonstrative of the notion that there’s strength in numbers, which ties to one of the Alliance’s other strategic goals: to advocate for institutional and public policies that address the barriers to community and economic development, Black business growth, wealth creation, and financial protections in Black communities. “Our advocacy at the national level is where we can impact changes in a meaningful way that deals with resource allocation,” Lenwood said. “We want more than discourse. We want action items that reflect a real commitment, not just a short-term commitment, but a long-term commitment, because this is not a short-term problem.”

The Alliance has already experienced success with its advocacy efforts. For example, in the first iteration of the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program, CDFIs were not included. However, thanks to voices like the Alliance’s, Congress has since emphasized and acknowledged the role that CDFIs play in keeping the country’s small businesses afloat. Congress allocated $12 billion to the CDFI Fund, with an emphasis not only on certified CDFIs but the minority community and minority CDFI and MDIs. “Congress didn’t just see the light or have an epiphany to engage CDFIs,” Lenwood laughed. “That was an intentional effort to educate and to bring awareness about the service-delivery capacity of CDFIs and the communities they represent, and about how CDFIs have been a lifesaver for so many small businesses during this pandemic.”  Especially, the work of minority-led CDFIs

Not surprisingly, success for the Alliance would be to achieve the public policy changes necessary to make it so that the allocation of resources in the United States reflects the country’s diversity, especially for organizations, businesses, and CDFIs. That includes reducing the wealth gap and getting more money funneled to CDFIs and putting more dollars in the hands of minority-led CDFIs. The Alliance is similarly committed to creating a digital marketplace of Black-owned firms to help its members expand their capacity and efficacy, while providing marketplace firms with increased revenues to expand wealth creation in the Black community. Ultimately, the Alliance hopes the vetted marketplace will also be a platform that the public and private sectors will utilize to expand Black enterprise and increase the number of opportunities for Black entrepreneurs.

Incredibly, as the Alliance’s voice grows louder and louder in Washington D.C. and as the work of its member CDFIs ripples across Main Street U.S.A. Lenwood gives much credit to the Leadership Team of Donna Gambrell, Calvin Holmes, Victor Elmore, Inez Long, and Van Hampton for the quality time they provide to move the work of the Alliance forward.  This is incredible given that they are CEOs with full-time jobs leading their respective CDFIs, meaning that they’re developing strategies and policies that they hope will impact national legislation during their evenings and weekends. “These CDFI leaders are so dedicated, and they put in an inordinate amount of time,” Lenwood said. “But that’s because we truly believe that our combined, unified voices can make a difference to address not only impact the racial wealth gap but will have transformational impact on the communities our members serve.”

Learn More

  • The African American Alliance of CDFI CEOs is the only organization leveraging African American CDFI CEOs’ decades of expertise, relationships, and intellectual capital to change the odds and the outcomes for African Americans in underserved communities across America.
  • CNote is a women-led impact investment platform that uses technology to unlock diversified and proven community investments to generate economic mobility and financial inclusion.
By Borrower Stories

Meet Felicia Parks, A Franchisee Encouraging Her Employees To Become Entrepreneurs

Felicia Parks was always interested in business; however, it wasn’t until her two sons were grown adults before she decided to try her hand at it. In fact, her sons were the inspiration that propelled her to open her own franchise.

After her youngest son graduated high school, he launched his own janitorial service. Unfortunately, the business never took off. “It was so disappointing to see him come home every day getting rejected,” Felicia said. “People already had an idea of who they thought he was just based on who he was as a young Black man. So, I wanted to start something where I could make a difference in my community and do something to bring in kids like my son who just needed somebody to give them a bit of a chance.”

That’s when Felicia and her sons, Christopher and Camren, decided to open a Jimmy John’s store in the same Atlanta neighborhood where she was born and raised. Christopher and Camren ran the store while Felicia managed the business operations and continued to work her full-time job with the federal government. “It was scary because it’s something no one in my family had ever done,” Felicia, a veteran, said. “I really didn’t know anyone who had taken this kind of step before, and it’s a lot of money going into a franchise, and it takes a lot of commitment.”

Neither the commitment nor the finances, however, phased Felicia, who credits her time in the military as preparing her to have the mental fortitude, the resilience, and the self-belief required to be a successful entrepreneur. Additionally, during her time in the service, Felicia learned when it was time to ask for help. That’s ultimately what led her to the Small Business Development Center in her community, who in turn connected her with Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE), an Atlanta-based Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI). CNote partners with CDFIs like ACE in communities across America, funding loans to small businesses, providing technical assistance, and empowering local entrepreneurs like Felicia.

Initially, ACE was able to assist Felicia with her business operations via a business coach; however, when COVID-19 hit, Felicia needed more than coaching: she needed capital. She went from a staff of roughly 25 to a team of her, her general manager, and, on a good day, one other employee. Sales were down 64% and she found herself behind on all of her payments. Whereas the winter months are usually (and expectedly) slow for Felicia’s business, the pandemic erased any hope for a spring upswing, and at one point, she thought she might have to give up on the business and file for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, while Felicia was keeping her Jimmy John’s outpost open so that she could provide delivery and drive-through meal service to her community, she was doing her best to secure PPP funding. “We were struggling,” she said, “but we were doing everything we could so that the elderly and our regular customers who didn’t want to come out because of safety could still have Jimmy John’s.”

After being rejected from all of the traditional financial institutions and banks that had helped her in the past, Felicia finally received a bridge loan from ACE to cover some of her operating costs and, as she put it, “keep [her] head above water” until she could get a PPP loan through a different lender. Incredibly, unlike many of the business owners around her, Felicia never had to shutter her restaurant. Instead, she was able to keep the doors open and slowly bring back more and more of her employees, particularly the single parents whose kids were doing remote learning from home.

Now, as she’s preparing for life after the pandemic, not to mention having to pay back her loans, Felicia is similarly relying on ACE to provide her with advice and guidance on how to navigate the next 12 months. Additionally, she’s been able to take advantage of ACE’s online resources on marketing, management, and finance, all geared toward getting her business back up and running after COVID. Not surprisingly, however, Felicia likes the personal counseling she gets best. “I’m always able to call up Ms. Bonita [Doster],” she said. “Just being able to talk to her and have her understand and follow me through this journey has really helped me a lot.”

Whereas ACE has been right there next to Felicia throughout the pandemic, notably absent were her sons, who left the family business nearly two years ago to begin their own entrepreneurial ventures. Today, they both have their own successful businesses, one in Atlanta, and the other in Vietnam. For someone like Felicia, who opened a franchise to show her kids how to run a business, their success is what drives her to create those same opportunities for her employees.

“I have kids who come in and work here, and they learn about starting their own businesses,” she said. “And several of them leave to go do that. One of my managers has a catering business. A former general manager left to open his own photography business. Another is now a rapper. This is why I wanted to start my own business.”

Felicia’s lead-by-example mentality, along with the mentorship she provides her employees, takes many forms, including facilitating staff training sessions on financial literacy topics like filing taxes, budgeting, balancing checkbooks, and opening (and managing) a bank account. In Felicia’s mind, by investing in her employees’ futures, she’s taking the good fortune that she’s been dealt in life and paying it forward.

“I didn’t grow up wealthy,” she said. “I grew up in one of those situations where a lot of kids don’t make it through; but, I was blessed enough to make it. So, I just always want kids to know, no matter where you are, you can bring yourself out of that with hard work and dedication and commitment and focus, and you can get anywhere you want to be.”

Learn More

  • Jimmy John’s
  • Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE) – ACE is an SBA Microloan Intermediary, a USDA Intermediary Relender and a certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI).
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like Felicia’s? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like ACE, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.

 

By Community Partners

Meet the Black Hills Community Loan Fund, A Native CDFI Rooted In Its Community, And Growing With It

When Onna LeBeau took the job of Executive Director for the Black Hills Community Loan Fund (BHCLF) nearly six years ago, the odds were stacked against the nonprofit. For the better part of a year, the Rapid City-based nonprofit had sat idle, and its board was only willing to give it — and Onna — 12 months to see what could be done to keep the doors open. Despite that the organization had $10,000 in capital and a staff of one (Onna), she was hopeful. After all, this was the job she was meant to have.

Onna LeBeau

Onna didn’t always aspire to be at the helm of a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). She was born into the Omaha Nation and lived in Aberdeen, South Dakota from the time she was six-months old. When she was 18, she got married and after some time the relationship became abusive. Although she knew she needed to escape the abuse, she didn’t know how to do it, especially given she only made $3.25/hour working at Hardee’s.

It wasn’t for another five years that Onna saw what it would take for her to leave. That’s when her then-husband put her in charge of paying the family’s bills. “I knew this is how I was going to be able to get out,” she said. “It let me see what the bills were and how much we paid for rent and utilities and everything.”

Taking over her family’s finances proved to be the financial literacy education Onna had never received in high school, where she’d learned how to write a check in “business math.” Without her husband’s knowledge, she budgeted for and created a five-year plan that would allow her to save the money she’d need to leave, pay rent (and a security deposit), and get out of her situation. When she found out she was expecting her second child, however, Onna sped her plan up to two years.

Once Onna left her abusive relationship, there was nothing holding her back. She graduated from college, got a community development job with the federal government, remarried, and had three more children. She was exactly where she wanted to be — or so she thought. One day, Onna attended a meeting where Elsie Meeks, president and CEO of First Nations Oweesta Corporation, a Native CDFI intermediary, was speaking. “They were talking about the curriculum they had just created for Indian country,” she said, “and about how the financial education curriculum was tied to the cultural perspective that, as a people, we are planners. I thought ‘where was this when I needed it? This is amazing, and I need to do this.’”

From the moment Onna learned about CDFIs, she knew she wanted to get involved and be a part of one. She left her 15-year tenure with the federal government, became a consultant, and returned to the classroom to get her master’s degree in community development. Five-and-a-half years ago, she was offered her dream job at BHCLF.

Building Trust Through Shared Experiences

When Onna took over the reins at BHCLF, she faced a steep learning curve; however, she wasn’t afraid to ask for help. She reached out to her peers at other CDFIs, particularly those working at the handful of Native, urban CDFIs in the country, for guidance and advice. With the support of her CDFI network and her board, Onna helped to get BHCLF certified within 18 months of becoming the Executive Director. Since then, the CDFI has brought in over $1.2 million in grants, deployed more than $77,000 in loans, and launched numerous financial education programs. Additionally, BHCLF created a consolidated debt program to help community members defeat the payday loan cycle they were stuck in.

Because BHCLF is designated as a Native CDFI, 51% of its clientele has to be Native American. Onna, however, estimates 90% of BHCLF’s clients are Native. Of those clients, most work within western South Dakota’s tourism industry, making minimum wage or less. In Rapid City, of the 10% of the population that is Native American, more than 50% live below the poverty line, a statistic that’s being compounded by the increasing cost of living and lack of affordable housing. “It’s really challenging to live here, financially,” Onna said. “In order to make rent for the average $1,000/month home at the wages people make, they have to work one-and-a-half full-time jobs.”

Given the realities of living in Rapid City, when BHCLF reached a point where it could hire two full-time staff members, Onna wanted team members who reflected and understood the surrounding community. That’s exactly what she got when BHCLF hired Dr. Shannon Ahhaitty and Nikkole Bostnar. “All three of us women have had some form of trauma we’ve had to overcome,” she said, “and we have all had to scrape by with pennies. We’ve all used the social service system, and we’ve all been single parents, so our clients see we actually get it.”

Onna says that her team’s ability to relate to BHCLF’s clients — or rather, BHCLF’s clients’ ability to relate to her team — is one of the ways the CDFI has been able to build trust and find success in its community outreach efforts. Additionally, all of BHCLF’s curriculum is Native-based, which is another way the CDFI has been able to build trusting relationships with its clients and establish itself as a recognizable placeholder in its community. In fact, unlike other CDFIs, lending isn’t BHCLF’s number one priority. Instead, its programmatic offerings are centered around financial education, mentorship for entrepreneurs, first-time homeownership, and youth outreach. According to Onna, each of these programs is about “getting people in the door.”

For example, in December, BHCLF received a small grant from the NDN Collective to help community members impacted by the pandemic. In order to be able to apply for utilities and rent assistance, however, community members had to complete BHCLF’s financial education class. According to Onna, nearly 40 people took the course and received funding. “Getting them in the door is the goal, because that makes them more curious about how we can further help them,” Onna said. “And then, over time, the assistance we provide helps them get to a point where they can start thinking about their futures, whether that’s buying a home or paying off debt or anything.”

“Amazing Things” To Come

Onna and her team at BHCLF have big plans for the CDFI’s future. Among their long-term goals are setting up financial education classes in the surrounding school systems and establishing a community center-esque space where community members can meet. More so, BHCLF recently received funding to help 20 local artists affected by the pandemic build their online sales platforms. In addition to the programmatic support she and her team are offering, Onna is aiming to provide BHCLF microloans to at least a quarter of the artists to further support them. It’s the kind of creative pairing of education and lending Onna wants to do more of at BHCLF.

“We just have to get really creative when it comes down to helping our clients,” Onna said. “But I always tell clients that if they’re able to find another organization who’s willing to lend them money, go for it because that means we got them to the point where they are loan ready, and to me, that’s a success.”

What’s also a success is Onna’s journey from where she was as an 18-year-old to where she is today. It hasn’t always been easy, and she’s been dealt plenty of setbacks and loss, but Onna strives to focus both on the good and on BHCLF’s mission to strengthen the financial future of her community. Not surprisingly, she has no plans of stopping anytime soon.

“As soon as I got this job, I knew this is where I needed to be,” Onna said. “I still don’t know how it’s all going to come together sometimes, but I love my job, and I have ginormous visions for this organization. Every day, I tell my team ‘we are going to do amazing things,’ and they tell me ‘we know!’”

Learn More

  • Black Hills Community Loan Fund is dedicated to creating financial opportunities for economically disadvantaged families who aim to strengthen their financial future in the Black Hills Region.
  • CNote is a women-led impact investment platform that uses technology to unlock diversified and proven community investments to generate economic mobility and financial inclusion.
By Change Makers Series

Change Makers Interview: Leah Davis

Leah Davis is a change maker through and through. She was born in San Jose and raised by a Mexican mother and a Black father. Leah is an adult survivor of childhood domestic violence. Experiencing trauma as a child impacted Leah’s ability to make healthy decisions in many areas of her life, including with her finances and her relationships. In 2013, Leah left a toxic and abusive eight-year relationship: it was her first step toward a future of peace, prosperity, and financial stability.

Today, ​Leah has over five years of experience as a financial advisor. In early 2020, Leah began providing wealth and wellness coaching to women of color. Through a trauma-informed approach, Leah works with her clients to shift from fearful and harmful habitual thinking patterns to unlock their power, move toward an abundance mindset, and  learn about the wealth gap as they implement healthy habits with managing money

We caught up with Leah to talk about financial abuse, her approach to coaching, and her clients’ unique challenges, and we got the chance to hear her thoughts about why entrepreneurship makes sense for women of color who struggle to be seen and heard in the workplace.

CNote: What led you to become a financial coach for women of color?

Leah Davis: I found this organization called Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap. They introduced me to my mentor Saundra Davis of Sage Financial Solutions. She had one of her coaches who was going through the Financial Fitness Coach certification program and needed to get in his coaching hours. She asked me if I would do it, and I said “sure.” That was a game-changer for me. When I had my own financial coach, it really came to light that I had so much baggage, barriers, self-doubt, beliefs, and all of these things that were preventing me from really moving ahead in my life — even though I had all of this education and experience as a financial advisor.

At the time, I really wanted to do something for women of color in financial services, but I didn’t quite know what it would be. At this same time, I became a certified domestic violence advocate after taking 65 hours of training at a local women’s shelter. That was also eye-opening for me. So between that certification and the coaching, I thought maybe I could coach women of color. Then, it just all came together. I started the process to build my business as a wealth and wellness coach for women of color.

CNote: When a lot of people think about abuse, they think of domestic abuse, but can you tell us a bit more about financial abuse?

Leah Davis: Financial abuse is another way abusers assert power and control, and it’s why many victims will go back to the harm doer. On average it takes a victim seven times to leave before not going back to the abuser for good.  The CDC estimates a  female survivor will incur about $104,000 in medical bills and lost productivity at work across her lifetime. Then, on average, the harm doers will steal about $1,280 from survivors every month. On top of that, harm doers, on average, will incur about $15,900 of coerced or fraudulent debt in the survivor’s name, meaning credit cards or things that affect her credit. So, even if someone leaves the abuse and ends the relationship, a woman might have to deal with the financial insecurity and abuse and trauma component for a long time, which impacts her ability to achieve what she’s working toward.

CNote: Do you primarily focus on wealth coaching or wellness coaching, or do the two go together?

Leah Davis: Oftentimes, I’ll have somebody come to me because she wants to manage her money better and can’t seem to understand why she can’t stick to a spending plan or get out of debt. , Typically in that initial conversation, I find out that there is of course some sort of trauma. Whether or not she wants to go down that path is totally up to her, but, more often than not, it comes up. I can provide all the financial coaching and education available, but really that would just be like a bandaid on a very large wound. So, they go hand-in-hand.  I take a holistic approach with my coaching of physical, emotional, and even a spiritual focus to guide women towards feeling safe with money and they no longer second guess the decisions they make.

CNote: What would you say the need is for this kind of coaching, and are there other coaches like you out there?

Leah Davis: One in three women are at some point in their life going to experience some sort of intimate partner violence. So, the need is huge. There are some coaches that I’ve met who provide similar services, but they might not have gone through a  financial coaching certification program. In the financial advisory world, many advisors of color will market toward communities of color, but they don’t typically outright say these are the clients they serve. I am vocal. There are not enough women of color in financial services who are being out and open and saying, “this is the service that I provide other women of color.” We do have unique challenges and experiences in life, so I really champion these services.

CNote: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected women of color?

Leah Davis: The virus has disproportionately impacted women of color, and the research shows they’ve been impacted the hardest on the health side. I’m curious about what’s going to happen years down the road and about what impact this has on their mental health long-term, especially those who are in situations where they do not have enough food or they’re stressed about not being able to get a job or being at home with the kids and maybe an abusive partner. There’s just so much that has impacted them the most, for sure, and a lot of them are breaking down, and there’s a lot of them who’re asking for mental health support.

I will say this though: Our communities facing these barriers also have the most hope and resilience. They have what it takes to really do some amazing things. It’s just being able to get them that basic stability — pay the bills, roof over the head, food on the table, transportation, childcare, employment — and they will be alright.

CNote: Thinking for a moment about the clients you serve on the other side of the spectrum — financially successful women of color — what are the unique challenges of coaching those clients?

Leah Davis: I’m part of a group of about 21 professional, successful Black women, and I’m one of the coaches, and these women are learning about credit investing and real estate and options trading, and I’m like, “you ladies are knocking it out of the park.” But, you know, the challenges and experiences are still very similar in some sense, and that’s again because of the trauma that some of these women have experienced. There’s also a pressure that they’ve “made it,” and so there’s a sense of responsibility to be the one to support the family. That’s why for them, it’s important to be around someone who can relate to them to talk to because, in their positions, everyone’s always going to them, and when you’re in a position where you’re the go-to person in your community and it’s take, take, take, take, take, then you overextend yourself financially, and then you’re not setting yourself up for long-term financial stability. So, that dynamic can create unique challenges, but at the same time I remind them that they have the ability to set up boundaries and that’s what we work on.

CNote: There seems like an opportunity there for some intrafamilial financial literacy education though, right?

Leah Davis: Absolutely. Oftentimes, the women that I do talk to on this side of the spectrum, they speak a language that’s different than their family understands. So when they do talk about wealth, their family might say “why do you want to talk about that?” or “you’re just all about money.” Quite often, I will say to my clients, “look, just by you being who you are and going through coaching and letting go of some of the trauma in your life, your family is going to see the difference in you, and they’re going to want to have a piece of what you have.” For me, I grew up in an environment where we didn’t talk about our finances or the abuse we endured. There were no conversations about setting goals and saving money. But today, I’ve seen it in my own family, where my family members have started to take better care of themselves financially, emotionally, and even spiritually. So, it’s leading by example in so many ways.

CNote: When you’re doing your financial coaching, do you talk about institutional racism?

Leah Davis: There are things in life that you can’t control, like systemic racism. In the work I do with my clients, I have them understand the wealth gap and the barriers that have been put in place for us so that they can have context to their experience. It’s not all our fault, right? And when you’re able to put context to the circumstances and you have money coming in, then you just feel, I guess freedom is the word. Just an ability to make those informed choices without second-guessing yourself and knowing there is a solution or resource available to help. That is so valuable, having that financial dignity.

CNote: How important do you think entrepreneurship is for women of color as a path to empowerment?

Leah Davis: So damn important. I say that because there have been countless, countless times where we have to go to work and have to explain ourselves, defend ourselves, advocate for ourselves, explain what we’re doing, not be heard, deal with microaggressions and implicit bias. It’s tiring, and it wears us down. I’ve talked to so many women of color entrepreneurs, and I ask them why they started their own businesses, and they say “because I wasn’t going to do that to myself anymore. Life is hard enough as it is. I want to do what I want when I want the way that I want, and so by having my own business, I’ll be able to accomplish that.”

There just has not been enough movement within the corporate or even the nonprofit world to have the representation of women of color at the table and to have our voices heard. So, having a business and being an entrepreneur is a way of creating the life we want and to not have to deal with the racism and microaggressions, and biases that we experience within the workplace. As it is, we deal with this too much outside of the workplace.

CNote: What’s your vision for the future in coaching women of color?

Leah Davis: I would love to have my coaching style be replicated by other women and it is easily accessible. I envision partnerships with financial institutions and domestic violence organizations, as this trauma-informed financial coaching goes hand in hand with the services that they’re providing women of color. I envision one day there being a more normalized conversation between a financial advisor or financial planner and a woman who has dealt with domestic violence in her life, and that financial advisor understanding what the heck she’s talking about and what she needs, and they’re able to work with her and not turn her away. For me though, I’m creating my wealth legacy for my family. I’m the first one in my family doing what I’m doing, so I’m also open to seeing where this all takes me. I’m following my gut, and I’m learning as I go.

By Borrower Stories

How Gloria Dickerson is Inspiring the Mississippi Delta Community To Make Their Dreams a Reality

Gloria Dickerson wants to change the way people think. It’s no easy task, particularly when it comes to encouraging low-income communities to dream bigger than the world they know. However, Gloria Dickerson is no stranger to adversity.

Gloria was born into an impoverished family of sharecroppers in Drew, Mississippi. She was one of 13 children, and although her family was poor, Gloria says her most valuable assets as a child were her parents. Her mother, Mae Bertha Carter, was active in the Civil Rights Movement and The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Mae Bertha Carter made clear in action that she wanted better for her children.

Gloria Dickerson standing next to a photo of her mother, Mae Bertha Carter.

“She didn’t like being a sharecropper, being hungry at night,” Gloria said. “And she didn’t like it when the plantation owner came by and told her that her children couldn’t go to school because they got to get the cotton out of the field. She knew that wasn’t right, and she made it up in her mind that her children were not going to have to live in poverty for the rest of their lives the way she had come up. She didn’t know how, but she was determined.”

In 1964, it became clear what it would take to break Mae Bertha Carter’s family’s cycle of poverty: sending her kids to integrate the Drew School District.

Although Brown v. Board of Education had found segregation of children in public schools unconstitutional in 1954, the Supreme Court decision had largely left it up to states to decide when to integrate their schools. Come 1964, however, states like Mississippi still hadn’t taken any action, prompting the Federal government to threaten to pull federal funding. That’s when the Drew School District adopted what was called Freedom of Choice, which meant that families in the district got to choose where to send their children to school.

In 1965, Mae Bertha Carter chose to send her seven school-aged children to the all-white school, where she knew they’d get a better education. The FBI followed the children to school for the first week, after which they decided the family was safe. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

Gloria and her siblings, spread between first grade and eleventh grade, were the only Black students in the school. Their peers threw chalk at them and showered them with spitballs. White students terrorized them in the hallways and called them terrible names, at home things were even worse. People fired guns into the house so that the family had to resort to sleeping on the floor, and people plowed their gardens and released their pigs. The family was even evicted from the plantation where they lived and worked.

“My momma used to get on the bed every day,” Gloria said, “and she’d pray when we got on that school bus, and say ‘please Lord, please send my kids home safely.’ Then, at the end of the day when we’d get off the school bus, she’d be there, counting us one by one because she didn’t know if all of us would be coming home or not.”

Gloria says that people did everything they could to try to stop her and her siblings from going to school and to change their minds. In the end, it didn’t work. Instead, the family not only kept sending its kids to the formerly all-white school, but in 1967, it sued the school district on the grounds that it was an intolerable burden on children to have to go through what Gloria and her siblings had to go through to get an education. Gloria’s family won the lawsuit, and the Drew School District threw out Freedom of Choice and school-based segregation in 1969.

When asked, Gloria refers to her time in the all-white high school as both the best and the worst of times. Amidst the external struggles and the social upheaval taking place around her, she learned how to be in solitude and in silence, and she picked up important study skills. She got her education, and one by one, Gloria and her siblings received NAACP scholarships to attend the University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss. Each of them later walked across the graduation stage, diploma in hand.

Gloria passed the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam and later returned to school to get her M.B.A. On paper, she’d done it — she’d succeeded in accomplishing something and pulling herself up to the middle class. In 1999, she got a job as a corporate controller with Kellogg Foundation. Five years, later, however, she was ready to get out of the back office and back into the community. The foundation sent her to Jackson, Mississippi to be a program officer, where she coordinated capacity-building efforts with community-based organizations across the Mississippi Delta.

That all came to an abrupt end, however, when the Mid-South Delta division of the foundation she worked under was dissolved in 2009. Gloria was forced into an early retirement, which raised some big questions for her. She knew she wanted to be in the field, working with people and giving back to her community. She also knew that every time she visited her mother in Drew, most of the people she saw continued to live in the same poverty that she’d escaped.

“I’d go visit my hometown and say ‘they shouldn’t have to live like this,’” Gloria said, referring to the dilapidated houses, the lack of grocery stores and fresh produce, and the dismal state of the public schools. “We fought so hard in that classroom, but I looked back and said ‘what good did that do?’ It did me some good and it did my family some good, but the job is not over.”

Gloria started a nonprofit called We2Gether Creating Change and decided to return to her community in Drew so that she could show people how to escape poverty and teach them how to thrive.

Leading By Example

Gloria had her work cut out for her.

Given her professional background, she knew that foundations were somewhat disillusioned with the Mississippi Delta, because no matter how much money they poured into the region, nothing seemed to change.

“When I’d ask them why do you think things aren’t changing, they’d say ‘those people down there need to start thinking differently about their life situation,’” Gloria said. “So, when I started my organization, I wanted to address what those foundations said was the issue: the way people think, and their mindsets, value systems, hopes, dreams, and imaginations.”

Upon returning to Drew, the first thing Gloria wanted to do was to teach school children about their local history. Gloria wanted to teach the kids about the community they’d been born into, and she wanted to share with them how her family was able to use education to lift itself out of poverty. Those history lessons quickly morphed into conversations about self-worth, self-esteem, leadership, life skills, career tracks, etiquette, relationships, and abuse.

It didn’t take Gloria long to learn that most of her students had never been outside of Drew. That proved problematic, because when she asked them to dream, they had no idea what she was talking about. Therefore, once a year, she started taking groups to Orlando, Florida: to show the kids what middle-class life looked like. They’d go to Universal Studios and to Disney World so that the students could start to imagine a different future for themselves. For eight consecutive years, until the COVID-19 pandemic, Gloria and her team took 100 kids per year to Florida.

“A lot of those kids have gone to college, and some of them have gone back to Disney World with their own kids and families on their own,” Gloria said. “Some are nurses and biologists, and a lot of them tell me ‘if you hadn’t shown me what we could do, I never would have been where  I am.’”

Over the years, Gloria’s work with middle and high school students in her community expanded across her community. She began to work with elementary-aged students to help improve their reading levels and she started to work directly with her students’ parents and other adults in Drew, so that they too could begin to change their mindsets. The classes she coordinates range from financial literacy to mindfulness and meditation. However, Gloria knew that if she was truly going to help her community move from poverty to prosperity and from hopelessness to hope, then she was going to also have to find ways to make tangible, physical improvements to Drew to show people that change is possible.

You Have to Give Them Hope

That’s when Gloria called HOPE, a credit union that has generated more than $2.5 billion in financing to benefit more than 1.5 million people across Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. CNote partners with credit unions like HOPE across the country, working together to mitigate the extent to which factors like race, gender, and birthplace limit one’s ability to accumulate wealth. Together, HOPE was able to help Gloria and other concerned citizens in Drew make improvements to their community.

“We didn’t have any playgrounds,” Gloria said, “and the grocery store had closed, so we had no way to get a banana. We didn’t have any affordable houses, and the neighborhood and streets looked like a mess with these dilapidated houses. All of this stuff affects the way people think: it’s their environment. But just because they’re poor doesn’t mean they don’t want to have a place to play or sidewalks.”

The first thing HOPE did was help Gloria and her new group, the Drew Collaborative, to finalize a strategic plan that they could then use to present and send to funders. More so, HOPE funneled grant dollars into Drew, which went toward tearing down decrepit houses and building affordable homes in their place.

HOPE also brought in KABOOM! to build a playground, and the collaborative is currently working to open both a grocery delivery distribution center and a telemedicine center in Drew.

In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, HOPE also provided Gloria with a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to keep her two staff members at We2Gether Creating Change employed. The nonprofit has shifted away from in-person classes and gatherings, and because most people in her community don’t have computers or the internet, going online isn’t possible. Still, Gloria and her team have been distributing disinfectant, masks, gloves, and soap around the community, and because of the PPP loan, they’ve been able to keep their food pantry open.

“If it wasn’t for HOPE, I would have had to lay off my employees,” Gloria said. “I’m glad I was able to keep them, and I’m grateful that we were able to get that funding, because we wouldn’t have been able to continue with things unless I was able to keep those two on.”

Dreaming Beyond The Pandemic

Whereas the coronavirus pandemic has turned much of her world on its head, if there’s one thing that Gloria is grateful for over these past few months, it’s the time she’s been given to step back and to think about the future of We2Gether Creating Change and of Drew, Mississippi. According to her, she wants her nonprofit to get more into racial equity work. That includes acquiring the barn where Emmett Till was killed and turning it into a museum or a retreat center — a place in the community that pays tribute to him. She’d also like to restore a small jail in Drew that was used to imprison some of the Freedom Riders back in the 1960s. It all ties back to the initial work that Gloria started in the community when she moved home in 2009: teaching people about their local history so that they can use education as a vehicle to escape poverty.

As for Drew, Gloria wants to leverage her position as a Sunflower County district supervisor to improve the town’s infrastructure and aesthetics. It’s a difficult task, but still, it’s something that Gloria is committed to.

“I need to do this,” she said. “I need to work in this community and try to help people and serve people. I’m passionate about it because I know what it was like for me trying to grow up in poverty and how hard and painful it was. Even if I can help anybody else to not have to go through that, then that’s what I want to do. That’s what drives me.”

Gloria and the We2Gether Creating Change Team

It’s that same drive that led Gloria to spend her first eight years with We2Gether Creating Change without paying herself a salary. In fact, she’s poured in well over $500,000 of her own money to fund trips to Disney World, distribute scholarships, provide student stipends, pay course instructors, cover overhead expenses, and much, much more. She’s received some financial support from Kellogg Foundation, her previous employer, and other donors, but given Gloria’s aspirations for her community-based work in Drew, she’s going to need more help from foundations that aren’t afraid to invest in her philosophy.

After all, she doesn’t have to look far to see that her approach works. It’s evident when Gloria returns to Ole Miss for graduation ceremonies to watch her students walk across the stage and receive their degrees, just like it’s visible during her trips to Disney World, when she sees kids laughing and playing and having a good time in a place far, far away from the poverty of Drew.

“To see them there with that smile on their face,” she said, “that is what being out of poverty means. That’s really joyful for me, when I see people benefiting from things we’ve done and accomplishing things on their own. I’m so proud when I see people progress, and when I see that they’re gonna make it on their own.”

Learn More

  • We2Gether Creating Change
  • HOPE Credit Union provides financial services; aggregates resources; and engages in advocacy to mitigate the extent to which factors such as race, gender, birthplace and wealth limit one’s ability to prosper. Since 1994, HOPE has generated more than $2.9 billion in financing that has benefitted more than 1.7 million people in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great Credit Unions like HOPE, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.

 

By Change Makers Series

Change Makers Interview: Janine Firpo

Janine Firpo is an author and speaker who spent more than 20 years in executive roles at Hewlett-Packard, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and more. She is a values-aligned investor in companies that make the world a better place and is passionate about teaching women to learn how to invest their own money. Embodying these principles, Janine is releasing her first book, Activate Your Money – Invest to Grow Your Wealth and Build a Better World in May of 2021.

Since “retiring” from her former career, Janine has been on a personal mission to invest all of her assets in alignment with her values. In 2017, she left a 35-year career in technology and international development to focus on creating a more just and equitable society through financial investments. This mission also helps women find the confidence to take control of their money and use it to change the world.

We caught up with Janine to talk about values-aligned investing, women in finance, and her new book. We also got the chance to hear her thoughts about the dangers of greenwashing, the significance of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and the reality that women will soon be a financial force.

CNote: How’d you get to where you are today?

Janine Firpo: I started out my career in the early 1980s in the high-tech sector in Silicon Valley. I was on an upward trajectory, but I’d always loved traveling. In 1995, I quit my job as a VP at a startup, and I did a solo backpacking trip through Sub-Saharan Africa for four months. While I was there, I saw poverty like I had never seen it before. I came back from that trip and decided I wanted to work more in these environments and have impact with my life and work.

It took me almost a year to figure it out, but after a lot of inquiry, I ended up making a complete transformation in my career and started looking at the role that technology and business play in solving poverty in developing countries. I became part of the early conversations in Silicon Valley around how companies could do well with their business while also doing good in the world and trying to tackle some societal challenges.

At some point along the way, I had a realization that those early conversations around impact investing were pretty much in the realm of institutional investors and high-net wealth individuals. I wanted to figure out how I could invest my own money in a way that aligned with my values. If I’d made this huge shift in my career and taken an initial pay cut to do something that mattered to me and gave my life purpose, then why was my money working against me?

CNote: What did you end up doing?

Janine Firpo: When these conversations started, there was no proof that this kind of investing actually worked, and I give a lot of credit to those individuals who were willing to take these risks and start to prove that values-aligned investing actually could provide a viable financial return. I started getting interested in Charly and Lisa Kleissner, who had built a portfolio of ~$10 million investing this way. That’s when I decided I wanted to try to put my money where my mouth is.

That started a journey to figure out how to move everything to align with my values, from my cash to my public holdings in the stock market to bonds and real estate investments. I had three different financial advisors along the way: all of them were well-known in this space, and none of them got me where I wanted to be. So, when I retired about three years ago, I took my assets back, and I started moving my money more aggressively into alignment with my values. I realized a couple of things. One, it’s much more available than it used to be. Two, virtually anyone, even somebody who is a non-accredited investor, can make these kinds of decisions with their money. I decided to help these other people, particularly women, make these kinds of decisions, and that’s what led me to start writing Activate Your Money.

CNote: Can you tell us more about Activate Your Money?

Janine Firpo: I wrote the book in partnership with 150 women, and a few men. It’s called Activate Your Money: Invest to Grow Your Wealth and Build a Better World, and it’s going to be published in May of this year. The purpose is really to help women who have been left out of the financial conversation to take control of their money, to learn how to invest with confidence, and to give them the options they need to make investments in the things that they care about.

When the book is released, there will also be a companion website that has tools, worksheets, and resources, to help women actually take their knowledge and the book and move it into action. There will also be companion curricula that women can use to form together in clubs to teach themselves and work together learning these materials. All of the curriculum and materials will be free. The goal is really to help catalyze a movement that I think has already started, and it’s a movement of women who are moving their money into alignment with their values. My hope is to provide these women with the resources they need to be successful in doing this kind of investing.

CNote: What led you to write a book with more than 100 other people, and what was your process like?

Janine Firpo: At first, I thought I’m going to write this book by myself. I wrote the chapter on cash, and it took me a very long time to do it. I realized that I know so many smart women who know so much more about these topics than me. I started reaching out to some of the women I knew, and I’m really happy that they piled in. I had 40 or more women who are certified financial advisors, certified financial planners, and financial leaders who wrote early drafts of different parts of the book for me based on their areas of knowledge and specialty. I’m not a certified anything. I’m not writing about things that are impossible. I’m writing about things that I’ve done with my own money.

However, because I think it’s really hard to read a book that has a bunch of different voices, I rewrote all of those chapters in my own voice. But I wanted to make sure I was hitting the mark, so I sent every chapter out to about 25 different people who provided feedback on early drafts. Those were primarily women — women from all different walks of life. Based on that feedback, I rewrote it. So, I had women help me as writers, I had women help me as reviewers, and I had women help me as thought leaders. I could not have done this book without them. It’s all of our book. This book was a collective effort, and I could never have done this alone.

CNote: What are some of the misconceptions around impact investing that you see today?

Janine Firpo:  There are still people who think that you have to give up financial return if you invest this way, and that’s a significant misconception. The other thing is I personally have a hard time with the term impact investing, and I do for a couple of reasons. First, there is an implicit assumption in impact investing that the only kind of impact your money can have is a positive one, and that’s actually not true. Your money is having an impact regardless. The question is whether you are consciously aware of that impact and whether or not that impact is something that supports your goals and hopes for the world.

When people talk about impact investing, although they often are referencing an entire portfolio, it doesn’t take long in a conversation for it to turn toward private equity. If you’re a high-net wealth individual, then you have the capacity to go out and do some pretty interesting stuff with private debt and private equity. This leaves average Americans out of the conversation. So, I have a challenge with the whole terminology around impact.

CNote: What term do you think we should use to replace the term impact investing?

Janine Firpo: I use the term values-aligned investing. How we choose to invest our money is very personal. Each person makes different choices. I think this has been a challenge in the whole “impact space”: the questions of what are the values, how do we measure those, and what should those values be? I don’t think we should be determining what people’s values are. People are going to determine that. I think that when we invest in a way that actually speaks to our values and is in line with who we are and how we show up in the world, that leads to a much more positive set of feelings around our money. So, personally, I like values-aligned investing, and I am on a mission to get that terminology to be more used. I think it speaks to the personal nature of it and to the hearts and minds of the individuals that we’re trying to reach.

CNote: What issues do you think values-aligned investing are best situated to address?

Janine Firpo: It can address a number of different issues, including the Sustainable Development Goals that were created by the United Nations. These are 17 goals that speak to significant social issues that we have around the world. Things like poverty, gender equality, social justice, climate change, et cetera. Personally, what I have done is I’ve chosen five of them and said “these are the things that matter to me.” The Sustainable Development Goals are a great starting point to think about your tangible values so that you can then make your investment decisions.

CNote: Where do you see values-aligned investing going in the next 10 years?

Janine Firpo: I’m really encouraged. In the last month alone, it feels like we have really jumped over a major chasm. If you just look at the numbers, at the end of 2018, institutional investors sustainably invested one in every four dollars. At the end of 2019, that leapt to one in three dollars. That’s significant, and the amount of money that is moving into ESG or other types of sustainable investing is growing exponentially. Then another thing that’s interesting to me is the way that business and financial leaders are stepping up to the plate and saying things that I would not have imagined were possible. For example, the Nasdaq wants to change the rules so that companies have to have two diverse board seats, and General Motors said they’re going to stop production of gas and diesel cars by 2030. That’s incredible.

In terms of venture capital in this country, in 2019, only about 2.5% of all the venture capital went to female founders, and even less went to people of color. What we’re seeing now is a growing awareness that we have got to get over our implicit and subconscious biases around who is getting the capital to build businesses in this country, and I think we’re seeing a groundswell there as well. I think we’re going to just see this area grow more and more.

CNote: Thinking about greenwashing and bad actors in this space, do you think investors will one day be able to measure the impact of their investments in a standardized way?

Janine Firpo: First of all, I think greenwashing is a problem, and I know that there are people who have been working for decades on trying to come up with ways to measure impact the same way we measure financial return. It’s difficult, but progress is being made. I trust that we will eventually get to the bottom of this problem and we will have standardized ways to measure company impact. It’s just going to take time. We’re going to identify companies that are truly bad actors and are doing the wrong things in the way that they are claiming their positive impact in the world. Fortunately, there are a growing number of tools to help us to identify these companies and funds. I know some people want a perfect solution today, but I don’t think that’s possible yet. Our measurements are still flawed, and we have to recognize that we are moving toward something better, but we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater until we get to perfection.

CNote: What’s your long-term vision with Activate Your Money?

Janine Firpo: I hope the day comes that when people talk about investing, what they’re talking about is investing in your values. There should be only one conversation: this is how you invest in alignment with your values. Another long-term goal is women’s empowerment. I’m targeting women for a couple of reasons. One is because women have largely been left out of this conversation. We are not confident when it comes to investing, even though when we do invest, we outperform men. I want to help women recognize that we have this ability: we’re smart, we’re capable, and we can learn how to invest. We do it differently, and that’s ok. Women need to embrace that, not run away from it. There’s not enough information out there to help the average retail investor, so that’s what I’m trying to simplify and make more available.

CNote: What are your thoughts around the number of women pursuing careers in finance?

Janine Firpo: We need more women involved across the board. If you look at financial advisors, almost 80% are men. If you look at the number of women who actively manage funds or are involved in fund management, it’s like 2% to 3%. So, I think it’s really important that we bring more women into the financial industry. I know that there are folks out there who are working on that. I just read something the other day about a group that is educating women at the college level and encouraging more women at that level to get involved in finance.

Part of the challenge is the way the industry itself works. As someone who came up in the tech industry, I believe that one of the things that cause women to get out of some of these male-dominated industries is the business environment. It is not welcoming to women, and it can actually be a soul-draining adventure because it doesn’t speak to the things that we care about or the things that we value. I do think, however, that as more women move into these roles, more change will come. It’s going to take hard work to make that happen, but I think that as we’ve seen with women who are moving into leadership positions in any vertical when women are in leadership roles, things are different.

CNote: What do you think the future of investing looks like for women?

Janine Firpo:  If women took control of our money right now, we could control 50% of the wealth in this country. That will go up to 65% in the early 2030s. So, women are a financial force to be reckoned with if enough of us start moving our money this way, and we can have a significant impact on what’s important in the economy. We can start to use our financial voices to say “we care about our communities, we care about supporting other women, we care about seeing women empowered, and we care about ensuring that this planet is left in a way that will help our children, our grandchildren, and future generations to live happy, fulfilled lives.”

By CNote

CNote’s February Impact Roundup

Welcome to the February edition of the CNote Impact Round-Up, a monthly publication, where we take you through some of the most impactful and popular things we recently shared, discovered, or learned.

Throughout the month we shared brief biographies of African Americans who changed the course of history in the face of incredible adversity; from Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license, to Madam C. J. Walker, the first Black woman millionaire in America. 

In the spirit of the month and of these individuals, we shared articles surrounding the challenges that this community is still facing and why it is so important that we invest in their success.

We also shared different articles on Impact investing in Native communities and CDFIs, how CDFIs have supported disadvantaged communities throughout COVID-19, and how world leaders can prioritize sustainable and responsible business.

56% of Black Entrepreneurs say Gaining Access to Capital is a Lingering Challenge by Black Enterprise

Bank of America recently completed an extensive study of 307 Black business owners to explore the goals, challenges, and realities of black business owners across the country. The results revealed that 56% of “Black business owners report obstacles obtaining credit restrict their ability to grow.” 

Check out the full article here

In 2021- it is as clear as ever that access to capital for black entrepreneurs needs to be invested in. The CNote team recently penned the following Twitter thread discussing some of the most telling statistics around economic and racial inequality. 

Check out the full thread here 

Female-Founded Fintech Makes It Easy To Invest In Minority And Women Entrepreneurs by Geri Stengel

We were recently featured in Forbes, in an article highlighting how CNote makes it easy to put your savings to work by investing in disadvantaged communities.

“How do we use financial innovation to help close the wealth gap in this country?” asks Berman, CEO at CNote. “How do we bridge that gap in opportunity in the United States? Opportunity shouldn’t be based on who your parents are, what zip code you were born in, the color of your skin, or other pieces of your identity.”

Check out the full article here

Bridging the gap between Impact Investing and Native Communities by Stanford Social Innovation Review

“But for Indigenous communities and Native Nations to ensure just, equitable, and regenerative development for future generations, equitable development requires more than just capital flow: it requires a dramatic shift in power.” 

 

Check out the full article here

Impact Investors and CDFIs Can Partner to Create Greater Impact by IFF

Great read from IFF on how impact investors can structure their investments into CDFIs to strengthen the community finance ecosystem and create greater impact.

Check out the full article here

Community Development Funds get more Support to Relieve Minority Businesses by NBC

An article worth checking out on how CDFIs have fought to provide crucial support to small businesses through the chaos of the pandemic relief program. 

Check out the full article here

3 Ways Global Leaders can Prioritize ESG impact by the World Economic Forum

“Capitalism as it is currently designed doesn’t work for everyone. We need a more equal, fair and sustainable way of doing business that values purpose alongside profit.”

Check out the full article here

CNote Recognized as a Fund Manager in ImpactAssets 50

CNote is thrilled to announce that we have been selected as a manager in the ImpactAssets 50 2021 (IA 50), which recognizes a diverse group of impact fund managers who demonstrate a commitment to generating positive impact.

IA 50 Fund Managers are experienced impact fund managers with a minimum 3-year track record and $25 AUM.

We are tremendously proud to have been recognized as a top impact fund manager by ImpactAssets,” said Yuliya Tarasava, co-founder and COO of CNote. “Our commitment to deploying capital to underserved communities in order to build a more inclusive economy has always been at the core of what we do and has been a huge part of achieving this recognition.”

Check out the full article here

Could CDFIs Be One Way To Finance Economic Justice? By Christopher Marquis

Chris Marquis sat down with CNote CEO, Catherine Berman, to talk about CDFIs, and how they have stepped up during COVID to aid underserved communities throughout the country.

Check out the full article here

We hope that you enjoyed this month’s Impact Roundup! Was there anything that we missed? Connect with us on Twitter (@gocnote) and leave us any comments, ideas, or feedback that you have. Until next month!

By CNote

CNote Recognized as Fund Manager in ImpactAssets 50

BETHESDA, Md., Feb. 23, 2021CNote is thrilled to announce that we have been selected as a manager in the ImpactAssets 50 2021 (IA 50), which recognizes a diverse group of impact fund managers who demonstrate a commitment to generating positive impact.

IA 50 Fund Managers are experienced impact fund managers with a minimum 3-year track record and $25 AUM.

This year marks the tenth edition of the IA 50, and despite a tumultuous year, total assets under management (AUM) among selected fund managers jumped to a record $228 billion in 2020, up from $181 billion in 2019. 

“We are tremendously proud to have been recognized as a top impact fund manager by ImpactAssets,” said Yuliya Tarasava, co-founder and COO of CNote. “Our commitment to deploying capital to underserved communities in order to build a more inclusive economy has always been at the core of what we do and has been a huge part of achieving this recognition.”

This year’s list revealed several investing trends.  

CDFIs Take Center Stage: Seven Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) were selected in this year’s IA 50, reflecting the critical role CDFIs have played during the COVID-19 pandemic—from distributing PPP loans to supporting small businesses within rural, indigenous and low-income communities, and communities of color. These organizations represent both national and locally-focused community funders and manage a combined $18.7 billion in assets which are catalyzed for creating jobs, building affordable housing and financing community services in underserved low-income communities. 

Investment Targets: In 2020, the global pandemic and subsequent economic downturn affected communities worldwide, and IA 50 fund managers focused on some of those hardest hit. A total of 63% of managers targeted investment in rural communities, while 54% specifically benefited people of color and 48% were focused on advancing women-led businesses. Two-thirds (67%) of managers said their firm focused on underdeveloped markets where the market is relatively new, emerging, or subject to systemic challenges. 

 Diversity and Inclusion: While fund management remains overwhelmingly non-diverse, IA 50 fund managers are leading with diversity. This is especially true of the IA 50 Emerging Impact Managers, where 51% reported more than half of their investment professionals were women and 54% said more than half of their investment professionals were people of color.  

Impact and Financial Return: Impact fund managers remained focused on delivering both positive impact and investment performance. A total of 87% of IA 50 fund managers targeted market rate or above rates of return and 92% delivered either in line or above their target returns. Emerging Impact Managers reported similar results, with 63% targeting market rates of return or above, and 98% delivering either in line or above their initial target returns. 

“The growth we’ve seen in the IA 50 over the past decade is reflective of the growth, maturity, and increased diversity of the impact investing industry as a whole,” added Sandra Osborne Kartt, CFA, Director, Investments, ImpactAssets. “Along with the Emeritus and Emerging Impact Manager lists, this year’s IA 50 represents the vast array of impact themes and strategies available to impact investors today.”

  

About CNote 

CNote is a women-led impact investment platform that uses technology to unlock diversified and proven community investments to generate economic mobility and financial inclusion. We empower investors to directly align their values with their investments through innovative cash and fixed income offerings.

We deploy capital through our CDFI partners, which are private financial institutions with a primary goal of delivering affordable lending to aid financially disadvantaged individuals and communities. These community partners benefit from CNote’s investments through access to new sources of capital that are often more flexible and mission-aligned.

Since 2016, CNote has been developing technology to unlock access to investments in racial equity, economic justice, and gender equity and help close the wealth gap in underserved communities across America. Interested in making a difference with your investments? Learn more about CNote’s Impact Investments.

 

About the ImpactAssets 50 

The IA 50 is the first publicly available database that provides a gateway into the world of impact investing for investors and their financial advisors, offering an easy way to identify experienced impact investment firms and explore the landscape of potential investment options. The IA 50 is intended to illustrate the breadth of impact investment fund managers operating today, though it is not a comprehensive list. Firms have been selected to demonstrate a wide range of impact investing activities across geographies, sectors and asset classes. 

The IA 50 is not an index or investable platform and does not constitute an offering or recommend specific products. It is not a replacement for due diligence. In order to be considered for the IA 50 2021, fund managers needed to have at least $25 million in assets under management, more than three years of experience as a firm with impact investing, documented social and/or environmental impact and be available for US investment. Additional details on the selection process are available here.   

The IA 50 Emerging Impact Manager list is intended to spotlight newer fund managers that may demonstrate future potential to create meaningful impact. Criteria such as minimum track record or minimum assets under management may not be applicable. 

 The IA 50 Emeritus Impact Manager list illuminates impact fund managers who have achieved consistent recognition on the IA 50. 

 

About  ImpactAssets 

ImpactAssets is the leading impact investing partner for individuals, families and philanthropists tackling the world’s greatest challenges by investing in the world’s brightest ideas. We make it easy for our clients to “discover, connect and invest” in game-changing entrepreneurs and funds. Founded in 2010, ImpactAssets increases flows of money to impact investing with our 100% impact investment platform and field-building initiatives, including the IA 50 database of private debt and equity impact fund managers. 

The ImpactAssets Donor Advised Fund is an innovative vehicle that empowers donors to increase the impact of their giving by combining it with strategic, sustainable and responsible investing to build a sophisticated philanthropic endowment. The Fund currently has more than $1.4 billion in assets in 1,400 donor advised funds, working with 350 wealth advisors across 60 financial services firms. 

 

Learn more at www.impactassets.org

By CDFIs, CNote

5 Crucial Differences Between CDFIs and Traditional Banks

There are many American communities that are underserved by the traditional banking industry. Low-income and minority communities typically experience the most lack of access to quality financial products and services. According to a 2018 FDIC survey, 22 percent of households are underbanked or unbanked. This means that these individuals have no formal relationship with a traditional bank or access to credit. 

When basic mainstream financial services such as checking, savings, or money market accounts are not accessible, households are forced to rely on alternative financial services like check-cashing services, pawnshop loans, auto title loans, payday loans, and paycheck or tax refund advances. These types of financial services are associated with high-interest rates and fees and keep those already suffering from financial disparity stuck in a cycle of ever-increasing debt.

The most striking difference between Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and traditional banks is their mission. CDFIs strive to deliver responsible and affordable lending to financially disadvantaged communities across the country. In contrast, traditional banks are focused only on generating profits to satisfy their shareholders’ expectations.

In addition to their missions, CDFIs and traditional banks also diverge from each other with their structure, the types of loans and financial products they offer, their underwriting practices, structure, support services, and loan servicing. Here is a breakdown of these five crucial differences between CDFIs and traditional banks.    

Difference #1 – How CDFIs vs. traditional banks are structured

CDFIs operate as banks, credit unions, loan funds, and venture capital funds that have qualified to receive the designation from the U.S. Treasury Department’s CDFI Fund.  Each type of CDFI has its own legal structure and offers a different range of financial products and support services for their particular customers in low-income communities.    

As depository institutions, CDFI banks and credit unions are regulated by federal and state agencies. CDFI banks are FDIC-insured and organized like traditional banks except they must devote at least 60 percent of their total lending and other services to benefit low-income communities. CDFI credit unions are member-owned nonprofits so the profit is shared with members through higher rates on deposits and lower rates on loans. Many credit unions offer National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) insurance coverage that mirrors FDIC coverage but is designed for CU participants.  

An electable board of directors is accountable to the membership that governs the credit union’s policies. CDFI banks and credit unions offer lower fees and interest rates for people with low credit scores as well as refinance programs to help people escape predatory loans. 

Most CDFI loan funds are structured as nonprofits and must follow the state laws where they function. They also must undergo independent third-party audits that are conducted by certified public accountants. Loan funds and venture capital funds are not regulated by federal banking regulators because they’re not federally insured financial institutions. Venture capital funds usually take seats or observer rights on the boards of their portfolio companies. Some become part owners in the companies they invest in. 

In contrast, traditional banks are structured to optimize profit for shareholders whereas CDFIs focus is on serving their communities. Traditional banks offer higher fees and interest rates for people with lower credit scores, limited or blemished credit history, and minimal assets. 

Difference #2 – Types of financial products and programs

CDFIs believe that individuals and businesses deserve access to the necessary financial products and resources to purchase a first home, open a local store, or expand an existing enterprise. CDFIs make funding available to support startups, nonprofits, micro, and small businesses, affordable housing, consumers, and commercial real estate.  Often, these loans help launch projects that wouldn’t otherwise get off the ground.

CDFI microloan rates are competitive with Small Business Administration (SBA) loans from banks and typically offer lower interest rates with a higher likelihood of approval. The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis recently reported that “CDFIs can save business owners an average of more than $2,700 per loan when compared to market rates.”

The financial products offered by CDFIs are designed to support the specific needs of the borrower as most are fixed-rate and self-amortizing with lower origination fees. This keeps payments predictable and allows borrowers to decrease the principal so the loan is actually paid off at the end of the term.  

Conversely, traditional banks generally don’t offer startup or micro-business loans of any kind. Banks tend to provide funding for established small businesses. When it comes to housing, consumer, and commercial real estate loans offered by banks, terms can be restrictive. This is because traditional banks are focused on maximizing profit for their shareholders and small loans (those under $250,000) while,  less profitable than large business loans, require the same amount of manpower to originate and monitor 

This leaves significant gaps in lending when it comes to startups and small businesses receiving the funding they need. According to a 2016 report “The State of Small Business Lending” by the Harvard Business Review, more than 60 percent of small businesses look to secure loans under $100,000. 

Difference #3 – Business Underwriting and eligibility assessment

In order to better serve and increase lending to a wider range of business owners, CDFIs work with borrowers that may have lower credit scores or minimal credit histories. By nature, startups and new small businesses have less assets, collateral, and owner equity. 

As a result, CDFIs don’t rely on FICO scores alone to assess the creditworthiness of loans but also consider a borrower’s credit history to understand their character and payment history. CDFIs also strive to approve loans more quickly and assist borrowers that aren’t yet capital-ready with other credit-building products, counseling, or technical assistance.

In their report “Innovations in Underwriting”, The Opportunity Finance Network (OFN) and Wells Fargo found that “innovative underwriting strategies by CDFIs don’t undermine risk management or portfolio quality. Rather, the new strategies analyze past and current portfolio activity to inform new practices.” This helps to “align CDFI policies with its practices while maintaining asset quality.”    

Traditional banks are constrained by credit-score-driven underwriting models that make it difficult to meet the funding needs of small businesses. Unlike CDFIs that seek to make lending more inclusive, the aim of commercial banks is to narrow down the pool of borrowers that are eligible for loan products to mitigate excessive risks that lead to increased credit losses.  

Difference #4 – Support services and technical assistance 

Most CDFIs offer technical assistance services and training programs related to homeownership, small business and capacity-building support, business coaching, and mentoring and advisory services. These services educate and assist borrowers in making major purchases or business topics like cash flow, marketing, and management. When more businesses succeed and grow,  job growth is boosted in low-income and minority communities.

Traditional banks don’t offer technical assistance services as they are unable to be directly involved in providing guidance for business operations due to lender liability regulations. 

Difference #5 – Loan servicing flexibility 

CDFIs seek to ensure that their lending is supportive and responsible for the borrower since they’re invested in growing the prosperity of the community they’re a part of. Traditional banks are less flexible when it comes to restructuring debt in order to achieve maximum profits for their shareholders.

CDFIs can more easily adjust their lending terms to accommodate the needs of their borrowers when they’re facing financial challenges. This may include deferment, forbearance, and loan modifications, as well as expansion loans to help small businesses further enlarge their operations. CDFIs recognize that by making amendments to loan terms, they are increasing the probability that a borrower can successfully recover from the hardship and repay the loan in full.

According to the OFN’s analysis 20 Years of CDFI Banks and Credit Unions, “despite CDFI banks experiencing higher delinquency rates than all banks, they experienced lower net charge-off rates than all banks, suggesting that CDFI banks’ missions compel them to manage delinquencies rather than charge-off late loans.”   

Final thoughts

As mission-driven lenders, CDFIs are working to help those that are underserved by traditional banks become participants in the economic mainstream. They offer low-interest loans with flexible terms to finance small businesses, nonprofits, microenterprises, commercial real estate, and affordable housing. 

CDFIs are better equipped to support low-income communities than traditional banks because they place helping the community above profit maximization. This results in the creation of financial products and loan terms that create the best possible outcomes for both investors and borrowers.  

 

By CNote

CNote’s Impact Roundup

Welcome to the first edition of the CNote impact Round-Up! In this monthly publication, we’ll take you through some of the most impactful and popular things we recently shared, discovered, or learned. From big industry news to op-ed pieces, we’ll paint an entertaining and full-spectrum picture of everything that you need to know in the sustainability and impact investing space.

 

As Crises Deepen Inequity, CDFIs Act as a Counterforce to Build Community Assets by Capital Impact Partners.

COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on low-income communities and communities of color. CDFIs have stepped up to serve as a counterforce, and ensure that these vulnerable communities have access to fair and responsible lending for community-based projects.

 

 

Sustainability Is the Next Digital by Bain and Company. 

“Similar to the digital revolution before it, the sustainability revolution changes everything.” While “sustainability” has become household vernacular, this article is definitely an eye-opener in terms of how much this revolution is changing the business landscape. These changes present both challenges and opportunities and will require businesses to pivot and adapt to succeed.

 

 

Foundations, Invest in Impact, by Alliance Magazine.

Impact Investing has become far more mainstream in the past few years. Still, according to this article, “40 percent of foundations say they don’t know enough about impact investing to incorporate it into their strategies.” Check out this article to see some tools and strategies for investing with impact, and if it is right for your foundation.

 

On Veterans Day, we highlighted Nola Veazie, who was featured on our Impact Story Blog.  Nola served 20 years in the Air Force before founding V-Solutions Consulting, which provides the latest substance abuse and mental health training, treatment, and protocols. By connecting with a CNote CDFI partner, Dr. Veazie was able to receive not only business mentorship but marketing and technology training to grow her business.

 

 

ESG By the Numbers by Sage Advisory

In 2009, Apple had just released the iPhone 3Gs, the Mets finished the season with a 70-92 record, and assets under management for sustainable funds was $113B.

A lot has changed since then. Well, not the Mets. But AUM for sustainable funds is 9x what it was back then. Check out the full article for an amazing infographic on how much U.S. sustainable funds have grown in the past decade.

 

 

The Business of Sustainability by the World Economic Forum 

 As the ESG field has grown, “the appetite for investments that address some of the world’s most pressing challenges has grown steadily in recent years.”

From this, business has the opportunity to create a more equitable, fair, and progressive society, which is necessary for a “sustainable, resilient, and market-oriented private sector.”

 

 

We need to revisit the small business lending process for women entrepreneurs by Catherine Berman.

“Consider this: Less than 5% of small business lending goes to women, despite the fact that about 1,800 new women-owned businesses join the United States economy each and every day.” CNote co-founder and CEO, Catherine Berman, authored this piece, discussing the immensely negative effect that unequal lending practices for women can and do have across the country.

 

 

ESG assets in U.S. surge 42% in last 2 years – report. By Pensions and Investments 

In the middle of November, The US SIF Foundation released its biennial report: On U.S. Sustainable and Impact Investing Trends. This article covers some of the report’s biggest findings, like “Sustainable investing assets in the U.S. grew 42% in the last two years.

 

 

Want to Advance Racial and Economic Justice? Invest in Small, Black-Led CDFIs by Catherine Berman and Donna Gambrell

The funding gap between Black-led CDFIs and white-led is startling.

CNote CEO, Catherine Berman and Donna Gambrell (CEO of Appalachian Community Capital, pictured) recently authored a piece advocating for more investments into Black-led CDFIs

 

What did we miss? Connect with us on Twitter (@gocnote) and leave us any comments, ideas, or feedback that you have!
By CNote

CNote Wins WEP Award in the Best Women-Owned Business Category

CNote has been chosen as the winner of the 2020 G7 – EU WEPs Best Women-Owned Business!

The award recognizes Women’s Empower Principles signatories’ exceptional championship of gender equality within their organizations and networks.

CNote’s submission was shortlisted by the UN Women team based on our application, which highlighted our internal measures and external actions taken to drive equality and women’s empowerment. We were then chosen as the winner by an appointed youth jury of young women, with a strong background in gender equality and women’s empowerment. They based their decision on which company they would like to work for, or with, in the future.

CNote co-founder and COO, Yuliya Tarasava, accepted the award at the online award ceremony on December 10th. She spoke about how much this award means to CNote, and how the Women Empowerment Principles are at the heart of everything that CNote does.

“Everything we do here in CNote is guided by our north star: ‘How do we build a more inclusive economy?’ Gender equality and women’s empowerment are the DNA of CNote, not just the investments that we deploy.”

About CNote

CNote is a women-led impact investment platform that uses technology to unlock diversified and proven community investments to generate economic mobility and financial inclusion. We empower investors to directly align their values with their investments through innovative cash and fixed income offerings.

We deploy capital through our CDFI partners, which are private financial institutions with a primary goal of delivering affordable lending to aid financially disadvantaged individuals and communities. These community partners benefit from CNote’s investments through access to new sources of capital that are often more flexible and mission-aligned.

Since 2016, CNote has been developing technology to unlock access to investments in racial equity, economic justice, and gender equity and help close the wealth gap in underserved communities across America.

Interested in making a difference with your investments? Check out our products page.

 

By CNote

CNote named Best Alternative Investment Platform at Finovate

CNote was selected as the Best Alternative Investment Platform at the 2020 Finovate Awards!

The Finovate Awards, which are in their second year of running, recognizes the individuals and companies that are driving fintech innovation forward.

Award judges included media analysts, board members, bankers, and fintech founders. They had the difficult task of distilling a record number of nominations into just a single winner in each of the 23 categories.

While we are excited, personally, to receive this award, we are far more thrilled that this growing recognition will bring more capital to a place where it can be leveraged to help vulnerable and financially underserved communities.

About CNote

CNote is a women-led impact investment platform that uses technology to unlock diversified and proven community investments to generate economic mobility and financial inclusion. We empower investors to directly align their values with their investments through innovative cash and fixed income offerings.

We deploy capital through our CDFI partners, which are private financial institutions with a primary goal of delivering affordable lending to aid financially disadvantaged individuals and communities. These community partners benefit from CNote’s investments through access to new sources of capital that are often more flexible and mission-aligned.

Since 2016, CNote has been developing technology to unlock access to investments in racial equity, economic justice, and gender equity and help close the wealth gap in underserved communities across America.

Interested in making a difference with your investments? Check out our products page.

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.