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By Borrower Stories, Community Partners

How Kaua’i Federal Credit Union’s Rent Relief Program Has Stabilized Local Small Businesses—And Local Culture

The COVID-19 pandemic turned Chef John Paul Gordon’s life upside down. One day, John Paul was an executive chef catering to Kaua’i’s tourists, the next day, he was unemployed. After more than 20 years of being a chef, John Paul felt like COVID-19 stole his identity away from him overnight. Despite wanting to get back to work, John Paul says that there was no work to go back to—at least nothing that could provide him with the six-figure income he needed to survive on an island where a loaf of bread costs $7, and where rents are always on the rise.

During the COVID-19, Kaua’i’s median home price ballooned from $800,000 to $1.8 million. Although that was fueled in part by COVID-19 refugees from the mainland, it’s part of a larger issue, in which wealthy investors have been gobbling up Kaua’i’s modest housing stock. In 2020, 70% of the homes sold on Kaua’i went to owner-investors purchasing property as non-primary residences. In 2021, that number grew to more than 80%. Therefore, with homeownership out of reach for many locals like John Paul, people have to work two or three jobs, (where they earn some of the lowest wages in the country) to try to make ends meet in a tumultuous rental market that seems primed to evict them. “The rent situation out here is insane, especially with inflation,” John Paul said. “I’ve dealt with this problem here my whole life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to move because the house that I was renting got bought.”

Dana Hazelton, Community Development Officer at Kaua’i Federal Credit Union

Dana Hazelton is similarly familiar with Kaua’i’s rental market. Dana is a Community Development Officer at Kaua’i Federal Credit Union (Kaua’i FCU), the only Community Development Financial Institution-certified (CDFI) credit union on the island. Dana oversees the credit union’s Rent Relief and Housing Stability program, which aims to create housing security for all Kauaʻi residents, regardless of whether they’re members of the credit union or not. As someone who was born and raised on Kaua’i, Dana knows firsthand just how difficult it can be to make ends meet on the island. Dana is a registered nurse, and she spent a decade “working in the trenches” of her community, providing end-of-life care and, later, in-house pediatric care to people experiencing absolute poverty. 

Over the course of a few years, Dana pivoted away from nursing and into education. However, despite finding joy in her work, she knew that if she was going to help people achieve better health and educational outcomes, then she was going to need to help them escape persistent cycles of poverty. Ultimately, that’s how Dana learned about credit unions, and that’s how she got to where she is today at Kaua’i FCU, where, as a CDFI, she and her team have the “flexibility … to radically empower and transform communities around Kaua’i,” and where Dana gets to use capital instead of medicine to heal people.

A Business Model Built Around Community Impact

That was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Hawai’i was flooded with federal dollars to drive economic impact at the county level. One such initiative was the rent relief program, which saw the state receive $100 million to distribute to nonprofits. The issue, however, was that Hawai’i couldn’t find enough nonprofits to help distribute the funds. The state went to the Hawai’i Credit Union League to ask every credit union in the state to help deploy the rent relief program; however, Kaua’i FCU was the only credit union on Kaua’i to step up and say yes. “We’re not a normal credit union,” Dana said. “Community impact is our business model, so if we see a need, we figure it out.”

The Kaua’i Federal Credit Union Team

Because of the administrative fee associated with deploying these funds, as well as a get-back-to-work grant that allowed Kaua’i FCU to hire new employees, Dana knew that the better she and her team did at running the rent relief program, the more income they could generate to support Kaua’i FCU’s members, expand product offerings, and distribute funds to the community. The win-win-win business model proved to be enough motivation for Dana and her team to succeed, as Kaua’i FCU became the number one provider under the Aloha United Way network in the State of Hawaii. Within two and a half months, the credit union deployed approximately $6 million. 

Unsurprisingly, when the second round of rent relief stabilization funds were announced, the County of Kaua’i again asked Kaua’i FCU to be the provider. “We won this $22 million contract in partnership with the County of Kaua’i, and we were told you probably can’t spend it down and do this,” Dana said. “I was like ‘you don’t know how badly people need this in our community.’ If there’s anything I know working as a nurse for 10 years, I know how to reach people, remove barriers, and meet people where they are.”

To get the word out, Dana and her team connected with trusted community leaders, they printed announcements in local newspapers, and they flooded the airwaves. However, most of Kaua’i FCU’s outreach has been word of mouth, with Dana and her team visiting grocery stores, gas stations, beaches, and small businesses. They’ve even forged a partnership with the public library system, and the CDFI has been intentional about doing community outreach in the Pacific Islander and Filipino communities. Kaua’i FCU strategically set the rental relief cap to $4,500 per month to take into account the rent increases it predicted would follow the island’s eviction moratorium. Additionally, the CDFI made the funds available to as large a swath of the population as possible, including to multifamily and multigenerational households, roommates, non-English speakers, and individuals who didn’t have formal lease agreements.  

By February 2022, Kaua’i FCU’s Rent Relief and Housing Stability program successfully spent down its contract funds. It took Dana and her team less than a year. The milestone meant that Kaua’i FCU was able to unlock another multi-million dollar tranche of remaining rental relief funding, which the CDFI has until 2025 to use. “When your teachers and nurses and doctors and restaurant workers don’t have anywhere to live, that’s an issue,” she said. “We’re in a major housing crisis, and so any capital we get literally changes lives. It stabilizes not only our economy, but our culture, and it prevents homelessness.”

‘The Freedom To Fail’

In the years to come, Dana hopes that Kaua’i FCU can help Kaua’i address its dearth of primary residences, whether that’s through building affordable housing, creating a secondary housing market, starting a first-time homeowners program, and/or developing deed restriction programs that buy back homes in order to keep them in the community to support the local workforce. Regardless of what housing solutions Kaua’i FCU and its partners push for, Dana knows that it’s going to take an unprecedented wave of capital to make it happen. She also knows that with the right partnerships, anything can happen. “I know it sounds impossible,” she said, “but if we could get a pool of $200 million, we could transform our community, build generational wealth, and everybody could win. That’s direct social impact.”

Although it’s too early to know how Kaua’i will tackle its housing shortage, for rent relief recipients like chef John Paul, they’re just happy to have made it through the last couple of years under one roof. With the money he was able to save through the rent relief program John Paul was able to take on close to $50,000 in debt to open his own restaurant, Table at Poipu. Within three months of opening, John Paul was debt free, and in his first year, John Paul projects Table at Poipu to make $1.6 million in revenue. Better yet, he’s been able to employ and provide full benefits for nearly 30 employees. In October, John Paul  purchased the restaurant where he used to work: The Bistro at Kilauea. “I now have a secure job,” John Paul said. “I have a secure place to live, and if it wasn’t for this program, me and my 30 employees wouldn’t be doing as well as we’re doing now. I can only imagine the impact that it’s had on the rest of the island.”

John Paul is back to paying $5,000 a month for his two-bedroom, one-bath rental duplex, but he’s thankful that he had 15 months of rent relief. It helped him both to get through the trials and tribulations of the COVID-19 pandemic and to make his dreams of owning his own restaurant come true. “The rent relief program gave me the freedom to fail,” he said, “and I just went for it.

Learn More:

  • Kaua’i Federal Credit Union helps the people of Kaua’i by keeping money on the island for a stronger financial future for our people. They offer their members the financial services and products that are right for them at preferable rates and at little or no cost, ensuring the wellness and wealth of future generations.
  • 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 Indian Land Capital Company Is Strengthening Tribal Sovereignty, One Loan At A Time

Rjay Brunkow, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, has dedicated his career to economic development within Indian Country. Rjay served as an investment banker for Wells Fargo, focusing on government infrastructure, before serving as Solicitor General for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and chief legal counsel for his own tribe. However, in 2015, after having negotiated two separate casino agreements and dealing with gaming legalese, he had an epiphany. “I came to the realization that I could do a lot more good for a tribe on the finance side than I ever could do as legal counsel,” Rjay said. “I started looking around for an opportunity.”

As it would turn out, Rjay’s next opportunity presented itself to him thanks to a quick internet search by his now-wife. Indian Land Capital Company (ILCC) was looking for a new CEO. The job description felt like a perfect fit, and Rjay applied; however, he had one concern: despite spending his entire life in Indian Country, he’d never once heard of ILCC or its work. To Rjay, that was an issue. During his interview with the organization’s board of directors, Rjay said that if he was hired, then the board needed to be prepared to spend a lot of money on marketing. Rjay’s honesty struck a nerve with the board, and he was offered the job.

ILCC was created in 2005 by the Indian Land Tenure Foundation (ILTF), a national, community-based nonprofit that serves American Indian nations and people in the recovery and control of their rightful homelands. ILCC is a certified Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that provides alternative loan options to Native Nations for tribal land acquisition and economic development projects. As a Native-owned and operated business, ILCC understands the unique needs of Native Nations and creates customized, flexible loan packages that suit the specific needs of the tribe and the unique circumstances of the purchase. ILCC also works with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation to provide technical assistance to tribes as they develop and execute land acquisition strategies.

Part of ILCC’s mission is to help Native nations to recover, manage, and gain jurisdiction over 90 million acres of alienated tribal land. That includes assisting Native nations in consolidating undivided interests in land with fractionated ownership, and eliminating what’s called “checkerboarding,” or mixed patterns of land ownership and jurisdictions on Indian reservations. A large portion of ILCC’s loan portfolio is with tribes located in Northern California; however, the CDFI lends nationwide, including in places like Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Incredibly, in its 18-year existence, ILCC has never had a tribe default on a loan. Despite that perfect repayment percentage, traditional lenders haven’t started deploying more loans to tribes. Instead, according to Rjay, for most of ILCC’s loans, the tribes have been turned down by the traditional banks that they’ve had decades-long relationships with, making the CDFI the only lender willing to work with them. “ILCC came about because of the lack of capital in Indian Country,” Rjay said, “and we were started to help prove to big banks that tribes were good credit and would make their payments. That hasn’t been getting through to banks, but we’re thankful for their ignorance, because ILCC is there to fill those gaps.”

Since Rjay joined ILCC in 2015, the CDFI has consistently deployed three to four loans each year. Most of those loans go to first-time borrowers, and ILCC’s deals range in size from roughly $1 million to $10.5 million, with a typical loan amount being approximately $2.5 million. According to Rjay, all but two loans in ILCC’s portfolio are land acquisition loans. That isn’t to say that the CDFI isn’t open to other economic development-related loans. With the exception of casino loans, ILCC is interested in taking on any loans that have to do with strengthening tribal communities and sovereignty and building tribal infrastructure. However, regardless of the kind of loan that ILCC deploys, they tend to be among the most momentous moments in the history of the tribe.  

More Capital, More Impact

According to Rjay, ILCC knows that it can scale its impact, and it would love to deploy more loans in Indian Country; however, the CDFI currently doesn’t have the capital necessary to do that. In fact, Rjay calls capital the CDFI’s only constraint, saying that the minute money comes in, it goes out the door to a tribe in the form of a loan. Therefore, ILCC is constantly looking to raise capital. 

Going forward, however, Rjay has ambitious goals to change the way that the CDFI raises capital, allowing ILCC to access larger amounts of money at better rates. One forthcoming strategy is to approach “big-money tribes” to back up loans to ILCC by guaranteeing the CDFI’s debt. According to Rjay, ILCC has good relationships with many regional banks across the country; however, ILCC can’t qualify for the loan amounts it wants (e.g. $50 million), because the CDFI doesn’t have the resources to put up as collateral. Big-money tribes, on the other hand, do. 

Additionally, ILTF and ILCC are already in conversations with several foundations who are interested in providing similar guarantees. Securing such backing wouldn’t just be a win for ILCC, it would also be a win for these foundations, as they would otherwise have a very difficult time connecting with and gaining the trust of tribes. “We have instant credibility with tribes because we’re Native-owned and Native-run,” said Rjay. “We understand tribes, and we understand how to honor their sovereignty. Another organization is going to have to work 100 times harder to get a tribe’s trust.”

Unsurprisingly, Rjay spends a lot of time on the road, visiting tribes, speaking with potential partners, and attending tribal land dedication ceremonies. For most of his tenure at ILCC, Rjay has actually been the CDFI’s sole employee. Earlier this year, however, ILCC hired its first half-time employee: an in-house loan portfolio manager who does loan administration. It’s an important first step in growing ILCC’s loan portfolio.

Even with the new addition to the ILCC team, Rjay’s job description hasn’t changed: underwrite debt, raise capital, and keep the board of directors happy. “I found a job that pays me to travel around the country and talk to tribal leaders about their hopes and dreams to make their community a better place for their tribal members,” Rjay said. “That’s what I get to do for a living, and it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Learn More:

  • 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.
  • Indian Land Capital Company is a Native-owned, Certified Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) providing alternative loan options to Native Nations for tribal land acquisition and economic development projects.
By Community Partners

How Comunidad Latina Federal Credit Union Is Empowering Undocumented Immigrants to Achieve Financial Stability

For many, Azul Sanchez’s story is a familiar one. According to Azul, as the daughter of undocumented immigrants, she was supposed to be another statistic: a Latina who graduates high school and starts working a warehouse job to help her parents. However, that didn’t end up being the case. 

As both a first-generation American and a first-generation college student, Azul enrolled in classes at the same time that she took her first job as a commercial bank teller. It took Azul 16 years to finish college, which she pursued in parallel to her career in the financial sector. Azul transitioned to credit unions and became a branch manager, an assistant vice president, and eventually a director of branch operations. “Being the first generation in this country, I didn’t have any guidance,” she said. “I didn’t know where to start, but I always say that banking turned my life around. I didn’t have a degree, but I had opportunities to keep moving up. I want my team to have the same opportunity I had.”

Azul Sanchez, CEO of Comunidad Latina Federal Credit Union

One of Azul’s mentors is Eric Orellana, the former CEO Comunidad Latina Federal Credit Union. When Eric retired in 2022, Azul applied for the position. Despite not having experience as a CEO, she was drawn to the position because she wanted to be able to give back to her community.

Comunidad Latina Federal Credit Union was started in 2006 with the mission to serve its community “by offering unique, empowering, affordable financial services with compassion, care, and dignity” to individuals who aren’t documented and who don’t have a social security number. Approximately 98% of Comunidad Latina’s members are undocumented; however, not all of the credit union’s members identify as Latino. To qualify for membership, individuals must live, work, worship, or attend school in the city of Santa Ana, or through an immediate family member that is a current member. They must also have a Matrícula Consular de Alta Seguridad, an identification card issued through the Mexican government to nationals residing outside of the country, and an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), which is issued by the IRS to be used on a tax return by those without a Social Security number. Currently, Comunidad Latina has approximately 1,600 members, which is approximately 10% larger than it was in 2022.

Comunidad Latina’s members face a number of challenges, including those that come with being undocumented, DACA recipients, and/or first-generation Americans. Additionally, many of the credit union’s members are either underbanked or unbanked, live paycheck to paycheck, and come from cultures where it’s taboo to discuss finances with others. More than 90% of Comunidad Latina’s members have an annual household income of less than $50,000, and in most cases, its members work two or three jobs to be able to afford their living expenses. “Many of our members don’t trust the banking system,” Azul said. “We have members who literally keep their money under their mattress.”

Team members from Comunidad Latina help a member.

Given those realities, one of the most important things that Comunidad Latina has to do with its members is build trust. The credit union does that by being intentional about whom it hires. For example, each of Comunidad Latina’s five employees, including Azul, understand the challenges of their community because they also belong to the community. Similar to Azul’s own story, two of the credit union’s employees are students. Importantly, Azul tries to instill the belief in all of her team members that if they have a desire to learn and help their community, then one day, they too can become the CEO of a credit union.

Unique Community, Unique Products

Despite Comunidad Latina’s small team and limited resources, the credit union is able to offer high-impact products to its community. One such product is its Share Secured Loans program, which the credit union adopted from, and tailored to, its community’s practices. Tandas are rotating savings and credit associations (ROSCA) popular in many countries around the world, including throughout Latin America. In short, a tanda is a way for people who know each other to collaboratively save and lend money to each other. For example, if 10 friends agree to contribute $100 each month, every member of the tanda will get to collect $1,000 at some point during those 10 months. Depending on which month a member collects their money, tandas act as a short-term, zero-interest loan, a way to plan for a big expense, or an opportunity to save money over time.

Comunidad Latina does something similar to tandas for its Share Secured Loans program: individual members save and lend money to pay-off a loan before they receive it. The reverse loan allows members to not have to worry about coming into the credit union with a deposit to use as collateral for a loan. Additionally, because these loans have an interest rate of 3.5% (compared to between 12% and 20% at big banks), this product also creates opportunities for members to build their credit as they plan for big expenses. “We created these loans, because that’s what our members understand,” Azul said. “Being able to understand our members and to provide guidance while allowing them to preserve their dignity is very important to building trust with them.”

Another way the credit union is able to support its members is by helping them to think beyond their financial wellness to other aspects of their lives. Azul has attended countless resource fairs, where she’s forged relationships with community partners. That has allowed her to build upon Comunidad Latina’s curated database of community resources that range from English courses and citizenship classes, to medical services and college enrollment assistance.

Through those same community partnerships, Comunidad Latina is frequently invited to lead financial literacy classes and workshops to youth and adults in Santa Ana, many of whom have never had a bank account. During their six-week classes, Azul and her team strive to empower participants with skills, knowledge, and awareness about their financial goals and wellness so that they can achieve financial stability. The classes cover topics like credit, savings, and budgeting, but Comunidad Latina also encourages participants to think about how their values align with their financial decisions. 

A large component of these classes involves participant-learning circles, which provide individuals a safe space to ask questions and obtain guidance on how to overcome financial challenges. Each participant is also paired with a mentor, who supports them throughout the entire six weeks. At the end of the class, participants have to present a vision board along with an outline of how they’re going to achieve their goals in order to graduate. 

According to Azul, unlike other financial institutions, the reason why Comunidad Latina leads these financial literacy classes isn’t to boost membership. “We do these classes wanting people to have financial stability and the financial freedom that they need and want,” she said. “If that means they’re going to open a membership at the credit union up the street or at a bank, that’s okay. I just want community members to be equipped with the tools that they need to be able to be successful.” 

Education is Everything

When asked about her vision for Comunidad Latina’s future, Azul shared her three goals for the credit union. First, she wants Comunidad Latina to develop its use of technology so that it can empower community members to take advantage of the digital transformation taking place in the financial services industry. By doing so, the credit union will be able to be more efficient, thus elevating its members’ experiences. Secondly, Azul wants to continue to grow and build trust within Comunidad Latina’s community through new and existing partnerships with other organizations. Lastly, Comunidad Latina’s CEO hopes to be able to one day open another branch somewhere else in Santa Ana so that the credit union can have a second location to serve more members. 

One of Azul’s favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela, who said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” To Azul, the words capture the work being done by her team at Comunidad Latina. “We’re doing everything we can to educate as many individuals as possible so they can help make this community stronger,” she said. “I ultimately believe with all my heart that that will reflect in a better world. That’s what motivates me. That’s why I work here.”

Comunidad Latina’s Team, (from left to right) Albert, Maria, Azul, Juliana, Diana, Martha.

Learn More:

  • Comunidad Latina Federal Credit Union (CLFCU) is a not-for-profit financial institution serving the community of Santa Ana, California. Their mission is to Serve their community by offering unique, empowering, affordable financial services with compassion, care and dignity.
  • 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 CNote, Quick Tips

Unleashing Corporate Power: Credit Unions and Community Deposits

This article was originally posted on CUNA Strategic Services’ Website. 

Seventy percent of credit unions named growing deposits as a high priority in 2023 – almost four times the amount that articulated the same need in 2022. One nontraditional avenue that credit unions should consider is tapping into the strong movement of corporations channeling cash into the communities where they live and work.

Corporate investments in local communities are a sustained movement, with 51% of America’s largest companies actively engaging in community investments. This comes as no surprise given the research findings that revealed that “seventy-seven percent of consumers are motivated to purchase from companies committed to making the world a better place.”

Another study highlighted: “Nearly 90% of executives believe a strong sense of collective purpose within their organization drives employee satisfaction.” Corporations are acutely aware that supporting community initiatives, particularly in under-resourced areas, is crucial for differentiating themselves from competitors, attracting and retaining top talent, and ensuring continued growth.

With the increasing number of corporations seeking to demonstrate their genuine commitment to the community and their stakeholders, credit unions have a significant opportunity to benefit. By actively supporting credit unions, corporations can demonstrate their dedication to fostering economic growth, promoting financial well-being and addressing pressing social issues at the local level.

Apple is a prime example of a corporation that is actively making a difference with its cash. They utilized CNote, a women-led technology platform, to move $25 million in deposits into credit unions across the country as part of its Racial Equity and Justice Initiative – an effort to address systemic racism in America and expand opportunities for communities of color.

Kaua’i Federal Credit Union was one of the beneficiaries of these deposits, which they leveraged to support their local community with rental relief, environmental resilience and economic diversification efforts.

“Deposits from Apple came at a pivotal time for Kaua’i Federal Credit Union,” said Monica Belz, CEO. “We were able to increase our lending capacity within the community and provide support for local businesses and rental relief efforts.”

Apple’s partnership with credit unions demonstrates how corporations can directly support local communities through deposit initiatives. By channeling funds into credit unions, corporations further empower these financial institutions to become catalysts for positive change in the areas they serve.

As credit unions continue to prioritize deposit growth, they should consider the opportunity presented by corporations moving cash into communities. The movement of corporations investing in local initiatives aligns with consumer preferences and corporate objectives. By engaging with corporations, credit unions can leverage these partnerships to increase deposits, support local economic development and showcase their pivotal role as trusted financial institutions committed to their communities.

By Borrower Stories, Community Partners

How Freedom First Credit Union Is Leveraging Creative, Character-Based Lending To Approve Community Members For Auto Loans 

When Norma Fralin needed a car in 2016, she didn’t know where to go. She’d never felt comfortable navigating dealerships and interacting with used-car salesmen, and because there were uncertainties surrounding her credit, Norma didn’t know what kind of auto loan she’d be able to get. 

Kim English, the Responsible Rides Coordinator at Freedom First Credit Union

That’s when Norma’s daughter, Catina, told her about Freedom First Credit Union’s Responsible Rides® program. Catina had used the program to get a vehicle of her own. Norma set up a time to speak with Kim English, the Responsible Rides® coordinator, and within a week, Norma had a car. “It was awesome to work with Kim,” she said. “She really made me feel comfortable.”

Since 1956, Freedom First Credit Union has been serving communities throughout Southwest and Central Virginia through local investments, lower rates on loans, higher rates on deposits, and innovative banking services that support members working to build their financial independence. Freedom First is also a CNote Impact Cash® Partner. CNote deploys Impact Cash® dollars to mission-driven and FDIC- and NCUA-insured partners like Freedom First, generating returns on institutional investors’ cash allocations while supporting financially underserved communities across the country.

A cornerstone of Freedom First’s work is its award-winning Responsible Rides® auto purchase program, which Kim has coordinated since September of 2015. The program is geared toward low- to moderate-income earners who need their own car but struggle to afford a traditional car loan due to credit challenges. Responsible Rides®, however, doesn’t just hand out car keys. Instead, applicants must meet specific guidelines, including having a valid driver’s license, the ability to have full-coverage auto insurance, and proof of employment that goes back at least 90 days. Applicants also can’t have more than $1,500 in unpaid collections, judgments, or charge-offs. Additionally, in order to qualify for Responsible Rides®, individuals must meet with a financial counselor and complete courses on finances and budgeting, as well as car maintenance and care. 

One thing that Kim regularly sees at Responsible Rides® is people who come in with zero credit. In those situations, Kim is able to look at alternative pay history, such as utility bills, insurance payments, rent payments, or even court funds, as a proxy for credit. Also, when Kim submits a loan application to Freedom First’s underwriters, the applicant gets to write about how having a car will change their life. By being creative and considering someone’s character and personal story alongside the above-mentioned criteria, Kim is able to get more individuals approved for auto loans. Those loans cap out at 18%, which is significantly lower than predatory lenders’ rates. However, once an individual’s credit begins to improve, Freedom First is able to refinance their auto loan to lower their monthly payment. 

Kim estimates that approximately 80% of the individuals she works with through Responsible Rides® are single mothers. Kim also works with a lot of young people who are getting their first jobs, but who don’t have transportation, and she works with older, fixed-income individuals who struggle to get themselves to doctor’s appointments and the grocery store. She recalled one story about a client whom she recently assisted. “We met at the dealership and she got in her car,” Kim said, “and the woman said ‘I don’t have to get on the bus now. I can work different hours at my job. I don’t have to be afraid that I’m gonna get off late and miss the bus.’ There are just so many stories like that within this program.”

Unsurprisingly, Kim finds her work with Responsible Rides® extremely rewarding—but she isn’t the only one who feels that way. Local used-car dealers also enjoy participating in the program. An important aspect of Responsible Rides® is that individuals have the option to pick their own car, including test driving it and getting it checked by a certified mechanic. Therefore, Kim does everything she can—including doing a fair bit of research—to ensure that Responsible Rides®’ clients have positive experiences getting their cars from dealerships. 

Over the years, Kim has curated two lists of dealerships: one is a do-not-use list of predatory and poor-quality dealers, and the other is a list of hand-picked, small, often mom-and-pop dealerships who are willing to roll out the red carpet for Responsible Rides®’ recipients. Local dealers have been willing to add extended warranties, waive processing fees, and cut selling prices by as much as $1,500 to get people in their cars. “The dealers I have are amazing,” said Kim. “They love this program and they want to stay on my list, because they know these people need to get into vehicles, but they also know that if they treat these people right, once their credit gets better, they’re gonna come back and tell their friends. It’s all about relationships.”

Relationships are one way that Kim has been able to originate 523 loans totaling $5.9 million since she began coordinating Responsible Rides eight years ago. Kim works closely with a network of local nonprofit partners, including Total Action for Progress (TAP), New River Community Action, and Solutions That Empower People (STEP, Inc.) to engage community members. Kim also relies on internal referrals from Freedom First’s team of financial counselors, and many people contact her thanks to previous clients’ word-of-mouth.

That was the case for the Fralin family. For them, Freedom First Credit Union’s auto-loan program has become a family affair: word-of-mouth has led four family members spanning three generations to participate in Responsible Rides®. After Catina referred Norma to the program, Norma in turn told her daughter, Tonya, and grandson, Isiah. Isiah connected with Kim last December, when he got his car. Since then, he’s been working with Freedom First financial counselors to build his credit, budget his money better, and save for a future home.

Tonya, too, has benefited from the credit union’s Responsible Rides® program. When she met with Kim in 2019, she needed to build her credit. Kim helped to get her a car, and Tonya opened a Freedom First account and completed her financial counseling coursework. Within five years, Tonya was able to build up her credit so much so that she and her husband were able to purchase their first home in 2022. “Just talking with Kim really helped me out a lot,” Tonya said. “I like the fact that Freedom First keeps in touch with you, not only with your car and your credit; they keep in touch with you to see how things are going as far as your finances and life. It’s not just about a car or getting a loan: it’s about helping you to achieve your goals.” 

Learn More:

  • Freedom First Credit Union is a member-owned, federally insured community financial institution headquartered in Roanoke, VA since its founding in 1956.
  • Responsible Rides® is a Freedom First Credit Union program geared toward low- to moderate-income earners who need their own car but struggle to afford a traditional car loan due to credit challenges.
  • 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

How Jayme Murray is Creating Food Sovereignty for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

Long before the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation was established in South Dakota in 1889, the people of the Lakota Nation sustained themselves off of the land, with the buffalo, or American bison, as its primary source of food. Over a century later, tribal ties to the sacred animal still run strong. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and its retail operation, the Cheyenne River Buffalo Company, are creating new opportunities for economic development, expansion, and sustainability for the Native American community.

At the helm of the Cheyenne River Buffalo Company is Jayme Murray, a sixth generation rancher on Cheyenne River, who grew up on a cow-calf ranch in the area before attending South Dakota State University and working at the Bureau of Indian Affairs for almost 20 years. During his tenure with the organization, he held several roles, ranging from managing all the trust lands on the reservation to serving as the Fiduciary Trust Officer for the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians.

In 2019, The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe approached Jayme with an offer to take over the management of their buffalo corporation, a business corporation which operates independently of, but is owned by, the tribe. For Jayme it was a perfect opportunity to bring his expertise to an organization near and dear to his heart. 

The Cheyenne River Buffalo Company already owned a herd of 450 bison when Jayme came on, but he was quickly tasked with growing the organization and their profits. The company had a vision of being better able to grow, process, and market their products under their own label on the retail side. But there was more to this vision of growth than just finances; the Cheyenne River is one of the most economically distressed areas in the United States, where unemployment rates run as high as 80%. As a non-gaming tribe, The Cheyenne River Sioux had to seek out other avenues to develop economically. 

“We have had to lean on what we do have,” said Jayme. “We have agriculture, and we have buffalo, and we have beef that’s some of the best in the world. And if we’re going to stimulate economic growth here at home, it needs to be through what we’re able to do better than anyone.” 

In July of 2019, a golden opportunity presented itself which Jayme knew they couldn’t pass up: a local slaughter facility and associated real estate property went on sale on the border town of the reservation. Jayme knew that purchasing it would allow his team to increase the size of the herd and scale production to meet demand from local restaurants and butchers. 

The CDFI Difference 

Jayme and his colleagues faced a significant hurdle to purchase the facility and surrounding land—financing. 

To begin, the Cheyenne River Buffalo Company explored some traditional lenders. Jayme put together a pitch and a business plan, which, according to him, the lending teams did not even look at. “It was an issue of collateral,” Jayme explained. “This was a new venture for us. While we had profit and loss statements and tax returns, we were still essentially trying to borrow based on projections.” 

Jayme reached out to Cris Stainbrook, President of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation, who he had worked with on several occasions. He provided the company’s business proposal and plan, and the Foundation immediately stepped in to help. First, they provided Jayme’s team with an attorney, who had experience working on similar projects. “That was very helpful for us because we were already having to put up quite a bit of capital of our own to make this all happen,” said Jayme. “That provided an opportunity to save a little bit and make sure everything from the due diligence to the purchase agreement documents were done properly.” 

The Foundation also put Jayme in touch with the Indian Land Capital Company (ILCC), a Native-owned CDFI they had created in 2005 to provide alternative loan options to Native Nations for tribal land acquisition and economic development projects. CNote partners with CDFIs like The Indian Land Capital Company across the country through its customized impact investment offerings that allow corporations to invest in a portfolio of CDFI loan funds selected to meet their impact-aligned goals and to improve their performance on thematic ESG measures.

Jayme could instantly tell the difference between the traditional lenders he had attempted to work with in the past and ILCC. “Their approach as a CDFI really made a difference. They looked outside the lines a little more than conventional lenders and were able to work through a few kinks to support the Cheyenne River Buffalo Company.” 

Despite slowdowns due to COVID, the Cheyenne River Buffalo Company was able to close on the property and facility on February 1st of 2021, with $3M in financing from ILCC. As an added bonus, Jayme was able to retain all of the original equipment, inventory, and employees from the slaughter facility. “The facility closed down on Friday and then opened on Monday morning with us as the owners. If you didn’t know that we had bought it, you wouldn’t have even noticed the difference.” 

Local Impact with International Interest 

Despite the incredible effort it took to purchase the new land and facility, there was no time for Jayme and his team to rest. Initially, the Cheyenne River Buffalo Company was a direct to consumer business, whose biggest clients were local Native American restaurants and butchers. With time, however, Jayme had seen skyrocketing demand from domestic organizations as large as the Department of Defense and internationally from companies in the Middle East and Singapore. To keep up with this heightened demand, the company ballooned to owning over 1100 bison and now is getting ready to launch an online sales portal to enable consumers to more easily purchase their products from anywhere. 

Jayme’s motivation still ran deeper than just the growth of the company. COVID had exposed the volatility of food supplies, and what had started as a financial venture for the company had turned into a personal mission of food sovereignty. His goal is not only to become the premier buffalo meat company in the world, but also to put those products on local shelves to be made available for everyone in The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. 

“At the end of the day our goal would truly be to make our buffalo and locally sourced beef products available to all of our people. If we could do that, that would be a success. We have visions of being the premier meat company in the world, and we have the story; I mean, this animal is closer to us than to anyone else. I think there’s room for us to continue to grow and continue to be a resource to other tribes. It feels like the potential for growth just keeps reaching further and further.” 

Learn More:

  • The Indian Land Capital Company is a Native-owned, Certified Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) providing alternative loan options to Native Nations for tribal land acquisition and economic development projects.
  • 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

Meet NorthPark Community Credit Union, The Country’s First And Only Fully Virtual Credit Union

How does an infant with hearing loss, an ill anesthesiologist, and a Chapter 13 bankruptcy lead to the first fully virtual credit union in the United States? It starts with Carma Parrish and her son, Logan. 

Logan was born with a fifty-percent hearing loss. The School for the Deaf in Indianapolis recommended surgery to help him regain full hearing, and in 2011, Logan received this life-changing surgery. Everything went great—until a $30,000 medical bill showed up.

Carma Parrish, CEO of NorthPark Community Credit Union. Photo Credit: NorthPark Community Credit Union

Despite obtaining approval from the insurance company before the operation, the company billed the Parrish’s, citing the surgery was completed out of network. When Carma pushed back, she learned that the in-network anesthesiologist had called in sick on the day of her son’s surgery. The surgeon called in a favor from an out-of-network anesthesiologist for Logan’s procedure. No matter who she spoke with at the insurance company or the hospital, she received the same answer: “You owe $30,000.”

Carma called her senator, her congresswoman, and even the attorney general’s office where she filed an official complaint. Despite this, the hospital administration sent the sheriff to the Parrishs’ employers to garnish their wages. At the time, Carma was a vice president at a small local credit union—with an equally small paycheck. While the family was financially responsible, the budget was tight. They did not have $30,000, and now without paychecks, the mortgage, utilities and groceries became daunting hurdles.

Carma and her husband saw no option but to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy to save their home and regain their paychecks. However, to be eligible for bankruptcy, they actually had to take on more debt—a car loan. The couple hid their bankruptcy from family and their employers not just out of shame but because of the fear that she would be fired.

Per Chapter 13 rules, for the next five years, Carma and her husband were not allowed to take out any new debt, could not amass savings, nor could they receive a tax return—a nearly impossible feat to survive. Statistics indicate only 1% of people who file Chapter 13 bankruptcy make it out—the other 99% turn it into a Chapter 7 filing. If this happened to the Parrish’s, they would lose their home. “That we survived shows it wasn’t an issue of fiscal responsibility: we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The All-of-a-Sudden CEO, and the Failing Credit Union

Carma’s right place/right time came in 2015. Her employer was grooming her to take over as CEO of the credit union ten minutes from her house. Carma was tasked with traveling around to credit unions near and far, learning about software, and choosing one to implement for a core conversion update for her institution. 

This endeavor led Carma to NorthPark Community Credit Union, where she was offered the position of vice president of marketing on the spot. Carma took the job.

Photo Credit: NorthPark Community Credit Union

Within two months, the entire senior leadership team was gone, and Carma became NorthPark Community Credit Union’s CEO overnight. Her first meeting was with the credit union’s accountant. The news was bleak: the electricity bill was past due, the power was set to be turned off, there wasn’t enough liquidity to make payroll, and a budget had to be ready for her first board meeting that evening. 

Carma had a decision to make: Find a new job or try to save NorthPark. Ultimately, it wasn’t a difficult choice when she met the staff and learned of the families depending on their employment—Carma stayed. “It was the most bizarre thing and made no professional sense, but I felt led there.”

In 2018, a year after the Parrish’s’ Chapter 13 requirements were finally complete, Carma crashed her car. “I couldn’t get a car loan to save my life,” Carma says, despite having A+ credit and a well-paying job.

Frustrated, Carma turned to Cindy Duke, the CEO at Natco Credit Union, known for offering lending options to people after a bankruptcy. Cindy didn’t disappoint, but there was a catch: “Cindy said ‘I will do this loan for you on one condition: You have to adopt this lending strategy at NorthPark.’”

Challenge accepted. Carma’s personal journey is how NorthPark Community Credit Union came to serve the underserved.

Photo Credit: NorthPark Community Credit Union

Strategically Thinking Outside the Box

NorthPark began serving individuals with what Carma refers to as “colorful credit,” including those who’ve had significant life events—medical emergencies, unexpected layoffs, divorces, loss of loved ones—that have negatively affected their ability to pay and consequently, their lendability. The transformation included partnering with CNote through its Impact Cash® Solution, which channels dollars from socially-minded investors to mission-driven and FDIC- and NCUA-insured CDFI partners, like NorthPark.

“We want to help people get back on their feet again,” Carma says. “We do not give handouts; we give hand-ups. We are not a charity; we are not for profit. If you invest in us and do the work, then we’ll take a chance and invest in you.”

Under Carma’s leadership, NorthPark has taken strategic steps to recreate itself, decreasing its portfolio of 80% participation loans by 30% as they switched to only organic loans while simultaneously doubling its average loan yield from 4% to 8%. Even though a high-yielding loan portfolio means higher charge-off ratios, the net loan yield still comes higher than most credit unions gross loan yield. 

Lending to those often considered unbankable, NorthPark has achieved a net yield of over 6%, including fee income. Compare that to other socially minded credit unions, which have a median yield of 3.75%. 

Photo Credit: NorthPark Community Credit Union

“You can’t just say we need to have a big heart and do this,” Carma says, “because that’s not going to work. If you look at the mathematics of this philosophy, it works. It’s not just good for the heart. It’s good for the balance sheet. It’s good for the income statement. This is what credit unions were built for.”

Passionate for the financial health of the community, Carma believes credit unions have become far too reliant on automated decisioning, which often selects against people with credit scores less than 640. Such practices tend to leave BIPOC borrowers—and people like the Parrish family simply in the wrong place at the wrong time—on the sidelines.

“How can you say you’re serving your community when you rely on auto-approvals?” Carma believes these people will turn to another lender who doesn’t meet their needs or who charges them predatory rates. “Even worse, they’ll go to a payday loan company. This is what we tell them are their options when we depend so heavily on automated decisioning.”

Motivated To Make Change

During the credit union’s makeover, Carma, her team, and her board decided to transition NorthPark Community Credit Union into the country’s first and only fully virtual credit union. Many of her staff stood behind the teller line, waiting to cash checks when Carma needed them to serve their community and perform more income-generating activities. By going virtual, NorthPark could also minimize its operating expenses to improve its owners’ capital for the greatest return.

Carma surveyed her staff to see what they wanted to do at the virtual credit union—she wanted to know what their dream jobs entailed. As NorthPark began educating members to prepare to switch to virtual transactions, Carma provided professional development opportunities for her team members to move up and develop within the virtual credit union, assuring them, “If you invest in NorthPark, we’ll invest in you.”

Photo Credit: NorthPark Community Credit Union

Things began looking up for NorthPark and Carma. The credit union readied itself to go fully virtual, with the first branch closing and the second one to be announced to the Board when COVID hit that same month. Overnight, NorthPark went 100% virtual and closed the remaining two branches. The credit union remains 100% virtual today for both its members and staff. 

Carma tracks NorthPark’s results to ensure the credit union continues to strengthen. The strategy seems to be working. NorthPark has attracted a broader pool of employees and members, and Carma can recruit top performers without the constraints of geography. Over 30% of Carma’s team lives outside Indiana, representing seven states and Puerto Rico. Nearly 30% of her team is dedicated to full-time community initiatives—and that number continues to grow.

“We say that we never sought to be a virtual credit union,” Carma said. “We sought to be a community credit union, and virtual just enabled it.”

As NorthPark continues to succeed, Carma continues to find motivation in her son—a strapping 6’4”, 16-year-old lineman—and in their shared story. In 2013, Indiana’s legislature passed ‘Logan’s Law,’ written to make sure insurance companies and hospitals cannot do to others what they did to the Parrish’s. An advocate for medical transparency and healthcare reform, Carma has testified in front of lawmakers about the interrelatedness of physical and financial wellness. 

Photo Credit: NorthPark Community Credit Union

Today, Carma challenges other credit unions to rethink their models and to train the next generation of CEOs to return to what credit unions were built for. Armed with NorthPark’s success stats, she explains that by taking on slightly more risk, these institutions can do so much more for their communities and their profits.

“It’s always a good reminder to not just accept things for what they are and to meet people where they are,” Carma said. “When we give people hope and opportunity, we make a difference in their lives, and that’s really what motivates me to seek change.”

Learn More:

  • NorthPark Community Credit Union serves Central Indiana and is the one and only fully virtual credit union in the United States.
  • 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 CNote, Quick Tips

Balancing Profitability with Purpose

This article, authored by CNote’s, Director of Deposits, Strategy, and Operations, Jessica Jacobson, was originally posted on CUNA’s Website

Collaboration enables expanded commitment to the community

Credit unions have always been dedicated to serving local communities, providing not only responsible, responsive, and reliable financial products and services but also addressing community needs through impactful community service.

However, bringing awareness of this transformative work to the wider community can be a challenge. Credit unions often have limited resources for promotion and outreach, which often leads to their remarkable community work going unnoticed.

Sharing the impact of their community service differentiates credit unions from their competitors and can attract new sources of sticky deposits from corporate impact investors, spark new member growth, and attract new employees.

Education Credit Union (ECU) in Amarillo, Texas, demonstrates the benefits of sharing their impactful work. ECU has been serving the Texas Panhandle since 1935, and offers the local community innovative products and services like “New Teacher Loans” for recently hired educators who have yet to receive their first paycheck.

Because it can take upwards of six weeks to receive that first paycheck, the credit union wanted to provide new teachers with a non-credit score-based product to meet those employees’ financial needs.

Additionally, more than 98% of ECU employees donate a portion of their paychecks to help fund Pocket Change Grants, a program that provides funding for classroom projects. Since launching the program in 2009, ECU has donated more than $758,000 to school districts across the Texas Panhandle.

ECU goes beyond creating these impactful programs; they actively strive to share their impact both within their organization and beyond.

Internally, the credit union keeps employees informed about the positive outcomes of their community efforts. Staff receive regular reports highlighting how the credit union supports community initiatives.

This transparent communication fosters a sense of pride and engagement among the staff, reinforcing their dedication to making a difference in the community.

Externally, ECU has partnered with organizations like CNote to amplify its community impact. By showcasing the innovative work it does to corporate impact investors, the credit union has successfully attracted deposits from industry leader Apple.

This collaboration has empowered ECU to expand its support for the community, solidifying its commitment to making a lasting impact.

In a world looking for good news, embracing the challenge of sharing their work becomes an opportunity for credit unions. Bringing the story of what they do to make a difference in their community helps credit unions stand out among competitors, attract new sources of deposits, drive member growth, and entice new employees eager to join a mission-driven employer.

By sharing more widely what staff already do daily, credit unions can not only achieve recognition for the important work they’re doing, they can attract resources that make an even greater difference.

By Borrower Stories

Meet David Akinniyi, the Baltimore Developer who’s Transforming his Adopted City with Each New Building

Once down on its luck, Baltimore, Maryland is now on a rebound. One entrepreneur helping to make the city a better place to live is David Akinniyi, founder and owner of the Akinniyi Group, a real estate development and leasing company. His goal is to enhance the lives of Baltimore residents by creating luxury communities designed to foster personal growth, wellness, and inclusion. 

David Akinniyi, Founder and Owner of the Akinniyi Group

Akinniyi began the business in 2020, providing apartments where upwardly mobile residents can become the best versions of themselves. “I want the people that live in these communities to have a good space to study, to learn, to be whatever they’re trying to achieve. I want them to have a functional space that allows for that.” 

With that in mind, the units feature balconies and outdoor space, so tenants can enjoy sunlight and exterior access. There’s even space for gardens and plants. Akinniyi also wants the buildings to be inclusive, places where everyone is welcome, regardless of their economic, ethnic, or racial background. In addition, the apartments are affordable, not high-priced units that push residents out of their own neighborhoods. 

Akinniyi started investing in Baltimore real estate in 2018, buying a single-family home to rent in the Pigtown neighborhood. It’s the same place where he’s opening his new five-unit apartment building. He’s purchased several other properties in the same location over the past few years. 

A software coder, Akinniyi grew up in Dallas, the child of Nigerian immigrants. After attending Boston University and earning an MBA, he joined a consulting firm. Akinniyi played football in college and even had a short stint in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings. Many of his college football teammates came from the Baltimore area and Akinniyi was drawn to the city. He saw the area’s potential, a community where an aspiring entrepreneur might make a difference. Akinniyi has long had an interest in real estate and Baltimore was a place where a new developer like himself could get involved.

“I’ve always been interested in housing. I felt like real estate was a good place to be and that in Baltimore I could purchase something and make something happen here,” Akinniyi said. 

Akinniyi bought a parcel of land where he planned a multi-family apartment building. While he’d purchased prebuilt properties before, constructing a new build was a novel and more challenging experience. He needed zoning approvals, permits and other upfront paperwork that made the process more complicated. On top of that, he started in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when labor and materials were in short supply. 

Akinniyi contacted Baltimore Development Corporation in search of help, and they connected him with Baltimore Community Lending. 

Baltimore Community Lending is a mission-based, certified CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution) whose loans help low-income, low-wealth, and other disadvantaged communities join the mainstream economy. CNote partners with CDFIs such as Baltimore Community Lending in communities throughout the United States, financing small businesses, providing technical assistance, and empowering local entrepreneurs like David Akinniyi. 

The local CDFI greatly sped up the process, helping him with better interest rates than regular lenders, and providing him with the mentorship he needed to make sure there was no overlooked detail. 

“I would work with Baltimore Community Lending as much as I can. I’m protected from a lot of things. Even the way they set up their draw schedules and payments and everything with the builder. It ensures that you’re protected and the building’s going to get built on time and on budget. So, their system is very helpful to anybody that’s new to trying to build anything. They protect you as an entrepreneur, somebody taking a risk,” Akinniyi pointed out. 

Thanks to Baltimore Community Lending’s diligent work and partnership, David completed construction on the building and hopes to welcome tenants this summer. The real estate investor has big plans for his properties and the larger area. However, this multi-family building is just the start. 

Within the next one or two years he’d like to buy a parcel of about an acre and build in phases in a residential community of some 50-75 units. The place will feature amenities including a gym, a business center, and a recreational center. Five years from now, David Akinniyi believes this new community will help transform the neighborhood and the larger city in a much more positive and uplifting way. 

Akinniyi hopes his new apartment building and the larger residential community he’s planning, will provide a home for residents who want a decent place to live and thrive. Unlike unscrupulous out-of-town real estate opportunists hoping to make a quick buck, he’s staying in Baltimore and making his investments part of the solution instead of part of the problem. 

“I just really want people to have a good place to live. It’s not just for money. It’s more to enhance the city. And for other investors out there, if you truly go at it with that approach, that will not only help you, but it will help everyone in the city, so you’ll increase the beauty for everyone. So, I think it’s a better approach than a lot of people that you see just trying to make money and that’s the only mission.” 

Learn More: 

  • Baltimore Community Lending supports the revitalization and strengthening of underserved communities throughout the Baltimore metro area through innovative and flexible financial assistance designed to promote community development.
  • 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 Flywheel Development, The Company Striving To Create Sustainable Communities In Washington D.C.

Jessica Pitts and John Miller founded their company, Flywheel Development, in 2014 to implement sustainability concepts and renewable energy in and around Washington, D.C. With backgrounds in policy, planning, and energy services, it was clear to both Jessica and John that industry leaders have a big impact on progress towards achieving sustainability goals on a regional basis. 

John Miller and Jessica Pitts, founders of Flywheel Development (Photo credit: Flywheel Development)

In the U.S., commercial and residential buildings account for 40% of energy consumed, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions, making them a prime target for those interested in combating climate change, and in urban environments, such as Washington, D.C., the share of energy usage and GHG emissions produced by buildings can be significantly higher. This creates a meaningful opportunity to transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at scale. While policy making efforts that help cities become more sustainable and reduce their energy use often take years to fully implement, companies such as Flywheel Development are at the leading edge of these efforts.  

“Policy follows what’s possible in industry,” Jessica said. “You need industry leaders out there creating change and demonstrating that it’s possible to build buildings and create urban environments that are more sustainable than the status quo.” With this philosophy, Jessica and John focused on solutions to climate change that can be replicated in communities across the country. 

Building Something Sustainable

Flywheel Development’s first project was a set of net-zero Passive House sustainable townhouses in Mount Rainier, Maryland, right across the line from D.C. The project was a resounding success, and the building program included innovations such as the region’s first combined solar-green roof installation. With this momentum, Jessica and John expanded Flywheel Development’s business to include green infrastructure projects. 

In 2017, Jessica and John  started with three solar projects, and that effort quickly grew to completing  approximately 10 commercial solar projects a year. To date, Flywheel Development has built over 49 solar projects in the District of Columbia and nearby Maryland. Many of the projects are part of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment’s Solar for All program, which aims to bring the benefits of solar energy to 100,000 low- to moderate-income families throughout the District of Columbia. As a long-term partner with the program, Flywheel Development’s solar projects, such as those located in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8, provide clean energy to those that need it most. And by opting into the program, Solar for All participants – including residents of single-family homes, multi-family buildings and rental units – can expect to see a 50 percent savings on their electricity bills for 15 years. 

“Because we’re able to meet with folks and learn and understand what a community’s needs are, we can create great outcomes, not only for our company, but for our partner communities,” John explained. “We want to partner with communities to share in the benefits of the green economy and leave them meaningfully better than we found them.”

More recently, the company has added stormwater projects — such as rain gardens — to its green infrastructure repertoire. These projects are largely part of a program in the District that aims to detain stormwater in critical watersheds to help restore the area’s rivers and streams. According to John, adding stormwater management infrastructure to Flywheel’s offerings was a natural step in the company’s evolution. That’s because, at its core, Flywheel is focused on reinvesting in urban neighborhoods by taking on responsive projects that are informed by partnerships that co-create value together with communities.

(Photo credit: Flywheel Development)

Working Together

It was through a mutual industry contact  that Jessica met Bill Greenleaf, the solar energy and commercial real estate loan officer at Virginia Community Capital (VCC). VCC was established by a group of bipartisan state legislators in 2006 to attract social investors to create jobs, enhance the quality of life, and promote vibrant communities in historically underserved areas. Interestingly, VCC is structured both as a for-profit bank and as a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). CNote deploys Impact CashTM dollars in mission-driven and FDIC- and NCUA-insured CDFI partners like VCC, generating returns on institutional investors’ cash allocations while supporting financially underserved communities across the country. 

According to Jessica, once she and Bill got to talking about Flywheel Development’s involvement in the Solar for All program, the two discovered that they had a lot in common. Clean energy is one of VCC’s four lending areas (not to mention one of Bill’s passions), and VCC has done solar lending across Virginia, the District of Columbia, and as far away as New York. “Bill was on board immediately in terms of the work that we’re doing,” said Jessica. “VCC’s mission-driven nature and focus on community investing is evident in how they work with people.”

(Photo credit: Flywheel Development)

In fall 2021, Flywheel Development received its first loan from VCC for a portfolio of Solar for All projects. This financing included both a five-year loan from VCC and a 12-year loan from DC Green Bank. The relationship didn’t end there. Both Flywheel Development and VCC enjoyed working together so much that a year later, the two closed financing on Flywheel’s Solar for All 2022 portfolio of projects – getting them off the ground and onto the grid. Additionally, over the course of the past year, VCC has helped to connect Flywheel Development with other customers that the CDFI works with, helping to establish new relationships in the community. 

For co-founders Jessica and John at Flywheel Development, it’s these kinds of mission-aligned partnerships that keep them pushing toward a more sustainable future. “We can’t do this work alone,” said Jessica. “You can do more when you partner with people, have a larger vision, and put a team together to do it. We understand the importance of those relationships, and so does VCC. We couldn’t do this important work without them.”

Learn More: 

  • Flywheel Development is a leading sustainable development company. They are active in real estate, solar development, and stormwater management infrastructure
  • Virginia Community Capital is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) with a mission to create jobs, energize places, and promote an enhanced quality of life for Virginians.
  • 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

How Riff Raff Brewing Company Remains Down-to-Earth As Its Earth-Powered Beer Takes Off

Like most homebrewers, when Jason Cox began making his own beer in 2005, he daydreamed about one day becoming a professional brewer. Despite aspiring to make the leap from hobby brewer to full-time brewer, Jason wasn’t quite ready. At the time, he operated his own software company, but in his free time, he continued to pour himself into his hoppy side hustle, brewing beer for his friends and fellow homebrewers.

Come April 2012, however, Jason had grown bored with his full-time job, and he and his wife, Shelly, began to talk about their next professional moves — including Jason potentially starting his own brewery. The couple visited one of Jason’s old brewing buddies in Fort Collins, Colorado, who owned and operated his own brewery. Jason and Shelly toured the operation, and their time in Fort Collins left them feeling confident that they had what it took to run their own small business. Two days later, the couple met with some of Jason’s homebrewing friends back in Pagosa Springs, in Southern Colorado, and together, they decided to open a brewery by Memorial Day 2013.

At the time, Jason and Shelly didn’t have a name for their brewery, let alone financing or a location. However, the two were able to bring their “pipe dream” to fruition and to meet their target opening date. Riff Raff Brewing Company opened in Pagosa Springs on Memorial Day 2013 with 45 employees. “That’s the only deadline I’ve ever met in my life,” Jason said, laughing. “Somehow it all came together.”

Riff Raff Brewing Company is housed in a historic 1896 Victorian that Jason and Shelly selected out of a list of 19 potential properties because the building has access to geothermal energy. The couple wanted to place sustainability at the center of their small business, and natural heat-exchange systems like geothermal are a cost-effective way of slashing fossil fuel consumption. In short, Riff Raff Brewing uses subterranean water pumped from Pagosa Springs’ famous hot springs and uses that geothermal energy to heat the water in its brew house, its kitchen, and its snowmelt system. Riff Raff Brewing’s reliance on geothermal energy is why Jason and Shelly were able to trademark the brewery’s tagline: Earth-powered beer. In fact, Riff Raff was the second brewery in the United States to use geothermal energy, and according to Shelly, the brewery’s “beautifully engineered system” has attracted a number of scientists who’ve visited town simply to tour the facilities.

Jason’s quick to admit that it’s no mystery why Riff Raff Brewing has been able to establish itself as a successful business in Pagosa Springs: it’s because of his wife. From the very beginning, Shelly, a self-identifying “gin and tonic and vodka girl,” was willing to lend her retail, marketing, and business acumen to get the operation off the ground. She’s since stepped in as the brewing company’s COO, and she’s played a key role in launching the business, hiring employees, and growing the brewery. “I have no skill,” he said, “but I have a great wife and partner. That’s how this works.”

Working with the ‘Cheers’ of Banks

In addition to being lucky to have a great wife and partner to start Riff Raff Brewing Company, Jason feels equally grateful to have a wonderful partnership with First Southwest Bank. First Southwest Bank is a Community Development Financial Institution-designated (CDFI) bank that has served the San Luis Valley for more than 100 years. First Southwest Bank is a CNote Impact CashTM  Partner. CNote deploys Impact CashTM dollars in mission-driven and FDIC- and NCUA-insured  partners like First Southwest Bank, generating returns on institutional investors’ cash allocations while supporting financially underserved communities across the country. 

When Jason and Shelly were working to open their brewery, there were seven banks in Pagosa Springs, and according to Jason, First Southwest Bank was the only one who was willing to work with them. The couple met with Sherry Waner, who they continue to work with today. “Sherry literally came to our house to help us with Excel spreadsheets and financial statements,” Jason said. “She was willing to form a personal relationship with us, and that just made all of the difference.”

Although Jason and Shelly got private financing to acquire Riff Raff’s building, First Southwest Bank helped the couple to get a loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA) and it provided them with the operational capital needed to open Riff Raff Brewing Company. Over the past 10 years, First Southwest Bank has provided Jason and Shelly with three separate lines of financing, including a deal in 2018 with First Southwest Community Fund, which is targeted at creating new jobs in rural communities. 

Additionally, over the years, First Southwest Bank has provided Shelly and Jason technical assistance that has helped the brewery to grow into a million-dollar small business in less than a decade. “First Southwest Bank has really held our hand over the years,” said Jason. “Whereas many banks wouldn’t even talk to us, First Southwest provides that extra level of service, and it continues to help us in a way that leaves us feeling empowered.”

Hoppy About The Present, Buzzed About The Future

Around the same time that Shelly and Jason purchased Riff Raff’s iconic Victorian, they also bought a river-front commercial property. Although they didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do with the space at the time, the location — not to mention the price — was too good to pass up. Five years into Riff Raff’s existence, and as the brewery was outgrowing its production space, the couple decided to open Riff Raff on the Rio. The front of the building houses a brewery, and in the back of the building is the only restaurant patio in Pagosa Springs that’s directly on the river. Despite their close half-mile proximity to each other, both locations have been booming ever since.

Going forward, Jason and Shelly have considered expanding Riff Raff Brewing into Northern New Mexico and potentially Lubbock, Texas, where the two went to school at Texas Tech; however, in the short term, the couple is more interested in doing what they need to do to transition the brewery into an employee-owned business. Currently, between its two restaurants and its brew house, Riff Raff’s staff ranges from 62 to 85, depending on the season. For example, when Pagosa Springs population swells from roughly 13,000 residents to more than 50,000 during the summer months, Jason and Shelly rely on a larger pool of part-time employees to serve their customers. “I’m not gonna lie,” said Shelly, “I enjoy having our two locations. We’ll pursue opportunities that come to us naturally and that feel like the right fit for Riff Raff, but we’re being smart with our growth.”

“Vision wise,” added Jason, “we’re at a point where things are at a good spot. If we need more capital, First Southwest would definitely be our first choice, but we’re at such a stable point as a business. We’re not here to make a bunch of money, and we’re not here to be the best brewery. We’re here because we want people to come in, and we want everyone to feel welcome.”

Learn More: 

  • Founded in 2013, Riff Raff Brewing Company operates in downtown Pagosa Springs, CO in an 1896 Victorian style house – one of the oldest buildings in Pagosa.  Not only does RRBC brew all six of our yummy Flagship beers and five different seasonal taps that rotate constantly to keep things fresh and inventive, but we also feature eclectic and unique twists on burgers, nachos, and salads, including goat, lamb, and yak burgers
  • First Southwest Bank is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) bank that works to improve Colorado’s social and economic landscape while putting community at the core.
  • 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 DREAM, Where Students Are Family, Families Are Community, And Community Is Front-And-Center 

Harlem RBI was founded in 1991, when a group of volunteers transformed an abandoned, garbage-strewn lot into two baseball diamonds for the youth of East Harlem. Over the years, the organization began to address the greater needs of its community, including low literacy and high school graduation rates, through its summer and afterschool enrichment programs. As graduation rates improved and college acceptance rates increased, the nonprofit decided that it needed to expand its work from out-of-school programming: it decided to launch a charter school.

DREAM Charter School was founded in 2008, and in 2015, the organization cut the ribbon at its founding school location: 1991 Second Avenue. It was the first public school building constructed in East Harlem in nearly 50 years. In 2017, a year after DREAM Charter School graduated its first eighth-grade class, Harlem RBI and DREAM Charter School combined and rebranded themselves under one banner: DREAM. Today, more than 30 years after it was created on that abandoned lot in East Harlem, DREAM is a network of public charter schools and community youth development programs striving to level the playing field for all children and to help them become lifelong learners 

James DiCosmo, the Managing Director of Finance and Administration at DREAM, describes his colleagues as selfless, hardworking, and high-performing, and according to him, the amount that DREAM’s team cares about the organization and its mission is palpable.“One of our maxims is DREAM is family,” James said. “That’s very much a mantra that we live by, because that’s what these young people deserve: to have caring adults in their lives as much as a rigorous academic schedule.” 

A Pandemic, And A Dream Financial Partner

That mantra was put to the test on Friday, March 13, 2020, when, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, DREAM’s management team had to sit down and make the decision to send everybody home for an undetermined amount of time. At that point, DREAM’s future — and the futures of the students, families, community members, and employees — was anything but certain. 

However, despite the uncertainties, DREAM didn’t give up on its students. Although its schools closed on that Friday, remote classes began the following Monday. In the months that followed, things didn’t become any easier; however, during that time, DREAM distributed 1,200 Chromebooks and internet hotspots to its students. Additionally, the nonprofit established free weekly food distributions, handing out more than 11,000 bags of fresh produce and nonperishable goods to its families. DREAM was also able to offer $250,000 in direct financial aid for families to use for basic needs, such as rent, groceries, and bills. 

Fortunately, DREAM didn’t have to make that lift alone. Instead, the nonprofit had the support of Carver Federal Savings Bank, which is also headquartered in Harlem. Carver has spent more than 73 years providing New Yorkers with access to capital and banking services, with a focus on Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs). Carver Federal Savings Bank is one of CNote’s Impact Cash partners. CNote invests Impact CashTM dollars in mission-driven and FDIC- and NCUA-insured CDFI partners like Carver Federal Savings Bank, generating returns on institutional investors’ cash allocations while supporting financially underserved communities across the country. 

DREAM has a long banking history with Carver. For example, Carver provided financing for DREAM’s East Harlem Center for Living and Learning project, which included a 450-seat charter school, space to serve 1,800 kids in afterschool and summer programs, 89 units of affordable housing, and a revitalized public park. In April 2020, the bank once again stepped up for the nonprofit in a big way. 

As most banks were struggling with how to navigate the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Carver was able to secure $6 million in PPP loans for DREAM, which allowed the organization to keep everyone employed. In the following months, Carver also helped DREAM to make sure that those PPP loans were ultimately forgiven. With that money, DREAM was able to hire and to maintain enough staff to run both online and, come October 2020, in-person classes for its charter schools. DREAM also maintained its extended-day, extended-year model, including its free afterschool and summer programming, while creating a healthy and safe environment for its scholars and families.

As approximately 1.1 million youth in the New York City Department of Public Schools spent an entire year doing remote learning, Carver’s ongoing support allowed DREAM to weather many of the pandemic’s threats to education. “We’re proud of the decision that we made to support our young people and our community,” James said. “It was challenging, but we’re really grateful and fortunate to have been able to work with Carver to make it happen.”

DREAM Team, Big Dreams

Unsurprisingly, given its name, DREAM’s team dreams big. The nonprofit is working to double its $53 million annual budget, which means that it would also like to double the amount of youth it’s able to serve. Currently, across its six charter schools and afterschool and summer programming, DREAM serves more than 2,000 scholars in East Harlem and the South Bronx, with more than 330 full-time staff members, and hundreds of part-time employees. In the next decade, DREAM hopes to serve approximately 4,000 youth in its communities. 

Last month, DREAM took another big step that will help bring its future dreams to fruition. The nonprofit cut the ribbon to its newest state-of-the-art school, located at 20 Bruckner Boulevard in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx. The 200,000-square-foot school is located on the East River in a 120-year-old ice house formerly owned by the Yankees’ owner who signed Babe Ruth’s contract. World-renowned Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye designed the transformation from ice house to school, which will serve 1,300 PreK-12 students.

Additionally, DREAM recently signed a lease for a 100,000-square-foot space in the Highbridge section of the South Bronx, which will become the permanent home of DREAM’s charter schools in that neighborhood in the coming years. According to James, expanding DREAM’s charter schools is a direct response to what the nonprofit’s community needs and wants. For example, in East Harlem, DREAM’s waitlist is more than 1,000 students. That means that until DREAM is able to grow its charter schools to meet that demand, the organization will continue to find ways to engage with community members, create deep relationships with families, and provide ongoing services to youth.

Learn More:

  • For over 73 years, Carver Federal Savings Bank’s mission has been to provide New Yorkers with access to capital and competitively priced banking solutions. Carver continues in its mission by providing access to capital and banking services with a focus on Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBEs) and consumers across the greater New York City region.
  • DREAM serves more than 2,500 youth annually in East Harlem, the South Bronx, and Newark. Our unique program model uses team-based methods to provide a comprehensive, enriching experience for young people.
  • 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 Change Makers Series

Change Makers Interview: Mike Schenk

Mike Schenk has more than 35 years of experience in the financial services industry. In 1992, he joined the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which is the largest and most influential trade association advocating for credit unions in the country. Today, Mike is both CUNA’s Deputy Chief Advocacy Officer for Policy Analysis and CUNA’s Chief Economist. In his concurrent roles, Mike simultaneously supports the organization’s advocacy initiatives and conducts economic research to help support those public relations efforts. Mike’s analyses regularly appear in trade publications like Credit Union Magazine, and he’s a frequent contributor to the financial media.

Outside of CUNA, Mike serves on the board of the Filene Research Institute, an independent, nonprofit consumer and cooperative finance think tank. Additionally, Mike has served on the board of Summit Credit Union—a $5 billion financial cooperative with over 220,000 members—for nearly 20 years. 

We caught up with Mike to talk about his advocacy work, the state of credit unions, and challenges facing the industry, and we got the opportunity to hear about why he’s so passionate about getting credit unions to share their impact stories with as many people as possible.

CNote: Having worked in the industry for more than 30 years, what keeps you excited about credit unions?

Mike Schenk: Obviously, credit unions are the superior model, because in addition to being member-owned, they’re democratically controlled. I spend a lot of time running around the country and talking about the economy and the economic outlook and how we think that’s going to influence credit union operations and interactions with members, but the other half of my job is to come up with numbers and data and analysis to support our advocacy and public relations efforts and activities. That’s what I get excited about. I do see the credit union charter as being the superior alternative for consumers, and the obvious effects are worth talking about. The transformative effect of cooperative finance is really obvious in the marketplace, and we’re now building out a really extensive data set around that idea, which gets me even more excited. 

CNote: How do your concurrent roles at CUNA complement each other?

Mike Schenk: I sometimes feel like going around the country and doing economic presentations takes me off my game, but there is a really strong connection between the two activities. Ever since I arrived here 30 years ago, in my economic updates, I have been talking about the obvious economic disparities in wealth and income that have existed for the past 30 to 50 years and that have been growing over that period of time. For example, the fact that so few people have rainy days funds set aside. Those are things that I talk about in my economic updates, and they have that direct relationship to the advocacy component of what I’m here for. 

People want to hear about the economy and some of them like to argue about where it’s going, but at the end of the day, I think the value in my travel and discussion about the economy is that we have these conversations around financial well being, even though we might not call it that, such as the fact that so many people live paycheck to paycheck. Then, we talk about how, operationally, credit unions can more effectively and efficiently deliver on their promise, despite all the challenges that we wrestle with.

CNote: How has your advocacy work shifted over time?

Mike Schenk: Historically, when I would advocate, it seemed to me like a lot of our messaging and the themes that we would cover would be the need for policymakers to relieve regulatory burdens. We spent a lot of time talking about how that relief would provide us with more opportunities to serve more people, but I think we kind of missed the boat from a messaging perspective, because there really is an obvious theme and obvious data points and behavioral differences between credit union members and non-members that are super helpful. So, part of our strategic shift as an organization has been to make sure that we emphasize this idea that the mission really revolves around delivering on the idea of financial well being on the one hand, but also operationalizing that and using that in everything that we do, including in advocacy, so that policymakers actually have the proof of impact.

CNote: You spend a lot of time meeting with policymakers and advocating for credit unions. What’re some of the changes that you and your colleagues are promoting?

Mike Schenk: We are interacting with policymakers almost on a daily basis. One example of what we talk about is getting legislation drafted to make changes to our imperfect credit union charter so that we can serve more people, because right now, we’re prevented from serving everyone we want to serve. One of the things that we say to policymakers is, ‘if you were to create a depository financial institution like a credit union today, there’s no way you would create an institution that was only able to serve certain people. You would want everybody to be served.’ Field of Membership restrictions are a vestige of times gone by, back from when credit unions were originally created and there was no such thing as a credit bureau. Field of Membership was created so there’d be a greater likelihood that members would know one another, and then when it came time to make a loan decision, you would have some input from the other members that would give you some idea of potential borrowers character and capacity and collateral. Today, that’s all automated and we have a bunch of ways to assess risk, so the reason for Field of Membership doesn’t exist anymore. 

CNote: What else comes up in those conversations with policymakers?

Mike Schenk: Because credit unions are not for profits, we don’t pay federal income taxes. The value of that income tax exemption is about $2 billion a year, so it’s a pretty significant advantage for us. Policymakers, however, want to know that they’re getting some bang for their buck with this $2 billion tax advantage. The answer is absolutely. We frequently say this isn’t just a good investment, it’s the best investment that policymakers make when it comes to investments in the consumer sector. Our pricing data shows that credit unions leverage the value of the tax exemption and deliver even more value in the marketplace. So, we’re not just passing through the $2 billion. In recent years, it’s been somewhere in the neighborhood of $13 to $15 billion that credit unions deliver back in direct financial benefits to members. We just want to make it as obvious as possible to anybody who will listen, not just policymakers, but to consumers who may not know about credit unions, and we’re in the middle of this transformation where we’re quantifying this stuff in a much more mindful way.

CNote: What’s something that you think that credit unions could do better?

Mike Schenk: There’s no question that credit union managers and credit union employees are out there doing great work every day and really transforming lives, and they do it because that’s what they’ve always done. However, what we don’t always do a great job of is communicating that out to a broad audience. Actually, I don’t think we always do a great job of communicating it internally in our credit unions: sharing stories with staff and with boards of directors and that sort of thing. It happens from time to time, but I feel like it would really be impactful to share those stories, measure those impacts, report out on those impacts and do it seven times, seven ways, over and over and over again, and then do it again. We really need to share our impact stories in a more mindful and regular way. 

When I speak to credit union audiences, they know this viscerally. They understand the credit union difference. They live it. But, especially for smaller institutions, people wear many different hats, and it takes time to document and to memorialize these stories. That means it kind of falls to the bottom of the list and sometimes doesn’t get done at all. This is definitely one of the challenges we face, but credit unions are really here to change people’s lives, so, first and foremost, we need to talk about and share these impact stories whenever we can.

CNote: According to the numbers, there are fewer credit unions today than there were 10 years ago. What’s your take on that?

Mike Schenk: That trend is real, but that’s because there have been a lot of mergers. In many respects, it’s a reflection of the regulatory burden placed on credit unions. Many credit unions are quite small. The last time I looked, close to 40% of credit unions were operated by five or fewer full time equivalent employees. It’s very difficult to operate a financial institution of that size when you have to worry about not just a large pile of rules and regulations in the first place, but constant changes to those rules and regulations, and the introduction of new rules and regulations against the backdrop of things like massive cybersecurity threats. Also, when you have a smaller organization, you lack economies of scale, you lack economies of scope, and if you’re competing on price alone, that makes it very, very difficult to stay alive, because the big guys just have more pricing power than you do.

CNote: What are some other reasons that help to explain the uptick in merger activity?

Mike Schenk: A few things come to mind. It’s increasingly difficult to find qualified directors. Being on the board of directors of a financial institution of any size is a pretty big responsibility. One CEO I used to work with liked to say to his board, “you’ve taken on a huge amount of liability for an occasional sleeve of golf balls,” which really gets your attention, because you realize there is a lot of responsibility. If you screw it up, you could be in big trouble. So, having qualified board members is critically important, and ensuring that those board members are diverse and that they represent the people that are able to join the credit union makes it doubly difficult these days. People are busy, and it’s definitely a time commitment.

Something that’s been magnified recently, especially for smaller institutions, is the war for talent. That’s a really big obstacle for many smaller institutions that can’t necessarily compete on price or pay above-market wages. Instead, they have to do more innovative things like trying to convey the value in learning a lot about a financial institution rather than specializing in one job, but all of that comes into play.

CNote: Would you say that staffing is one of the biggest challenges facing credit unions today?

Mike Schenk: Operationally, yes, that is the big challenge today. Everybody’s talking about getting people. It’s the same complaint and the same challenge that many businesses are facing. There are a lot more job openings than there are people looking for work, so attracting and cultivating and maintaining relationships with employees has been a really big challenge. Of course, while the increases in wages have not kept up with inflation, wages are increasing very quickly, so the cost of attracting people is also rising very quickly. Credit unions are one of those sort of frontline organizations where, at least to a certain extent, people are actually required to be physically present so that we can do our job. In the current environment, and even over the last couple of years, that makes it doubly difficult.

CNote: What’s on the horizon at CUNA that has you excited for the future?

Mike Schenk: In January, we purchased the Equifax database, and we intend to use that to actually measure outcomes across this 28-billion-record database. We are at the point where we’re beginning to make interesting observations that make it very, very clear that no matter where you sit on the credit spectrum, doing business with a credit union results in better outcomes. I’ll give you a quick example. For someone with the highest credit score, the price for a $30,000 automobile loan at a credit union versus a $30,000 automobile loan at a bank results in a savings of about $1,500 over the life of the loan for that consumer. That’s for someone with very high credit. People in the lower rungs of the credit ladder save even more. I estimate that if you’re a subprime borrower and you come to a credit union for an automobile loan and you get it, you’re gonna save close to $12,000 over the life of that loan. It’s a big deal. That’s real money for average people. At CUNA, we have some really smart people using Equifax’s database to build that narrative out in a really impactful way, and it’ll be less about how people feel about credit unions and more about actual impact and what happens to people along the way. 

By CNote, Impact Investing

Why Deposits Are Crucial Right Now

There is a frightening issue for many community-minded financial institutions across the country and the under-resourced communities they serve: a lack of deposits at their local banks and credit unions.

Depository institutions like banks and credit unions take in funds—called deposits—from those with money, pool them, and lend them to those who need funds in the form of loans. Communities across the United States rely on deposits at their local bank or credit union to support their small businesses, cover emergency expenses, consolidate their debt, and pay for housing, schooling, car payments, and more. 

During COVID, deposit levels skyrocketed. But that all changed in the second quarter of 2022, where deposits at FDIC-insured banks fell $370 billion; the first quarterly drop in four years. 

A report from Fitch in January of 2023 explained that they would expect to see bank deposits “shrink meaningfully through 2024, as “depositors seek higher-yielding alternatives for non-operating cash”, and “the Fed continues to shrink its balance sheet through quantitative tightening.” 

Fitch expects U.S. banking industry deposits, which stood at $19.4 trillion at Sept. 30, 2022, to decline by $1.6 trillion in 2023 and a further $1.4 trillion in 2024

Photo Credit: Fitch Ratings

So what changed? And what are the implications of fewer available deposits? 

In 1998, in a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, John Franklin, president of First United Bank, gave a prescient warning. He was concerned that even though a decline in deposits would not lead to a reduced loan supply for most borrowers, “The next crisis in community banking, without a correction in the stock market, will be the lack of funds necessary for community banks to lend to Main Street and to farmers.” 

Additionally, Fitch’s report notes that banks with “stronger core deposit franchises will be less vulnerable to liquidity changes.” However, depository institutions could face liquidity challenges if they are “experiencing elevated loan growth at the same time deposits decline.” 

And that is exactly what is happening to financial institutions like low-to-moderate-income focused banks and credit unions. Deposit levels are dropping as these institutions are stepping up to serve the communities who need it most. 

According to Cornerstone Advisors’ eighth annual “What’s Going On in Banking” report, “Seventy percent of credit unions named growing retail deposits as a high priority in 2023 – nearly four times the 18% that said so in 2022.” 

On the consumer side, take this NYT’s article which explains that while higher-income households built up savings and wealth during the pandemic, lower-income households “are struggling more profoundly with inflation.” 

Assistance groups that provide food, rental assistance, and other forms of aid to in-need communities have seen more requests for help in recent months “as local families fall behind on their bills. The size of the typical request has gone up too, from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand.” 

Individuals and corporations seeking to create an impact have realized that one of the surest ways to do so is to use cash as a tool to support under-resourced communities. 

At CNote, we help corporations move fully-insured cash allocations to depository institutions to support impactful loan activity in under-resourced communities across the country. These deposits have helped individuals like Catherine Dorsey escape vicious predatory lenders and save thousands of dollars over the life of her loan. 

They’ve also helped entrepreneurs like Mellaney Williams survive, and grow, during COVID 

It’s important to remember that deposit levels are predicted to drop even further over the next two years, placing more stress on under-resourced communities and the depository institutions that serve them. As a result, cash allocations to community financial depository institutions are rapidly becoming one of the surest ways to create a transformational impact. 

Learn More: 

By Community Partners

New Covenant Dominion Credit Union’s Small Staff Has Big Dreams For The Bronx—And Beyond

Since New Covenant Dominion Credit Union came to life in 2007, Rachel Macarthy has worn many different hats. She served as one of the credit union’s founding board members, and in 2019, she stepped in as the organization’s acting CEO. Despite becoming the permanent CEO in 2021, Rachel has done everything from working as a teller to serving as a loan officer for the Bronx-based credit union. However, Rachel wouldn’t have it any other way. She also isn’t the only one who wears more than one hat at New Covenant Dominion Credit Union. 

For the vast majority of its 16-year existence, the credit union has operated with a staff of two and volunteers as available. Last year, the credit union received grant funding enabling it to hire additional staff members—a marketing specialist and member service representative. As a team of four, they work together to provide amazing customer service and outreach to community members.  “Our team is amazing,” Rachel said, “and it’s exciting when you wear these multiple hats, because you’re able to hear the frontline stories of what’s really happening with our membership. There’s more work on the backend, but we can make decisions knowing who we’re serving and what would reach them best.”

New Covenant Dominion Credit Union was founded in March 2007, when the New Covenant Faith and Miracle Arena, Inc. decided to do something to address one of its community’s most daunting challenges: intergenerational cycles of poverty. According to Rachel, who’s been a member of New Covenant Faith for decades, the South Bronx is an underserved, forgotten neighborhood with “bad statistics all around.” To develop economic stability in its community, the church launched a three-pronged approach that included opening schools, developing a community center, and launching a credit union. Initially, the credit union’s members only consisted of the church’s congregation; however, over the years, the credit union has expanded to serve other churches and other community based organizations in the Bronx. 

Soon after Rachel became New Covenant Dominion Credit Union’s CEO, the credit union’s leadership applied to be certified as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). New Covenant Dominion Credit Union received its CDFI designation in December of 2019, adding to its status as a low-income, black-led credit union and as a minority depository institution. According to Rachel, the timing of those credentials proved significant. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, New Covenant Dominion Credit Union was poised to benefit from the unprecedented amount of federal relief dollars flowing through the CDFI Fund and later in 2021, the Emergency Capital Investment Program (ECIP).

New Covenant Dominion Credit Union used COVID-era grant money to do a number of things, including increasing its staff, investing in technology, and making the shift to digital banking. The credit union was also able to pass along some of those relief dollars onto borrowers in the form of a three-month payment relief program. The credit union has also quadrupled its lending volume, and its loan portfolio has grown from primarily personal consumer loans to include more small business loans and vehicle loans. 

The credit union also used grant money to reorganize, rebrand, and reopen in a new 1,500-square foot location that has two member service desks, a financial counseling conference area and an eye-catching facade, which Rachel hopes will attract prospective members who stand to benefit from free financial counseling and the credit union’s other programmatic offerings. “The pandemic was terrible for our country and nation and world,” Rachel said, “but it created opportunities for us as a credit union that we didn’t have access to before. Because we were able to benefit from grant funding, that really changed everything about our credit union, from the ground up.”

Although New Covenant Dominion Credit Union continues to primarily serve members of the church community, Rachel says that at least 80% of new accounts opened in the past four months belong to non-church members. For Rachel and her team, that influx demonstrates that their presence in the community is growing, and in the coming year, it plans to focus on reaching and serving its target demographic: churches, nonprofits, and other community-based organizations in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Westchester County. In the future, it would like to expand its field of membership even more.

Rachel and her small-but-mighty team at New Covenant Dominion Credit Union anticipate plenty of challenges on the road ahead; however, they have faith that their determination and passion will propel them toward achieving their goals. Part of that determination is rooted in the fact that the credit union came out of the COVID-19 pandemic stronger than it was before. Rachel and her financial leadership skills stepped in and took a struggling credit union through a pandemic and showed tremendous growth on the other side of it. “Without the funding and resources that we got as part of our CDFI certification,” Rachel said, “we probably wouldn’t be here right now. It’s a blessing and an opportunity that we want to pass on to others.”

Learn More:

  • New Covenant Dominion Credit Union (NCD CU) is a member-driven financial institution whose goal is to develop economic stability within the community and its membership. NCD CU was chartered on March 23, 2007 by the National Credit Union Administration because of the diligent efforts of the church leadership of New Covenant Faith and Miracle Arena, Inc.
  • 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 Case Study, CNote

Leveraging Corporations to Support Community Impact 

CNote is proud to share a new case study with Optus Bank: Leveraging Corporations to Support Community Impact

Since 2017, Optus has seen the notoriety for their work skyrocket with a seven-fold growth. These investments allowed Optus to add staff and update its digital presence — allowing them to scale operations to serve more under-resourced community members.

This new environment left Optus with two main challenges:

  1. The need to increase sustainable deposits
  2. Increasing competition for previously available deposits

By partnering with CNote’s Impact Cash™ program, Optus Bank was able to increase deposit levels and elevate its visibility. 

“Impact Cash was exactly what Optus was looking for,” said Dominik. “Finding a new source of deposits that came from impact-minded corporations at low cost balanced the equity investments we received and allowed us to turn out more investments into the community to create impact.”

By Borrower Stories

Meet Chung H Lee, The Small Business Owner Helping New York Metro’s Graying Residents Age In Place

It was 2014, and Chung was tired of traveling for work. The business consultant’s job required him to travel around the globe, but Chung was tired of sitting in airports and sleeping in hotels. He wanted to work closer to home and be able to spend more time with his kids. Armed with years of professional experience in the finance sector, Chung began to research various industries, opportunities, and trends to plot his next career step. 

Chung H Lee, Managing Member of Alpha Care Supply // Photo credit: Chung H Lee

It didn’t take long for something to catch Chung’s attention: the United States’ population is aging. More so, as demographics continue to shift and America grays, more and more older Americans are wanting to “age in place.” That means that instead of selling their house and buying a condo in Florida or moving into an assisted living facility, most people want to stay closer to friends and family and remain in their home. According to a recent AARP survey, 77% of adults 50 and older want to age in place — a percentage that has been consistent for over 10 years. However, in order to safely and comfortably age in place, people often need to make adjustments to their homes, including modifications like rails, ramps, and walk-in showers.

Chung was intrigued. He liked the idea of working in healthcare and providing a service to people in need, but he wasn’t sure where he could carve out a niche for himself in the market. That’s when Chung met the owners of Alpha Care Supply, a durable medical equipment (DME) company serving the New York metropolitan area. Although Alpha Care Supply’s founders started the business in 1992, they were nearing retirement age and wanted to sell the company. Chung stepped forward as an interested buyer, and over a six-month period, the company’s founders transitioned Alpha Care Supply over to him. 

An Alpha Care Supply project // Photo credit: Chung H Lee

From day one, Chung set out to expand Alpha Care Supply’s operations to offer a full range of products. That meant becoming a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS) through the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and providing a full range of Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessibility products. Prior to purchasing the business, the company primarily offered compliant wheelchair ramps and indoor/outdoor stair lifts; however, Chung expanded that list of products to include vertical platform lifts, patient handling lifts, and home elevators. Alpha Care Supply even provides full ADA bathroom and kitchen modifications, as well as broader home renovation projects, to help create safe and independent living environments for customers.

According to Chung, it took about 18 months to get his feet underneath him at Alpha Care Supply. “Obviously, it was something new,” he said. “It’s a big move and a challenge going from a corporate environment to now running a small business. As a small business owner, you’re responsible for everything, and I had a lot of things to learn.”

Two factors contributed to that steep learning curve. First, the company works with residential and commercial customers experiencing (or planning to experience) mobility or accessibility concerns: nurses, doctors, insurance companies, concerned children, obstinate spouses, other small business owners, city employees, lawyers, nonprofits, and third-party workers’ compensation administrators. Given that stunning breadth of customers, it’s no surprise that it took time for Chung to learn the nuances of his diverse customer base. Second, Alpha Care Supply receives payments from its commercial clients (i.e. 15% of its business) on a delayed timeline. It typically takes 30 days after a commercial project is completed (e.g. ramps and wheelchair lifts are installed in places like city parks, building lobbies, and restaurant bathrooms) before Alpha Care Supply gets paid. “In terms of funding your operation as a small business owner, getting paid is your bloodline,” Chung said. “That’s been an ongoing challenge for us.”

Avoiding the Cracks

By October of 2021, however, there was a new — and much more daunting — challenge on the horizon. For the first time, Chung and his team weren’t able to meet their inventory needs because of global supply chain disruptions. Faced with the same supply chain issues, manufacturers began to demand more up-front money from buyers like Chung. Whichever businesses could meet the manufacturers’ demands were then first in line to get the kind of ADA equipment and parts that are central to Alpha Care Supply’s operations. Without the necessary cash, Chung was sent scrambling to try to secure the inventory his small business needed to survive.

Fortunately, that’s when Chung received a call from Pursuit Community Finance, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that serves minority- and women-owned businesses across New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. CNote partners with CDFIs like Pursuit through its Wisdom Fund and Flagship Fund, which invest in small business owners like Chung in communities around the country. 

Chung had first learned about Pursuit Lending through the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program; however, the​​ call from Pursuit’s Leo Zhang was completely unexpected. With Leo’s help, Chung was able to apply for and receive two loans through the CDFI, including one from the New York Forward Loan Fund, which was set up to help New York small businesses reopen after the COVID-19 outbreak. Together, the two loans ensured that Alpha Care Supply had the inventory it needed to get through 2021. “Pursuit was instrumental in helping us procure and shore up our inventory,” Chung said. “They helped us get funding so quickly, which was refreshing and energizing.”

For Chung, it felt particularly “refreshing and energizing” to work with Pursuit Lending because Alpha Care Supply’s go-to big bank wasn’t agile enough to step up for the small business when it needed it most. According to Chung, between everything Pursuit has been able to offer him — including new lending products and small business coaching — and his perennial frustrations with his bank, he’s now a CDFI believer. “The more opportunities small business owners have to connect with CDFIs, the better,” he said, “because it’s easy to fall through the cracks and not recover. For me, having Pursuit is good for my business because I can bounce ideas off of them and discuss things with them that have nothing to do with lending. They have somebody there to listen and give feedback, and that’s a great help.”

The Alpha Care Supply team // Photo credit: Chung H Lee

Today, Alpha Care Supply has about 20 employees covering installations, repairs, sales, construction, and operations. Considering the company’s service footprint includes approximately 16 million people, that means that Chung’s team is both small and mighty. While he’s pleased with the growth and maturation his business has experienced since he bought it nearly eight years ago, Chung is arguably happier with the work that his employees are doing day in and day out to make a difference in people’s lives. “Unless you’re in their shoes,” Chung said, “it’s hard to fathom what sort of challenges our customers face on a daily basis. My team bends over backwards to get things up and running beautifully and to make a difference, and it leaves people in tears. For me, those are the most exciting days as a small business owner.”

Learn More:

  • Alpha Care Supply is a provider of ADA accessibility equipment based in Nassau County for nearly 25 years serving the NY metro area, including the five boroughs, Westchester, Rockland, Yonkers, Nassau, Suffolk counties, and New Jersey encompassing over 16MM in population. 
  • Pursuit Community Finance, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that provides businesses with affordable small business loans and resources so that they can reach higher, transform and grow.
  • 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 Opportunities Credit Union Is Setting Up Itself—And Its Community—For Financial Success

From a young age, Kate Laud dreamed about someday being a CEO. At Dartmouth, Kate was an English major who liked numbers, and her father encouraged her to aspire to “run something interesting” one day. Although that advice didn’t narrow down Kate’s list of possible career trajectories, over the years, her ambition to eventually lead an organization helped to guide her through various financial roles, from a portfolio manager at a bank in New York City to a futures and options strategist at a bank in Chicago. Eventually, Kate became the CFO for a New Jersey nonprofit dedicated to developing affordable housing. 

However, in addition to wanting to one day be a CEO, there was something else that Kate always wanted to do: live in Vermont. Not only was Kate drawn to the state’s natural beauty, but she had family in the area, and she had always been smitten by Vermonters’ community-oriented dispositions. When a CFO-related position opened up at the University of Vermont Foundation, Kate jumped at the opportunity. She left New Jersey, settled into life in The Green Mountain State, and dove headfirst into her new nonprofit role.

In 2019, a recruiter approached Kate about a leadership position at Opportunities Credit Union, a CDFI-certified financial institution founded in 1989. Although Kate had already seen the ad for the position in the local newspaper and was interested, she didn’t think that she knew enough about credit unions to be qualified to serve as one’s president. According to Kate, credit unions weren’t on her radar in New Jersey, and it wasn’t until after she’d moved to Vermont that she discovered just how much of a force credit unions were in the state. Kate agreed to meet with the recruiter, and in September of that same year, she became the credit union’s president. When the CEO retired a few months later, Kate assumed her role as well, fulfilling one of Kate’s professional dreams. “I had a lot of technical banking and nonprofit experiences,” she said, “and somehow those came together in the credit union world.”

‘We Don’t Say No, We Say When’

It didn’t take long for Kate to face her first CEO-sized dilemma at Opportunities Credit Union. During her first week as CEO, Kate was invited out to lunch with a colleague at a larger credit union. The agenda was collaboration. The topic of mergers had come up before, and although Kate acknowledged that a merger could be a smart thing to do long term, in the moment, she knew it wasn’t the right time. “I wanted to give running this a shot first,” Kate said, “and I wanted to see how the magic works and where we could make adjustments.”

Kate paired the decision to remain a standalone credit union with a number of internal institutional changes. For example, Kate leaned into her nonprofit background and hired a full-time grant writer. Together, they sought out new grant opportunities that could fund new lines of business lending and programmatic offerings. The credit union also chose to partner with CNote through its Impact CashTM Solution, which channels FDIC-and NCUA insured dollars from socially minded investors to mission-driven partners like Opportunities Credit Union. 

Additionally, soon after taking over as CEO, Kate and her team had the opportunity to sit down and draft the next iteration of Opportunities’ four-year strategic plan. After a lengthy SWOT analysis, it became evident that if the credit union was going to survive, then it was going to have to pursue its mission while remaining conscious of its margin. The subsequent document has served as a roadmap for Kate and her team as they strive both to serve Opportunities Credit Union’s members and to grow the institution’s margins. 

This was especially true during the early waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, when deposits drove up liquidity but falling interest rates meant that financial institutions like Opportunities earned very little interest on that cash. To bolster its margin, the credit union focused on lending areas like small business loans while continuing to help people in its community. The credit union also expanded its robust vehicle and credit-building loan programs. In 2021, Opportunities was able to assist in retaining 422 small business jobs and made 38% of its mortgage loans to New Americans, including to members of the Asian and African immigrant communities who resettled in Vermont.

Not only is the credit union intentional about collaborating with refugee and immigrant organizations to connect with these New Americans, but Opportunities is equally intentional about making sure that its staff reflects that global diversity. For example, Opportunities has a multilingual team that speaks languages from around the world. In fact, the credit union’s loan department head is a former Nepali refugee who’s able to connect with other New Americans on a personal level. “That is one secret to surviving,” said Kate. “People can get a mortgage anywhere, but it’s the relationship that is really hard to come by. I don’t think you can walk into a larger credit union and sit down with someone who mirrors you ethnically anywhere but here. That gives us an edge.” 

In addition to serving New Americans, Opportunities Credit Union also serves community members who are unhoused and underbanked, including individuals who are struggling with mental health, living in homeless shelters, and/or surviving on social security disability payments. According to Kate, the credit union works at the intersection of mental health and money. Although she acknowledges that she and her team aren’t social workers, Kate said that the credit union is able to “help people whose emotional needs touch their financial needs” through free financial counseling that’s aimed at building their credit back. Importantly, this financial coaching is offered to anyone in need, not just credit union members. That includes those who are behind on student loan and credit card payments.

Kate shared one recent story about a twenty-something mother of two who’d purchased a home just before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when said mother lost her job, she fell behind on her mortgage payments. The big credit union foreclosed on her home, and the woman and her two children moved into the family car. Eventually, she found her way to Opportunities, who agreed to help her get her house back. Kate and her team contacted the other credit union and asked it to hold off on auctioning off the home. It agreed, and during that time, the woman was able to get a job and Opportunities was able to negotiate to get her and her kids back into their home. “Our informal mission statement is ‘we don’t say no, we say when,’” said Kate. “We knew we would find a way to get this woman’s house back because, as credit unions, we don’t compete, we collaborate. It’s a movement: we work together, and we move together.”

Opportunities Abound

When asked about the future of Opportunities Credit Union, Kate is quick to note that she isn’t a fortune teller. Still, she’s doing everything that she can in the present moment to make it easier for the credit union to survive—and thrive—for years to come. For example, Opportunities recently used grant money to invest in software that has helped it to drastically speed up onerous compliance tasks. The credit union has also outsourced much of its accounting, IT, and HR work to third-party entities, including to other credit unions. In this way, as a small credit union, Opportunities has recreated itself to be less dependent on individual employees and more resilient as an institution. 

Additionally, in 2022 alone, Opportunities made 10 staff promotions from within the organization. According to Kate, this has been a win-win for the credit union not only because those employees already know Opportunities’ culture, mission, and systems, but because it’s signaled to entry-level hires and prospective recruits that they can expect to receive the training and support they need to similarly move up the ranks at the credit union. Ironically, a couple of new recruits are coming to Opportunities from recently merged credit unions in the region. “Our membership is very different from larger credit unions, and thankfully we don’t compete with them head-to-head,” Kate said. “But, it can be good for Opportunities when larger credit unions merge. People don’t always have to leave, but when they do, they’re coming to us looking for a different opportunity—no pun intended.”

Learn More:

  • Opportunities Credit Union provides innovative and affordable loan and deposit programs for credit building and repair, business and home ownership, consumer needs, modified vehicles, adaptive equipment and energy improvements along with financial education and counseling solutions that have been tailored for our target market.
  • 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 CNote

CNote Has Been Re-certified as a B Corporation™

We’re excited to share that CNote has been re-certified as a B Corporation™, a company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. 

This certification shows that CNote meets high standards of verified performance, accountability, and transparency across various areas including employee benefits, charitable giving, supply chain practices, and input materials.

CNote was first certified as a B Corporation™ in 2019 with a score of 94 (a score of 80 is required to qualify for B Corp™ Certification and 50.9 is the median score for ordinary businesses). In our most recent re-certification, we achieved a score of 121.1 across our governance, workers, community, environment, and customer segments. This increase can be attributed to our ongoing efforts to better serve under-resourced communities, our employees, and more.

Maintaining our B Corp™ status is important to CNote because it provides a benchmark to continue improving our business. By using the B Impact Assessment tool and meeting the B Corp™ standards, CNote will continue evolving new ideas to serve our stakeholders. 

Additionally, the certification provides CNote with the continued opportunity to collaborate and engage with the over 4,000 B Corporations™. Across continents, countries, and industries, all B Corporations™ are united by a common goal of “transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet.” 

“Being a B Corporation™ is more than just a label,” said CNote’s Director of Impact Evaluation, Tamra Thetford. ‘“It’s a way of doing business that reaffirms our commitment to remaining accountable to all of our stakeholders. We’re proud to be part of this movement, and we’ll continue to be thoughtful and intentional in creating sustainable impact for years to come.”

By Impact Investing

A Bright Future Ahead: Why Impact Investing Matters in 2023

What is Impact Investing?

Before we dive into why impact investing is so important for the coming year and beyond, let’s quickly define what it actually means. Impact investing is an investment strategy that focuses on generating measurable social or environmental impact alongside financial returns. This could mean anything from investing in renewable energy projects to providing loans to small businesses in under-resourced communities. The idea is that you are not only earning a return but also having a positive effect on the world with your investments.

Image by on Freepik

The Power of Impact Investing During a Volatile Economy

While impact investing has been steadily gaining traction over the past few years, its importance is more evident than ever when times get tough. For example, during 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, many businesses were forced to close their doors due to restrictions put in place by governments trying to contain the virus. This led to massive unemployment in many countries. However, thanks to impact investors who provided essential funding for small businesses during this difficult time, some of these companies were able to keep their doors open and provide jobs for those without them—which was especially crucial for low-income households who rely on these jobs for basic necessities like food and shelter.

Toni Hopkins received a loan during COVID-19 which allowed her to open her business, Cool J’s Apparel

The Benefits of Impact Investing Beyond 2023

Although its power has been made abundantly clear during times of economic hardship, impact investing isn’t just about getting through hard times—it’s also about using those challenging moments as opportunities for true transformation. By channeling capital into projects that bring change at both the local and national levels, individuals and corporations have an opportunity to make their investments count toward something greater than themselves—all while still receiving an attractive return on their investment!

2023 marks yet another exciting opportunity for all of us here at CNote—and we can’t wait to share our mission of closing the wealth gap through financial innovation with you all! By empowering under-resourced communities through impactful investments that deliver measurable social or environmental benefits alongside attractive financial returns, CNote remains committed to helping you make sound investment decisions while simultaneously driving meaningful change throughout society and making sure everyone has access to resources they need now and in the future. We hope you join us on our journey towards making a real difference in 2023!

By Borrower Stories, Community Partners

How First Southwest Bank Is Helping Community Banks Become Better Banks

In 2013, Kent Curtis had a question to answer. As the president and CEO of First Southwest Bank, he wanted to know which direction to steer the financial institution, which has served the San Luis Valley for more than 100 years. Colorado has three persistent poverty counties, and First Southwest Bank is located in the middle of them. Therefore, no matter what the future had in store for First Southwest Bank’s six Southern Colorado branches, Kent knew that continuing to provide capital to small businesses that supported rural communities in Colorado and New Mexico needed to remain at the heart of First Southwest Bank’s mission. 

Kent Curtis, President and CEO of First Southwest Bank

That’s when Kent had a conversation with another banker that changed everything. That other banker happened to be Kent’s brother, who introduced Kent to the U.S. Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Program. The conversation spurred Kent to do some research, and it didn’t take him long to realize that First Southwest Bank might qualify to become a CDFI Bank. In order to qualify, you must be able to demonstrate that at least 60% of your overall activities are to eligible populations and/or in eligible geographic areas, such as Persistent Poverty Communities. Kent and his team submitted an application, and in 2014, First Southwest Bank officially received its CDFI designation. 

Not long after, First Southwest Bank began to receive money through various programs, including the Treasury’s Bank Enterprise Award and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). However, because the USDA can’t allocate some of their program funds to for-profit entities, First Southwest Bank decided to start a 501c3 nonprofit called First Southwest Community Fund in order to be eligible to receive those federal dollars. Although First Southwest Community Fund doesn’t have CDFI status, the nonprofit essentially acts as a CDFI revolving loan fund by providing low-cost business lending to individuals that may not otherwise qualify for loans through conventional banks. Not only can the nonprofit provide small businesses with small loans, but it is also able to serve as a subordinate lender alongside First Southwest Bank, thus providing risk-mitigating gap-financing allaying any concerns raised by the bank’s lenders.

Another strength of this unique structure is that both First Southwest Bank and First Southwest Community Fund have access to different funding streams that enable them to make loans. For example, CNote invests Impact CashTM dollars in mission-driven and FDIC- and NCUA-insured CDFI partners like First Southwest Bank, generating returns on institutional investors’ cash allocations while supporting financially underserved communities across the country. Philanthropists, on the other hand, are attracted to First Southwest Community Fund because of its impressive leveraging ratio. For every dollar that comes into the nonprofit, it generates $5 worth of impact. “When you go out and talk to a philanthropist about a five-to-one leverage ratio,” Kent said, “that’s how we attract investors, because organizations don’t generally experience that kind of leveraging ratio.”

HelloBello is Here to Help

Roughly a year after launching First Southwest Community Fund, it became clear to Kent and his Chief Development Officer, Sherry Waner that there was an opportunity to help its own lenders access the myriad of programs that they now had, and to scale their collaborative approach to financing. That’s how HelloBello Financial, LLC was born, and  Sherry was appointed as the CEO. HelloBello is a technology platform that rural-based lenders can use as a tool to efficiently evaluate and filter through various risk mitigating tools available to help small business owners. This allows them to identify innovative gap funding resources and create lending opportunities to support their communities in ways previously not possible. In other words, HelloBello helps solve access to capital challenges and is a way for community bank lenders to fill in gaps and fund projects that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. HelloBello brings together and amplifies the impact of mission-oriented capital and the leveraging abilities of community bank funding.

Kent and Sherry  beta-tested HelloBello with regional community banks just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part of that initial testing was to demonstrate to other lenders that First Southwest Bank isn’t competing for their customers. Conversely, with HelloBello, the CDFI Bank has been able to prove that it can enhance and offer special funding and resources that these banks in other communities don’t have access to. That was especially true during the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), where many other banks and credit unions across Colorado collaborated with First Southwest Bank to help their clients access this critical resource. Today, Sherry is preparing to launch a new-and-improved HelloBello in the near future.  “We believe that HelloBello democratizes access to risk mitigated capital and will be transformational for community banking. This is one of our many tools that help other community banks create opportunities for their clients and deepen the impact in their communities,” Sherry said.  

HelloBello has already helped to deploy a significant amount of capital. For example, when Colorado’s State Legislature created a $30 million Colorado Agricultural Future Loan Program with economic recovery money to deploy statewide in rural areas, it ran into a major roadblock: it didn’t have any lenders. That’s when First Southwest Bank stepped in to assist the CO Department of Agriculture. As a CDFI Bank, First Southwest Bank is able to deploy the money through HelloBello, thus making those recovery dollars available to other lenders across Colorado. According to Kent, the  primary reason that First Southwest Bank received the money is because of its CDFI designation and its outreach in underserved communities in Colorado.

Working Together to Keep Residents in Their Homes

That wasn’t the only time that First Southwest Bank’s CDFI designation has attracted potential collaborators. In early 2022, La Plata County approached Kent and his team to see if First Southwest Bank could help keep the residents of Westside Mobile Home Park in their homes. The previous month, residents had been informed that Westside’s owners wanted to sell the mobile home park, and the prospective buyer—a real estate company—had a history of raising rents. According to one resident, Alejandra Chavez, at the time, 58 predominantly Latinx families lived in Westside Mobile Park, and if the park came under new ownership, 38 of those families would have been displaced. 

Because of a state law passed in 2020, Westside Mobile Home Park residents had the first right of refusal, which meant that they could put together an offer to buy their property from the owners. The challenge, however, was that they only had 90 days to come up with more than $5 million. Additionally, if the residents were going to successfully purchase their mobile home park, they were going to have to out-compete the real estate company’s no-contingency cash offer.

Given the narrow window of time and the hefty price tag, another CDFI nonprofit —Elevation Community Land Trust—began working with the residents to form a co-op and to get an offer in front of the mobile home park’s owner. That included getting La Plata County involved, which in turn brought First Southwest Bank to the table. La Plata County allocated $1.5 million to the initiative, a local business association invested $500,000, and the residents set up a GoFundMe, which brought in more than $30,000. Lastly, First Southwest Bank stepped up to finance the remaining $3.5 million. “I don’t know a lot of municipalities that would throw a bunch of money into this kind of thing,” Kent said, “but this mobile home park was so important, especially to the workforce of Durango businesses. The county felt that it was that important, and we had to do something.”

Unfortunately, the mobile home park’s owners rejected the residents’ initial offer. That’s because, according to Kent, First Southwest Bank had to order an appraisal, which became a contingency. Miraculously, within nine days of the rejection, Elevation Community Land Trust was able to bring in Impact Development Fund, another CDFI nonprofit, to structure a new funding stack. The new deal was made up of (1) a series of short-term cash loans to purchase the park and (2) additional loans to pay back those initial cash loans that Elevation could then pay off over time with other sources of financing. In this way, First Southwest Bank anchored the deal, providing the long-term financing to cover the short-term cash loans necessary to purchase the park. With that, the residents of Westside Mobile Home Park were able to make a no-contingency, cash offer on their land.

In the end, the residents’ second offer was accepted by the owners, and the co-op officially took over ownership of their land in late April 2022. It took the creativity, agility, and commitment of three different Colorado-based CDFIs to make it happen; but, according to Kent and his team at First Southwest Bank, the experience has been a win-win for everyone involved. There’s little question, however, that the biggest win belongs to the residents of Westside Mobile Home Park. Their success put an end to the inter-generational legacy of displacement experienced by many in their community. Just ask Alejandra Chavez-Alvarez. “The process started and somewhere along the way we lost our fear,” she was quoted as saying in The Durango Herald. “We felt the support of the community, and somewhere along the way, we became a part of that community. Many of us, for the first time, feel a part of Durango.” 

Learn More:

  • First Southwest Bank is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) bank that works to improve Colorado’s social and economic landscape while putting community at the core. 
  • 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

How One Detroit Credit Union is Giving its Members a Second Chance 

Catherine Dorsey had always dreamed of becoming a nurse. In 2016, the Detroit resident took a step closer to fulfilling her dream by beginning medical school in Ohio. And while she worked through the demanding courses, another difficulty materialized: her rapidly accumulating bills. 

In order to pay for her medical school loans, car loans, and other miscellaneous expenses, Catherine was forced to borrow on her credit cards. To make matters even worse, Catherine had taken out those loans from a predatory lender. 

“The first loan that I got actually wasn’t enough for me to do everything I needed to do. So then I had another one just to get enough money to move and get to school. I wasn’t thinking about rates and terms. I was just thinking that I needed money fast. I have to get gas. I have to get food. I have to get to work.” 

The One Detroit Credit Union employees that helped Catherine Dorsey and Sandy Waldrip.

Catherine’s expertise was in people’s wellbeing, not in finance. It wasn’t until the bills started coming in that she noticed something was wrong. On a day off, she sat down and calculated the numbers. She realized quickly that the numbers were high. Very high. One the first loan of $4,000, Catherine would be paying almost $12,000. On the second loan of $3000, she would be paying $10,000: A $22,000 total from a loan of just $7000. 

Fortunately, Catherine had been a One Detroit Credit Union member since 2017. One Detroit Credit Union is a Detroit-based low-income designated credit union that has been serving the local community since 1935. One Detroit is a certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and Minority-Depository Institution (MDI). CNote partners with credit unions like One Detroit across the country through its Impact Cash™ Solution, empowering individuals like Catherine who are looking to lead healthier financial lives. 

When Catherine walked into the door of One Detroit Credit Union in 2021 looking for help making payments on her predatory loans, she saw a brochure on the teller’s desk for a credit building loan. The teller informed her that the program was a way for individuals to borrow money using their own savings as collateral to help improve credit scores and build credit history. 

Sarneisa Whigham, the Branch Manager at One Detroit Credit Union who assisted Catherine Dorsey and Sandy Waldrip.

Catherine had many questions, all of which the teller answered thoroughly and patiently. Eventually, she recommended that Catherine speak with a branch manager for a full rundown on all the products and services that One Detroit offered that might help her. 

When the branch manager reviewed Catherine’s case, She was shocked. “Has anybody ever talked to you about consolidating your debt?” She asked. No one ever had. So the branch manager explained how One Detroit could potentially help her save thousands of dollars over the life of her loan. It seemed too good to be true. At the end of their meeting Catherine filled out several forms and was told that they would be in touch.

The call came just a few days later, and she had been approved. Catherine went from paying nearly $1000 a month to $320. “I was crying. I couldn’t believe it. I kept asking- are you sure? Are you sure?” 

Prior to the loan consolidation, all Catherine was able to do was work to pay the bills. After One Detroit stepped in, Catherine started saving and making purchases that she had been holding off on for years. 

Sarneisa Whigham, Branch Manager, and Hank Hubbard, President and CEO of One Detroit Credit Union

A Second Chance

One Detroit Credit Union’s field of membership is the entire city of Detroit. In order to be responsive to the needs of all those potential members, the credit union begins with the problems that members most commonly face and then designs the products or services which will alleviate those problems. 

For Sandy Waldrip, a lifelong Detroit resident and healthcare administrator, this philosophy ended up having a profound impact on her life. In 2018, Sandy lost her job due to an organizational restructuring and went from a six-figure salary to pulling unemployment. To make matters even more challenging, her mother got sick, and Sandy had to help take care of her for over a year. Payments fell behind, and Sandy’s credit score took a serious hit. 

When Sandy was able to start looking for another job, she knew that she would need a new and reliable car. Her search was complicated, however, by soaring interest rates on all makes and models due to her lowered credit score. When she finally selected a car, it was the dealer himself who recommended that Sandy go to One Detroit, as he had heard they had a strong refinancing program. 

Initially, Sandy applied for a consolidation loan. She was approved in a matter of days, and One Detroit suggested that she apply to Refi My Ride, their auto loan refinancing program. The program refinances auto loans at half of whatever interest rate the member is currently paying (sometimes over 20%) with the same term. For Sandy, that meant savings of $115 a month or $9000 over the life of her loan. 

And while Sandy is grateful for her new car and the reduced rate she received, she is most appreciative that One Detroit Credit Union took the time to look at her whole story. 

“People don’t understand that life happens. And while you would like to have perfect credit, sometimes things turn around and it just can’t happen. And I understand, some banks or credit unions won’t want to invest in you. But I appreciate the fact that One Detroit looked beyond just my credit score and gave me that second chance.” 

Learn More:

  • One Detroit Credit Union is a Detroit-based low-income designated credit union that has been serving the local community since 1935. One Detroit is a certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and Minority-Depository Institution (MDI)
  • 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 Chicago Community Loan Fund Is Filling Lending Gaps To Grow Wealth

When Wendell Harris found himself out of a job in 2013, he wasn’t exactly sure where he was going to land within the world of banking and real estate. Fortunately, Robert Rose, one of Wendell’s former bosses, heard that he wasn’t working. At the time, Robert was in a leadership role at Chicago Community Loan Fund, a federally certified community development financial institution (CDFI). Robert called Wendell and told him to report to work in two weeks. Wendell joined Chicago Community Loan Fund as a senior loan and program officer, and six years later, he became the vice president of lending operations.

Wendell Harris and Sheneka Harris, General Manager of Amped Kitchens Chicago

Chicago Community Loan Fund was founded in 1991 by a group of social-investment advocates who wanted to create a nonprofit lender to provide flexible, affordable, and responsible financing and technical assistance for community stabilization and development efforts in Chicago. Additionally, the nonprofit wanted to fill community development credit gaps by launching initiatives that would benefit low- to moderate-income individuals, families, and neighborhoods throughout metropolitan Chicago. Like other CDFIs across the country, Chicago Community Loan Fund prides itself on ensuring that community developers in Chicago have an accessible lender to turn to for harder-to-underwrite projects and enterprises.

Wendell has been firmly behind Chicago Community Loan Fund’s mission from his first day with the CDFI. Wendell’s father, Moses Harris migrated to Chicago in 1956 where he landed a job as a machinist at the former Oscar Meyer meat packaging plant across the street from the Cabrini-Green housing project.  Wendell’s mother, Ruth, followed in 1957 after attending a year of college at Tougaloo College in Mississippi.  She continues to share her experiences on picking cotton in Mississippi.  Wendell’s parents were part of the Great Migration of Black Americans leaving the South for cities in the North and West. His parents married in 1958 and moved to Markham, Illinois in 1965.  Wendell’s parents were parents to the entire community of Markham.  Moses kept the kids occupied with sports while Ruth sang heavenly gospel notes throughout the South Suburbs and Chicago.  Wendell was surrounded by family members (including 3 older brothers), friends, and community members with varying levels of business acumen.  “I still remember Mr. Faulkner.  To see a black man in the 1980’s own a bumper company in Markham and a Chrysler dealership in Harvey, Illinois, meant a lot to us.  Slavery is more than just chains and shackles,” he said. “Economic slavery hit our communities had and we continue to be boxed in to limited opportunities”

Unsurprisingly, Wendell and his colleagues have an unmatched desire to shrink the wealth gap in metro Chicago, with an emphasis on the South and West sides of Chicago by giving people in the community the opportunities they need to be successful. For Wendell, that means underwriting deals — deals that traditional lenders won’t touch — that will ultimately benefit both community members and the CDFI. In the past five years, Wendell has underwritten investments at Chicago Community Loan Fund that leveraged more than $443 million in real estate transactions that strengthen lower-wealth communities. “We want to allow wealth to flow,” he said. “When that wealth flows, it opens up more opportunities, because families have more to do more with. At the end of the day, our role is to help create more wealth in these communities — period.”

It Takes The Whole Village

Chicago Community Loan Fund plays a unique role in community development efforts throughout Chicago. Not only does the CDFI offer complete financing for small projects that other lenders won’t cover, but Chicago Community Loan Fund also steps in to fill credit gaps for larger projects. That was the case with Amped Kitchens Chicago: a $25.3 million deal to turn a 117,000-square-foot vacant warehouse in Chicago’s Northwest Side into an “apartment building for food companies.” While Chicago Community Loan Fund only lent $4 million to the project, Wendell and his colleagues collaborated closely with a local team of nontraditional lenders like Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago, BlueHub Capital, and Chicago PACE to bring the project to life. 

Amped Kitchens is a Los-Angeles-based “growth kitchen” company that rents out space and offers amenities and support to businesses wanting to grow. Unlike ghost kitchens, Amped Kitchens focuses more on creating space for wholesale production and distribution, including storage space, offices, conference rooms, and loading docks. Still, when Wendell initially learned that Amped Kitchens wanted to establish its third location in Chicago, he was skeptical. The concept wasn’t new to the Windy City — The Hatchery Chicago’s 67,000-square-foot facility, for example, was already one of the largest food incubation spaces in the country at the time. However, the more Wendell learned about the project, the more he understood how Amped Kitchens could serve the needs of chefs and small business owners in an important way, primarily by offering more space to entrepreneurs who’d outgrown their smaller kitchens. Additionally, given all of the factors at play, Wendell knew that this was a project that would be very difficult for a traditional lender to get behind. “This is part of the cycle of allowing entrepreneurs to really be able to stand on their own,” Wendell said. “And it’s taken the whole village. It’s taken the innovation of the folks in the kitchen, it’s taken the CDFIs’ patience to be able to figure out how to fund it, and it’s taken the large institutional investors to make this happen.”

According to Wendell, the Amped Kitchens project experienced its fair share of hurdles, including the COVID-19 pandemic; however, in October 2021, the new facility officially welcomed its first tenants. Amped Kitchens Chicago is divided into 64 commercial kitchens that range in size from 150 square feet to 2,000 square feet, and although it hasn’t reached full capacity yet, inquiries, tours, and new leases continue to trend upward. Amped Kitchens has already become an important partner in allowing local grassroots food businesses like Soul Vegan, Half Day, and Scone House Cafe to mature in Chicago, helping to give entrepreneurs another stepping stone on the path from their home kitchens to owning their own commercial real estate, having a more viable presence in the community, and building wealth. 

That’s precisely the kind of legacy that Wendell wants to leave behind. Although he isn’t preparing to retire anytime soon, Wendell wants to be able to look back at the work he’s doing at Chicago Community Loan Fund, including the Amped Kitchens project, and know that he was part of building wealth for people in his community. “I want a couple of generations down the line to be able to look back and not have to see how close they are to slavery,” Wendell said.  “I’m hoping to be able to help put the families behind these businesses in a better position to be able to pass on more wealth to their children.”

Learn More

  • Chicago Community Loan Fund is a a federally certified community development financial institution (CDFI) that provides low-cost, flexible financing and hands-on technical assistance to community development organizations for affordable housing, economic/commercial development & social service/nonprofit facility initiatives.
  • 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, Community Partners

Meet The Disability Opportunity Fund, The CDFI Behind West Virginia’s First Fully Accessible Hotel

Charlie Hammerman didn’t aspire to start his own CDFI; however, since his daughter was born with special needs in 1990, Charlie has wanted to be a change agent. Specifically, Charlie’s been on a professional mission to get people to think about and acknowledge the world that he, his family, and some 20 percent of the United States experience: a world touched by the life of someone with a disability. 

Although Charlie spent time working as a federal prosecutor and later as an in-house attorney on Wall Street, it wasn’t until his career shifted over to the capital markets arena in 1997 that Charlie began to feel like he was in a position to begin to “gently persuade” CEOs and CFOs to look at disabilities as another market for their companies. This included pushing for more representation in companies’ marketing campaigns and more targeted marketing at special needs’ communities. For example, Charlie helped Research in Motion, which was later rebranded to BlackBerry, to realize that its technology would be perfect for the hard-of-hearing and deaf communities, as it provided a means for instant communication. Within six months, the company abandoned its B2B stance and placed an advertisement in a disability magazine. It was Charlie’s first taste of being able to have an effect on mainstream America.

In the early 2000s, those experiences motivated Charlie to want to create a social impact fund on disabilities; however, those three words fell foreign on the ears of his bosses. Despite people’s lack of familiarity with social impact funds, Charlie persisted, and one conversation led to another. Finally, he connected with a colleague who told him about Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs). According to Charlie, learning about CDFIs for the first time didn’t so much illuminate what he wanted to do, it shined a light on how he could do it.

In 2005, Charlie left Merrill Lynch to found Syracuse University’s Burton Blatt Institute, an organization to advance civic, economic, and social participation of persons with disabilities in a global society. Two years later, Charlie became the university’s director of CDFI initiatives. At the same time, he received a grant from the Citigroup Foundation to hire a consultant to do a market study to determine what a disability-oriented CDFI might look like. 

Once it became clear that (1) there was an available market niche and (2) other CDFIs were excited to welcome a disability-focused peer to the table, Charlie and his wife, Nanci, launched The Disability Opportunity Fund (DOF) in 2008 to provide financing, technical services, and policy advocacy to increase access to appropriate and affordable housing and related services for people with disabilities throughout the United States. “This is an organization that came out of a lot of professional and personal experience,” Charlie said. “We created it to fill a void, and it’s really just grown from there.”

And grown it has. According to Charlie, DOF’s first few years were difficult, especially when it came to fundraising; however, the CDFI has been able to grow its total assets from $390,000 in 2008 to $71.4 million in June 2022. Despite not knowing much about the CDFI industry prior to launching their own CDFI, over the past 16 years, Charlie and Nanci have found ways to expand DOF’s portfolio, work, and team in a way that’s demonstrative of the creativity and community-mindedness that’s often associated with the industry.

‘Something That’s Never Been Done Before’

Since its inception, DOF has been on a mission to reach as many low-income people with disabilities as possible through its lending activities and technical assistance. However, while creating affordable housing units, employment opportunities, and specialized educational programs might seem typical of CDFIs, DOF has established a reputation for itself as being anything but ordinary.  

For example, in 2018, DOF got a call that eventually brought Charlie and Nanci to West Virginia for a long weekend. While the scope of the visit was to learn about the needs of the autistic community there, Charlie and Nanci also got a crash course in opioid-use disorder. That eye-opening experience was punctuated by a stop in White Sulphur Springs, where a 2016 flood had essentially wiped out the town. Charlie and Nanci lived through Superstorm Sandy; however, proportionately, White Sulphur Springs’ flood was much worse. In the town of 2,500 people, 14 died in the flash flood, and of the 1,400 single-family homes in the area, 200 were wiped away in a matter of hours. Two years later, the small town’s commercial core continued to mostly sit empty, filled with mold. 

DOF saw an opportunity to get involved. At the end of 2018, the CDFI won a federal economic redevelopment grant through the CDFI Fund. When DOF received the money in early 2019, Charlie and his team didn’t have to think hard about where they wanted to focus their efforts. They returned to White Sulphur Springs, met with a delegation that included elected officials, town elders, and local merchants, and, ultimately, purchased a city block. Over the next three years, DOF gut-renovated the buildings, including 16 apartments, and the CDFI invested in enhancements to make sure that the town center would be prepared for the next 1,000-year flood. When the work was completed, the CDFI rented out the residential units at 50% market value and the commercial spaces at $5 a square foot.

DOF’s efforts in White Sulphur Springs attracted the attention of a local family, who began redeveloping and revitalizing the other side of the street. With the town’s two-block thoroughfare revived, Charlie and his team turned their focus to the lot around the corner, where a 50,000-square-foot former high school that graduated its last class in 1993 sat vacant. After consulting with the local community and doing a needs assessment, DOF paid $1 to have the 110-year-old high school transferred to the CDFI so that DOF could redevelop it into what the community said it needed most: a hotel. 

However, Charlie and his team didn’t just want to redevelop the building into any ordinary hotel: DOF wanted to create the world’s first fully accessible hotel. “I said if we’re going to do something like this, then we’re going to do something that’s never been done before,” said Charlie. “Let’s make every room accessible and think about every form of disability so that when you walk inside, you don’t have to worry about anything.”

Importantly, despite being the first fully accessible property of its kind, in which the 30 rooms and all public spaces exceed Americans with Disability Act (ADA) standards, DOF didn’t name it The Disability Hotel. Instead, the CDFI cemented the building’s place in White Sulphur Springs’ storied history and called it The Schoolhouse Hotel. Additionally, the CDFI used the hotel to create even more economic opportunity for the local community by incorporating a restaurant and a rooftop bar. Besides catering to tourists, road-weary motorists, and hungry locals, The Schoolhouse Hotel also serves as a space for weddings, conferences, and family-oriented educational events. Today, The Schoolhouse Hotel employs roughly 40 locals, a number of whom either graduated from the high school more than three decades ago or whose parents did. The hotel also participates in various programs to train and hire people with autism, which connects back to what initially brought Charlie and Nanci to West Virginia.

Like all of the loans it has funded in its 16-year history, DOF plans to make sure that The Schoolhouse Hotel will continue to benefit White Sulphur Springs’ community members. As such, even though the CDFI currently owns the building, that won’t always be the case. According to Charlie, he would one day like to turn the hotel back over to the community in some capacity. “This isn’t open-ended,” Charlie said. “As a CDFI, we don’t do 30-year mortgages and we don’t do 15-year mortgages. We do five-year pieces of paper, because the whole idea is to use our money and then to get rid of us so that you can learn how to run that project on your own. Same thing here: the whole idea is to get this back into the local community.”

Netflix, and The Next Generation of Change Agents

In order to make The Schoolhouse Hotel a reality, DOF relied on a combination of grant money and an overall increase in net assets; however, unbeknownst to Charlie and his team at DOF, while they were revitalizing downtown White Sulphur Springs, Netflix was designing a custom note with CNote. In 2021, CNote debuted its customized impact investment offerings to allow enterprises like Netflix to invest in a portfolio of CDFI loan funds selected to meet their impact-aligned goals and to improve their performance on thematic ESG measures. Once its custom note was created, Netflix invested capital in it to support loans for businesses that, among other things, offer direct services and products for disabled populations or that employ disabled populations. Ultimately, one of the CDFIs included in Netflix’s custom note portfolio was DOF, and with Netflix’s investment, DOF was able to complete its work on The Schoolhouse Hotel.

For Charlie, the experience was more than enough to get him excited about what other opportunities might exist when CDFIs like DOF and impact-seeking enterprises like Netflix are able to connect through CNote’s custom notes. “That’s the key point of CDFIs doing the work versus a private equity firm doing the work. In looking at community revitalization, PE firms’ first priority is the financial return of a project. CDFIs are asking, ‘what’s going to make sense for this community?’ We can’t give you a 22% return on your investment like PEs, but we are going to give you a 100% return on impact.”

Going forward, Charlie expects DOF to continue its work toward ensuring that people with disabilities have access to good education, good housing, and good jobs; however, while the CDFI is committed to creative lending and specialized technical assistance, it’s equally committed to recruiting the next generation of changemakers to perpetuate the CDFI’s mission. 

Although Charlie jokes that he’d love to go out of business one day, the reality is that no one is going to work harder to support the disabled community through economic redevelopment than DOF, and until the Marriotts, Hyatts, and Hiltons of the world catch on, DOF will continue to use its platform as a CDFI to lead by example and to prove that accessibility is good for business. “Our work will never be done,” he said, “and that’s exciting. Every single day, our job is to provide the technical assistance to try to either change somebody’s life or to change policy. From day one, our job has been to be a change agent. That’s what we’re doing now, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.” 

Learn More:

  • The Disability Opportunity Fund (DOF) is a community development financial institution (CDFI), launched in April 2007, located in Rockville Centre, New York and operating nationally. They are a 501c(3) tax-exempt organization which provides financing, technical services, and policy advocacy to increase access to appropriate and affordable housing and related services for people with disabilities throughout the United States.
  • 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 VCC Bank Is Using Mission-Driven Lending To Strengthen The Commonwealth

When Virginia Community Capital was established by a group of bipartisan state legislators in 2006, the goal was to create a business model that would attract social investors near and far to create jobs, enhance the quality of life, and promote vibrant communities in historically underserved areas across the state. Part of that business model meant structuring the organization to be both a nonprofit Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) loan fund and a for-profit CDFI bank, VCC Bank. Like other CDFIs, Virginia Community Capital and VCC Bank provide credit and financial services to people, businesses, and communities not served by traditional lenders. 

Photo credit: Virginia Community Capital / Photographer: Nick Davis Photography

VCC Bank, however, goes even further to challenge the narrative of what it means to be a traditional lender. Not only was VCC Bank one of the first regulated banks in the country to be designated as a Benefit Corporation (B Corp), but the bank is owned by a nonprofit (VCC Social Enterprises, a new holding company formed in 2021). That means that in addition to adhering to standards set forth by B Lab Global, VCC Bank’s shareholders are interested in more than quarterly dividends: they’re interested in tracking the impact created from their dollars. Fortunately, that impact is measurable. At its founding, Virginia Community Capital was seeded with a $15 million loan. Since then, the organization has turned that original investment into nearly $2 billion in statewide impact.

Over the years, VCC Bank has created the reputation for itself as being the “first in” on high-impact community projects that other lenders won’t touch. In general, those projects fall into one of four lending areas: small business, real estate, clean energy, and healthy food. Since its inception, VCC-financed projects have created over 11,000 affordable housing units, supported 30 food-access projects, backed 26 health-related initiatives, and generated or retained nearly 14,000 jobs. Additionally, VCC Bank staff provide thousands of hours of free advising to community members, including Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) and women small business owners. “A lot of these business owners feel that their needs aren’t being met or that the standards elsewhere are such that they don’t qualify for lending,” said Joey Barnes, VCC Bank’s small business lending manager. “Here, we get the opportunity to educate business owners so that they can then work with their bookkeepers to make sure that when they come back to the bank, their loan package is properly prepared.”

Photo credit: Virginia Community Capital / Photographer: Nick Davis Photography

Another way VCC Bank is supporting BIPOC and women small business owners is through its Economic Equity Fund: a $10 million loan fund that provides low-cost financing and technical assistance to entrepreneurs who were disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and who weren’t able to take advantage of PPP funds. According to Joey, the fund has enjoyed a tremendous amount of success in just a short period of time. Since April 2021, VCC Bank has provided about a dozen small business loans totaling approximately $3.3 million. Thanks to a grant, VCC Bank will be able to extend those fund benefits into the future, including free consulting to qualifying small businesses throughout the state.

‘Opportunities Find Us’

When Bill Greenleaf joined VCC Bank as its senior vice president of real estate lending seven years ago, he was thrilled to have the opportunity to combine his background working in real estate finance with his interest in solar energy to help create VCC Bank’s clean energy loan program. Similar to its other lending programs, VCC Bank steps in to make clean energy loans — primarily relating to solar energy projects — when other banks aren’t willing to get involved, either because a given project is too small or because banks don’t want to invest the requisite time to “figure out how to do it,” says Bill. According to him, even though these projects tend to be small, they have high mission impact, as they often provide free solar energy to low- and moderate-income households. 

Bill Greenleaf, SVP of Real Estate Lending and Joey Barnes, SVP, Small Business Lending Manager. Photo credit: Virginia Community Capital / Photographer: Nick Davis Photography

Given its roots in Virginia, it’s not surprising that VCC Bank has done solar lending across the commonwealth, as well as in the District of Columbia; however, the organization has also done loans in places like New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, and Tennessee. Interestingly, VCC Bank’s expansion into neighboring states isn’t a result of proactive marketing efforts. Instead, Bill says that VCC Bank is able to make those loans for two reasons. First, traditional lenders’ avoidance of clean energy lending isn’t unique to Virginia. Second, VCC Bank enjoys a robust referral network that extends beyond Virginia’s borders. “We’ve developed some expertise, and we’re willing to lend out of state and to look at larger deals,” Bill said. “People hear about us, and because we’re willing to work on oddball deals, opportunities tend to find us.”

“Oddball deals” finding VCC Bank isn’t unique to its solar energy lending program. Whether it’s on the affordable housing side, the small business side, or the healthy food side, the bank’s lending team enjoys a remarkable number of incoming leads. Obviously, not all of those inquiries turn into deals; but, just last week, VCC Bank approved a loan to a nonprofit so that the nonprofit can continue its work supporting approximately 80 disadvantaged farmers and grain processors in Virginia while it waits for grant reimbursements from The United States Department of Agriculture. Over the next year, as the grant money comes in, the nonprofit will pay down its loan with VCC Bank. “We’re providing some of the upfront capital to help those farmers,” said Joey. “That’s just one example of how we’ve shifted to trying to serve producers, aggregators, and processors instead of retailers with our food access financing.”

Photo credit: Virginia Community Capital / Photographer: Nick Davis Photography

Going forward, VCC Bank plans to improve and expand upon its four lending programs while paying attention to evolving community needs. Although it’s too soon to know how the market will shape its future operations, one thing remains certain: whether it’s creating affordable housing, working with small business owners, funding clean energy projects, or investing in local farmers, VCC Bank will continue to meet the needs of the community when other banks won’t. According to Bill, continuing to forge strong partnerships will be key to the social impact lender’s future success. For example, in 2020, VCC Bank became one of CNote’s Impact Cash™ partners, which allowed it to greatly reduce its reliance on the kind of higher cost  deposits it previously needed to meet its increasing loan demand. However, thanks to its partnership with CNote, VCC Bank hasn’t had to book any wholesale funds in the last 12months. “We’re always trying to streamline the loan capital we provide,” said Teresa Martin, VCC Bank’s Director of Deposits, “and CNote’s Impact Cash™ solution is really allowing us to be more impactful with our dollars.” 

Photo credit: Virginia Community Capital / Photographer: Nick Davis Photography

Learn More:

  • Virginia Community Capital is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) with a mission to create jobs, energize places, and promote an enhanced quality of life for Virginians.
  • 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

How The Council On Alcoholism And Drug Abuse Of Northwest Louisiana Is Leveraging A Credit Union Partnership To Rebuild People’s Self-Worth

Bill Rose recently celebrated a big milestone: 34 years of sobriety. That also happens to be nearly how long Bill has been active in rehabilitation facilities. Six months into his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, Bill began volunteering in drug treatment programs. At the time, he worked for a local oil company, but he also helped out at a hospital-based inpatient recovery program near where he lived in Louisiana. When Bill was laid off from his job in 1989, his life could have spiraled back to late nights out and high-risk activities; however, instead, Bill continued forward on his path of recovery. 

Bill Rose, Executive Director of CADA

That’s because Bill was connected with Dan Talley, the Executive Director of The Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse of Northwest Louisiana (CADA). Dan’s wife, Bonnie, worked at the hospital where Bill volunteered, and when she heard that Bill was out of work, she introduced the two to each other. One week later, Bill was a full-time CADA employee. “CADA embraced me and gave me a place to land,” said Bill. “They helped to mentor me, support my recovery, and keep me in a safe place, and my career kind of took off from there.”

CADA was established in 1958. Since then, the nonprofit private health organization has continuously provided substance abuse and addiction treatment services to Northwest Louisiana. Today, CADA offers 12 programs out of four facilities that serve Shreveport, Bossier, Many, and many rural areas across Louisiana, including at every horse racetrack in the state. The nonprofit prides itself on offering services to anyone, including adults and teens, regardless of their ability to pay. CADA is able to do this through a wide variety of payment options that include Medicaid, private insurance, and, in some cases, state funding.

According to Bill, CADA helped him get into counseling, and after five or six years, he left the nonprofit to pursue opportunities that he never would have had without Dan Talley’s guidance and CADA’s support. However, in 1998, when a management position opened up at CADA, Bill didn’t have to think twice about whether or not to apply. He got the job, returned to CADA, and Dan Talley became his boss. Bill’s been at CADA ever since.

Over the years, Bill has served a number of roles at CADA. He’s been a program manager of the nonprofit’s drug court program, helping clients to avoid jail time by coaching them through an intensive, long-term recovery path. Additionally, Bill was a program director at one of CADA’s detox centers, during which time he was also responsible for a 71-bed care facility. More recently, since early 2012, Bill has served as CADA’s Executive Director, leading a team of roughly 100, which includes full-time, part-time, and contracted employees.

According to Bill, although it wasn’t easy to transition away from counseling and programming, he felt like stepping in to serve as executive director was something he needed to do. “Dan Talley left such an impression on me,” Bill said. “For whatever reason, he took an interest in my recovery and taught me how to be a counselor, and when he died, I said that I was going to commit myself to doing whatever CADA needed me to do.”

Bill Rose and Walter Abney, a Peer Support Specialist

Although these days Bill spends most of his time working with CADA’s accounting department, human resources staff members, and development team, he also gets to work closely with Susan Garcia, CADA’s Director of Client Relations and Engagement. Like Bill, and roughly half of CADA’s workforce, Susan is in recovery. However, when Susan first walked through CADA’s doors, she was wearing shackles. She completed CADA’s recovery program, applied for a cook job at the nonprofit, and steadily climbed the ranks to her current position. Susan played a vital role in CADA opening a location in Many, her rural hometown where she knew firsthand that there was a need for addiction recovery services. Today, Susan holds the honor of being Louisiana’s Peer Recovery Support Specialist of the Year.

“I still get chill bumps when I think about how Susan walked into our facility literally in shackles and now she’s in a position probably more than me to help people recover,” said Bill. “That story never gets old. That’s the cool part of being sober for 34 years: it’s to see the light come on in a person that’s broken, and their lives start progressing along in a manner that they didn’t even imagine.” 

The Financial Piece of Recovery

Two years ago, Susan happened to meet Cyndi Phillips at a fundraiser event with a CADA alumni group. Cyndi is the Director of Community Development at ANECA Federal Credit Union, a Louisiana-based credit union that first opened in 1939. CNote invests Impact CashTM dollars in mission-driven and FDIC- and NCUA-insured credit union partners like ANECA, generating returns on institutional investors’ cash allocations while supporting financially underserved communities across the country.

Cyndi and Susan met for lunch to discuss how they might work together, and ever since, ANECA has been one of CADA’s most supportive community partners. According to Susan, the credit union participates in just about every event that CADA hosts, and Cyndi is a regular fixture at CADA’s open houses and weekly Friday graduations, at which the credit union supplies the caps and gowns. “ANECA is a joy to work with,” Susan said, “and Cyndi supports everything we do.”

Susan Garcia and Tine Jolley, HR Manager at CADA

Importantly, ANECA also offers CADA clients financial literacy classes, which include training on how to detect and avoid predatory lending. Additionally, ANECA helps to get CADA clients on the path to opening up checking and savings accounts, as well as improving their credit scores. These are vital services, considering that many of CADA’s clients don’t have a state-issued identification card or driver’s license and would otherwise be unable to open a bank account. 

According to Bill, giving CADA’s clients the opportunity to take their cash and put it safely into an ANECA account is an important part of the recovery journey. “Money can be a trigger,” he said, “so for a big percentage of the folks that we treat, it’s not a good practice to keep money in your pocket. Bringing in a lending institution like ANECA has been beneficial for folks getting on their feet.” 

That was the case for Susan. According to her, before she was sober, and even early into her recovery, she thought that having a bank account was out of reach. However, thankfully, she was given the opportunity to open an account: a seemingly small accomplishment that helped to propel her forward in her recovery. That’s because, as she described it, having a bank account boosted her self-esteem and made her feel like a human again.

“Addiction has a significant impact in every area of a person’s life, including banking,” said Bill. “When we’re able to help someone get that first checking or savings account, do you know what it does for their self-esteem and self-worth? I can’t put a dollar value to it. The financial piece is a big part of the puzzle of trying to get some stability in life, and it’s amazing to see how ANECA’s work plays a part in people’s recovery.”

Learn More

  • The Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse of Northwest Louisiana (CADA)  is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, private health organization providing substance abuse services.
  • ANECA Federal Credit Union, a Louisiana-based credit union that first opened in 1939.
  • CNoteCNote is a women-led impact platform on a mission to close the wealth gap through financial innovation. Using the power of technology and a community-first framework, CNote enables corporations and individuals to efficiently invest at scale in fixed income and time deposit products that advance economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and climate change initiatives.
By Borrower Stories

How Terri-Nichelle Bradley is Bringing Black Representation To Target’s Toy Aisles

Terri-Nichelle Bradley used to be frustrated with her job. What had begun as an exciting career with Sesame Street Live had shifted to working for a multi-national public relations agency. If handling corporate crisis communications wasn’t enough, Terri-Nichelle also had to carry the burden of being the senior-most Black woman at the company. She was tokenized by her white colleagues and saddled with the weight of expectation from her junior Black peers. According to Terri-Nichelle, she used to sit in her car every day and cry. She was miserable, and eventually, she was fired.

That’s when a 40-year-old Terri-Nichelle went on a quest to find her purpose — luckily, she didn’t have to travel far. On a popular mountaintop outside of Atlanta, Terri-Nichelle put the question “what am I supposed to be doing?” out into the ether. The answer she received was “look at your life.” Her subsequent reflections took her back to her Minnesotan childhood, where Terri-Nichelle’s mother surrounded her family with Black art and kept Black magazines on the coffee table. Even though she wasn’t necessarily surrounded by neighbors who looked like her, Terri-Nichelle grew up knowing that Black people could be successful. As a child, that knowledge allowed her to dream.

As Terri-Nichelle looked back at the Black representation that had been so integral to her upbringing, she had her mountaintop aha moment. As a mother of four, she’d been hearing more and more about the leaky STEAM pipeline — the educational pathway for students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics in which underrepresented minorities, including women, often fall through the cracks. Terri-Nichelle wondered what she could do to reverse that trend. After some research, she decided to start Brown Toy Box, an educational play-kit company that makes toys to get BIPOC kids excited about STEAM careers.

Terri-Nichelle launched her company as a subscription service in October of 2017. By June the following year, she shut it down. According to her, she didn’t have the requisite business acumen, which meant that Brown Toy Box had been destined to fail fast from the beginning. However, Terri-Nichelle wasn’t discouraged. She’d learned about her customers and the market, and she was willing to give it another shot. “I said to myself, ‘if you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it right,” Terri-Nichelle said. “‘You’re going to have to do the training so that you can be very intentional and purposeful about how you’re going to relaunch this business.’”

Try, Try Again

Terri-Nichelle did just that. In total, she participated in eight incubator and accelerator programs. Terri-Nichelle decided to evolve away from subscription boxes, and although she still wanted to build her business around educational kits, she wanted to be “a creator of product, instead of a curator of product,” as she puts it. Despite the fact that she never wrote a book about astronomy or made puzzles about marine biology, Terri-Nichelle believed that, ultimately, it was better to believe in herself rather than to rely upon other small business owners to make Brown Toy Box work. “I’d never created anything like this before,” she said, laughing. “But I was like, ‘I can do it.’ It’s the audacity of just believing in yourself.”

Come the beginning of 2019, Terri-Nichelle was ready to make her second attempt at Brown Toy Box. She’d hired a toy designer, she’d created the Dadisi Academy crew (Black students at a fictitious school named after the Swahili word for “curious”), and she’d designed themed kits around subjects like chemistry, robotics, and coding. Initially, Brown Toy Box returned to selling primarily to schools, however, the company also began to sell direct-to-consumer. That’s when COVID-19 hit. The pandemic effectively paused all of Terri-Nichelle’s business operations. As schools shifted to remote learning, budgets were redistributed to provide hotspots and laptops for students, not educational kits. 

That’s when Terri-Nichelle got scrappy. She stopped paying herself and she grew her business into a full-scale educational toy manufacturing company that produces and curates STEAM toys and experiences for children, grades pre-k through 6th. Every toy, game, activity, piece of media, and DIY experience focuses on promoting inclusivity, celebrating Black children, cultivating curiosity, normalizing Black excellence, and building skills that create pathways to prosperous careers. When schools were once again ready to sign contracts and distribute Brown Toy Box kits to students in August 2020, so was Terri-Nichelle. “It’s about all kids having access to these toys,” she said, “because that’s how we’re going to change the narrative, and that’s how we’re going to make sure that Black people aren’t just seen as the athletes and entertainers.”

On Target

In January 2021, Terri-Nichelle got her biggest opportunity yet — pitching the toy buyers at Target Corporation. The meeting was on a Friday, and on the following Monday, Terri-Nichelle got the call: the retail giant wanted Brown Toy Box in every one of its stores. It was wonderful news, but it was also daunting. Despite previous funding she received from the Google for Startups Black Founders Fund and SheEO that helped her to grow during the pandemic, Terri-Nichelle didn’t have the money to ramp up production to meet demand — Target wanted nearly 40,000 kits. Terri-Nichelle reached out to her network to fundraise. “We didn’t have enough revenue to qualify for a bank loan,” she said. “One of my mentors who leads a bank told me ‘we won’t look at you for another couple of years.’”

Fortunately, Terri-Nichelle had previously been co-located in an incubator with Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE), a Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) that works in 68 counties in Georgia. CNote partners with CDFIs like ACE in communities across America, funding loans to small businesses, providing technical assistance, and empowering local entrepreneurs like Terri-Nichelle. 

Terri-Nichelle reached out to ACE, and the CDFI was able to get the toy manufacturer the necessary financing needed to execute the Target deal. Although the larger deal was eventually underwritten by many participating institutions, ACE funded the first $500,000 to Terri-Nichelle, which allowed Brown Toy Box to secure the inventory needed to enter 1,757 Target stores. However, in addition to lending, the CDFI’s founder and CEO, Grace Fricks, became a vocal advocate for Terri-Nichelle, and it helped to bring other Atlanta partners — including the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative, 1863 Ventures, and Invest Atlanta — to the table to provide additional funding for Brown Toy Box’s inventory rollout across the country. 

“The reason that we are where we are right now is because we were able to get the capital,” Terri-Nichelle said. “That happened because some really strong women in the investment and finance sectors really showed up for me. So many small businesses have to leave Atlanta, and these women said ‘we want to change that narrative: we don’t want entrepreneurs to have to leave this city in order to make things happen. Women-owned businesses need that type of advocacy, because you don’t usually find it.”

Target Practice for the Future

According to Terri-Nichelle, once the ball started rolling, it never stopped. With funding in one hand and Target purchase orders in the other, she set out to secure office space, forge new partnerships, and grow her team. That’s when ACE provided Terri-Nichelle with technical assistance: the CDFI advised her on hiring and it reviewed contracts for her, particularly as she built out her executive team. “I’d never hired like this before,” she said, “so they were able to use their expertise to help me think through those important things.”

Terri-Nichelle fulfilled every one of those purchase orders, and Target has been selling Brown Toy Box products in its stores and online since October 2021. However, Terri-Nichelle and her team — which includes her two oldest sons — didn’t stop there. The company has a new partnership with Lakeshore Learning, its kits are available for purchase at The Village Retail, and it’s finalizing a partnership with Microsoft that will take the Dadisi Academy crew online by September 2022. If that wasn’t enough, Terri-Nichelle is also working on a licensing deal with a major global brand. According to Terri-Nichelle, she’s projecting $3.5 million in sales in 2022, which is up from $1 million in 2021 and $220,000 in 2020. 

Unsurprisingly, Terri-Nichelle is dreaming big for Brown Toy Box’s future. She wants to turn the Dadisi Academy into an animated series and she wants her company to be a global force of play-based, culturally responsive education. “We really want to blow out any limitations that anybody has ever put on us, including those limitations that we put on ourselves,” said Terri-Nichelle. “We can change the trajectory of so many kids’ lives. My goal is for a kid to walk up to me in 15 years and say ‘I’m a chemist because of Brown Toy Box. That’s my goal, and that’s my purpose.”

Learn More

  • Brown Toy Boxan educational play-kit company that makes toys to get BIPOC kids excited about STEAM careers.
  • 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 Terri-Nichelle’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 Kaua’i Federal Credit Union, The CDFI Investing In Its Island Community

“I never thought I would end up working in a financial institution,” says Ivory Lloyd of Kaua’i FCU. Samoan born and raised on Kauaʻi, in her college years, she worked in non-profits mainly focused on sustainability. With an undergraduate degree in political science and an international master’s degree in sustainable development and corporate social responsibility, she had an ideal background for cooperative finance, but the financial services industry was the last place she thought she would find herself. 

Ivory Lloyd, COVID Recovery Program Manager at Kaua’i Federal Credit Union

Global travel led her back to her home on the island of Kauaʻi and after becoming a mom of two boys, Ivory started a business, The Lei Collective, teaching lei making. She realized quickly that her business, which was hosting workshops on how to make lei poʻo (Hawaiian flower crowns) was really more about creating spaces for people to gather than it was about working with flowers. Her lei poʻo workshops created the opportunity for her to meet women from around the world who, like her, were mothers or entrepreneurs, looking to do something constructive but also meaningful on a personal level.

“Finding time for yourself, as a mother or female entrepreneur, is no easy task,” she admits. “I discovered that women loved attending my lei workshops because it allowed them time to be surrounded by other women, and enjoy making something beautiful for themselves.” Quickly, she realized her ʻsuper powerʻ, inspired by the flowers, was in gathering people together and weaving their talents and conversations into a whole, a process embodied in the creation of a lei. When the pandemic hit, this opportunity to foster community through the business of lei making was put on hold. The silver lining was that COVID opened up time for her to pivot, as it did for many entrepreneurs. 

Kauaʻi is one of the smallest and most remote land masses on earth. In 1992, Hurricane Iniki caused devastating damage to the island. It is in times of great adversity that Kauaʻi and its community shine the brightest. Due to the inability of large groups to meet, Kauaʻi FCU began hosting small pau hana (after hours gatherings) at their newly opened Kilauea branch. The new branch provided a space for community members and leaders to meet, connect and talk about their challenges at a time when everything was shut down. Ivory attended, with a few other community members, and it was then that her interest in community building began to take a sharper focus. For the first time, she learned the distinction between credit unions and banks. The social mission behind credit unions and the way Kauaʻi FCU ʻfeltʻ and was being led, were completely different than any other financial institution she had ever known. 

“I knew nothing about credit unions until that day, and from that day forward, when I met with Monica (Belz, CEO at Kauaʻi FCU) and her team, all I knew was that I didn’t care how or when, but that I wanted to be a part of it,” she says. 

Starting as a teller, Ivory was able to meet the members and learn the mechanics of the credit union. She began helping Kauaʻi FCU’s Community Development team with rent relief programs including a program with Aloha United Way that no other credit union on Kauaʻi was involved in. In 2021, when it was clear the pandemic was not over, Kauaʻi FCU created a new position, COVID Recovery Program Manager, with a sole focus on creating economic resiliency for Kauaʻi. Ivory jumped into the role with trademark enthusiasm and was able to bring her work as a small business owner, mother and resident of Kauaʻi into full play. “I love bringing people together and I love to connect with them,” she says. “This really translates into the work that I do now, as an advocate for small businesses within the credit union space. I figure out how we can support them (however it may be) as a financial institution.” 

As the only credit union CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution) on the island of Kauaʻi, Kaua’i FCU is building resiliency in a network of public, non-profit and private sector partnerships in a way that has never been done before.

Tackling Kauaʻi’s Biggest Challenges

In 1947 — 12 years before Hawaiʻi became a state — Kauai Territorial County Federal Credit Union was established to provide county, state, and federal government employees and their families with basic financial support, and to invest in and grow the quality of life on the island. The credit union changed its name in 1990 to Kauaʻi Government Employees Federal Credit Union, and in November 2021, simplified it to Kaua’i Federal Credit Union. As its history suggests, the credit union’s membership primarily includes government employees and first responders, however, Kaua’i Federal Credit Union serves all of Kaua’i, and everyone can be eligible to join. This is a plus, considering that locals —  from keiki (children) to kupuna (elders) — face many of the same challenges living on Kauaʻi as their ancestors did. These challenges include a lack of affordable housing, natural disasters, and over reliance on a tourism driven economy. Unsurprisingly, each of these challenges was exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a partner of CNote’s Impact CashTM program, Kauaʻ’i Federal Credit Union has access to low-cost capital that it invests in its community. As an MDI with CDFI certification, Kauaʻi FCU has gained access to a lifeline of US treasury funds that channel resources to undercapitalized communities and create opportunities for local businesses and generate positive social impact. It couldnʻt be more needed. 

Here are three ways that Kaua’i Federal Credit Union is leveraging CNote’s Impact CashTM dollars in its community:

1. Rental Relief. At a time when mainland billionaires are gobbling up land on Kauaʻi, many locals live paycheck to paycheck, thus making Kaua’i Federal Credit Union’s Rent Relief and Housing Stability program one of its most impactful. Thanks to CDFI funding, the credit union partnered with the county to launch its Coronavirus Rent and Utility Assistance (CRUA). To date, the credit union has deployed more than $22 million to assist over 2,500 households. The program aims to create housing security for all Kauaʻi residents, regardless of whether they’re members of the credit union or not. “This is one of our strengths as a credit union,” says Ivory. “When we see an opportunity where we can be the conduit to support our community in ways that they otherwise would not have been able to: we say yes, 100%, we are in.”

Although there’s little that Kauaʻi Federal Credit Union can do to address the high cost of living, what it can do through rent relief is ensure that income disparity doesn’t drive local residents off the island. Anecdotally, Ivory shared this story:

“Kaua’i is a small island and our communities are even smaller. The people that we are helping to get rent relief are not just names and numbers on a spreadsheet; they are our friends, our kupuna, our neighbors, and our families! Every week I get a dozen texts thanking us for helping them with their rent, or asking us to come over and help them fill out paperwork. That’s what we do, we are small but we know our community because it is us. Just the other evening, we were watching the sunset on the beach and one of the guys who we had helped get rental relief came in from surfing, ran down the beach to me and said, ʻI didn’t think this could happen.’ He was in disbelief. Because of our rental relief program, he was able to save some money and go to school to become an EMT. Ensuring that the kids who grew up on Kauaʻi are able to survive the pandemic and better themselves is one of the impacts that this rental relief program is having.”

(From left to right) Monica Belz-President and CEO, Chantal Zarbaugh-Business Development Officer, Dana Hazelton- Community Development Officer, and Ivory Lloyd- COVID Recovery Program Manager.

2. Environmental Resilience. Kaua’i has an abundance of natural beauty but more and more, the island is subject to devastating natural disasters. While most people think of firefighters, police officers, and lifeguards as first responders, Kaua’i Federal Credit Union is also a first responder. Because Ivory and her colleagues are so connected to the community, the credit union is always just a text message away from responding to the next emergency and providing assistance in whatever ways it can. “We are always trying to think about how we can best prepare ourselves to be ready for anything,” says Ivory. “It’s part of our DNA.”

For example, in March 2021, following a major landslide in an area still recovering from catastrophic flooding, Kauai Federal Credit Union’s Monica Belz and the Community Development team launched the Hawai’i Sister Society via zoom at 8:00 a.m. By 10:00 a.m, they were in boots and gear, packed up to bring a truck load of food across the Hanalei River in a dinghy boat with other community members. With road access cut off in and out of Hanalei, Ivory set up a pop-up branch on the North side of the river to offer financial services, provide rental relief and accept deposits while roads and bridges were repaired. “I’ve never seen this from a financial institution,” Ivory says, “but this is who we are. We are a really small community, and this is one of our superpowers as a credit union: we show up.” 

3. Economic Diversification. Like the rest of Hawai’i, Kauaʻi’s economy centers around tourism. When the COVID-19 pandemic grounded planes on the mainland, the island instantly lost its major revenue stream. Once this happened, Ivory says people began to realize that they needed to do things differently, including thinking about their shared economic sustainability. As the owner of a small business that primarily catered to tourists, she herself had to think about how she could pivot her business to be tied more to Kaua’i and less to those visiting it. 

Programmatically, Kaua’i Federal Credit Union is also addressing this issue. First, the credit union immersed itself in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), distributing loans ranging from $300 to $300,000. These forgivable loans helped to keep small businesses afloat during the worst of the pandemic so that entrepreneurs had the necessary time to make changes for the future. To date, Kaua’i Federal Credit Union has deployed $24.2M in COVID relief.

Ally and Gabe Avalon, owners of Avalon Gastropub, were recipients of a PPP loan from Kaua’i Federal Credit Union

Secondly, the credit union partnered with Common Ground Kauai, launching an incubator program to help local small businesses to create and export agriculturally based products. Thirdly, the credit union collaborated with the nonprofit Lady Entrepreneurs + Innovators of Kauai to create women-focused courses on marketing, finance, and business. “We had women who worked in the tourism industry for 20+ years,” says Ivory. “When the tourism industry shut down, a lot of people made their side gigs their main gigs, so we created these courses to give them whatever they needed to help them succeed.” 

As the pandemic continues to change everyday life, Ivory’s position as the COVID Recovery Program Manager will become more focused on creating a resilient and diverse economy so the island can thrive in the long term. Whatever this looks like – whether through rental relief, small business wrap around services, or the creation of innovative lending products for the next generation of homeowners, Kauaʻi FCU is on the front lines every day. “We know that infusing capital back into our communities to support a more cyclical economy will ensure our island and its people can thrive and become a model for other places around the world.”

Learn More:

  • Kaua’i Federal Credit Union helps the people of Kaua’i by keeping money on the island for a stronger financial future for our people. They offer their members the financial services and products that are right for them at preferable rates and at little or no cost, ensuring the wellness and wealth of future generations.
  • 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, Community Partners

How Metropolitan Economic Development Association Is Scaling Itself To Shrink Minnesota’s Racial Wealth Gap

Over the course of their careers as inpatient nurses, Murwo Elmi, Ikraan Abdulle, Farhia Abdulahi, and Faiso Abdulle have seen a bit of everything. From their first shifts, the Minneapolis-based health professionals have cared for patients struggling with mental health, chemical dependence, physical and cognitive limitations, and homelessness. After 10 years, however, the group shared a similar realization: once their patients were released back into their communities, they didn’t have the support and stability necessary to avoid becoming either hospitalized or institutionalized again.

The OurPlace Residential Services team: (from left to right) Farhia Abdulahi, Ikraan Abdulle, Murwo Elmi, Faiso Abdulle

In 2017, the quartet started having a conversation about how their marginalized patients could be better served. Rather than establish a group home, the Somali-born nurses wanted to create a community space that fostered healing, independence, and stability. They called it OurPlace Residential Services. “There’s a need for this population to be served in a community setting,” said Ikraan. “Instead of being institutionalized, we wanted to be able to work with individuals and to address their social needs through community support, which is essential to everyone’s health.” “Patients need a stable home where they can see themselves for a long time,” added Faiso. “Not a 30-day shelter.”

According to the nurses, their vision to establish such a space had never been done before — at least not in Minneapolis. However, regardless of how much research the team did to educate themselves on how to create the best possible programs, policies, and protocols, one daunting challenge remained: securing the capital necessary to acquire an apartment building and to renovate it to meet their needs. The entrepreneuring nurses approached multiple banks in Minnesota, but they were told the same thing everytime: they didn’t have the necessary collateral or capital to turn their dream into a reality. 

The Creativity To Say ‘Yes’

That’s when the nurses at OurPlace Residential Services connected with Patrick Pariseau, the vice president of lending and client services at Metropolitan Economic Development Association (Meda). Founded in 1971, Meda is a Minneapolis-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that works exclusively with Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) entrepreneurs. In its first 50 years, Meda has served more than 25,000 BIPOC entrepreneurs, helping to build generational  wealth and to address the racial wealth gap in the communities it serves. Meda partners with CNote through the fintech company’s Wisdom Fund, which was set up to serve the exact demographic that the CDFI strives to empower.

Eleven years ago, Patrick stepped out of semi-retirement to join Meda’s team. After 30 years of banking, Patrick wasn’t seeking another job, but one of his friends who worked at Meda asked him if he would be interested in helping out with a couple of the CDFI’s loans. Patrick said “yes,” and less than three months later, he was a full-time Meda employee. When Patrick joined Meda, the CDFI had 14 loans in its portfolio. Today, the CDFI has a portfolio of 647 loans, totaling approximately $21 million. That amount is quickly growing to $40 million. 

Patrick Pariseau, Meda’s Vice President of Lending

That growth, in part, is thanks to the work Meda was able to do during the second round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) lending. Meda tapped into its local community and told everyone from CPAs to other lenders to send any sole proprietor and small business owner who needed help to contact the CDFI. Incredibly, with only two employees dedicated to PPP, Meda deployed 467 loans to local small business owners: approximately $11 million. Each of those loans went to a BIPOC entrepreneur, and 97% of those entrepreneurs identified as Black or African American. To date, 97% of Meda’s PPP loans have been forgiven. 

While those numbers speak for themselves, Patrick gets more excited about how the CDFI is able to achieve those lofty numbers and to create tangible impact in its community. According to him, Meda’s success is rooted in the following:

1. Creativity is in Meda’s DNA. “You have to be creative in this business,” Patrick said. “There are things we can do as a CDFI that banks can’t do.” For example, like other CDFIs, Meda’s underwriters place less emphasis on a small business owner’s credit score and more emphasis elsewhere, such as the person’s character and the business’ scalability. The CDFI also double weights cash flow, which allows for more entrepreneurs to qualify for lending. “Businesses run on cash flow,” said Patrick. “That’s the way it should be underwritten.”

Meda believes so much in the importance of cash flow that its primary lending product is built around it. Meda is one of the few CDFIs in the country to offer operating lines of credit. According to Patrick, operating lines of credit require fewer dollars and effectively allow the CDFI to deploy more loans to more small business owners. Patrick refers to it as an “equity product,” because the loans have modified, interest-only payment terms and they give small business owners the opportunity to put their cash back into their young businesses. “People need to put payments into their business, not the banking system,” he said.

2. Meda is scaling to the size of the problem. Like CDFIs across the country, Meda invests in small businesses not just so they can keep the doors open, but so they can grow. However, while many small-but-mighty CDFIs bend over backwards to help entrepreneurs scale their businesses, Patrick says that many CDFIs forget that they too need to scale. 

Not Meda. Thanks to a technology grant, the CDFI is currently piloting a new, integrated computer system — the same one commercial banks use — to be able to offer automated loan applications from anywhere in the country. Similarly, Meda invested in state-of-the-art underwriting software that’s been rated as one of the top five scalable systems in the country to help businesses grow. According to Patrick, that’s why Meda was able to meet the community’s PPP demands: the CDFI had already laid the foundation for itself to grow. “We’re scaling Meda to the size of the problems here in the Twin Cities,” he said. “These disparities aren’t going away unless we scale and continue to deepen our impact.”

3. Meda views banks as partners. Having spent three decades in banking, Patrick knows that banks aren’t CDFIs’ enemies: banks are regulated. However, even though Meda can be creative to serve its community in flexible ways that banks can’t, the CDFI still works very closely with local financial institutions. Because Meda strives to help its borrowers scale to over $1 million in revenue in less than 36 months, Patrick says that it’s in banks’ best interests to refer customers to Meda’s technical assistance programs. 

Meda has a few business consultants on staff; however, to scale its impact, the CDFI created what it calls the Volunteer Accelerator Network, where skilled volunteers virtually assist entrepreneurs through curricula designed to prepare small business owners to be successful. “We know that technical assistance works,“ Patrick said, “and if a bank refers a client to us and if they become successful, then I’m going to send that business owner back to that bank, because that means Meda can recycle its cash quicker and deploy another loan. That leverage is crucial for us.”

Additionally, every year, Meda deploys $20-$40 million in companion financing with partner banks, primarily in the form of real estate deals. For example, Meda is involved with a $6 million deal to build Minnesota’s first detox center for women. The CDFI invested $2 million in the project, and a partnering community bank put up the remaining $4 million. “The bank feels more comfortable with it because they got less risk,” Patrick said. “And because we all worked to make it happen, somebody gets a new building and a brand new business opportunity that’ll pay taxes and hire workers. That’s what it’s all about.”

Kari Groth Swan, Meda’s Director of Philanthropy and Investment and Patrick Pariseau, Meda’s Vice President of Lending

It Takes A Village

In fact, after saying “no,” a bank referred the nurses behind OurPlace Residential Services to Meda. The bank knew it was the exact kind of project that Meda would want to fund. That’s because in addition to supporting BIPOC and women entrepreneurs, Meda is committed to revitalizing neighborhoods through commercial diversification. To do that, the CDFI favors working with entrepreneurs in struggling neighborhoods who own non-retail companies like manufacturing facilities, medical clinics, and child care centers. Additionally, Meda works closely with aging small business owners to sell their businesses to BIPOC entrepreneurs to help create neighborhood sustainability. By choosing to take on a more eclectic portfolio of small business borrowers, Meda is doing its part to revitalize neighborhoods in its community. 

Unsurprisingly, Meda was behind OurPlace Residential Services from the very beginning. The CDFI leveraged its contacts in the real estate community to locate a promising apartment building, and it was unfazed by the $2.5 million price tag to acquire and renovate it. Patrick had trust in his construction background, and Meda is engaging with potential funding partners, like the City of Minneapolis, to position OurPlace Residential Services’ new building for success.

Thanks to Meda, OurPlace Residential Services is on course to open its building to its first 14 clients later this year. The nurses have already grown their team to 15 direct support staff members: a number that is likely to keep growing. That’s because, longterm, OurPlace Residential Services’ goal is to help eliminate housing instability and homelessness in its community. To do that, the nurses want to multiply their innovative model for patient-centered care across the Twin Cities metropolitan area, providing long-term housing opportunities to patients, regardless of where they are in their recovery journey.

In pursuit of that goal, OurPlace Residential Services will continue to rely on and collaborate with community partners like Meda. “Sometimes, we look at one another, and we say ‘is this really happening?’” said Murwo. “It’s amazing, and we couldn’t have done it without Meda taking that chance on us. We needed an ally who had the knowledge and understood the community’s needs, and we needed a champion that really loved the idea. That’s what we got with Meda. They made this happen.”

Learn More

  • OurPlace Residential Services
  • Metropolitan Economic Development Association (Meda) was founded in 1971 with a mission of Helping BIPOC Entrepreneurs Succeed.
  • CNote is a women-led impact platform on a mission to close the wealth gap through financial innovation. Using the power of technology and a community-first framework, CNote enables corporations and individuals to efficiently invest at scale in fixed income and time deposit products that advance economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and climate change initiatives.
By Borrower Stories

Meet Lorain Francis, Whose Full-Time And Volunteer Jobs Are To Fight Food Insecurity In Maine

Although Lorain Francis hasn’t always worked on the frontlines of food insecurity, she’s been surrounded by volunteerism for as long as she can remember. Lorain grew up in Fairport, New York, where both of her parents were active volunteers in the community. Unsurprisingly, when Lorain grew up and owned a local retail business, she started to volunteer with the merchant’s association to revitalize the town’s main street. 

Lorain Francis

Fifteen years ago, Lorain and her husband moved to his hometown of Union, in an under-served area of coastal Maine, where Lorain found a job at the Chamber of Commerce in Rockland. That ultimately led her to the Maine Development Foundation, where Lorain got the chance to work with communities across the state, doing what she loved. However, after about five years working with Mainers near and far, Lorain began to feel disconnected from the last place she expected: the place she called home. “I realized that I lost my sense of my own community, because I was in everybody else’s community,” Lorain said. “I wanted to make a difference in my own community again, so the thing to do was to get involved locally.”

That’s when Lorain took a job at Penquis, a community action organization in Maine. At Penquis, Lorain helps to administer a federal AmeriCorps grant that places senior volunteers in eight food pantries and a soup kitchen in Mid-Coast Maine. Lorain is the program director for an initiative called Knox County Gleaners, which partners with local and backyard farmers and residents to harvest and redistribute fruits and vegetables to nearby food pantries. Last year, Lorain’s team helped to distribute over 22,000 pounds of vegetables to 22 locations in Knox County. 

It was about two-and-a-half years after joining Penquis that Lorain ultimately found what she calls her “volunteer job” at Come Spring Food Pantry, one of Knox County’s food pantries. Come Spring was started over 20 years ago as a community service project, and when the founder decided to retire, Lorain decided that, given her background in community building, she was the right person to step in and help the organization grow.  

A Lender To Dream With

Even before March 2020, Come Spring was bursting at the seams in its cramped, hard-to-find space located in the basement of a town building. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated those struggles. According to Lorain, not only did social distancing restrictions limit how many people could be present in the tiny pantry at any one time, but it was challenging for community members to access new pickup locations, even as need increased. To make matters worse, Lorain says that there wasn’t enough space to store surplus food, which meant that the nonprofit had to rent another room, which soon became a financial burden for the organization.

Come January 2021, Lorain knew what she needed to do: find a larger space. She and her team began to look around Union to see what was available. A few weeks later, she toured 27 Common Road. Despite that the 2,800-square-foot building was in major need of repairs (snow was falling through the roof), Lorain knew that it was Come Spring’s new home. The next obstacle? Figuring out how the small (but mighty) food pantry was going to be able to purchase it.

Lorain reached out to a colleague at AIO Food & Energy Assistance, another pantry that had just gone through a building campaign, to ask for advice. That’s how Lorain learned about a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) called The Genesis Fund. 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. 

When Lorain connected with The Genesis Fund, she instantly knew she found the right financing partner. Not only did the CDFI have an impressive portfolio of similar projects, but, as Lorain describes, the CDFI “dreamed with us as a fledgling pantry wanting to grow big.” The Genesis Fund offered Lorain and her team everything Come Spring needed, including assistance with the loan application and coaching. In the end, being challenged to think about Come Spring’s past, present, and future ultimately helped the food pantry to “grow up,” Lorain said. 

On February 12th, Come Spring made its purchase offer to the building’s owners, and, incredibly, the deal closed on March 31st — 64 days after Lorain and the CSFP Teams initial decision to move the pantry’s location. Meeting the March 31st deadline was significant, Lorain explained, because doing so meant that Come Spring didn’t have to pay taxes on the building for the next year. Therefore, the speed for which The Genesis Fund and the lawyers were able to help Come Spring close on its offer saved the food pantry $3,500. “For us, that’s huge,” Lorain said. “Genesis was amazing to work with. They believed in us from the beginning, and everybody pulled together and made it happen.”

Food Brings People Together

These days, Lorain has a lot on her plate. Once the real estate deal was finalized and the pantry secured its larger space, it was time to get to work. The first thing that needed to be done was to repair the building, namely installing a new roof. However, because Lorain wanted the new building to be a beacon for those experiencing food insecurity, it had to be painted barn red. The addition of “huge signs” helped to ensure that the building can’t be missed — it’s now visible more than a half-mile away.

Come Spring officially opened its new pantry on July 10th, 2021 and the location has quickly become a long-term food storage hub for other food pantries and food security groups in western Knox County. Besides the much larger food pantry and a big parking lot, Come Spring now has in its plans a storage room, a classroom, and a commercial kitchen, where volunteers can process food (e.g. make apple cider) and prepare take-home meals. The pantry Knox County Gleaners was also able to acquire a CoolBot, an energy efficient walk-in cooler, which ties back to the work that Lorain does with produce redistribution at Knox County Gleaners. Another way Come Spring has established itself as a community center is by hosting Union’s weekly farmers’ market, which consistently attracts large crowds. 

Today, Lorain and her team of volunteers open Come Spring to the community every Wednesday with both daytime and evening hours. In July the pantry will switch from pre-packed boxes to a client choice shopping model just one year after moving to the new pantry. Providing a small grocery store experience and atmosphere allows people to shop for what their families’ preferences are, she said. “It gives people choices, it gives them dignity, and it empowers them to be able to choose what they want.”

Since moving into its new facility, Come Spring estimates that it will be able to increase its capacity to provide services to additional families, including the elderly, couples, veterans, large and small families and anyone struggling with food security in the region. 

“We encourage people to come and get food basics from us and spend their saved income on gas, heat and to keep their car running so they can get to work and children to school. I don’t want anyone in my community to not know that there are food pantries here where anyone can get food,” Lorain said. “It’s a labor of love, and I love making sure that everybody in western Knox County is fed. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Learn More

  • Come Spring Food Pantry is a food pantry in Knox County, Maine, with a mission of feeding their neighbors with dignity while promoting health, opportunity and hope.
  • 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.
  • 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 Capital For Change Uses CNote To Create More Possibilities In Its Community

For the better part of 15 years, Charles Bodie worked for a large, multinational investment bank and financial services holding company, first in private wealth management, and later in credit risk. Although he enjoyed his work, when Charles relocated to New Haven, Connecticut nearly three years ago, he began to look for other employment opportunities. That’s how he learned about Capital for Change, the largest full-service Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in Connecticut. 

Charles Bodie, Capital For Change’s Chief Financial Officer.

While Charles didn’t initially set out to work in the CDFI sector, he says that he was attracted to Capital for Change because of its mission-driven practices. “The loans and other activities that Capital for Change do really make a difference for people that otherwise might not receive those opportunities from other financial institutions,” he said. “For me, that just meant so much.” In 2019, Charles became Capital for Change’s Director of Finance and Reporting, and he’s since stepped into the position of Chief Financial Officer. 

Capital for Change was created in 2016 after three established CDFIs — Community Capital Fund, Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund, and Connecticut Housing Investment Fund — merged into one. Today, each of Capital for Change’s programmatic, product, and service offerings are rooted in those founding CDFIs’ combined decades of experience and expertise. According to Charles, Capital for Change takes a diverse approach to lending, which centers around what the CDFI refers to as “The Core Four.” Those complementary missions include affordable housing, energy efficiency lending, loan servicing, and community development loans. “The need for affordable housing is paramount, but the fact that we can actually touch on multiple missions is even better.” Charles said. “The more we can do in more diverse ways, the better.”

Charles is especially excited about Capital for Change’s energy efficiency loans, which help homeowners to conserve energy usage and decrease costs through audits, retrofits, and alternative/clean energy improvements. Charles estimates that on the consumer side, the CDFI has originated more than $87 million in efficiency loans. These loans stem from various programs and funding initiatives — ranging from replacing 80-year-old oil furnaces to installing solar panels — led by Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority. Because the state utilities cannot be a lender , the utilities funds are “farmed out” to various lending organizations, including Capital for Change. “The utilities created the products, and what we do is we bring the consumers together with the contractors that can do the work and use the utilities’ money,” Charles said. “We’re the ones who bring all of that together.”

Capital for Change also offers multifamily energy loans through a program called LIME (Low Income Multifamily Energy), in which the CDFI works on a project-by-project basis with property owners to make energy efficiency improvements to multifamily properties and condominium developments that meet certain requirements (e.g. no fewer than 5 units and at least 60% of units affordable to households at no higher than 80% of Area Median Income). According to Charles, to make those loans work, the CDFI treats the energy efficiency updates as a kind of collateral. “If we know that you’re going to save, say, $50,000 in maintenance and utility costs over the next 10 years,” he explained, “then when we put these improvements in place, you pay it back to us with those savings. It’s a novel way to approach energy efficiency lending.”

Charles shared an example from a recent project in Bridgeport, Connecticut. A partner organization constructed a charter school on an old manufacturing site, and Capital for Change funded an energy efficiency refurbishment. Capital for Change worked with a company to install a fuel cell so that the school, housing for tutors, and a future housing project would be able to generate its own electricity. “We funded the fuel cell project when no one else would,” Charles said. “That one project in and of itself is a real boon for a CDFI like us because it touched on education, energy efficiency, housing, and urban blight, and it’s been phenomenally successful.”

It’s with that same kind of diversified lending approach and multi-faceted mission orientation that Capital for Change is looking to the future. Specifically, Capital for Change is interested in piloting a small business lending program in the next year or two. Most of the CDFI’s current business loans are greater than $100,000; however, if piloted, Charles said that Capital for Change might offer loans as low as $5,000 to small business owners. Additionally, Capital for Change is considering new ways to find out what its community needs, mainly through survey work and collaborations with community organizations. “Traditionally, we didn’t ask anybody about needs because we know there’s a need for affordable housing and energy efficiency,” Charles explained. “But, what is it that we don’t know? What are we missing? That’s where getting in touch with the community is really important.”


‘CNote Wants Exactly What We Want’

Given the diverse nature of Capital for Change’s work, the CDFI is able to get funding from diverse investors, including banks and the state; as is the norm, those dollars come with usage restrictions related to programs or loan types. While Charles and his team are appreciative of every loan and investment that flows into Capital for Change, he says that working with CNote changes the paradigm. “CNote wants exactly what we want, and they follow our mission,” he said. “Because so much of the funding that we receive is specific to project or loan type, there are only certain loans that qualify; but, everything can be funded with the money that CNote provides, and that’s been an excellent resource.”

Charles said that funds that come into the CDFI through CNote’s Flagship Fund create myriad possibilities for Capital for Change. For example, with CNote dollars, Capital for Change can free up capital from existing loans. That means that Capital for Change can replace money in one of its current loans with CNote money to free up capital for another loan. According to Charles, that creates other possibilities for the CDFI, including passing the benefits on to its clients by lowering interest rates on future loans.

Additionally, Charles has found that working with CNote has lightened typical CDFI reporting requirements, freeing up administrative time and costs so that he and his colleagues can focus on perpetuating Capital for Change’s missions. “CNote has really filled the space for CDFI borrowers like us,” Charles said. “For traditional banks, our world is a bit alien to them, but for CNote, they’re showing that lending evolves. They’re at the forefront of that evolution, and that’s another aspect that makes our partnership with them work really well.”

Learn More

  • Capital For Change is the largest full-service Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in Connecticut.
  • 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

Easy As C-C-C: How Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs Uses Capital, Coaching, and Connections to Help Georgia’s Small Business Owners Thrive

Martina Edwards knows what it’s like to be given an opportunity to break down barriers. Thanks to a nonprofit that helps place high-achieving graduates of color in Wall Street firms, Martina started her career in 2001 and became Merrill Lynch’s first Black female broker on the floor of The New York Stock Exchange in 2004. She spent the next 10 years working on and off Wall Street, including time running the alternative investments program for the same organization that helped her land her job at Merrill Lynch. According to Martina, that’s when she truly began to understand the importance of capital, particularly in terms of creating generational wealth and economic growth.

Eventually, Martina returned to her southern roots and moved to Atlanta, where she started to reflect on what she wanted to do long term with her career. She knew she wanted to be on the forefront of working with minority women in business enterprises, but she didn’t know exactly what that might look like. That’s when Martina found herself listening to a panel discussion featuring Grace Fricks, the founder and CEO of Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE), a Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI). Grace started ACE in 1997 in rural northern Georgia with an initial grant of $50,000 to support small business owners across the state. Like many financial services professionals, Martina wasn’t aware of CDFIs when she worked on Wall Street; however, as she learned more about ACE’s impact, especially with women business owners, she knew she wanted to get involved. 

Twelve months later, Martina joined ACE’s team as the CDFI’s chief of strategic partnerships. For the past three years, Martina’s main focus has been fundraising so that ACE can create more access to capital for small business owners. “We give folks a chance when others can’t or won’t,” said Martina. “But it’s not just helping one small business owner. When we create financial security for a business owner, that creates more financial security for their employees, and that allows their households to thrive.”

The Three C’s

ACE is the largest small-business-oriented CDFI in Georgia that focuses on women, people of color, and low- to moderate-income business owners. An important part of the organization’s mission is to decrease the gender and racial wealth gaps, particularly for Black and Latinx communities who continue to face the racial discrimination inherent to our modern financial systems. Importantly, ACE’s staff is a reflection of the ethnically diverse communities that the CDFI serves, and Martina and her colleagues live in rural, suburban, and urban communities throughout North Georgia. That representation is essential, especially as ACE works to build trust with small business owners who’ve traditionally been overlooked and undercapitalized by traditional lenders.


Like all CDFIs, ACE is mandated to deploy at least 60% of its capital to its target markets. While ACE has historically funneled at least 80% of its capital into those markets, in 2021, the CDFI managed to bring that percentage up to 94. Martina credits those percentages to intentionality on the part of her and her colleagues, but also to the geographic footprint in which ACE operates. ACE’s headquarters is in Cleveland, Georgia, a rural town of fewer than 4,000 residents, and while the CDFI supports metro hubs like Atlanta and Savannah, it also works in suburban counties such as Gwinnett, which is the most diverse county in the Southeast. In total, over the past 22 years, ACE has provided loans and business advisory services to support more than 2,000 small business owners across 68 counties in Georgia. 

According to Martina, ACE’s target demographic of small business owners face a host of challenges, including a knowledge gap, a capital gap, a trust gap, and, more often than not, a social capital gap (i.e. the lack of a network) — all of which are rooted in decades of inequality. To address these challenges, ACE employs what it calls the three C’s: capital, coaching, and connections:

1. Capital. Lending is at ACE’s core, and the CDFI offers small business loans (up to $50,000) and commercial loans ($50,001 to $1 million). However, ACE also collaborates with other organizations to deploy capital in different ways. Such creative collaborations have focused on interest rate buy-downs, loan guarantees, and longer term limits. ACE also participated in a number of initiatives that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the Southern Opportunity and Resiliency (SOAR) Fund, a program that matches small business owners with CDFIs across 15 states and Washington D.C.

ACE was actually able to increase its lending during the pandemic. In fact, between 2020 and 2021, ACE deployed more capital than it had in the previous five years combined. ACE was able to do this, in part, through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). In 2020, ACE lent just over $25 million, $4.5 million being PPP loans. In 2021, those numbers grew to $37.3 million and $10.5 million, respectively. Of the $10.5 million PPP dollars deployed in 2021, 54% went to women and $68% went to Black borrowers. Overall, 90% of ACE’s PPP loan recipients had five or fewer employees, and many were sole proprietors. “There were businesses that were on the brink,” Martina said. “Through the PPP process, we were able to stand with them in the gaps. We were really blessed to have great long-term relationships with lending partners like CNote that were willing to lend us low-cost capital that we specifically needed for PPP loans.”

2. Coaching. ACE knows that the key to growing sustainable businesses is to pair capital with coaching. As Martina puts it, “you got the capital, but what do you do with the capital?” To help small business owners answer that question, ACE has a growing team of business advisors who work hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs. ACE currently has a six-to-one client-to-employee ratio, which helps to explain why the CDFI’s default rates are typically  under 2%. In 2021, the CDFI dedicated more than 18,000 hours to business consulting. ACE’s “high-touch” approach, as Martina describes it, is especially centered around financial operations, business operations (e.g. cybersecurity best practices and human resources), and resiliency. “There’s relief, there’s recovery, and there’s reinvention,” she said. “We want our borrowers to be better operators, to be stronger, and to be sharper around those particular skill sets.”

3. Connections. Because ACE knows that many of its clients don’t have a network of other small business owners to rely upon, it strives to forge connections, whether between entrepreneurs or to resources. The CDFI has two women business centers that are certified through the Small Business Administration. It’s important to note that each women’s business center is gender agnostic and open to everyone. Although business coaching is an integral part of these hubs, these spaces are an ideal place for ACE to host lunch and learns, webinars, and training workshops. For example, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, ACE partnered with LinkedIn to train local entrepreneurs how to pivot their brick-and-mortar businesses to e-commerce marketplaces.

ACE also offers small business owners the opportunity to participate in four different cohorts depending on where an entrepreneur is with their business at a given point in time. “As a business owner, it can be a lonely world,” said Martina, “and sometimes you feel like you’re the only person going through something. At the end of the day, it’s helpful to give small business owners a network of people that they can depend on, rely on, learn from, and possibly cross pollinate and share ideas.” 

Unlocking Opportunities

ACE recently engaged a strategic planning firm to help determine long-term strategy. In the coming years, Martina says that ACE sees a unique opportunity  to deepen their work and expand operations across Georgia, and the CDFI believes it can  deploy $100 million in capital to support women, BIPOC, and low- to -moderate income business owners in the next three to five years. Should the CDFI achieve its goal, it will be a noteworthy accomplishment: in its entire 22-year existence, ACE has deployed $140 million in capital. Martina notes that investments in improving the capacity of our people, technological infrastructure, and capital resources will be critical given the overwhelming volume of demand and the speed at which clients need capital. To set itself up for success, she says that ACE will establish new partnerships and deepen current ones. For example, ACE is a CNote Wisdom Fund Partner, which has given the CDFI access to a targeted pool of funds to further its lending. “Our mission is growing sustainable businesses, but the vision is also closing  wealth and opportunity gaps,” said Martina. “The Wisdom Fund is supporting us so that we’re able to do that.”

Additionally, just like ACE offers its clients an opportunity to network, Martina says that CNote has helped ACE connect with peer CDFIs across the country who’ve shared best practices, strategies, and ideas that have helped to make ACE more efficient. Similarly, ACE has gained visibility from CNote’s platform, which attracts impact investors, donors, and individuals from localities well beyond Georgia’s borders who want to support women business owners. “I feel like we’re the best kept secret, but we don’t want to be the best kept secret,” Martina said. “That’s why CNote is such an instrumental partner for us beyond capital, because CNote can talk about us in rooms that we don’t necessarily get access to.”

Learn More

  • Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE) is a Georgia 501(c)(3) nonprofit and community development financial institution (CDFI) that provides capital, coaching, and connections to help borrowers create and grow sustainable businesses that generate jobs.
  • 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

Meet Education Credit Union, Whose Scholastic Roots Sprout Innovative Programs In The Texas Panhandle

While Education Credit Union (ECU) may be 86 years old, it’s finding new ways to empower its community in Amarillo, Texas. Founded in 1935, the credit union was originally named Amarillo School Employees Credit Union, and it catered to teachers and administrators in the district. However, in 2010, the credit union rebranded itself and dropped the requirement that members had to work in education. Rebrands, however, can come with a steep learning curve, and ECU soon discovered that it had to come up with new approaches to connect with new members.

To help educate community members that they don’t have to be employed by a school to join the credit union, in 2020, ECU decided to pair its decades-old brand recognition with a new tagline: “Learn More, Live More ®.” According to Eric Jenkins, ECU’s CEO, those words say it all. “We’re staying true to our scholastic roots, because we wouldn’t exist without the educators who founded us,” he said, “but the ‘education’ part of our name is we are striving to teach consumers financial responsibility and wellness so that they can live more.”

The new tagline seems to be working. Today, the credit union has seven branches (with another one on the way), and it serves more than 30,000 members in a 16-county radius. Like many financial institutions, ECU offers its members a variety of services, including checking accounts, savings accounts, and loans. Additionally, it offers free financial education classes focused on all ages from preschool to adults. However, what separates ECU from traditional lenders and other credit unions is its array of innovative, community-centric programs. 

Eric Jenkins, the CEO of Education Credit Union

Here’s a look at four of ECU’s most unique offerings:

1. New Teacher Loans: True to its roots, one of ECU’s flagship services is new teacher loans, which are offered to recently hired educators who have yet to receive their first paycheck. Because it can take upwards of six weeks to receive that first paycheck, the credit union wanted to provide new teachers with a non-credit score based product to help fill that gap and allow those employees to meet whatever financial needs they have during that time. 

2. AmTech Career Academy: This past fall, the Amarillo School District opened up a state-of-the art, 231,000-square-foot vocational campus called AmTech Career Academy. The academy is dedicated to training more than 2,800 high schoolers to pursue one of 37 career paths, free of charge. In early 2022, ECU will not only open its first branch inside an Amarillo School District school, but it will staff that branch with senior apprentices from AmTech’s School of Business, Marketing, and Finance. These students will be hired as paid interns, and they’ll receive high school credits while they gain valuable financial services experience that could one day translate into a full-time role with a credit union or bank.  

3. BUFF $MART Program: In partnership with West Texas A&M University (whose mascot is a buffalo), ECU launched a financial literacy boot camp designed for college students. Since 2018, more than 300 students have gone through the program, and many of those participants actually received college credit for completing the coursework. Additionally, graduates of the program are invited to return and help lead future iterations of the boot camp. According to Eric, this program could easily be replicated by other credit unions that serve university partners in their footprint. “You would think that college students would have a base level of education on financial services,” he said,” but it’s discouraging how little many know about basic things like how checking accounts and credit cards work. These are smart kids from diverse backgrounds and it is so rewarding to see them benefit from what in reality is financial success training.  We really hope other credit unions will build similar programs and stand ready to support those efforts and share our lessons learned.

4. Pocket Change Grants: ECU takes team members giving back to the community to another level and focuses on the importance from day one of employment. As a result, more than 98% of ECU employees donate a portion of their paychecks to help fund Pocket Change Grants. The credit union’s board matches all contributions, and every year, ECU awards grants up to $500 to local teachers to purchase learning tools, address students’ basic needs, or fund activities and field trips. Notably, grant recipients do not have to be members in order to be eligible to receive funding from ECU. Since the program was launched in 2009, ECU has donated more than $500,000 to school districts across the Texas Panhandle. In 2021 alone, ECU donated $149,753 to 325 local teachers. 

For Lindsey Murphy, ECU’s senior vice president of marketing and business development, Pocket Change Grants are arguably her favorite part of her job. Lindsey grew up in the community, and her mother was a teacher in the Amarillo School District. As soon as Lindsey turned 16 and got a job, her mom drove her to ECU to open her first checking account. All these years later, she feels blessed to be able to give back to local schools in such a meaningful way. “It’s so rewarding to see the smiles on our team members’ faces when they get to go into the schools and deliver the checks,” Lindsey said. “Every employee that donates gets the opportunity to go out and physically deliver one to a teacher and enjoy that experience and see that donation go to work.”

Lindsey Murphy, Education Credit Union’s senior vice president of marketing and business development

According to Lindsey, ECU is able to come up with and deliver on such unique programs because, collectively, her and her colleagues have their fingers on the pulse of what’s going on locally: not just in the area school districts, but holistically in the surrounding communities. Recently, that heightened level of awareness led ECU to be more intentional about attracting and recruiting bilingual employees who can better serve the credit union’s Spanish-speaking members. After strategizing with its HR team, ECU updated its job posting preferences, created an all Spanish ad and translated one of its job applications into Spanish. The credit union’s efforts were rewarded: 40% of its new hires are bilingual. “We knew that in order to effectively serve the communities where we exist in the language that they need, then we were going to have to make changes,” Eric said. “We had to be intentional, and we’re going to continue to make that a priority.”

As ECU continues to strive to look more like the community it serves, both Eric and Lindsey are excited for what’s to come for the credit union. As they look forward to exciting announcements in 2022 and beyond, one thing is clear: after 86 years, ECU’s best years are still ahead of it. “We have the opportunity to create more value for consumers in the Panhandle of Texas than any other institution here,” Eric said. “Like I said before: we’re going to help people learn more about their financial lives so that they can make their whole lives better.”

Learn More

  • Education Credit Union’s mission is to excel in service, care and financial protection for members and their families. The Education Credit Union proudly serves members in Amarillo, Bushland and Canyon, Texas.
  • 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

How Toni Hopkins Embraced Her Entrepreneurial Side To Open Cool J’s Apparel During The Pandemic

In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, Toni Hopkins and her husband talked about moving from their home in Springfield, Illinois to North Carolina to pursue what she describes as “something different.” They’d even gone as far as to meet with a real estate agent to explore selling their house. Ultimately, the couple abandoned their plans to pursue a fresh start at the onset of the pandemic. However, Toni’s desire for “something different” persisted. That’s when she began to listen to the entrepreneurial voice in her head that had spent the past three years telling her to start her own business.

Toni Hopkins, Founder of Cool J’s Apparel.

For Toni, the idea of opening her own business was something of a fantasy. After more than 18 years working in accounting and finance, she was tired of the monotony. Over her career, she’d heard people — coworkers, friends, family members — vocalize wanting to do something different with their lives but never acting on those wants. Toni’s problem was that she knew she wanted to start a business, but she didn’t know what kind of business she wanted to start. She’d even stumbled across a vacant commercial space near her home in Springfield that she determined would be perfect for her nameless, yet-to-be-created future store.

During the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, when stay-at-home mandates went into effect and Toni began to work from home, something changed inside of her. Not only did she and her husband decide to stay planted in Springfield, but that’s when she decided that she was going to shift from talking about opening her own business to actually making it happen. “The pandemic hit, and I said ‘okay, this is the time for me to actually do this,’” she said. “Like everybody else, I started working from home, and I realized that I could be doing something else with my time that I wanted to do instead of pushing numbers.”

Fortunately, Toni was surrounded by a supportive husband, daughter, and son who encouraged her to embrace her entrepreneurial side. She set her fears aside and began to look for the right business opportunities in her community. It didn’t take her long to connect the dots between one of her passions — fashion — and the fact that there weren’t many black-owned clothing boutiques in town that sold trendy yet affordable clothes and accessories. Toni had found her business idea: Cool J’s Apparel. Amazingly, the “perfect” commercial space that she’d seen from her car window a year earlier and fallen in love with was still available. Even more amazing was the fact that Toni was able to work with the landlord to sign a lease.

Falling Into Place

According to Toni, every aspect of her business seemed to effortlessly fall into place. Through her research, she’d learned that women were continuing to purchase clothing during the pandemic and that boutiques like the one she wanted to open continued to be profitable amidst the wide-scale economic uncertainty. That helped to shape the business plan that Toni wrote and carried with her to her local bank to apply for a small business loan. Although the banker told Toni that he couldn’t help her because the loan request wasn’t big enough, he told her to reach out to Justine PETERSEN, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that offers a variety of financial tools and service to help low- and moderate-income individuals and families achieve their personal financial goals. CNote partners with CDFIs like Justine PETERSEN in communities across the country, funding loans and empowering local entrepreneurs like Toni through CNote’s Flagship and Wisdom Funds.

Toni reached out to the CDFI in November 2020, and she quickly connected with Aida Richardson, Justine PETERSEN’s chief lending officer. “Aida was so helpful from the very beginning,” Toni said. “She just knew so much, which was the biggest help. This was my first time opening a business, but she’d done this hundreds of times, so Aida just made it so easy. She answered all of my questions and emails and didn’t hesitate to always point me in the right direction.”

With micro-enterprise lending from Justine PETERSEN, Toni was able to do everything she needed to open Cool J’s Apparel on May 28, 2021. According to her, the loan money from the CDFI helped her with every aspect of her business, from paying rent to completing renovations and from purchasing inventory to buying the iPad that she uses to complete sales. Additionally, Toni says that the CDFI helped her to make her business “become legit and successful,” meaning she was able to leverage those loan dollars to invest in marketing, advertising, and signage. Most importantly, even though Toni received her small business loan roughly 12 months ago, Aida and her colleagues at Justine PETERSEN continue to tell Toni that they’re always available whenever she needs anything, whether that’s a quick question that can be answered over the phone or ongoing technical assistance to help take her business to the next level. 

Unsurprisingly, Toni’s positive experience with Justine PETERSEN is largely why she describes opening Cool J’s Apparel as “so easy.” In the process, she’s inadvertently become one of the CDFI’s biggest cheerleaders. “I’ve been telling everybody about them,” she said, laughing. “They’ll let you know right away if they can help you or not, and if they can’t, then they’ll put you on the right path and they’ll give you the steps to help you. It’s a relationship that I’m really appreciative of, even today.”

‘I Love Doing What I’m Doing’

Although the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t deter Toni from opening Cool J’s Apparel in May 2021, it did limit her ability to have a grand opening celebration — something she’s considering remedying in the coming weeks. That doesn’t mean that the women’s clothing store where “cute meets comfortable” has struggled to find its footing in Springfield. Business is going well, and Toni says the store enjoys support from both local customers and shoppers who drive down from Chicago. The broad geographic interest in Cool J’s Apparel stems from the fact that Toni carries stylish yet affordable clothes and accessories for all ages. “My customers are Black and white, young and old, and just really diverse,” she said. “I’m not joking. It’s craziness. I don’t know how people target one specific group, because I have such a big range of customers here.”

Cool J’s Apparel even attracts the occasional male customer, which has prompted Toni to consider incorporating a menswear section into her store — or perhaps into a larger location. In the nearterm, Toni would like to hire some help. Currently, Toni operates the store while she continues to work her part-time, remote nonprofit job, and although she appreciates the help she gets from her family, including her niece, she wants to either hire two part-time employees or one full-time staff member as soon as she’s able to. Additionally, Toni is interested in deepening her small business’ connection to the surrounding community, such as sponsoring events where all proceeds go to donating backpacks to the local school.

Even though Toni has the occasional quiet day at Cool J’s Apparel, she’s pleased knowing that when customers do come into her boutique, they tend to walk out with a bag of new clothes. “People that have never been my customers before, they come in and they find something that appeals to them,” Toni said. “I love that. Even on slow days, I still love being here and doing what I’m doing.”

Learn More

  • Cool J’s Apparel
  • Justine PETERSEN is a CDFI that connects institutional resources with the needs of low-to-moderate-income individuals and families in Missouri, helping them to build assets and create enduring community change.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like Justine PETERSEN, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Borrower Stories

How Project Fighting Chance Is Going Beyond The Boxing Ring To Build Trauma Resiliency In San Bernardino’s Youth

When Terry Boykins was first approached to serve on the board of directors for a nonprofit called Project Fighting Chance, the social entrepreneur politely said “thanks, but no thanks.” It wasn’t because Terry wasn’t aligned with Project Fighting Chance’s mission to function as a viable safe space and trauma resilience support system for youth in San Bernardino, California. Terry’s own work was similarly rooted in community engagement; however, his background was admittedly in the corporate world, and Terry was hesitant to get involved with a nonprofit. 

Terry Boykins

A few years later, in 2016, Terry got his next offer to consider joining Project Fighting Chance’s board, just months after a terrorist attack left the community — and the country — in shock. This time, Terry visited the organization, he spoke with current board members, and, most importantly, he saw the nonprofit’s potential. Terry joined the board, and a year later, he stepped in as the organization’s interim executive director. In July 2020, he dropped the “interim” label and became the nonprofit’s full-time executive director.

One of the reasons that Project Fighting Chance was established in 1999 was to give youth a safe place to go after school. According to Terry, the hours between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. are the most deadly for young people, especially in San Bernardino, the second-most dangerous city in California. That’s why the nonprofit opened its doors: to create a place for students to escape the pervasive poverty, food insecurity, prostitution, drugs, violence, robberies, car jackings, and home invasions around them. “When you talk about PTSD in the hood, it’s here,” Terry said. “These students are trying to navigate an environment where they’re confronted by violence and destruction on a daily basis, so we created a space for them to get away from that, where they can focus on their academic well-being, their emotional well-being, and getting an afternoon meal five days a week.”Since its inception, Project Fighting Chance has built itself a championship reputation within the national amateur boxing community. For example, in 2018, PBS released a docu-series following three of the nonprofit’s top boxers. However, when Terry came onboard, he set out to expand the organization’s programmatic offerings beyond boxing. “The boxing program was already a place where kids wanted to go,” he said, “but I’d been focusing on the obstacles that youth were confronted years down the road. I asked ‘what exactly can be done that will help these young people apply the techniques of boxing as they relate to overcoming issues or struggles or problems to get somewhere else in life?’ That’s when we began to have a different dialogue.”

Through that “different dialogue,” Terry and his colleagues at Project Fighting Chance have put together a dizzying assortment of programmatic offerings for youth between the ages of eight and 18 from San Bernardino and the surrounding communities. While boxing and workouts are still an integral part of Project Fighting Chance, the nonprofit has expanded to offer additional after-school enrichment programs like chess, art classes, horticulture, tutoring, and spoken word. There’s also a mental-health tranquility garden, where students can sit outside and eat lunch, meet with a counselor, or learn about nutrition. Additionally, the San Bernardino City Unified School District helped the nonprofit secure 40 guitars — a mix of acoustic and electric — for its Guitars Not Guns program. “We have a trauma-informed staff, so we understand who’s coming in the door,” Terry said. “It’s a very interesting time here when the guitar instructor and the students are able to come together through music to deal with some social-emotional dynamics that happened in their day.”

Going Toe-to-Toe With A Global Pandemic

Every Monday through Friday, Project Fighting Chance welcomes roughly 120 students through its doors, and in its 22-year existence, it has trained and mentored over 6,000 youth, free of charge. However, the nonprofit’s ability to fulfill its mission was thrown into question at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With both uncertainty around the virus’ transmission and state-mandated stay-at-home orders, Project Fighting Chance had to close its doors to the youth who needed it most. To make matters worse, much of the grant money that Project Fighting Chance relied on was retracted, which meant that the nonprofit was in immediate need from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to keep afloat. 

Fortunately, a pastor from a nearby church referred Terry and his team to Self-Help Federal Credit Union. Self-Help is a low-income designated credit union that was chartered in 2008 to build a network of branches that serve working families and underserved communities. It currently has more than 78,000 customers across 19 branches in California, 10 branches in Illinois, and one branch in Wisconsin, and it has over $1.2 billion in assets. Like many credit unions in the U.S., Self-Help rose to the challenges presented by PPP loan issuance and forgiveness and acted as an economic shock absorber for the economy. CNote partners with low-income designated credit unions like Self-Help across the country through its Impact Cash Solution. 

Thanks to Self-Help, Project Fighting Chance applied for and received two rounds of PPP loans, which meant that the nonprofit did not have to lay off any of its six employees. The PPP funding also kept fuel in Project Fighting Chance’s tanks — literally. For the first 18 months of the pandemic, the nonprofit used its two vans to deliver 170 meals every day to youth around San Bernardino, ensuring that those experiencing food and transportation insecurity at home could still be served. “The PPP funding proved critical, because it allowed us to repurpose the organization to support young people and their parents in the community,” Terry said. “We were the place they could count on every day, and we basically got those funds and invested them into the community to make sure that we could stay available to these youth.”

Life Outside of the Boxing Ring

Although Project Fighting Chance had to limit its daily capacity to 15 students at the beginning of the pandemic, today, Terry and his team are back to serving over 100 youth a day. Despite the extended time away from face-to-face interactions, programmatically, Project Fighting Chance didn’t miss a beat during the pandemic. In September 2021, for example, the nonprofit kicked off a program called Civil Liberties for Boys of Color, where students got to speak with law enforcement officials — police officers, probationary staff, employees from the district attorney’s office — for 90 minutes every Friday. “These were real conversations,” said Terry. “These kids were scared of the police and not knowing if they’re going to make it back home today. So these folks came in and talked about the law, about behavior, and they talked to these young boys about having a voice for their concerns about living in their communities.”

To say that Project Fighting Chance has become much more than a place for youth to learn about boxing is an understatement. Today, youth are exposed to programs related to nutrition, mental health, sex trafficking, partner violence, civic engagement, and career development. Whether or not a student walks through the nonprofit’s doors wanting to be the next Muhammad Ali or the next Jimi Hendrix, they’re encouraged to train in the boxing gym, visit the tranquility garden, talk about mental wellness, and explore every aspect of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math). 

Why? According to Terry, it’s not only about reducing childhood violence, trauma, and food insecurity, it’s about preparing these youth to be productive members of society. That means developing the coping skills to thrive in the labor force and the civic engagement skills to become informed voters and taxpayers. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that Terry’s most exciting day as executive director of the nonprofit was when he and the youth at Project Fighting Chance were invited to attend a San Bernardino City Council meeting to learn about how local government works. The organization filled every seat in the house, and, as Terry put it, the students got “a lesson outside of the boxing ring that was priceless.

Whether it’s local council members, California state assembly members, school district administrators, teachers, mentors, counselors, therapists, coaches, parents, or credit unions like Self-Help, Terry is quick to acknowledge the broad community support and partnerships that Project Fighting Chance not only enjoys, but relies upon to be successful. “We are not where we are because we’re doing great things,” Terry said. “We are where we are because there are some great people helping us do some very good things after school in this community.” 

Learn More

  • Project Fighting Chance‘s Mission is “to function as a viable safe space and trauma resilience support system for youth and young adults at-progress while assisting them to become positive contributing members of the community.”
  • Self-Help Federal Credit Union was chartered in 2008 to build a network of branches that serves working families and underserved communities. Serving more than 78,000 members, Self-Help Federal is one of the fastest-growing low-income designated credit unions in the country. 
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great Credit Unions like Self-Help, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By CNote

Impact Platform CNote Announces Conversion to Public Benefit Corporation

New legal designation affirms CNote’s longstanding commitment to closing the wealth gap and uplifting communities with sustainable solutions.

 March 30, 2022 // Oakland, CA // CNote, a woman-led impact platform, has announced its official conversion to a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC).

 Since its founding in 2016, CNote’s fixed income and cash products have streamlined millions in scalable investments from individuals and corporations. Dollars invested and deposited on the CNote platform are deployed with mission-driven financial institutions to fund underserved communities and BIPOC entrepreneurs in line with the firm’s mission to close the wealth gap.

A supermajority of CNote’s stockholders voted to formalize a transition to a PBC, further aligning the company with its practice of enhancing equitable community development through financial empowerment. CNote’s specific public benefit purpose is to advance greater economic and social justice for underserved communities by unlocking access to impact investments. Now, unlike traditional corporations that primarily focus on maximizing only shareholder value, CNote can also ensure that decisions are made in light of achieving this specific purpose.

“Becoming a Public Benefit Corporation has allowed the company’s charter to reflect CNote’s core values that motivate us every day,” said Yuliya Tarasava, COO and co-founder of CNote. “This conversion means CNote will always be pushing for greater capital access for underserved groups that have long been neglected by the financial mainstream.”

As a Delaware Public Benefit Corporation, CNote’s Board of Directors will have a mandate to balance the economic interests of stockholders with its stated public benefit purpose, allowing it to take into account the material interests of all stakeholders affected by the company’s operations, including the underserved communities CNote supports and CNote’s partner financial institutions, clients, and employees.


About CNote

CNote is a women-led impact platform on a mission to close the wealth gap through financial innovation. Using the power of technology and a community-first framework, CNote enables corporations and individuals to efficiently invest at scale in fixed income and time deposit products that further economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and climate change initiatives. As part of its offering, CNote delivers regular reporting on the social impact of deposits and investments made through its platform. A Certified B Corporation, CNote was a B Lab “Best for the World” honoree in 2019 and was named “Best Women-Owned Business” by the United Nations’ Women’s Empowerment Principles program in 2020.

By Community Partners

Meet Michelle Corson, ‘The Car Lady’ Behind the CDFI That Gets Clients On the Road

Since she was a little girl in Texas, Michelle Corson has always loved cars, something that befuddled her parents. “It’s not like I was chauffeured around town or anything,” Michelle laughed. “My mom drove a Honda and my dad drove a Buick, and they were like ‘who are you and why do you like cars so much?’” Despite her inexplicable interest in automobiles, Michelle decided to pursue a career in finance, investing, and real estate development. However, after 25-plus years of carving out a successful path for herself in that world, Michelle had the epiphany that many 40-somethings experience: she wanted to do something different.

Michelle Corson, founder and CEO of On The Road Lending- Photo Credit: On The Road Lending

That something different turned out to be launching an impact investing company called Champion Impact Capital in 2011. According to Michelle, she’d read an article earlier that year about impact investing, and she thought the idea of leveraging investment capital to solve problems was brilliant. With that, she began to look at issues that could be addressed using creative finance, which brought her full circle back to her childhood obsession: cars. Through her initial research in 2012, Michelle discovered that no one was working on transportation, despite the fact that having access to a personal vehicle provides people with better access to food, healthcare, education, and employment options. 

The statistics were eye-opening. Michelle learned that, on average, it takes people five times longer to get anywhere on mass transit than it does in a car in the United States. Similarly, according to an Urban Institute study, unreliable transportation is the number one reason for people losing their jobs. Additionally, people who have their own car are twice as likely to get a good job and four times as likely to keep it as someone without a vehicle. Michelle learned so much about mass transit that she wrote a book on the subject so that she could share her findings with others. “I think that sometimes we focus on the wrong things when we’re trying to solve problems,” Michelle said. “We’re so focused on the end, that we make things unnecessarily hard when it can just be a simple, practical solution.”

Michelle Corson at a client car delivery. Photo Credit: On The Road Lending

With that practical-solution mindset, Michelle launched On the Road Lending in March 2013, which seeks to get affordable, fuel-efficient, and safe cars into the hands of people who don’t have them, freeing them from things like unreliable or nonexistent mass transit, broken down cars, predatory buy-here-pay-here salesmen, and their own two feet. Michelle quickly earned herself the nickname “The Car Lady,” which she couldn’t find more fitting. “I love cars,” she said, “and I love getting people on the road to a much better life. Cars change everything for people who don’t have them.”

Putting Character-Based Lending in the Fast Lane

Over the past 10 years, with Michelle behind the wheel, On the Road Lending has gone on to become an officially designated Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), thus cementing the organization’s mission to strengthen communities. Unsurprisingly, because On the Road Lending’s clients are transportation challenged, Michelle and her team do everything online, including reviewing and signing loan documents. To date, the organization has expanded its footprint to four states to include Texas, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. While Michelle says that client acquisition is the hardest part of her business, she and her team are focused on forging more partnerships with trusted intermediaries like social service agencies, employers, and churches who can help assuage the fears of those who’ve previously fallen victim to predatory lenders and who’ve developed an understandable wariness toward anyone who says “we’ll cut your car payment in half.” 

Despite those hurdles, Michelle is confident that On the Road Lending is connecting with the right clients: more than 90% of On the Road Lending’s clients are people of color, and 65% of its clients are single Black mothers. On average, the CDFI’s clients have an average credit score of roughly 500, meaning that the interest rate for most of its clients for a car loan would typically be between 21% and 28% on a car loan. However, because On the Road Lending takes a holistic, character-based lending approach instead of relying on credit scores, it’s able to offer clients a flat interest rate of 9.75% for all of its loans, which cuts monthly payments from $700 to about $350. Compared to predatory lenders’ average default rate of roughly 30%, On the Road Lending’s default rate hovers around 3%. “With a client-equity-focused mindset, we start from an assumption that people are going to succeed instead of that they’re going to fail,” Michelle said. “Banks and traditional lenders don’t do that, but if they did, that would be a game changer for our economy.” 

Photo Credit: On The Road Lending

Besides reasonable loan terms, compassion, and flexibility, there’s another reason why Michelle refers to On The Road Lending as a “second-chance factory:” clients are paired with financial coaches who work with them on an ongoing basis. These remote, judgement-free consultations are complemented by online financial literacy classes that every client has to take. According to Michelle, the overall goal is to help clients distinguish between financial needs and wants and to be able to understand how to make important financial decisions in the future, whether that’s purchasing a home or going to college.

A Green Light to Grow

On the Road Lending has come a long way since making 16 loans in its first year; according to Michelle, the CDFI has been asked to expand into almost every state in the country, including localized requests from cities like New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco that have robust mass transit systems yet see the value that On the Road Lending could bring to their communities. Given the seemingly limitless potential, Michelle and her team are being very conscientious about their growth, with plans in place to be in 10 states by the end of this year.“We’re trying to think about markets that tend to be overlooked,” Michelle said, “and that tends to be driven by partners that want to bring us pretty heavily into a certain market.”

Photo Credit: On The Road Lending

Incredibly, On the Road Lending is just one of eight entities under Champion Impact Capital’s umbrella, meaning that the CDFI’s daily operations and scalability challenges represent only a fraction of Michelle’s day-to-day workload. Another entity under Michelle’s domain is On the Road Garage, a business that trains skilled technicians to do commercial collision repair for insurance companies. Currently, On the Road Garage has five registered apprenticeship programs with the Department of Labor; however, Michelle is confident that that number will grow in the coming months, fueled in part by partnerships with major corporations to work on their vans. “Without a four-year degree, these technicians can make $150,000 a year working on cars,” she said. “This is real life-changing money for people, and we’re teaching them the business so that they can go on once they’re done with us and have really great opportunities everywhere.”

Michelle is fortunate that within each of her business entities, she’s surrounded herself with incredible colleagues who match her passion, mile for mile. Although the individual business endeavors differ, they’re in many ways complementary to each other, as each focuses on a different aspect of the same overarching objective: to create a vertical integration strategy that brings down transportation costs across the value chain to make transportation more accessible and affordable for everyone. “We want to build prosperity and remove transportation barriers for people,” Michelle said. “We are busy, but we’re all very committed to the mission, and we love what we do. We’re very lucky for that.”

Photo Credit: On The Road Lending

Learn More

  • On the Road Lending formed in 2013 to help people find cars that worked for them and to teach them how to make good financial decisions. Through their loan funds, they make low-cost loans on reliable cars based on who people are—not their credit scores.
  • 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 Mellaney Williams, The Big Dreamer Behind American Home and Commercial Services

Mellaney Williams

When Mellaney Williams and her husband graduated college and moved to South Carolina in 2001, Mellaney’s husband got himself involved in the irrigation installation trade. However, what started as a side hustle quickly turned into something much bigger, as demand for him and his services grew. Soon, American Home and Commercial Services LLC was doing much more than irrigation; it was doing landscape design and installations, lighting, hardscapes, water features, and even interior paint jobs and flooring projects. 

By 2010, Mellaney’s husband needed help with the business, so Mellaney quit her job and took over the financial side of the operation, as well as marketing, to take some of the administrative burden off of him. The arrangement quickly proved itself to be a win-win. “My husband is very gifted and he was doing fine, but the business had become overwhelming,” Mellaney said. “When I joined, I found my little groove to help it stay consistent. It’s been a miraculous ride.”

However, that “miraculous ride” was put in jeopardy in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic immediately affected Mellaney’s business. Suddenly, there were fewer opportunities to land jobs, and it was difficult to retain workers. With more money going out than coming in, Mellaney had to cut back on things like advertising in order to keep the doors open. She even started going out on projects to help her husband in the field. That’s how she learned how to change sprinkler heads, install lighting systems, and construct ponds. Despite Mellaney and her husband cutting back and being resourceful to make ends meet, American Home and Commercial Services still needed help to ensure that the company could continue to pay its bills and cover its expenses.

Initially, Mellaney wanted more information about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). She ventured online, but struck out because she couldn’t connect with a person to ask questions and get support. Instead, she ran into red tape and confusion. According to Mellaney, the experience left her feeling lonely. Those feelings were exacerbated when she turned to a credit union where she’d done business for more than 10 years and was told that her PPP loan application wasn’t formatted correctly. “Instead of elaborating and saying ‘if you do this, then we can approve it,’ they did nothing,” Mellaney said. “I felt abandoned. Out here in this pandemic as an African American woman business owner, and no one was there to help. It was very hard.”

Fortunately, someone in Mellaney’s network suggested that she reach out to Optus Bank. Optus Bank is a Columbia-based community bank with a mission-driven purpose. For the past 100 years, it’s been working to strengthen communities throughout South Carolina by closing the wealth gap created by systematic disparities in the financial industry. Optus Bank is a certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), and its main goal is to ensure that wealth building is not just for the wealthy. CNote partners with CDFIs like Optus Bank across the country through its Impact Cash™ Solution, empowering woman small business owners like Mellaney.

According to Mellaney, her experience working with Optus Bank was “amazing,” “transparent,” and “a breath of fresh air.” She said that the application was straightforward, deadlines were clear, and her questions were answered — by real people. Within two weeks of contacting Optus in July 2020, Mellaney was notified that she was approved for her PPP loan. “I can’t put it into words,” she said. “I was so elated. They extended that hand to help me, and they gave a lifeline to my business. They made me a believer, and I can’t recommend them enough. Optus Bank will have my business for all of my future endeavors, because I have plans for big things.”

‘You Gotta Dream Big’

As Mellaney alluded to, she doesn’t intend to slow down anytime soon. Roughly seven years ago, American Home and Commercial Services had the opportunity to be a subcontractor for one of the largest landscape irrigation companies in the southeastern United States. The project was incredibly challenging, and it required an immense level of physical and mental fortitude to complete; however, Mellaney says that the project, including getting a glimpse into the operations of a much larger company, opened up her eyes to what was possible. “I knew that was a stepping stone to take us to another level,” she said. “If we could have the tenacity to complete that project, then we can do anything. That was the most challenging moment, but it was also the most rewarding experience, because we learned that there is no limit when you put your mind to whatever you want.”

What Mellaney wants for her business’ future is to expand into other cities, to grow its operations, and to bring as much of its supply chain as possible in house. Her ultimate goal, however, is to franchise American Home and Commercial Services and to one day go public. She’s a vocal promoter of Dun & Bradstreet, a global company that helps small businesses to connect with potential partners and investors. Mellaney discovered the company earlier this year, and she says having a D-U-N-S number has allowed her to both grow her business and talk confidently about her company’s future. “I love dreaming big,” she said. “If you don’t have a dream, then what’s the use — life is boring. You gotta dream big.”

Today, in the wake of losing her mother to COVID-19 in October, Mellaney has the joy of dreaming not only about her future, but the future of her infant daughter. According to Mellaney, while owning a successful business is fulfilling, it’s impossible to compare that to having a beautiful baby girl waiting for her at home. “Nothing else is more rewarding,” Mellaney said. “Now, I work even harder for her.”

Learn More

  • Optus Bank is a community bank, with a mission-driven purpose. They help strengthen their community by closing the wealth gap created by systemic disparities in the financial industry. By providing loans and banking services to local businesses and individuals they serve to turn deposits into direct support for the communities where their customers live and work.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like Mellaney’s? CNote makes it easy to invest in great banks like Optus, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Borrower Stories, Community Partners

These Maine CDFIs Are Showing Mainstream Lenders How to Open Doors For Muslim Borrowers

When Yassin arrived in western Maine in 2008 as a refugee from Djibouti, he knew that he wanted to start his own business one day. In recent decades, Maine has become a destination for a growing population of immigrants like Yassin, who are seeking to build a life for themselves in the U.S. According to Yassin, however, new Mainers often find themselves in difficult living situations due to a shortage of quality affordable housing and other cultural and structural barriers. Therefore, although Yassin was trained as an accountant in Djibouti, his entrepreneurial spirit led him in a different direction.

Photo credit: The Genesis Fund/Flax Studios

To address the renter-rentee issues in his community, Yassin wanted to purchase apartment buildings and rent out units to immigrants who could relate to him. Despite his desire to start his own business, Yassin wasn’t able to go to a traditional lender to apply for a small business loan. That’s because many Muslim borrowers like Yassin are prohibited by their faith practice from paying or receiving interest. As Yassin discovered, most traditional lenders weren’t willing to modify their conventional lending practices or to consider non-interest-based lending models in order to accommodate aspiring Muslim entrepreneurs like him.

Photo credit: The Genesis Fund/Flax Studios

That’s when Yassin connected with Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI), a community development financial institution (CDFI) that’s been working in Maine since 1977 to build livelihoods, wealth, and a more equitable and sustainable economy. CEI received a grant to focus on immigrant and new-Mainer entrepreneurs who needed small business start-up funding but who weren’t able to access conventional lending. What the CEI team came up with was a fee-based lending program designed and developed with Maine’s Muslim community in mind.

Fee-based lending works like this: First, these loans are loaned out with a 0% interest rate. Second, the principal of the loan is divided into equal monthly segments depending on the loan terms (e.g. 84 segments for a seven-year business loan). Then, any fees associated with the loan (e.g. costs associated with closing and administering the loan) are calculated and transparently shared with the customer. Depending on the size and terms of the loan, a borrower can either prepay the fees upfront (i.e. pay a $750 fee on a five-year, $10,000 small business loan) or, in the case of larger loans (i.e. a $300,000 commercial real estate loan), the fees can be divided into flat, even monthly allocations that are added to the monthly principal payments.

John Egan and Yassin. Photo credit: The Genesis Fund/Flax Studios

John Egan worked at CEI for 20 years and is now the chief lending and program officer at the Genesis Fund, another Maine CDFI. He adapted the fee-based lending approach to the Genesis Fund’s work, which is centered around affordable housing and community facility finance, including multifamily and commercial mortgage offerings. Through this new loan product, the Genesis Fund has now provided loan capital to Yassin for three properties, which provide rental housing and space for childcare providers serving the immigrant community in Lewiston. According to John, one of the reasons why fee-based loans work is because they’re designed to make sense. “Folks that have a prohibition against paying interest because of their religious convictions do not have the same prohibition about understanding how business works,” he said. “The idea that a fee is attached to the activity of lending money at 0% is not a philosophical or religious conviction challenge, and from what we’ve found, everybody can get behind the concept.”

Photo credit: Soggy Dog Designs

John pointed out that, besides a small distinction in how promissory notes are written and how loans are packaged in the loan software, these fee-based loans “live, breathe, serve, and pay” in CDFIs’ portfolios the same way as interest-based loans. 

John said that when Genesis was crunching the numbers on fee-based loans, he and his colleagues determined that if the loan remains outstanding for seven to ten years, which is typical in Maine, their returns would be about the same as they would with an interest-based loan. “These aren’t a net deficit on our portfolio,” he said. “Instead, we saw that fee-based loans would allow us to actually deploy more capital, further our mission, and reach a group of people that have no access to the mainstream banking system. When we saw that, we were pretty quick to say ‘of course we’re going to do this.’”

‘That’s Part of Our Job as CDFIs’

To date, Genesis Fund has a handful of fee-based loans in its portfolio, and although John and his colleagues hope to increase that number by double digits in the next two years, he’s arguably more enthusiastic about getting local banks to adopt fee-based lending in the near term. According to him, that’s part of the innovative role of CDFIs: to find new ways to fill gaps in the lending market that can in turn be picked up by traditional sources of capital. “That’s part of our job as CDFIs,” John said. “It’s to demonstrate these community projects so that next time, they can be financed by banks, not by us.”

This isn’t the first time that Genesis has led by example in order to get traditional lenders to innovate. For example, Genesis currently has 10 resident-owned manufactured home parks in its portfolio. Although “that’s a drop in the bucket” for a local bank that might have thousands of loans in its portfolio, John says that being able to share data from even a small sample size helps to assuage the concerns of risk managers and risk-averse bankers. By demonstrating the sound economics of deploying loans to manufactured home parks, Genesis helped pave the way for three Maine community banks to participate in financing these resident-owned communities.

Importantly, John isn’t nervous about losing business to local banks; he’s more focused on ensuring that banks understand what CDFIs like Genesis are and aren’t doing, especially regarding fee-based lending. “We’re not a granting agency, and we’re not giving away money like a foundation,” he said. “We’re lending with sound finance principles. We proved the concept and demonstrated how to mitigate the risk, and now it’s time to get banks involved because their volume is so much bigger. We’re confident that we’ll be successful in doing that.”

Meanwhile, John and his colleagues at Genesis are exploring other innovative lending programs in their community, including advocating for a fee-based home mortgage product for immigrant families to buy their first home in Maine. John says that he’s working with state housing officials, local credit unions, and developers to make it happen; however, anecdotally speaking, he said that the first lender to come out with such a product “is going to get run over with applications.” That’s because there is so much demand from immigrants who want to put down roots in Maine. “It’s not a secret,” John said. “When somebody can own property in their neighborhood instead of rent, they have a much louder voice. When you’ve got a higher concentration of owner-occupants in a neighborhood, those people take pride in their properties and reinvest in those properties, and community conditions improve. That’s what Maine needs.”

Photo credit: The Genesis Fund/Flax Studios

In the meantime, small real estate investors like Yassin — entrepreneurs who’ve benefited from fee-based loans from CEI and the Genesis Fund — are stepping up to provide affordable and accessible housing for the immigrants in their community. Today, Yassin owns 12 properties, and he estimates that 90% of his residents are immigrants. According to him, without having the opportunity to simultaneously borrow money and adhere to his Islamic faith, he wouldn’t have been able to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams, including hiring two full-time employees. “Honestly, if that program wasn’t there, then I wouldn’t have my business,” Yassin said. “[Fee-based lending] opened up the life I have today.”

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.
  • 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 Danielle Mahon, The Entrepreneur Whose Company, Topsail Steamer, Has The Wind At Its Back

Although Danielle Mahon identifies as a late-in-life entrepreneur, she’s more of a waiting-for-the-right-idea entrepreneur. Danielle grew up in southern New Jersey, and she spent her summers on the Jersey Shore with friends and family. Danielle pursued a career in sales, but it was her husband’s job that took her and her children to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Danielle quickly put down roots on (and fell in love with) nearby Topsail Island. She spent the next 10 years working in biotech before going on a girls trip to the Outer Banks in 2016. It was there, having lunch with her mother and sister, that Danielle found her business idea: the restaurant where they were eating offered make-at-home seafood steam pots, where patrons could take the black-and-white enamel pots home and return them the next day. The concept struck Danielle, and a business plan that didn’t require a full-service restaurant began to take shape in her head.

For Danielle, the timing seemed right to open a business. She and her husband were preparing to send their youngest child to college, and the soon-to-be empty-nesters were more than ready to move from Raleigh to Topsail. In no time at all, Danielle quit her job in corporate America, moved to the beach, and with a $75,000 loan from a family member, she opened Topsail Steamer in Surf City in March 2017. Topsail Steamer’s business model is straightforward: sell customizable, one-time-use steam pots — filled with fresh seafood, sausage, veggies, and homemade seasonings — so that people can take the buckets home, add water (or beer), and cook, eat, and enjoy them. Topsail Steamer even includes cocktail sauce, butter, and brown paper for the table, adding to the at-home dining experience. Despite the steep learning curve, Danielle quickly mastered how to handle and source all of her seafood locally (when possible), and a strong first year paved the way for Topsail Steamer to open a second location in neighboring Wrightsville Beach in May 2018.

Business continued to be strong until September of that year, when Hurricane Florence walloped Topsail Island, effectively devastating the area’s tourism-dependent shoulder season and many of the residents’ homes. It’s never easy to be hit by a hurricane, but for a new business with a three-month-old second location, Topsail Steamer struggled to regain its footing after the storm. That’s when Danielle connected with Thread Capital, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that offers North Carolina small business owners capital, coaching, and networking opportunities. According to Danielle, she received funds to shore up her business and to make Topsail Steamer more resilient so that it could face — and survive — a future natural disaster. For Danielle, building resiliency into her business meant figuring out a way to ship her seafood pots straight to customers’ front doors. With a loan from Thread Capital, Danielle was able to buy a generator, build out her business’ refrigeration systems, and get the necessary packaging in place to start Topsail Steamer’s shipping services.

Wind In Her Sails

In April 2019, Danielle and her growing team shipped their first seafood bucket. Around that same time, another opportunity to make Topsail Steamer more resilient presented itself: the building across the street went on the market in Surf City. Until that point, Danielle had been a renter, which opened her up to tremendous risk in the face of another hurricane, as a flattened, uninsured building would have been the end to Topsail Steamer. Danielle wanted to purchase the building, but she again needed help from a CDFI. This time, Thread Capital connected her with one of its partners called Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF), a CDFI that provides loans and technical assistance to innovative entrepreneurs across a nine-state region. CNote partners with CDFIs like NCIF in communities across the country, providing business coaching, funding loans, and empowering local entrepreneurs like Danielle.

NCIF lent Danielle the capital she needed to purchase the building in Surf City, and by August 2019, Topsail Steamer was shipping 25 orders a week. That’s when, once again, a vacation with friends and family spurred Danielle to make another big entrepreneurial move. This time, she was back in Ocean City, New Jersey trying to visit one of her favorite fudge spots; however, the store had shuttered. Danielle had never considered taking Topsail Steamer to Ocean City, but the vacancy at the “million-dollar,” highly trafficked location was enough to convince her otherwise.

Danielle rented the space, and in January 2020, while she was moving forward with renovations at her Ocean City location, she came across Goldbelly, a curated online marketplace for regional and artisanal foods crafted by local food purveyors throughout the United States. Danielle applied and a few days later, Goldbelly asked her to send a seafood pot to Manhattan. Within a month and a half, Topsail Steamer was on Goldbelly’s platform. Incredibly, Danielle’s business went live with Goldbelly during the first week of March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to shut down everything. As people shifted to primarily ordering food online, business exploded for Topsail Steamer, and Danielle and her team went from shipping 25 buckets a week to shipping 400 buckets a week.

For a third time, Danielle needed assistance from one of her trusted CDFI partners. This time, she needed both capital — again, for refrigeration — and business mentorship and advice. “We went from about $350,000-worth of business in 2017 to $3.2 million in 2020,” Danielle said. “It all happened so fast, and so we just needed a growth advisor to make sure that we’re creating a foundation that’s both going to support what’s happening and to allow us to intentionally grow and maintain our high standards. As somebody who is a new business owner, there are so many areas that you have to either be an expert in or have somebody who is a subject matter expert to help advise you, and NCIF has really been that partner for us.”

Full Steam Ahead

Today, Topsail Steamer has six locations between North Carolina and New Jersey, and via Goldbelly, the company has shipped seafood buckets to all 50 states. Danielle has no plans of slowing down her business’ expansion anytime soon, and according to her, she wants to open anywhere from two to four more stores every year, but only if she and her team find the right places in the right markets. She’s also resisting going down the traditional franchising route, instead favoring to keep Topsail Steamer family-, friend-, and employee-operated. That means cultivating her base of 100-plus talented employees, creating professional development opportunities internally, and growing her leadership team from within her stores. Point in case: Danielle’s brother-in-law, Brian, is Topsail Steamer’s director of store operations, and her two children, Emily and Jimmy — the company’s first two employees — continue to work full-time in local store marketing and business development for Topsail Steamer.

Given where she was and what she was doing five years ago, it may seem unbelievable what Danielle is doing today as the founder and CEO of Topsail Steamer; but, for Danielle, something like this was always in the cards for her. She grew up watching her father, who happened to be a small business owner himself, and according to her, one of her strengths has always been to identify opportunities around her. In the case of Topsail Steamer, while it’s been a blend of opportunity, timing, and serendipity that has contributed to its success, the business’ skyrocketing trajectory is in large part a result of Danielle having faith in herself. Unsurprisingly, when asked what advice she has for other late-in-life entrepreneurs, it’s the same advice that she’s told herself time and time again: “just have confidence in yourself.”

Learn More

  • Topsail Steamer offers seafood steam pots prepared with fresh local seafood, meats, veggies, and homemade seasonings to take home, steam, eat and enjoy!
  • Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF) is a CDFI that provides loans and technical assistance to innovative entrepreneurs across a nine-state region.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like Danielle’s? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like NCIF, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Community Partners

How Credit Unions Rose To The Challenges Presented By PPP Loan Issuance And Forgiveness

When Jim Barnhart pushed pause on his 34-year-long career in banking, he never could have imagined that a global pandemic was right around the corner. Instead, Jim was looking forward to some quality time at home with his family, particularly so he could help his son, a senior in high school, transition to college. As would be the case, however, Jim’s time away from the financial sector would ultimately be cut short by the demand for SBA commercial loan officers, whose expertise was essential to addressing the staggering economic toll inflicted by COVID-19.

Even before the pandemic sent the U.S. into a lockdown in March 2020, entrepreneurs around the country feared that their small businesses wouldn’t be able to survive an economic shutdown. However, when President Trump signed the roughly $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) into law on March 27, there was a glimmer of hope. The unprecedented stimulus package allocated nearly $350 billion for small businesses to continue to pay their employees through the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) loan program. Called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), the loans were originally designed to cover eight weeks of expenses. Moreover, if employers didn’t lay off employees or cut payroll, loans spent on payroll costs, mortgage payments, rent, and insurance could be forgiven.

Almost immediately, there were headaches. Not only was the window to apply for initial PPP funding short, but the understanding was that as soon as the $350 billion was deployed, that was all the help that was available. To complicate matters, while SBA’s usual demographic is businesses with 500 employees or less, special circumstances allowed for PPP money to flow to much larger, national enterprises that had 500 or fewer employees at individual locations. That’s how businesses like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House — restaurants with thousands of employees —  got $10 million and $20 million loans, respectively, from the SBA. Although these businesses, and others, returned their loans to the SBA after public outcry, one thing was clear: larger and well-known businesses were receiving PPP funding while small businesses and nonprofits up and down Main Street America were struggling.

For example, John Highkin’s San Diego-based nonprofit, Fern Street Circus, had banked with two big-name banks for more than 30 years, but neither of those banks was willing to help him get PPP funding. Similarly, Barbara McCullough, CEO at Brighter Beginnings, was confident that the bank where she did business for over 10 years in the Bay Area would want to help her nonprofit secure a PPP loan: she was told “no.” As frustrating as an outright rejection was for small organizational leaders like John and Barbara, for many, they didn’t even get a response from the banks where they’d held accounts for decades. Instead, while the application window began to shrink and the pool of PPP money was being rapidly depleted, desperate emails went unanswered, and phone calls went straight to voicemail.

Rising To The Occasion

Although a few important things happened regarding PPP, including a deadline extension for the initial round of loans and a second round of funding that brought the forgivable loan program up to $953 billion, for many small business owners, the experience of being let down by their bank at such a critical point in time led them to take their business elsewhere, including to community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and credit unions. Not only could these community financial institutions distribute PPP funding as SBA-approved lenders, but because these mission-driven organizations focus on character-based lending, financial literacy building, and business skills training, they were uniquely prepared to help small business owners and nonprofit leaders who’d been neglected by their traditional banks to both get PPP dollars and weather the pandemic.

Take Michea Rahman, the owner of the Children’s Language Center in Houston, for example. Michea enrolled in a business resiliency class through TruFund, a CDFI that invests in small businesses in New York, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, after her business came to a standstill at the beginning of the pandemic. In addition to business coaching, TruFund provided Michea with real-time information about PPP loans, and when the time came, the CDFI helped her with her application and forgiveness paperwork. While Michea credits the PPP funds for helping her business to stay afloat, she says the training and support from TruFund have allowed her to grow her business to the point that it’s doing better than it was before the pandemic. That includes expanding the number of families she’s helping, hiring a full-time employee, and moving into a larger space.

While hundreds of credit unions and CDFIs like TruFund were able to play their part as economic shock absorbers throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, these financial institutions faced great operational strains, and for many, they needed to quickly grow their teams in order to meet the needs of the small business owners and nonprofit leaders in their communities. For Self-Help, a nonprofit financial institution with branches across Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, that meant hiring Jim Barnhart, who stepped in as an experienced, albeit temporary, loan forgiveness officer in October 2020. “[Self-Help] hadn’t seen this type of loan volume on a regular basis before,” Jim said. “With the amount of applications coming in, they were the bottleneck, and they couldn’t get to them as quickly as they needed to. The clock was ticking, and that’s when they realized they needed to hire some more help.”

‘We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat’

According to Jim, he was happy to step out of his semi-retirement to join Self-Help’s PPP efforts, and although he remained at home and worked remotely, he says his colleagues’ camaraderie and dedication were palpable, even through phone calls and Zoom meetings. Jim says that inspired him to hit the ground running, so that he could help as many small business owners and nonprofits as possible with their PPP forgiveness applications. Additionally, because everyone from Self-Help executives to Self-Help area managers were working on various aspects of the PPP process (in addition to their day jobs), Jim says there was a feeling of “all hands on deck.” Although that led to long hours and late nights, Jim claims that his colleagues’ collective commitment to get through the pile of PPP applications helped to keep a fire lit under him.

That, and the desperation he could so clearly hear in Self Help’s clients’ voices. Not only were people’s livelihoods on the line, but for nonprofits and social enterprises dedicated to serving communities, the PPP loan applications were about more than paying employees: they were about keeping things like youth programs running, health clinics operational, and food banks open. “If someone called me at 8:30 pm while I was at a football game with my son, I was gonna take it,” Jim said. “You can’t take care of everybody, but at the end of the day, if you take care of the people that are taking care of the people, then people will be taken care of. That’s what Self-Help does.”

Jim wasn’t the only new addition to Self-Help striving to “take care of the people … taking care of the people.” According to him, between October 2020 and January 2021, the credit union doubled the size of its staff of forgiveness officers. Similarly, Self-Help brought additional loan officers and underwriters on board to help meet the needs at the front end of the PPP process. Jim credit’s Self-Help’s leadership team with having the wherewithal and foresight in order to address PPP holistically, from the beginning of the pipeline (i.e. eligibility and applications) to the end of the pipeline (i.e. forgiveness), in order to meet its members’ needs. He also says that the credit union’s leadership did a great job of keeping abreast with changes at the SBA, getting information, and channeling it down to its team so that they would be better prepared to do their jobs and answer questions. That transparency and real-time communication ultimately allowed Jim to be proactive with helping Self-Help’s customers adjust to PPP changes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jim won’t be returning to his life of semi-retirement anytime soon — he signed on full-time with Self-Help in July of 2021. According to him, he fell in love with the credit union’s focus on minority-owned businesses, nonprofits, and other enterprises that traditional banks typically don’t consider, and he’s already feeling like he’s making a difference. “You go home every night feeling like you did some good,” Jim said. “I haven’t felt this good in my 30-something years in banking, where my stress is a blessing because I get to come back tomorrow and ask ‘how do we do more?’ At Self-Help, that really is the goal every day.”

Learn More

  • Self-Help is a nonprofit financial institution with branches across Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
  • 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.

CNote’s Quarter Impact Report Q2 2021

By | Impact Metrics | No Comments

We’re excited to announce that CNote investors helped to create/maintain over 400 jobs in Q2 of 2021.

In this report you’ll see:

  • An update from CNote’s Head of Community Development Director
  • CNote’s Q2 impact metrics
  • Three new CNote impact stories
  • A CNote firm and portfolio update

Since Inception, CNote has created or maintained

5,232 Jobs

In Quarter Two of 2021, CNote Deployed:

71% of Dollars to BIPOC-Owned Businesses 

From the time that Dr. Alexia McClerkin broke her ankle in high school, she knew she wanted to become a doctor. She chose to study kinesiology so that she could work with athletes, allowing them to get better and to return to their sports. That passion led Alexia to become a registered nurse and study chiropractic medicine.

In June 2016, she started her own private practice- The Beauty and Wellness Doc, which offers a variety of traditional services, including adjustments, deep tissue massage, stretching, dry needling, athlete recovery, therapeutic laser, and cupping.

When Alexia initially looked to furnish her new space with equipment and furniture, she met with a lender who told her that they would give her a loan that wouldn’t affect her credit. After reading the fine print, however, Alexia discovered that the interest rate was 65% and that she would have to pay an exorbitant loan origination fee.

Fortunately, Alexia already had a long-standing relationship with CNote CDFI partner, Trufund, who was able to help Alexia to navigate the second round of PPP funding. Today, business at The Beauty and Wellness Doc is booming. According to Alexia, the pandemic, in a way, has turned out to be good for her business, as the pivot to remote working has left a lot of people with low back, shoulder, and neck pain caused by poor ergonomics and bad workspaces at home.

I had absolutely no idea how to go at it [apply for a PPP loan],” she said. “But Jessica [Whittington] from TruFund walked me through the process. We went through my finances and made sure everything was in place so that I could get it. She was true to her word. It was so
easy and seamless and within a few days, I looked in my bank account and the money was there.”

In Quarter Two of 2021, CNote Deployed:

43% of Dollars to Women-Led Businesses 

Tanesha Sims-Summers is the founder of Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co., a gourmet, hand-popped kettle corn company based out of Birmingham, Alabama.

While Tanesha credits the success of her company with having a quality (and addictive) product, she notes that seizing every opportunity to educate herself as an entrepreneur has equally fueled her company’s growth. That thirst for education is what led her to connect with TruFund, a CNote partner and Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI).

Tanesha has taken advantage of a number of TruFund’s programmatic offerings, and through the CDFI, she’s connected with and learned from fellow entrepreneurs. Additionally, in 2019 TruFund provided Tanesha with a $50,000 loan to complete the build-out of Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co.’s food truck — Miss Poppy — and to provide some extra cushion for miscellaneous expenses.

Lift Fund seemed really interested in my story,” Tawnya said, “and they wanted to help. I felt like I gave them my life’s history, from financial to personal, but they really wanted to get to know who I was. They wanted to know who they’d be investing in.

In Q2 of 2021, CNote deployed

38% of Dollars to Low-and Moderate-Income Communities

Those dollars ended up supporting individuals like Tawnya Sanford who had opened an in-home daycare center so that she could spend more time with her daughter. Years later, when Tawnya was looking to expand to a larger daycare center, she was put in touch with the owners of The Little Engine Learning Center. But when the time came to purchase the business, Tawnya ran into a problem: finding a bank that would give her a loan.

“Every time I’d call a bank about a loan, they’d tell me ‘no,’” Tawnya said. “They told me I needed to have between $80,000 and $100,000 before they’d even talk to me. It was very depressing.”

Fortunately, Tawnya was able to connect with LiftFund, a CNote partner and San Antonio-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), who was able to provide a 401(k)-backed loan that allowed her to purchase the business portion of the Little Engine Learning Center.

Lift Fund seemed really interested in my story,” Tawnya said, “and they wanted to help. I felt like I gave them my life’s history, from financial to personal, but they really wanted to get to know who I was. They wanted to know who they’d be investing in.

CNote Partner Profile: LiftFund

Portfolio: CNote Flagship Fund

About: CNote continues to profile our CDFI partners to highlight the incredible work they have done and continue to do for their local communities. These profiles will discuss their focus area, the geographies they serve, and a specific impact story that exemplifies the work they do.

Thousands of financially underserved small businesses and entrepreneurs are denied capital daily and need to rely on predatory lenders that cost more than they can afford. According to data released by the Federal Reserve in 2020, while 80.2% of White business owners received at least a percentage of the funding they requested from a bank, that figure was only 60.9% for Black business owners and 69.5% for Hispanic business owners.

LiftFund, a CDFI loan fund, was founded in 1994 in San Antonio, Texas, to level the financial playing field for the financially underserved entrepreneur with the goal of self-sufficiency and success for all those seeking it. LiftFund believes everyone deserves the opportunity to build a company successfully with capital no matter their background, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, or geography.

In 2020 alone, LiftFund equipped 4,500 small businesses with $98.2 million in relief funding in the form of small business loans, forgivable loans, grants, loan payment relief, and PPP, primarily to low to moderate-income, BIPOC communities. But capital is only one piece of the puzzle for small business success. That’s why LiftFund also provided over 7,000 hours of business support in topics like credit review, startup assistance, financial education, and more.

These dollars and business support hours help entrepreneurs like Montina Young, Founder of CIA Media Group, an award-winning digital marketing agency helping companies rethink business for the digital age. Even though business was booming for Montina, she often did not receive payment for her services for 30, 60, or sometimes even 90 days after the project was completed. She connected with LiftFund who provided Montina with funding to have sufficient payroll on hand, purchase video production equipment, and repay debt.

LiftFund was also able to provide technical assistance to Montina, teaching her how to read her cash flow statement, profit and loss statement, and balance sheets. Montina has also taken advantage of the professional gathering opportunities offered by LiftFund, which she says are especially important for BIPOC and women entrepreneurs, who don’t often have mentors or family members who’ve owned and operated a successful business.

I love, love, love, CDFIs,” she said. “CDFIs educate you about the loans you’re taking out, they look at your business plan, and they want to grow and scale with your business. They’re truly phenomenal.”

CNote Firm Update

At CNote, our north star is to close the wealth gap by driving investments and deposits into institutions that are generating long-term positive change for financially underserved communities.

That is why we were thrilled when PayPal announced that it would deposit $135M into mission-driven financial institutions, including depository institutions, through CNote’s Impact Cash™ Program. PayPal also committed to investing in wealth creation opportunities for BIPOC women by investing in CNote’s Wisdom Fund.

In April, CNote celebrated its five-year anniversary. In those five years, we have continued to innovate to best meet the needs of our partners and the communities that they serve. That’s why in response to requests from investors who wanted to support specific geographies and demographics, CNote created a new customization service that allows corporate treasury departments to invest in specific CDFIs that help them meet diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and improve their performance on ESG measures.

Finally, over the last quarter, CNote was featured in publications like Sustainable Brands, Green Money, Green Biz, and NASDAQ. These articles covered topics like democratizing capital, how treasurers can lead their company’s impact investing efforts, and roadmaps for a more equitable future. By continuing to be a thought leader in the space and driving capital towards community needs across the U.S, CNote continues to contribute to a more equal future.

CNote Portfolio Update 

CNote’s portfolio of CDFI Loan Funds continues to demonstrate solid performance and financial stability. Across several weighted average indicators, the portfolio saw minimal changes. Specifically, net assets to total assets saw a slight decline from 29.8% to 29.3%. While delinquency levels did decrease, charge-off levels saw a slight increase from the prior quarter, though staying well below 1% and lower than the historical charge-off levels, including the past 12 months. Overall, the portfolio indicators are comparable or better than the same indicators a year ago.

CNote brings a nationwide network of community partners and the expertise to know when and where capital is needed. They also know how to work with a corporate finance department, and made it easier for us to broaden and deepen our efforts to help underserved communities of color thrive."- Aaron Anderson, Treasurer, PayPal

CNote Portfolio Update

Taken together, these indicators are consistent with a portfolio, like the CDFI industry writ large, that continues to engage in either pandemic-responsive or business-restart lending in a responsible manner; CDFIs are investing built-up cash, reserves, and net assets from prior quarters strategically to respond to the needs of its respective client base as the various local, state, and federal resources have begun to wind down or have sunset. This also includes several