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By Borrower Stories

How Leslie Rosella Turned Her Passion For Four-Legged Friends Into A Growing Doggie Day Care

For as long as she can remember, Leslie Rosella has loved animals. Pursuing a bright career in the restaurant industry, it never occurred to her that she could turn her childhood love into a profession. That was the case, at least, until she got Brixx: a purebred Rottweiler that Leslie and her boyfriend, Chris Cooley, got soon after the couple arrived in Portland, Oregon in 2001. While Brixx proved to be the perfect companion, she struggled with “insane health problems,” as Leslie put it, from chronic ear infections to gastrointestinal issues to an array of orthopedic conditions. Leslie began to have to take Brixx to see the veterinarian on a weekly basis, and because of the rottweiler’s health issues, Leslie had a difficult time finding a doggy daycare center that was equipped to provide the level of care and attention that Brixx required.

Hoping to learn more about rescues and in an effort to educate pet owners, Leslie became a volunteer with the Oregon Humane Society’s behavior unit. She learned that the reasons most families surrender their pets are due to simple behavior-related problems that could have been solved with simple training. Leslie became passionate about educating prospective pet owners about adoption awareness; as well as keeping pets in their homes. She soon received her certification in dog training.

Around the same time, Leslie and Chris began talking about moving back to Jackson, Mississippi to be closer to family. Leslie felt confident enough in her training to take a leap of faith and step away from the restaurant industry to actually pursue working with dogs as a career. Leslie knew a doggie daycare was a service Jackson desperately needed.

After 11 years in Portland, the couple moved back to Mississippi, and Leslie poured everything she had into creating a business plan. She received mentoring from a local Small Business Administration community college professor, who tweaked her business plan and helped her with her financial modeling. Meanwhile, she built her client base through in-home pet sitting, dog training, and volunteering with local, non-profit rescues. Pippa Jackson, the director for one of these nonprofits, who happened to be a realtor, took a particular interest in Leslie’s dream and set out on a mission to help Leslie find the perfect property where she could open Dog Day Afternoon Canine Social Club, an off-leash dog facility focused on group enrichment.

Six No’s, One Yes

First, however, Leslie had to secure capital in order to purchase the building. She started to visit banks in the area to share her business plan and to apply for a loan. Although each bank showed interest, she got turned down each time because she didn’t have enough collateral to qualify for a loan. Eventually, in 2017, after being shot down by five different banks, the sixth (while also turning her down) suggested she contact Renaissance Community Loan Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that offers tailored lending services for mortgages, home improvement, and commercial loans across Mississippi. CNote partners with CDFIs like Renaissance Community Loan Fund in communities across the country, providing business coaching, funding loans, and empowering local entrepreneurs like Leslie.

“They weren’t just looking at facts and figures,” Leslie said. “Renaissance actually took the time to get to know me. They were just incredible to work with: very personable and encouraging. Everybody else said ‘No,’ but they said ‘Yes.’ They took the time to realize my vision, and I owe them everything.”

In November 2017, Leslie’s loan — to purchase the building, do renovations, and have the working capital to get her business off the ground — was approved, and despite some rezoning challenges, Leslie was able to move into her new facility on September 1, 2018. A little over one month later, she did her first trial day with clients that she had long-standing relationships with from pet sitting and dog training. By the beginning of 2019, Dog Day Afternoon Canine Social Club was officially up and running.

At the beginning of 2020, she saw a significant increase in new clients, and Leslie and her team were confident that it was going to be their year. That’s when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Spring Break was Leslie’s most profitable week to date. The next week, her facility was practically empty. As her business is considered essential, Dog Day Afternoon remained open during the pandemic lockdown. It was a tough couple of months, but Leslie considers herself very fortunate to have received grants to supplement the loss in income. Although the pandemic put a strain on her business, Leslie says that since Memorial Day 2021, Dog Day Afternoon is hitting new records every weekend — and that’s through word-of-mouth advertising alone. “The pandemic hit us hard,” Leslie said, “but business is picking up, and this is the best that we’ve ever done. I feel very lucky.”

Leslie credits her Mom, Pam Rosella, for always being there for her. “Every step of the way, she’s held my hand. Every successful moment, every heartache, every impossible hurdle, she’s been my rock. I truly could not have done this without her encouragement.”

A Fur-ever Home

Looking toward the future of Dog Day Afternoon Canine Social Club, Leslie would be interested in opening more facilities but is more focused on making her current location flourish. Currently, she and her team offer doggie daycare and overnight stays (also known as doggie slumber parties) and dog grooming services. In phase two of renovations on the building, she intends to have a full-service grooming salon, overnight suites equipped with TVs and interactive cameras, and a small retail store.

Despite the uncertainties of the next few years, one thing that Leslie is certain about is her commitment to deepening her relationships with local nonprofit animal shelters and her community. Part of her mission is to educate dog owners and promote adoption awareness. Currently, Dog Day Afternoon welcomes some rescue dogs into its doggie daycare to receive enrichment and lots of one on one attention that they wouldn’t get at the shelter. Leslie says this increases their chances of getting adopted as well as success transitioning into their forever homes.

Those efforts don’t just include nonprofits in Jackson — Leslie has partnered with Animal Rescue Fund of MS (ARF) and their animal rescue partners in Maine, 3 Dogs Rescue and Lairbear Transport, which helps to find shelter dogs in Mississippi wonderful homes in the Northeast. Additionally, Leslie and her team have office dogs, which is essentially a hospice/ foster program for shelter dogs nearing the end of their lives. According to Leslie, the dogs get to live at Dog Day Afternoon. They roam freely around the facility and “are spoiled rotten in their final days.”

Leslie’s above-and-beyond approach to caring for the dogs in — and away — from her community is similar to the above-and-beyond approach that Renaissance Community Loan Fund takes to support Mississippians who’re deemed unbankable by traditional lenders. Not only did the CDFI pave the way for Leslie to get Dog Day Afternoon up and running, but Renaissance also loaned Leslie and Chris the money they needed to purchase a home. Because Chris was furloughed during the pandemic and Leslie only pays herself a small salary, the two couldn’t get a loan from a bank. Thanks to Renaissance, the two closed on a house in July. “I hate to be cheesy and say that they make dreams come true,” Leslie said, “but they really do. Renaissance made our dreams come true.”

Sadly, Leslie and Chris lost their Rottweiler, Brixx, which inspired her dream in August of 2019.  A few months later, a Rottweiler came into ARF that was in very bad shape. With a Rottie-sized hole in their hearts, Leslie and Chris jumped at the chance to foster him. The couple ended up adopting Bigg’in a year to the day after losing Brixx. Bigg’in joins their big family of rescue siblings including a Foxhound, MJ,(rescued from an animal testing facility in Oregon), two foster failures from ARF, Goose (whom she nursed back to health) and Possum (a formally feral dog) and four foster failure kitties

Learn More

  • Dog Day Afternoon Canine Social Club
  • Renaissance Community Loan Fund is a Mississippi nonprofit lender that offers unique, tailored lending services for mortgages, home improvement, and commercial loans.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like Renaissance Community Loan Fund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Community Partners

Meet Harlem Entrepreneurial Fund, the CDFI Aiming to Become ‘Harlem’s  CDFI’

Although Hamil Douglas self-identifies as a reformed banker, he’s appreciative of his extensive experience in the world of finance. Without it, he likely would never have become the president and CEO of Harlem Commonwealth Council (HCC), where he also serves as the managing director of Harlem Entrepreneurial Fund (HEF), HCC’s investment vehicle.

Hamil got his career off the ground in New York City, first as a branch manager at J.P. Morgan Chase and then as a commercial loan officer. He relocated to Chicago with ABN AMRO (RBS) and became part of the bank’s in-house training staff for its corporate finance training program, which recruited recent university graduates to become corporate finance officers and loan officers. That position ultimately led Hamil to Amsterdam and then to Singapore, where he stayed for nearly seven years, working primarily as a global relationship manager serving multinational corporate clients based across Asia-Pacific.

As a New Yorker, however, Hamil couldn’t ignore his longing to return to The Big Apple. In the early 2000s, he briefly returned to Chicago to finish up his M.B.A before moving his young family to New York City. This led to jobs at Merrill Lynch and U.S. Trust – Bank of America Private Wealth Management, where he weathered the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis. That’s when Hamil started to feel antsy. He decided to try something more entrepreneurial and partnered with one of his former trainees to launch a minority hedge fund. While Hamil enjoyed building something from scratch, once the fund merged with another firm, he again found himself wanting to try something new, this time in real estate.

Hamil enrolled in Project Reap, where he met another participant who happened to be the director of lending at HEF (HCC manages a significant real estate portfolio). The two became good friends, and in early 2019, Hamil began to volunteer with HEF to help it build its portfolio. His solid work drew the attention of both the board and the management, who in turn offered him a position as a senior loan officer, providing loans to small businesses in Harlem, Upper Manhattan, and certain parts of Queens. Hamil was in turn promoted to chief operating officer, and in September 2020, he became president and CEO of HEF — 19 months after first coming on board as a volunteer.

The Man for the Job

According to Hamil, his background in credit and training has served him well at HEF; however, his previous work in Asia-Pacific building and managing relationships has arguably been more useful to him as he’s learned to navigate the nuances of HEF’s footprint. “I’ve lived in several countries, and I’ve had to get immersed in the culture,” he said. “That experience lent itself very nicely to what I’m doing here, because New York City is a diaspora of different languages and different people, especially in the village of Harlem, where we have different clients from different cultures.”

HCC established HEF in 2007 to provide low-income and minority entrepreneurs with supportive loan capital and technical assistance in Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood, and the Bronx. Lending operations began in the summer of 2008, and HEF was certified by the U.S. Treasury Department as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in 2012, and as a Community Development Entity (CDE) in 2021. Since its inception, HEF has originated 257 loans for over $4.4 million and helped create or retain over 650 local jobs. HEF has successfully raised over $1.5 million in grant funding from public and private institutions. According to Hamil, the CDFI originates loans anywhere from $1,000 to $250,000. Approximately 70% of HEF’s clients are restaurants and retail businesses, and slightly less than 10% of the CDFIs clients are part of what HEF calls its credit builder loan portfolio: a program designed to help entrepreneurs who have good ideas but poor credit.

While credit isn’t the sole criterion for assessing the risk of a loan application, Hamil said it’s still an important factor. “For those people that we think we can do something with in terms of helping them to realize their dream of starting or buying or expanding a business, we say ‘listen, we see what you’re trying to do and we think you’re good for it, but we’re going to start with a smaller loan than you requested.’” In addition to that initial, albeit reduced, capital (typically between $1,000 and $5,000), HEF frequently reports those loan payments to the three credit bureaus so that it has a positive impact on the entrepreneur’s credit score. The CDFI also connects the entrepreneur to either a credit repair course or an individual coach so that they can work to improve their credit score even more.

Another one of HEF’s programs is called Opportunity for Growth, which is based on the Interise Streetwise “MBA” curriculum. The highly interactive program runs for between three to four months, and existing business owners get the chance to meet weekly with outside consultants and managers to come up with a three-year plan to make their businesses better. Hamil says that not only is the program very desirable and highly sought after by business owners in the community, but the program has helped to generate significant business for HEF, as participants who complete the program are eligible for a special, reduced interest rate on a loan from HEF.

Although the CDFI offers a number of other programs and opportunities to local business owners, one of the most impactful things that HEF has been able to do in the past year is to offer PPP loans to its community, something for which Hamil cites as one of his most special days at HEF. “June 19, 2020,” he said. “That’s Juneteenth, but that was also the day we received notification from the U.S. Department of Treasury that our application to become a PPP lender was approved. That opened up a whole new world for us.”

Because there are few lenders in Harlem — outside of traditional big banks — doing PPP loans, Hamil says HEF has seen tremendous growth in its portfolio over the past 12 months. That growth propelled Hamil and his team to join Opportunity Finance Network, which opened up further opportunities through Google, Wells Fargo, Capital One, PNC, and Bank of America for HEF to access external capital. That allowed Hamil to restructure HEF so that “it looks like any other fund,” and he’s anticipating getting SBA approval for HEF to become a microlender any day. Additionally, Hamil has made a point to forge new partnerships both within and far away from Harlem, including with New York City’s Small Business Services, New York State’s Empire Development,  African American Alliance of CDFI CEOs, the Black Chamber of Commerce, BNP Paribas, and Lendistry.

Supporting the Harlem of Tomorrow

Despite the fact that Hamil has the same challenges as many other CDFI CEOs — finding the right employees, securing capital, and “juggling all of the balls in the air” — he says that things at HEF are “humming along very nicely.” The CDFI recently signed an MOU with LendingFront to upgrade its web infrastructure, thus making its online loan application portal more streamlined and user-friendly, while at the same time allowing HEF to screen and respond to applicants much more quickly. It’s all part of Hamil’s goals for HEF to become a durable, accessible, and integral piece of the broader community, where entrepreneurs “can get access to capital, technical skills, and knowledge to help them to maintain their businesses, grow their lives, and grow the economy as a whole.”

Interestingly — especially when taking into account Hamil’s long tenure in the world of finance — HEF’s CEO wants the organization to, in a way, be viewed by its community as a “mini bank,” or, as Hamil puts it, “Harlem’s Own-CDFI.” “I want it to be a place that people talk about when thinking about where to go to get a small business loan,” he said. “I want my organization’s number to be at the top of the speed dial. I want Harlem Entrepreneurial Fund to be where people can walk in the door, be treated fairly, and have their stories listened to. I want it to be a destination.”

Learn More

  • Harlem Entrepreneurial Fund (HEF) has a mission to serve low-income and minority populations by providing lending capital and technical assistance to facilitate small business expansion and job creation in underserved Harlem, Washington Heights, Inwood and Bronx communities.
  • CNote is a women-led impact investment platform that uses technology to unlock diversified and proven community investments to generate economic mobility and financial inclusion.
By Change Makers Series

Change Makers Interview: Jamie McCall

To say that Jamie McCall is passionate about research is an understatement. Fortunately, as the Vice President of Economic Development Policy at Carolina Small Business Development Fund (CSBDF), a statewide community development financial institution (CDFI) based in Raleigh, research, policy analysis, and program evaluation are at the core of what Jamie gets to do each and every day.

Through his research, Jamie explores the importance of small- and medium-sized businesses for sustainable and effective regional growth, and besides peer-reviewed articles, organizational white papers, and presentations at national conferences, Jamie has also authored several academic book chapters on topics related to community economic development. In addition to his role at CSBDF, Jamie is an adjunct instructor within the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Government, where he received his Master of Public Administration.

We caught up with Jamie to talk about his unique research, and we got the chance to hear his thoughts about the idea of CDFI self-sufficiency, the need for better impact reporting, and how the CDFI industry can elevate the role of research.

CNote: Can you talk a little about your background and how you found your way to CSBDF?

Jamie McCall: After graduate school, I started working for the state government’s nonprofit development corporation as a research analyst. When any public or quasi-public entity says they are engaging in “economic development,” it almost always means a focus on recruiting large businesses. Thus, most of my work involved supporting business recruitment and/or expansion efforts. I got to work on things that were interesting and challenging, but I didn’t have a passion for it. I knew what the research says: small business is the cornerstone of community economic development. I started looking for other positions, and one of my former colleagues was on the policy and research committee here at Carolina Small Business Development Fund. She said, “you’re gonna love it.” I applied and obviously took the job. I was immediately thrown into a world that I was not familiar with, but it was a world that I was really excited about. Though I knew CDFIs were essential actors for holistic and sustainable development when I took the job I was only vaguely aware of the industry.

CNote: How do you explain CDFIs to someone who’s never heard of them?

Jamie McCall: I usually give the example of a big business like Amazon. Even when they were early on in their growth, if they needed money to do something like build a new warehouse, they could go to a bank. As a company, they’re stable, and so they have no problem getting credit for expansion purposes. But when you deal with small- and medium-sized businesses, which are really the foundation of regional economies, in most cases, they cannot get any sort of financing to start or grow what they’re doing. That’s because those businesses don’t have enough scale to be financially stable enough that banks find them to be good targets for financing. They don’t fit traditional lending profiles, and for the most part, banks view those businesses as being higher risk.

CDFIs come into the picture because they do not have that sort of framework of profit motivation that banks have. There are of course for-profit CDFIs, but they are the exception and not the rule. So, the role of CDFIs is to come in and fill in that gap for businesses that are higher risk. They don’t make loans with the goal to make money, but they know that those businesses are going to take that loan money and they’re going to expand, add staff, and buy things. For every $1 that you give a small business that does that, there are multiple dollars in return in terms of economic impact. So, if a CDFI does its job well and a business is able to grow and expand, then that business can now access more capital from the traditional banking system. And from there, it’s sort of like a snowball effect. It often seems strange to people that debt is an economic development tool, but it’s really how you get businesses to grow.

CNote: Can you talk a little more about that multiplying effect with regards to small business lending impact in your region?

Jamie McCall: For our last fiscal year, for every dollar that went out, the return to the economy was $1.01. With a $1.01 multiplier, you are doubling your money in terms of economic impact. That multiplier changes a bit from year to year, which is why we conduct yearly economic impact analyses. In some years, it’ll be lower or higher, and it’s very industry-dependent. We know that it is hard to measure the economic impact of small businesses, which is why one of my lines of research is also looking at social impact multipliers. If a CDFI does its job correctly and a small business is given a level of debt that it can handle, then what you end up with is successful entrepreneurs who become embedded in their community. These small businesses end up building these really robust social networks with other small firms, with their suppliers, and within their community. We saw with COVID how the businesses that were able to survive were those that have those really strong social networks in place. So, there’s both an economic return on investment and a social return. The social return is much harder to measure, but I think it’s just as important.

CNote: Can you explain that idea of social capital network a little more? Why is it so important?

Jamie McCall: When you look across the CDFI industry and people talk about impacts, it’s most often expressed as the number of jobs created or saved, amount of capital lended, number of loans, the average size of loans, and things like that. Those are not necessarily bad indicators. They are one type of indicator, but they do not tell the full story. I often say that jobs are not the primary impact of CDFI work, because if we go in and we give people lots of loans and they create lots of jobs, the question which usually comes up is what is the “quality” of those jobs. But we know in general small business jobs they’re not going to be as good as a similar position would beat larger corporations. To me, the question that we should be asking is: how do the people in those jobs improve the community?

For example, we know that when people work in a small business, they tend to come from that community and they tend to live and work in the same place. That’s extremely important for community economic development because that allows relationships not just between small businesses and other small businesses, but relationships between small business employees and their community to really develop. Those interactions have such a high return on investment. Importantly though that return is mostly social (and not economic) because what they do is increase levels of community trust. It also increases trust in institutions, which is really important, especially for urban problems like trying to find ways to lift people out of poverty, because people have a legitimate distrust of institutions.

What we have found again and again, and what the research shows, is that social networks have immense economic value, but that value is hard to measure. It’s not that jobs aren’t important: we want to create jobs. But, we have to acknowledge the limitations of that. As a CDFI researcher, I would much rather say we didn’t create a single job, but we increased trust in this community and its institutions by two percentage points. That has a much higher impact than creating 200 jobs.

CNote: As a researcher, what role do you think research has to play in the CDFI industry, and what research gap are you trying to fill?

Jamie McCall: I think people, and especially policymakers, tend not to view CDFIs to be as integral to community economic development as they really are, and that’s where I think the role of research and education comes in. CDFIs do not have a foundation of research like other economic development interventions do. I can give you volumes on affordable housing. I can give you volumes on business recruitment. But when it comes to CDFIs, especially small-business-oriented CDFIs, there’s nothing. For me, that’s what I want to do: lay out why these institutions are important and why supporting small business is important, empirically. It’s not just me. The Federal Reserve’s community development division has lots of great work here in this area, and some CDFIs have research staff, but because CDFIs are low-capacity organizations, most of them don’t have research staff. Even those that do, they’re still capacity constrained.

What I’ve found with CDFI research, however, is there’s a lot of good qualitative research that I think is really important, but there’s no willingness to engage critically with it. I want people to ask me critical questions about what I’m doing in terms of research because that’s the only way we get better. I would much rather somebody in the CDFI industry find a flaw in an article I’ve written than somebody in Congress. That kind of engagement isn’t a personal attack. For example, we recently had an article on CDFI program evaluation accepted at Community Development and six independent peer reviewers who are experts in this area reviewed it. Their job is to basically tear it apart, but what that does is essentially make sure that the quality of the research is unquestionably high. No peer review system is perfect, but I’m willing to subject my work to the highest levels of scrutiny, and I think that as an industry, we need to do more of that. If we do, we’ll be in a much stronger position.

CNote: What are your thoughts on CDFIs who’re aiming to be self-sufficient, financially sustainable organizations?

Jamie McCall: I think that’s probably one of the hardest things to do in the CDFI world. Most of the things that we do that help people the most are not profitable. What happens when CDFIs are self-sustaining, they sort of have these lines of business that maybe aren’t what you would consider to be targeting traditional CDFI borrowers. For example, let’s say a CDFI engages in some profitable line of business that really in some way benefits larger, white-owned businesses, but then they use that money to benefit smaller minority-owned businesses that are more in line with CDFI demographics. Are they doing good? To me, the main challenge with self-sufficiency is that it requires that sort of activity, and I don’t think we have enough research or data to really confirm if this is a net positive or not.

In an ideal world, I think CDFIs should be subsidized. This isn’t an activity that is innately profitable, but it does a lot of good for the money that you put into it. So, in a perfect world, CDFIs would receive public subsidies, and although sufficiency is admirable and I think it should be a goal, I don’t know how you do it in a way that doesn’t cause net bad or net harm, at least not until we’ve done more research on it. That’s an example of where we need research and why we need to do research on these kinds of questions.

CNote: Any current research or recent findings that you want to share with us?

Jamie McCall: Yes, the peer-reviewed article on CDFI program evaluation I mentioned earlier, which was accepted at Community Development. I’m excited about it because it is the first article in many years that looks at CDFIs specifically and not in the context of something larger. Like I said before when you look at most types of economic development interventions, there’s a body of literature I can point you to, but I can’t do that with CDFIs. From a policy perspective, that’s important to long-term sustainability.

In this article, we explore the role of program evaluation for CDFIs and try to outline some best practices. What we found is, besides capacity constraints, funders of CDFIs often have competing demands for what they want in data and evaluations. There is no validated sort of model of evaluation or agreed-upon performance metrics for the industry, so everybody uses different definitions, so you can’t compare anything. What we suggest in this article is that this is the starting point for a serious conversation: this isn’t going to be solved overnight.

CNote: What’s holding CDFIs back from doing the kind of impact evaluations that you talk about in your research article?

Jamie McCall: I believe CDFIs want to do evaluations, but they’re not incentivized to do them, and evaluating impact costs time and money. So you have very few CDFIs that do any sort of robust evaluation work in the first place. Then funders either inconsistently use the evaluations that do exist or worse, they use them as sort of a weapon if the evaluation doesn’t show good things. So, CDFIs are like “well, nobody asked for one, and if it ended up being bad, we’d probably be punished for it, so we’re just not going to do an evaluation.” That means we just keep doing this thing where we talk about the amount of money we give in loans, and what percentages went to what demographics, and how many jobs were created or saved. That frustrates me extremely because the work that CDFIs do is so much more. And I am the first person to admit that it’s so hard to measure, and the smaller the CDFI, the more limited the resources, the harder it is. The theory of change that most CDFIs are operating from is extremely complex. But that doesn’t mean you can’t start somewhere. You acknowledge the limitations and say “we care enough about the communities we serve that we have to start somewhere because it’s far better than what we’re doing.”

I want to stress that this isn’t a criticism of CDFIs. Throughout the Community Development article for example we say that CDFIs are vital to community economic development. The question is not whether or not CDFIs are important. They are. The question is not whether or not CDFIs are having a positive impact. They do. The question is how can we better show that in a manner that creates a positive feedback cycle for CDFIs to get more resources and be more effective.

CNote: Thinking about impact, what kind of impact or impact metric do you think doesn’t get enough attention in the CDFI industry?

Jamie McCall: I can provide evidence up and down about the social capital impact that CDFIs have and how people’s lives are positively influenced by their work, but I’m never asked for that. I’m asked for how many loans, what percentage went to minorities, what’s the default rate, and how many jobs were created. And I understand why those types of questions are the ones that get asked. Because the goal is to take people that have really, for either institutional or personal reasons, been unable to access credit and make sure the capital goes to those places, and I understand the need for that, but it cannot stop there.

The next question should be “what was the net impact,” and with so few exceptions, nobody ever asks that. And again, I am not saying that is an easy question to answer. I get that CDFIs are financial institutions, but if I’m being asked about default rates, I should also be asked about what impact we were also able to make. Instead, it’s almost like any sort of thought about impact or how these things have improved the lives of the community is thought of as something that’s good if it happens. But it often doesn’t seem like the primary objective. So what we end up with is a very odd incentive structure where the CDFIs that are the most successful are those that tend to act most like banks.

It’s not their fault: the incentive structure we have does not always encourage mission-oriented lending. To me, that’s a problem, because mission-oriented lending is the entire reason why the CDFI designation was created. If CDFIs are incentivized to simply do more loans, it can encourage things like giving loans to people who could go down the street to the bank and get one. That is why I am against merely counting loans as impact. I would much rather give 50 loans where we have built a relationship with somebody to where they really know that we’ve invested in them and they want to invest in their community then give 1,000 loans to people who have no idea who we are and who just fill out an application on the website.

CNote: With recent announcements about the federal award program and increased investor interest, do you think it’s accurate to say that CDFIs are having a moment?

Jamie McCall: I know the Vice President has made CDFIs one of her issues of importance, and I think, to my knowledge, that is the first time that that has been done since probably the Riegle Act was signed during the Clinton administration. The challenge is keeping that level of high visibility support up. I think in order to really take advantage of this moment in the policy cycle, what CDFIs have to do is take this opportunity to be honest and say, “in our industry, evaluating our impact is hard, but we believe it’s important. Here’s what we can show now, and here’s our commitment to continuing to show the story of the people we support in the future.” CDFIs aren’t a partisan issue, but today, I think that you have to be very intentional in that in a way that’s bipartisan.

I also think that, for example, with the PPP loans, which were very profitable for CDFIs, we need to have a retrospective on that, because CDFIs are going to have to deploy forgivable loans again in the future, god forbid after another Hurricane Katrina-type scenario or another pandemic. There have been questions about whether or not PPP loans got CDFIs away from their core mission. I think that’s a valid question, especially with forgivable loans that were available so widely and not just targeted at marginalized constituencies. We need to have a retrospective to make sure that in some future time, we can do those types of things in a way that doesn’t hurt the other things that we should be doing.

CNote: How can the CDFI industry elevate the role of research?

Jamie McCall: When I think about CDFI research, the case studies I’ve seen are really impressive. That kind of qualitative research is usually what CDFIs produce to show their impact, and they do a good job at highlighting that.  Because when done correctly, CDFI methods of intervention can change lives. That fact is one of the reasons why CSBDF’s slogan is “We are dreamcatchers.” But what I have struggled with is sort of attempting to acknowledge that good part, and then have people have a willingness to have a conversation about these other issues around impact measurement and evaluation. These issues are things that need to be elevated by the industry. I know that there have been attempts in the past, and again I know it’s hard, but this is something that could be elevated by organizations like OFN. This is also something that the really big CDFI funders should step in and say “we care enough about this that we’re going to do things like fund research because we want to better show the impact of CDFIs. We currently can’t, so let’s find out ways to do it.” Then we could make more than incremental improvements.

The responsibility for these issues is not just CDFIs’. It’s everybody involved in this industry: it’s the advocacy organizations, it’s the funders, it’s the regulators. They all have a role. That has to be recognized, and there has to be this agreement that it’s worth the very hard work of trying to improve things. I dream big.



By CNote

CNote Has Successfully Moved Over $100 Million Dollars into Financially Underserved Communities

CNote has deployed over $100 million dollars into financially underserved communities across America–a significant milestone for investments and deposits in Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), low-income designated credit unions, and other mission-aligned partners that previously were difficult for investors to access.

By making it easier for everyone from retail to institutional investors to invest in these institutions’ communities, CNote expands the pool of capital available to low-income, BIPOC, and underserved communities. That means more money to help individuals build credit and purchase their first car or home, provide capital and coaching to small business owners, finance affordable housing development, and make communities more economically resilient.

This access has been critical in the wake of COVID-19 and the movement for racial justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd. These events highlighted stark inequities in the United States. Corporations and institutional investors have risen to the challenge of supporting historically marginalized communities by investing to advance racial and social justice and further economic development.

This interest has started a new chapter for CDFIs and credit unions, CNote’s primary partners, which have seen investments from large corporations including Netflix, PayPal, Mastercard, and Google. Additionally, the White House recently announced a federal award of $1.25 Billion to CDFIs to help speed the economic recovery from COVID-19.

Capital that is invested or deposited into these community financial organizations supports entrepreneurs like Tanesha Sims-Summers, founder of Naughty but Nice Kettle Corn, a family-owned and -run kettle corn company based in Birmingham, Alabama. Tanesha received a loan from CNote CDFI partner TruFund in 2019 to complete the renovation of her food truck and provide some extra cushion for other expenses. “As entrepreneurs, we have to be intentional about utilizing services and asking for help, and TruFund is here to help us make changes to our businesses that impact our bottom lines and that align with our community investment goals,” Tanesha said.

Tanesha Sims-Summers (far right) and the Naughty but Nice Kettle Corn team

“While CNote is incredibly proud to have reached this milestone, the real success metric is seeing this money deployed into underserved communities. There it can build wealth and drive fundamental and enduring change,” said CNote CEO Catherine Berman.

“Our work is far from over,” she continued. “The data shows that economic recovery from COVID has not been equal, and that job losses continue for low-wage workers. The work of our credit union and CDFI partners is more important than ever, and we will continually innovate to support underserved communities and drive hundreds of millions in new capital investment for years to come.”


By Borrower Stories

Meet Cortaiga Collins, Whose Quest For Quality Childcare Led Her To Open Her Own Small Business

Cortaiga Collins, Founder of Good Shepherd Preschool

Cortaiga Collins never intended to open her own business, let alone her own early childhood education center. Instead, Cortaiga received her bachelor’s degree and was on track to become a CPA. However, when she had her second child in 2000, everything changed. After having her first child as a senior in high school, Cortaiga felt like she got a second chance at parenting. The St. Louis, Missouri-native wanted to do everything perfectly, but when her three months of maternity leave finished and it was time to find a daycare center for her son, Cortaiga discovered that it was difficult to find a place that she trusted with her baby. After a series of bad experiences at both commercial daycare centers and home-based operations, Cortaiga decided to quit her job at a city government agency to create a childcare solution that offered quality services to families.

Before Cortaiga could open her own center, she had to immerse herself in early childhood care. She enrolled in classes at community college and took an administrative job at her church’s elementary school. Soon after, she became the director of the school, where she gained valuable experience. Finally, in 2009, the then-single mother of two found herself on the brink of being licensed and opening her own center, Good Shepherd Preschool and Infant/Toddler Center, with the social mission to raise the standard of childcare and to create a quality early childhood program that equips children for school and the world. “Getting open was the most cumbersome part of it all,” Cortaiga said, “I had no experience with permits and licenses and inspectors and building requirements. I didn’t have thousands of dollars saved or a mentor. I got a $35,000 grant, but that wasn’t enough.”

Fortunately, Cortaiga was able to get the rest of the capital that she needed to open her business from Justine PETERSEN, a Community Development Financial Institution (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 partners with CDFIs like Justine PETERSEN in communities across the country, funding loans and empowering local entrepreneurs like Cortaiga. With capital from Justine PETERSEN, Cortaiga was able to finish renovations to her space and open the doors to Good Shepherd. The CDFI also connected her with an accountant that she continues to work with today.

Since it got up and running, Cortaiga’s business has been full steam ahead. Good Shepherd opened in March 2009, and by Halloween, it’d already outgrown its space. Cortaiga decided to open a second location, and again, Justine PETERSEN provided funding to help Cortaiga with her expansion. Then, in 2018, Cortaiga bought land in the same low-income community to build a $2.5 million state-of-the-art childcare center that would bring both of her centers together under one roof. The new development is set to open in October 2021, and with the larger space, Cortaiga will be able to grow her team from 14 employees to over 20. Better yet, the larger facility has the capacity to serve over 100 children at a time. “I never knew that this journey would take me to where I am and where I’m going,” Cortaiga said. “I’m just a former single mom who wanted a safe place to take her kid. Now, I’m in uncharted waters with this space. It’s scary and exciting, but you know what they say: ‘if you build it, they’ll come.’ I’m counting on them coming.”

Investing in the Future

While it’s incredible how far Cortaiga — and her business — have come since she quit her job 21 years ago, all of that success was nearly erased by the COVID-19 pandemic. The perfect storm of shutdowns, remote work, fear, and uncertainty almost shuttered Good Shepherd, and according to Cortaiga, despite the fact that she was able to begin to bring a limited number of infants and toddlers back into her centers last November, she’s still working her way toward full capacity. “At one point,” she said, “I began to prepare my staff and my parents that we were going to have to lay off everybody if we didn’t fill our available slots. For months and months, we were dangerously close to having to shut our doors.”

Thankfully, Cortaiga didn’t have to close her business. Instead, she and her team are preparing to move into their new expanded center. To help get the word out, Cortaiga has been getting digital marketing assistance from a marketing and social impact consultant introduced to her through Pacific Community Ventures (PCV), another local CDFI referred by Justine PETERSEN. After tackling her business’s website and social media presence, Cortaiga said that she plans to work with a PCV-provided business mentor to help her with more Human Resources-related elements of her small business. According to her, recruiting and retaining qualified employees are her biggest challenges. Despite those headaches, Cortaiga says it’s the children that keep her motivated to run her business. “No matter what’s going on, kids just love so freely,” she said. “They’re so forgiving and resilient, and seeing their emotional and academic development and progress makes it all worth it.”

From Kids to Community Development

When asked about the future of Good Shepherd Preschool and Infant/Toddler Center, Cortaiga doesn’t just share her dreams for her small business, she shares her dreams for her community. Through her more than two decades of working with children in her community, Cortaiga has learned that it’s not just children who need care — it’s entire families. That led her to launch a nonprofit called Foundation for Strengthening Families with the goal to help families rise above poverty through education. Not only does the organization offer early childhood education programs, but it also has adult education classes on topics such as health and wellness and financial literacy. “They say if your dreams don’t scare you, then they’re not big enough,” Cortaiga said. “I see me in a lot of people in this community — especially the single moms. I grew up in poverty, and I know how my life has changed as a result of not living in poverty anymore.”

Cortaiga’s vision for her slice of St. Louis — and her desire to help families break out of generational cycles of poverty and to purchase local homes  — is inspired by the work being done by the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York and the East Durham Childhood Initiative in North Carolina. As much as she’s looking at communities across the country to see where she can borrow from already established community development playbooks, Cortaiga is hoping to forge local partnerships to bring her vision to fruition, including with Mayor Tishaura Jones, the city’s first Black woman mayor. “No one organization can get all this done,” she said. “Collaboration is such an integral part of being able to create lasting change in a community. We want to rebuild and restructure this community by rebuilding the residents so that this can be a thriving place to live.”

Learn More

  • Good Shepherd Preschool and Infant/Toddler Center
  • Pacific Community Ventures is an Oakland-based CDFI that empowers small business owners and helps impact investors make investments that create shared prosperity and sustainable communities through a “Good Jobs, Good Business” model.” 
  • 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 Pacific Community Ventures, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Borrower Stories

How Fern Street Circus is Bringing Social Change to the Streets of San Diego

John Highkin, Executive Director of Fern Street Circus

When most people think about social justice, they don’t think about circus arts; however, for John Highkin, social change is at the center of his community arts nonprofit, Fern Street Circus. John grew up in Los Angeles and became a musician before moving to England to get a master’s degree in English. In 1987, while in Europe, John had the opportunity to spend a few months at the world-famous Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin, where he became fascinated with both political and physical theater. By chance, when he returned to Southern California to intern at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, Cirque du Soleil happened to be in San Diego for a month during its first U.S. tour. “I looked at them,” he said, “and I thought I was seeing what circus could be. I really dreamed about being able to have my own circus one day.”

Following that dream, John went on the road as a production manager with a single-ring circus in St. Louis called Circus Flora. Although that led to other jobs with different shows in different states, including the bus-&-truck tour of The Soviet Acrobatic Revue, John always wanted to return to San Diego to start something of his own. In 1990, he learned about some local grant opportunities, and with the help of both his future wife, co-founder Cindy Zimmerman, and his favorite aunt, John started Fern Street Circus, a community-building social circus in San Diego’s Golden Hill neighborhood. The next year, the nonprofit unveiled its first show to more than 500 community members. “That’s what attracted me to circus,” John said. “It isn’t stuck in one building. Instead, it’s an art form where we could actually go out into neighborhoods and play in parks and play for people where they live, work, and learn. It’s something that transcends barriers between people of varying cultures and languages.”

For the next 13 years, John and Fern Street Circus continued to create memorable experiences in and around San Diego, and the community arts nonprofit quickly built a reputation for itself of providing people with unusual, albeit entertaining experiences close to home. Additionally, in 1993, Fern Street Circus launched a free-of-charge after-school program in the local recreation center. During that time, John learned a lot about how to create stories through circus and to make contact with diverse communities, and how to bring people together to mix and mingle around the spectacle, music, and acrobatics of his talented team of circus artists. “We want to talk to people in communities, and we want to be a way for people to come together,” John said. “Even if the story is subtle and doesn’t immediately hit people, it’s entertainment that they don’t usually see in their neighborhood parks.”

In 2003, however, John felt worn out. A looming budget crisis led to huge drops in government funding at the state and local levels. Despite the success of the organization, more than a decade of serving as the nonprofit’s de facto grant writer, artistic creator, financial officer, human resources director, and community relations guru left him ready for a change. John passed over the nonprofit’s reins to a committed group of internal stakeholders, moved to Kansas to be closer to Cindy’s family, and took a government arts job in the city of Salina.

It was ultimately grandchildren, not the circus, that brought John and Cindy back to San Diego in 2010. Although John became the executive director of an arts education organization called Young Audiences of San Diego and felt fulfilled by his work, he couldn’t escape his previous association with Fern Street Circus. According to him, people would come up to him on the street and ask him what happened to it, mentioning how much their kids loved the music, how much they missed the shows, or how much they enjoyed the quick-witted, bilingual ringmaster. At that time, the circus had been on a hiatus for a few years as it struggled to raise money. That didn’t stop John from wanting to bring it back to life. In 2014, John left his job, and with a new board of directors, Fern Street Circus kicked off a revival campaign. “We started basically from nothing again,” John laughed, “except this time we had our name and goodwill. That has carried us through very well over the last seven-plus years.”

A Responsive, Personable, and Proactive Lender

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, Fern Street Circus had to adapt. It immediately started offering online classes on Zoom to youth in the community. Amazingly, without the scheduling constraints of working out of its local rec center, the nonprofit’s teaching artists were able to connect and serve after-school families even more deeply. Additionally, Fern Street began to do socially distanced performances for families standing in line to pick up groceries at their local food distribution sites with the San Diego Unified School District. Between May and mid-November 2020, John estimates that Fern Street Circus did nearly 40 events and reached upwards of 12,000 community members.

While those community-based performances and classes buoyed the nonprofit’s spirits, it still required funding in order to remain operational; however, when PPP funding became available, John was skeptical that Fern Street Circus would even qualify. Unfortunately, neither of the big-name banks that the nonprofit had banked with for 30 years was helpful. After “striking out,” John received a note from Self-Help Federal Credit Union informing him that the credit union had received funding support through The California Endowment to distribute PPP loans. 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. Self-Help currently has nearly 80,000 customers across California, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and it has over $1.2 billion in assets. CNote partners with low-income designated credit unions like Self-Help across the country through its Promise Account program.

John recognized Self-Help’s name — the credit union has an office two blocks away from Fern Street Circus’ gym. He sent an email, and this time, the person on the other end wrote back with good news. “From the start, they were responsive and personable,” John said. “A real human person was assigned to walk me through the process, which was a very sharp contrast to [those big banks], which were impenetrable. Self-Help was proactive, and they helped me at every stage. Once we got the PPP, they kept in touch afterwards.”

That ongoing communication proved critical for Fern Street Circus. Not only was the nonprofit able to have its first $30,000 loan forgiven, but it was also able to receive additional funding during the second round of PPP lending. According to John, the first thing the nonprofit did with the PPP money was to hire seven teaching artists who weren’t getting unemployment but who had great need. Fern Street Circus put them to work leading classes and supporting students near and far. “That’s a concrete result of what we were able to do through the PPP loan. I’m pretty savvy and well-educated, and I was nonplussed by the PPP application,” John said. “We would not have gotten funding without Self-Help. It had a huge impact on us.”

A Circus In Good Hands

Given all of the years that John has been involved with Fern Street Circus, it’s not surprising that he has countless memories to smile back on; however, when asked to share one of his most memorable moments with the community arts organization, interestingly, he chose to recount a story about crossing a street and falling down. Ever the producer, John is usually the first person to arrive at an event and the last one to leave, and on this particular production date, he happened to be carrying an open container of oil (although he doesn’t remember exactly why). As he hustled from one side of the street to the other, John slipped; yet, as he tumbled to the ground, he managed to prevent the oil from spilling.

Although he doesn’t know why this particular memory lodged itself in his brain, the story is representative of John’s innate drive to put others ahead of himself, including Fern Street Circus, and as the nonprofit moves further into its third decade of existence, John is intent on ensuring that its future isn’t tethered to him. In that way, Fern Street Circus recently hired its second full-time employee, Marcela Mercado, a well-respected community member and activist who serves as the organization’s general manager. Additionally, the nonprofit recently opened its Outdoor Circus Community Center in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, giving Fern Street Circus a temporary space to host after-school programs, show rehearsals, and performances by the Circus and other artists. According to John, the organization’s long-term dream is to hire more staff and to have its own building where it can continue to serve families and transform neighborhoods through circus arts performance and teaching.

At 70, John jokes that he’s not getting any younger, and although he’d like to remain involved with Fern Street Circus for a long, long time, he wants other leaders in the neighborhood — who, he says, don’t share his white privilege — to be a part of the organization’s long-term vision and future. “I want to phase myself out,” John said. “It’s not just about age. What has kept us vital is that we’re equal parts circus arts and social justice, and for us to be truly representative of a neighborhood as broad and diverse as ours, Fern Street Circus’ leadership needs to reflect that.”

Learn More

  • Fern Street Circus is a nonprofit that serves families and transforms neighborhoods through performance and teaching of circus arts.
  • 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 Borrower Stories

How a Cancer Diagnosis Gave Ethel Brooks the Strength to Start Her Own Business

Ethel Brooks

For many people, a cancer diagnosis can derail them. For Ethel Brooks, it ignited her. It was January 2017 when Ethel learned that she had breast cancer. Her mind instantly concocted the worst-case scenario, and her first thought was about what she was going to leave behind for her three daughters and seven grandchildren if something happened to her. However, the moment she found out that her chances of surviving were high, she chose to fight like never before. “When I saw that I was going to live,” she said, “I took off like lightning. They say cancer breaks people, but cancer gave me strength and made me look toward the future. I wasn’t gonna let it take me down because I have too much to live for.”

Ethel went through 21 weeks of chemotherapy; yet, she didn’t let that keep her from her day job at Franklin Primary Health Center in Mobile, Alabama, where she was hired in 1986 as a 20-year-old Medical Receptionist. Over the years, Ethel has skyrocketed up the ranks, with stints as an intake clerk, accounts receivable, office manager, operation manager, and most recently, billing supervisor.  Amazingly, Ethel would do her chemotherapy on Mondays, and she’d be back in the office on Tuesday to finish out the rest of the workweek. Eventually, after the hair loss, a double mastectomy, and seven surgeries, Ethel triumphed over cancer with the support of her mother, eight siblings, and daughter Darralyn, who surrounded her with love and support throughout her treatment. Additionally, the fight helped her to realize that she needed to start thinking about how she could create a financial legacy to pass down to her family when the time came.

That’s when Ethel partnered with Mr. William McGlasker, a local contractor and concrete specialist, to start her own business. She’d met Mr. McGlasker at Franklin Primary Health Center, after which he’d built a driveway for her. The two became good friends and he told her that he had his own construction company, but was limited on how much money he could make since he did not have his subcontractor license.  He suggested that Ethel get her license and create a company that would, in essence, absorb his business. In 2017, Mr. McGlasker dissolved his business and Ethel started Bennett Construction. All of Mr. McGlasker’s employees joined the new company, and Mr. McGlasker stayed on as superintendent. “To be honest,” Ethel said, “he was really the person who pushed me to take this leap of faith. He’s been doing this for 50-some years, and once people learned that he was with Bennett Construction, everything fell into place.”

Ethel went back to college to work toward receiving a bachelor’s degree in business management so that she’d be better equipped to manage her company. Meanwhile, in August 2019, Bennett Construction was awarded a $600,000 contract from Mobile Asphalt Company. That paved the way for Ethel to begin renting a building for her business and to land additional smaller contracts from the City of Mobile. Ethel’s next goal is to be certified as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), which will allow her to bid on bigger Department of Transportation contracts that will give her more income. Her primary goal is to become a General Contractor so that she can have other subcontractors working under her. Once she achieves that, Bennett Construction will be able to bid for contracts worth millions of dollars.

One Step at a Time

In the short term, however, Ethel wanted to purchase a dump truck, which could help her make an additional $10,000 a week for her business, given that 100 million tons of dirt need to be removed from a construction site in Leroy, Alabama. That’s what brought Ethel to TruFund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that invests in small businesses in Alabama, Louisiana, Texas, and New York. CNote partners with CDFIs like TruFund in communities across the country, providing business coaching, funding loans, and empowering local entrepreneurs like Ethel.

Ethel was already familiar with TruFund. Last year, during the pandemic, she attended a virtual presentation hosted by the City of Mobile to learn more about the PPP process. She connected with TruFund, who was able to help her secure PPP funding for Bennett Construction’s payroll.

Through a TruFund small business loan, Ethel was able to purchase the dump truck she so desperately wanted. “Ms. [Tamika] McNeal has been very helpful,” she said. “There were several times I would get discouraged but she reminded me to take it one step at a time. When I thought about it like that, then it wasn’t so bad.”

Incredibly, as Bennett Construction continues to grow and to land more and more work across both Mobile and Alabama, Ethel has continued to work her 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job at Franklin Primary Health Center. She’s thankful that her supervisors have been so flexible and understanding with the arrangement, as sometimes Ethel has to go to a job site for Bennett Construction during working hours; however, once she gets her DBE and primary contractor licenses, Ethel doesn’t think she’s going to be able to balance both jobs with her side hustle. Instead, she’s readying herself to make Bennett Construction her main focus. Mr. McGlasker, who is 77, similarly has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. “He told me he’s going to work until God tells him he can’t work anymore,” Ethel said. “That’s what keeps him going, so I don’t argue with him.”

When asked whether or not she’d believe it if someone told her 20 years ago that she’d own and operate a construction company in 2021, Ethel laughed. Despite the fact that Bennett Construction wasn’t in the cards for her until relatively recently, Ethel loves her company and the work that it produces. Unsurprisingly, it’s getting the chance to see and hear about Bennett Construction’s good work in and around Mobile that brings her the most joy, and she continues to be motivated by the knowledge that she’s building a financial legacy for her family that will outlive her. “As a Black woman running a business,” Ethel said, “there are a lot of opportunities for me. All I need to do is to get to those opportunities, and that’s what my focus is on now. Getting those certifications, and getting those opportunities.”

Learn More

  • TruFund – is a 501 (c) 3 certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) headquartered in New York City with field offices in Alabama and Louisiana. TruFund tailors its financial and technical assistance to the unique needs of each site—from contractor mobilization lending in New York and Louisiana to rural Black Belt initiatives in Alabama.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like Ethel’s? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like TruFund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By CDFIs, CNote, Impact Investing

Diversity in CDFI Capitalization Planning Webinar

On September 7th, 2021 CNote hosted a webinar where CNote, two CDFI partners, and a foundation discussed diversity in CDFI capitalization.

The goal of the webinar was to educate CDFI attendees about capitalization diversity and the associated challenges and benefits of working with various capital sources. The panelists also shared investor trends they were seeing in the marketplace, and how those trends could affect the availability of new capital.

Listen below to learn more:

YouTube video


Diversity in CDFI Capitalization Planning: A CNote Webinar targeting CDFI Loan Funds

Brief Summary:

CDFI Loan Funds rely on various sources of capital – local and federal government funding, philanthropic support, CRA dollars, locally sourced private capital, and others to fulfill their mission of economic inclusion and development. Securing new investors and partnerships can unlock access to diverse funding sources that help CDFIs expand impact and growth. In this webinar, you will hear from two seasoned CDFIs talk about how they approach capitalization planning and navigate associated challenges. You will also hear from an impact investor, Sierra Club Foundation, as they talk about current impact investor trends and why CDFIs are an important part of their portfolio.

CDFI attendees will learn about:

  • Considerations to keep in mind when evaluating the sources of capital – cost, restrictions, compliance, etc.;
  • Benefits and challenges associated with working with various capital sources;
  • Investor trends in the marketplace and how those trends could affect the availability of new capital.

Speakers will include:

  •  Kevin McGahan, CFO, Sierra Club Foundation
  •  Josh Brackett, CFO, Access for Capital for Entrepreneurs
  •  Paul Quintero, CEO, Ascendus
  •  Stacy Zielinski, Community Development Director, CNote (moderator)
By Borrower Stories

How McAuley Residence and The Genesis Fund are Redefining (and Rolling Out) Recovery Centers Across Maine

For over 30 years, McAuley Residence has been a safe place for women in need in Portland, Maine. When the opioid crisis hit 13 years ago, however, the residence — a longstanding project of The Sisters of Mercy — needed to rethink its services. “We were seeing a significant need for women with children who had a diagnosis of substance use disorder,” said Melissa Skahan, Vice President of Mission Integration at Northern Light Mercy Hospital. “Women throughout the U.S. were experiencing more overdoses and more admissions, and we were also seeing an incredible number of children being removed from their homes by child protective services from families affected by substance use disorders to ensure their safety. It was clear that we really needed a more comprehensive approach.”

All photos were taken in McAuley Houses’ Bangor location.

That’s when the McAuley Residence partnered with Community Housing of Maine to solely focus on families affected by substance use disorders. The residence adopted a two-generational approach, with robust services and interventions targeted at both mothers and their children. Notably, McAuley Residence doesn’t provide treatment on-site. This was intentional. Most recovery centers offer treatment in-house; however, when someone leaves the facility, that means she leaves her treatment team behind. That’s very disruptive — and, when considering the cyclical nature of substance use disorders, it’s also dangerous.

“What we designed after examining patient outcomes from reoccurring residential stays was a model that builds the best treatment team for our clients external to McAuley with seamless integration into onsite services,” Melissa said. “This way we could ensure that the outpatient space was transformative and sustained, while really focusing on capacity building regardless of where mom and child laid their heads at night. None of the progress would be disrupted when they left us.”

Instead, what McAuley does offer in-house is a family-centered, evidence-based suite of supportive and clinically oriented- services that help families break the generational cycles of addiction and poverty. These services range from preparing women to re-enter higher education to providing cooking classes and workshops on healthy eating; however, before any of that can happen, McAuley staff work with women to help them stabilize physically, mentally, and emotionally so that they can reunify with their children if they’ve been separated. That includes one-on-one coaching as well as group sessions on parenting education. According to Melissa, she and her team are most often able to reunify women with their children within the first three to five months of their stay at McAuley.

While McAuley helps to develop healthy routines for both mom and child(ren), it also offers mothers financial coaching and career planning. In total, the women put in 35 hours a week to McAuley Residence’s programming, which further establishes the discipline and stabilization needed to successfully transition out of the program. When the time comes, McAuley also helps McAuley residents leave the residence and land on their feet. For most women, their total length of stay at McAuley Residence is 24 months. “It’s pretty rewarding work to watch these women truly have the opportunity to flourish and to reunify with their families and then re-enter higher education and the workplace and become highly productive mothers, citizens, and people,” Melissa said.

An Approach Worth Replicating

Based solely on the numbers, McAuley Residence’s innovative approach is a resounding success. Well over 200 women have completed the program, and the facility reunifies 95% of the families that come to it. More so, 80% of the women who commit to the program remain abstinent from illicit substances. “It is remarkable what we are able to see families that have experienced homelessness, incarceration, and trauma accomplish when they are provided safe housing, comprehensive services, and access to the very best treatment,” Melissa said.

Unsurprisingly, demand to get into McAuley Residence is high. Therefore, McAuley Residence wanted to open a second location. Fortunately, in 2019, Maine’s legislature passed a law called An Act To Stabilize Vulnerable Families, which provided funding to replicate McAuley Residence’s model across the state. Through a partnership with Community Housing of Maine and The Genesis Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), McAuley Residence was able to open a second location in Bangor. 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.

Not only did The Genesis Fund provide financing for the Bangor project, it also provided the necessary capital for McAuley Residence to renovate the location, including the kitchen, each bedroom and bathroom, and the big dining room. “It’s a beautiful older building,” Melissa said, “and the funding from Genesis really helped us to bring it back to life.”

Melissa and her team at McAuley often get asked the same question: “why don’t you expand more.” With ongoing support from The Genesis Fund, that’s exactly their plan, and with fatal overdoses up 27% in Maine and a pandemic that’s compounded the opioid crisis, the need has never been greater. Although Melissa is worried about the increase, she feels privileged that McAuley has been able to continue to screen and accept families in these difficult times. “The ability to really serve families in a comprehensive way is lacking across the United States,” Melissa said, “so we’re thrilled to be able to partner with Genesis to create an approach for both mother and child in a way that delivers remarkable outcomes. It’s really the right resource to fund because we’re truly seeing a direct benefit to families in our community.”

Learn More

  • Northern Light Mercy Hospital
  • 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 Montina Young, The CDFI (and YouTube) Enthusiast Helping Other Entrepreneurs Succeed

At CNote, we consider ourselves to be the CDFI industry’s biggest cheerleader. Then we met Montina Young.

When Montina was just 18 months old, her mother abandoned her. She was raised by an aunt, but she ended up homeless when she was 16 years old. Still, Montina managed to get her GED, and she hasn’t looked back since. Professionally, Montina has done a little bit of everything over the course of her career. While she studied education and worked as a teacher, she’s also had roles with the Boy Scouts of America and the country’s largest information technology financial company.

Montina is also somewhat of a serial entrepreneur — and a YouTube success story. While Montina was still working full-time, she launched an organic life products “side hustle” in her kitchen. Over time, she cultivated a following of 15,000 subscribers on YouTube; however, eventually, the venture ceased to bring her joy. “I kid with people and say it’s fun when you’re making five of something, but it’s not fun when you’re making 500,” she laughed.

Montina pivoted to producing video content for small business owners — still a very new concept back in 2013. She named her digital marketing company CIA Media Group, and in 2014, she decided to step away from her full-time job to make her six-figure-earning side hustle her main hustle. “I tell people don’t quit because you hate your boss,” she said. “You don’t have one boss as an entrepreneur. All of your clients are your bosses, so you really need to choose something that you’re not just passionate about, but something that can be profitable.”

For Montina, her leap of faith paid off. She discovered that she really enjoyed working with lawyers, and she spent the next five years creating video content and doing digital marketing for legal industry clients — and making her first million dollars in revenue. Montina developed a recurring revenue model blueprint, where she and her team don’t just create one video for a client, but a series of videos that she calls a heat map, which includes highlighting the clients’ stories and thought leadership.

In 2018, CIA Media Group was certified as a minority-owned and women-owned business, and it expanded to work with Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies. Around that same time, Montina also began to accept government contracts to help other certified small business owners build and scale their businesses.

Access to Capital, Access to Opportunities

Back in 2015, business was booming for Montina, but she still needed some help. That’s when she established a relationship with both Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE) and LiftFund, two Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that support entrepreneurs in Georgia. CNote partners with CDFIs like ACE and LiftFund in communities across America, funding loans to small businesses, providing business coaching, and empowering local entrepreneurs like Montina.

According to Montina, over the past six years, ACE and LiftFund have helped to expand her business, hire employees, purchase video production equipment, repay debt, and have the cash necessary to cover employee healthcare. Like many small businesses, CIA Media Group often doesn’t receive payments from clients until 30, 60, or sometimes even 90 days after a project is completed. That means that Montina has to have enough cash on hand to carry payroll for two to three months at any given time.

Montina also credits her CDFI partners with giving her the ability to read her cash flow statement, profit and loss statement, and balance sheet. Additionally, both CDFIs provided Montina with the support she needed to get her paperwork, her financials, and her business plan in order. For example, ACE helped to liaise (and sponsor) her relationship with a local bookkeeping company. “With ACE, we have a financial consultant that I meet with two hours every single month,” she said. “And because I understand my books, I’m confident. She helps me set my monthly goals and my goals for the year, and really, it gives me a sense of relief to have accountability partners that actually care.”

Montina has also taken advantage of the various educational workshops, professional gatherings, and speaking engagements offered by both CDFIs. She says that such opportunities are especially important for BIPOC and women entrepreneurs, who don’t often have mentors or family members who’ve owned and operated successful businesses. Those professional development and networking opportunities are just one of the many reasons that led Montina to become such a cheerleader — and advocate — for CDFIs. “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.”

When the Mentee Becomes the Mentor

Given Montina’s positive experience partnering with Atlanta-based CDFIs, it should be no surprise that she does everything she can to help other small business owners succeed. She’s very active on LinkedIn, and she has a YouTube channel where she releases videos that provide information, guidance, and training for other entrepreneurs, free of charge. Those videos reach more than 40,000 subscribers. “I want to see women- and minority-owned businesses run profitable businesses,” she said. “I invest a lot of time mentoring, and I do my best to offer them the support that I can.”

Long-term, that’s the kind of work Montina sees herself doing: teaching entrepreneurs and helping them to leverage certifications (BIPOC-owned, women-owned, etc.) to create opportunities for their small businesses, such as landing a federal contract. She said that such contracts can be for $1 million, which carries the potential to transform an entire business. According to her, roughly 2% of women-owned businesses ever make seven figures in a single year of revenue, and that number hasn’t changed in almost 20 years. “A million dollar contract opportunity can literally change the trajectory of a woman’s entire business,” she said.

In that way, Montina’s current side hustle — maintaining her YouTube channel to support and mentor other entrepreneurs — and the work of CDFIs aren’t that different. Both are focused on advocating for, supporting, and unlocking doors for entrepreneurs so that BIPOC- and women-owned businesses can take their small businesses to the next level. “Having access to capital is transformative for a business,” she said, “but we don’t just need access, we must have access to mentorship and opportunities. I can tell you that, as a business, we’ve had opportunities because we are associated with these wonderful CDFIs.”

Learn More

  • CIA Media Group is an award-winning digital marketing agency helping companies rethink business for the digital age through communication outreach, stakeholder coordination, and engagement planning, digital transformation, digital strategy, and video production services.
  • LiftFund is a community small business lender that transforms lives by opening doors and providing capital, financial coaching, tools, and resources to entrepreneurs who do not have access to loans from commercial sources. Since 1994 LiftFund has provided over $360 million in capital, propelling the dreams of over 20,000 diverse small businesses throughout its 13 state footprint.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like LiftFund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Borrower Stories

Meet Dr. Alexia McClerkin, The Full-Time Student, Mom, and Entrepreneur Behind The Beauty and Wellness Doc

From the time that Dr. Alexia McClerkin broke her ankle in high school, she knew she wanted to become a doctor. Although Alexia didn’t end up pursuing a career as an orthopedic surgeon as she’d originally intended when she matriculated at Michigan State, she instead 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 into chiropractic medicine and Houston, where she started her own private practice in June of 2016: just a couple of months before returning to school to become a registered nurse (RN). According to Alexia, she estimates that less than 1% of chiropractors are also RNs.

Dr. Alexia McClerkin

Alexia’s decision to study nursing was rooted in how she wanted to be able to work with her patients as a chiropractor. In chiropractic medicine, providers can’t do anything that penetrates the skin, such as administer Botox, while RNs can. Although Alexia was less than enthused at the thought of more schooling, she knew it was the right thing to do to expand the scope of her practice and be able to help the masses. “It was always on the back burner,” she said, “and I knew that I wanted to be able to provide these services. I just told myself to stop wasting my time and to just take the plunge and do it.”

As soon as Alexia graduated as an RN, she rebranded and expanded her private practice. That’s when she expanded her brand to include The Beauty and Wellness Doc, and in July 2020, she moved the wellness clinic from a 1,048 square foot space to a space with over 2,600 square feet, more than doubling the size of the operation. On the medical spa side of The Sports and Wellness Doc, Alexia and her team of two full-time employees (and one intern) offer Botox, dermal fillers, body contouring, medically assisted weight loss, laser hair removal, IV hydration, and vaginal and anal rejuvenation. On the chiropractic side of the business, Alexia offers a variety of traditional services, including adjustments, deep tissue massage, stretching, dry needling, athlete recovery, therapeutic laser, and cupping.

A community event for Alexia’s nonprofit 9 Months to 5K

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. She dodged one predatory lender only to find herself facing another nefarious actor when the first PPP loans became available. The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly rough for business, as Alexia wasn’t getting patients but she was still paying her staff. She was contacted by a business that said that its staff attorney could help her navigate the PPP application’s legalese and help her get her paperwork in order — for $1,000. “It was so shady,” Alexia said. “I just told them that I’m going to try to figure it out on my own, but I feel like they were preying on the weak because some people are new to business and just don’t know.”

One True-To-Their-Word Lender, and One Motivated Mom

Fortunately, Alexia already had a long-standing relationship with TruFund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that invests in small businesses in Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, and New York. CNote partners with CDFIs like TruFund in communities across the country, providing business coaching, funding loans, and empowering local entrepreneurs like Alexia. Since launching her own business, Alexia has attended eight different courses offered through TruFund, including classes on how to build your business, obtain funding, network, and grow your business as a woman entrepreneur. Not surprisingly, TruFund called Alexia to ask her if she was planning to apply for a PPP loan and if she needed help with the application. “I had absolutely no idea how to go at it,” 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.”

TruFund was also able to help Alexia to navigate the second round of PPP funding, and today, business at The Sports 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. Amazingly, Alexia, who is also a graduate of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program, is seeing her best numbers yet, and her revenue has almost doubled, exceeding her goals. While she still feels like she wants to master the ins and outs of her current wellness clinic, its positive trajectory has her dreaming about one-day franchising and scaling her business concept across Texas.

When asked about her most challenging day as a business owner, Alexia notes that every day is a balancing act. In addition to running a business and being a full-time employer, Alexia is a full-time mom (she has a six-year-old and a two-year-old), a graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington (studying to become a nurse practitioner), a certified prenatal yoga instructor, and the founder of a local nonprofit: 9 Months to 5K. Alexia started the nonprofit in 2018 while she was pregnant with her second son, and the organization educates low-income pregnant women on the importance of health, nutrition, and fitness with the goal of decreasing maternal mortality as well as the rates of preventable diseases and conditions, such as preeclampsia and gestational diabetes. Alexia’s nonprofit hosts annual 5K runs and walks (the 2020 iteration was held virtually) and quarterly workshops with topics ranging from financial literacy to dental health. This past Mother’s Day, 9 Months to 5K held a community baby shower for members of the public in the parking lot of The Sports and Wellness Doc.

Despite everything that Alexia manages to juggle, she continues to be motivated by those around her, and she’s driven by the opportunity to help patients — including not just customers and community members, but also professional and Olympic athletes — to lead healthy pain-free lives. “It’s great when you love what you do,” Alexia said. “That’s what motivates me.”

Learn More

  • The Beauty and Wellness Doc
  • TruFund – is a 501 (c) 3 certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) headquartered in New York City with field offices in Alabama and Louisiana. TruFund tailors its financial and technical assistance to the unique needs of each site—from contractor mobilization lending in New York and Louisiana to rural Black Belt initiatives in Alabama.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like Michea’s? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like TruFund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.


By Borrower Stories

Meet Tanesha Sims-Summers, The Poppin-With-A-Purpose Entrepreneur Behind Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co.

Tanesha Sims-Summers has been an entrepreneur since she was a little girl when she would weave her way through the gridlocked traffic waiting to get into Birmingham’s Legion Field for the Alabama-Auburn football games, selling homemade popsicles for 50 cents as she went from car to car. Tanesha went on to graduate high school, and she matriculated at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where she studied marketing and Spanish. She recalls that when she graduated college, she didn’t feel the same pull to get a “real job” as her friends. “I remember that I didn’t want to work for anybody,” Tanesha said. “I just wanted to start a business then, but I never knew what that business was going to be.”

Tanesha Sims-Summers

Without a business plan in mind, Tanesha took a job in investment banking to provide stability for her first child. After seven years in that space, she felt burned out and decided to pivot to digital marketing, where she spent the next six years of her career helping entrepreneurs grow their businesses. In 2014, however, Tanesha was ready to start something for herself. That’s when her aunt, who lived in Virginia and helped to raise Tanesha alongside Tanesha’s grandparents, mentioned that people were going crazy over kettle corn. At the time, even though Tanesha was on maternity leave, she felt drawn to the idea. She did some research, looked at the numbers, and decided that this could be the business opportunity for which she’d been waiting.

Soon after, she founded Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co., a gourmet, hand-popped kettle corn company. Tanesha’s first event was the Annual Whistle Stop Festival in Irondale, Alabama, and she didn’t let a newborn baby hold her back from booking as many events as she could that first summer. Instead, her husband (and co-founder) stepped in to take care of the four kids while Tanesha got her feet underneath her as a business owner, racking up successful event after successful event. “We’ve invested time, sweat equity, education, and money in this company,” Tanesha said. “It’s paid for itself from the start, and we’ve seen a 20% or more increase in revenue year over year since we first launched.”

Learning Is Growing

While Tanesha credits Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co.’s success with having a quality (and addictive) product, she notes that utilizing community resources and seizing every opportunity to educate herself as an entrepreneur have equally fueled her company’s growth. That thirst for education is what led her to connect with TruFund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that invests in small businesses in Alabama, Louisiana, New York, and Texas. CNote partners with CDFIs like TruFund in communities across the country, providing business coaching, funding loans, and empowering local entrepreneurs like Tanesha.

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. “We would not have been able to be up and running and popping around the city without that investment from TruFund,” Tanesha said. “But they didn’t just offer us lending, they offered us education. As entrepreneurs, sometimes we do need capital, but sometimes we need to learn how to be more efficient, how to streamline our processes, and how to allocate money effectively so that we can continue to grow.”

To date, 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 near and far from Birmingham. “It’s been invaluable being able to see other women in business who’re able to really share their skillset and to learn from one another,” Tanesha said. “As entrepreneurs, we have to be intentional about utilizing services and asking for help, and TruFund is here to help us make changes to our businesses that impact our bottom lines and that align with our community investment goals.”

Poppin’ Into The Future

Today, Tanesha has evolved her customer base to include corporations, hotels, universities, and wedding and event planners; however, it’s arguably Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co.’s commitment to its community that makes it one of Birmingham’s standout small businesses. Through its Poppin with a Purpose campaign, Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co. supports local organizations, nonprofits, and small businesses, whether through “PoPraising” (fundraising and donations), sponsorships, or volunteerism. Tanesha’s company also has an initiative called Make Your Local Pop, where Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co. partners with local businesses like Eugene’s Hot Chicken. “I really believe in the power of collaboration,” Tanesha said, “so we partnered with Eugene’s Hot Chicken and used his spice on our product to really show the versatility of kettle corn. We want to make the world a sweeter place to live, one kernel at a time, and we will continue to do that through these community campaigns.”

When Tanesha isn’t thinking about how to best serve her loyal following of “PoP heads,” she’s likely thinking about her goals and vision for the future. She’d love for Naughty But Nice to be a household name; however, she doesn’t want that recognition to come by way of big box stores and national grocery chains. Instead, Tanesha wants to do everything she can to preserve the experience surrounding getting her kettle corn into customers’ hands, perhaps by expanding her fleet of Miss Poppy trucks and meeting new customers where they are: at local breweries, farmers’ markets, and community celebrations.

On a personal note, Tanesha says that in the coming years, she’d also like to strike a better balance between work and home. That includes one day getting to a point where she doesn’t have to continually stay up until 3 a.m., which she currently does to both maximize time with her children and run her business. “I just always say, if you’re going to doubt anything, doubt your limits,” Tanesha said. “Do it scared, do it tired, and do it with purpose. And educate yourself. As an entrepreneur, that’s where you can stay sharp and make sure you’re making the right decisions for your business. That’s my mantra.”

Learn More

  • Naughty But Nice Kettle Corn Co is a gourmet, hand-popped kettle corn company based out of Birmingham, Alabama
  • TruFund – is a 501 (c) 3 certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) headquartered in New York City with field offices in Alabama and Louisiana. TruFund tailors its financial and technical assistance to the unique needs of each site—from contractor mobilization lending in New York and Louisiana to rural Black Belt initiatives in Alabama.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like Tanesha’s? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like TruFund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By Borrower Stories

How Two Disabled Veterans Turned Their Log Home Living Dreams Into A Lakeside Resort Reality

When Aimee and Preston Osborne met and married in Fort Hood, Texas in 2001, their dream was to one day own a lake-side resort, an RV park, or something that would take them back to their rural roots. Aimee grew up in the Northwoods of Minnesota, Preston was born and raised in Ashe County, North Carolina, and both knew what it was like to live in a place where the natural beauty and remoteness drove the local tourism industry. For Preston, that was the Appalachian Trail, and for Aimee, that was Lakewood Lodge.

Aimee and Preston Osborne

The storied history of the 240-acre Lakewood Lodge goes back to 1906; however, Aimee’s grandparents didn’t come to own the “rundown old fishing camp,” as she called it, until the 1980s. According to Aimee, she lived with her parents and siblings in a double-wide tucked on the back 40 acres of the property, and everyone helped out with the resort. The lodge was 30 miles from the nearest town, which had a population of 900 people.

“When you grow up in a place like this, the idea that you can ever really come home and be super successful is slightly limited,” Aimee said. “It’s not to say you can’t do other things and be successful, but there’s no industry here beyond the resort industry, and the economy isn’t conducive to young people coming back here and working their way up the ranks.”

That mindset is partly what drove Aimee to enlist in the Army, where she met Preston. In a time before cell phones and the internet, the two would spend time in their one-bedroom apartment in Killeen, Texas flipping through copies of Log Home Living, dog-earing pages, and cutting out pictures that they both liked. “We always had that dream of where we wanted to end up,” Preston said.

Being in the military, however, meant that the Osbornes had a few more moves — and for Preston, five deployments — before they could bring their retirement dreams to fruition. The family was sent to bases in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Alaska before ending up in Colorado Springs. Over the next five years, Aimee left the military to become a massage therapist, and she took a job selling residential solar. She loved her job, but when the world lurched to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic and her responsibilities transformed into telemarketing, she realized that if she had to be stuck at home on lockdown and working remotely, then she didn’t want to be in Colorado.

She did a Google search for Lakewood Lodge. Sure enough, it was for sale.

Making a Dream a Reality

Aimee called the listing agent, who in turn referred her to the bank that already financed the lodge. The bank said it was willing to loan Aimee money, but only for half of the amount she’d need to buy Lakewood. The Osbornes adjusted their dream and instead set their sights on smaller resorts in the area, which still cater to the region’s fishing, hiking, and weekend-getaway enthusiasts. Because Preston, a Sergeant First Class, couldn’t leave the military base because of COVID-19 restrictions, Aimee piled their children into the car and drove 16 hours from Colorado to Minnesota to begin looking at properties, none of which Aimee felt excited about.

Aimee’s return to the Northwoods, however, didn’t go unnoticed. The owners at Lakewood Lodge heard she was in the area and wanted to meet with her to see if there was anything they could do to help. Aimee felt hesitant. “I didn’t want to waste their time, and I didn’t want to waste our time on something that might not be possible,” she said. “But those other resorts were not going to work. That’s not where my heart was. My heart was here, at Lakewood.”

Aimee and Preston decided to do everything they could to raise the capital they needed to buy the resort. That’s how they got connected with Entrepreneur Fund, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that works with entrepreneurs across northeast Minnesota, central Minnesota, and northwest Wisconsin to provide flexible business loans, skills development, and networking opportunities. CNote partners with CDFIs like Entrepreneur Fund in communities across America, funding loans to small businesses and empowering local entrepreneurs like the Osbornes.

In total, Aimee and Preston took out seven loans to purchase Lakewood Lodge; however, according to Aimee, the ongoing education and support they received from Entrepreneur Fund were arguably more important to them than the capital. “We had the passion,” she said, “but not the full knowledge of how to approach a bank and how to really put the funding together in a way that made sense. That’s what we needed the most.” Entrepreneur Fund was also able to “widen the conversation” and introduce the Osbornes to important contacts who they “had no idea existed,” but who nonetheless proved to be worthwhile and helpful resources.

From start to finish, the purchase took roughly six months to go through: six months that Aimee describes as an emotional rollercoaster. However, given both the global pandemic and the nuances of lining up seven funding streams, the two feel blessed that they were able to make it to their closing on November 3, 2020, which was attended by Lakewood Lodge’s previous owners, the Osbornes, and Entrepreneur Fund staff members. According to the couple, there were a lot of tears, but they didn’t feel nervous about what was next: owning and operating a 14-cabin resort.

“We were just wanting to get started,” Preston said. Aimee added that the two felt confident because of all the support they received. “It didn’t feel risky because seven other people believed in our ability to do this, and they told us they wanted to invest in us because they believed that we could do this. For us, that took all the fear away.”

Welcome to Your Dream

Not surprisingly, the Osbornes have settled into life as Lakewood Lodge’s owners, and the couple — and business — are thriving. Although they didn’t have time to take a victory lap after completing the purchase, they’ve been plenty busy maintaining the property and welcoming guests. Because the Canadian border remains closed due to COVID-19 restrictions and because of people’s stay-at-home-induced stir-craziness, Lakewood Lodge has continued to see high numbers of guests. Some are even early-booking for this coming fall because of the ongoing uncertainty.

“COVID has definitely increased outdoor sports and lifestyle,” Aimee said, “and the closed border has been a boon for business. It’s been good to revive the resort industry up here a little bit, and it’s also renewed the resort spirit, which is good for us.”

The Osbornes are hard-pressed to name their favorite thing about owning Lakewood Lodge. Aimee loves to attend craft shows and to support local artists, and after more than 20 years of adhering to a strict military schedule, Preston enjoys setting his own schedule and being his own boss. The two, however, agree that the thing that brings them the most joy is showing guests to their cabins and witnessing their excitement firsthand. After all, they share in that excitement, because it’s their Log Home Living dream that came true.

“The spirit of Lakewood Lodge isn’t about the buildings,” Aimee said, of returning to where she grew up. “It’s really about this land and this area and the people that come up here and enjoy it. There’s more than fishing. There’s the northern lights and sitting by the bonfire and enjoying friends and family and the lake. It’s about the simpler things in life that we don’t take the time to stop and do often enough. It’s just what we wanted.”

Learn More

  • Lakewood Lodge specializes in providing year-round fun-filled vacations and awesome fishing on a quiet bay of Sand Lake, part of the Bowstring Chain of Lakes.
  • The Entrepreneur Fund – a CNote partner and certified CDFI, actively partners with small business owners in northeast Minnesota, central Minnesota, and northwest Wisconsin to support small business growth and local economic development. The Entrepreneur Fund provides flexible financing, along with small business coaching and strategic support to promote a culture of entrepreneurship throughout the region.
  • CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like The Entrepreneur Fund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.


By Community Partners

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

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

Onna LeBeau

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

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

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

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

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

Building Trust Through Shared Experiences

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

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

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

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

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

“Amazing Things” To Come

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

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

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

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

Learn More

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

How Elevation Community Land Trust is Taking Affordable Housing to New Heights across Colorado

Stefka Czarnecki Fanchi has always been a big believer in homeownership. Both of her parents were teachers; however, her dad “built” every house Stefka’s family ever lived in, whether that meant physically building the structure or making improvements to what was already built. According to Stefka, she has lots of childhood memories as a kid on construction sites, and she was aware, from an early age, how special it was — emotionally and financially — for a family to have a house to call home.

Stefka Fanchi, President and CEO of Elevation Community Land Trust

Given that passion, it’s not surprising that Stefka has only ever worked for nonprofits, including jobs in high school and college, as well as five years working in local government. However, in 2004, Stefka was able to weave her deep-seated passion for affordable housing into her career when she took a position at Habitat for Humanity of Colorado’s state support organization. For the next 14 years, Stefka helped to support the 30-some Habitat for Humanity affiliates across the state by fostering and developing partnerships and raising funds. Although Stefka loved her job, she couldn’t ignore the buzz that was being created at the end of 2017 about the creation of a new community land trust in the Metro Denver Area. Recognizing that there wasn’t a robust funding mechanism for affordable homeownership in the region, a group of funders created Elevation Community Land Trust to help shrink the gap and create permanently affordable homes.

The community land trust model blossomed out of the civil rights movement, and the first community land trust was formed in the late 1960s in rural Georgia by a group of Black farmers who wanted to own their own land. What they helped to create was a model in which they could communally own the land while at the same time creating opportunities for individual families to participate in the wealth that came from homeownership. Therefore, homes are less expensive because buyers aren’t buying the land, which is what escalates in cost over time, and in exchange for that discounted price, buyers agree to pass that opportunity onto the next buyer. In this way, by splitting the land from the houses and having a strict resale formula that limits the appreciation of homes, community land trusts are able to keep affordable housing affordable. Today, there are more than 230 community land trusts throughout the United States, with many more scattered across the globe.

Generally, these trusts are owned and operated by nonprofits, and unsurprisingly, Stefka wanted to get involved in Elevation Community Land Trust. She was particularly drawn in by the community land trust model itself. According to her, the typical way of investing in affordable homeownership has been via down-payment assistance, which is focused on the buyer, not the real estate. The community land trust model, she says, flips the script on the traditional approach to affordable housing by putting capital and resources into real estate, much like public infrastructure. “The community land trust model is a much more responsible use of public funds,” she said, “because it is able to be recycled time and time again so that we don’t have a big windfall or a big subsidy coming into one family. Instead, we’re able to make this so that generations of families can benefit from the same home.”

A Creative, Strategic Lender

Elevation Community Land Trust launched at the end of 2018, and Stefka took over as president and CEO in November of that year. Since then, the nonprofit has hired nearly a dozen staff members. More impressively, the trust has more than 200 homes in its portfolio and 75 homeowners have closed on their homes. Another 330-plus housing units are in the nonprofit’s immediate pipeline, meaning that they’ll be completed over the next two years.

The Elevation Community Land Trust Team

Stefka is the first to admit that the public-private partnership’s early success metrics are a result of a robust coalition of actors, including local municipalities, state agencies, housing authorities, foundations, individual donors, and Impact Development Fund (IDF), a Colorado-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that creates economic opportunity by delivering flexible capital to develop and preserve affordable housing and nonprofit facilities in under-served communities across the state. CNote partners with CDFIs like IDF in communities across the country, channeling capital to fund social missions like women’s empowerment, entrepreneurial funding, and affordable housing.

Stefka had become a cheerleader for CDFIs when she was working at Habitat for Humanity, where local affiliates needed local financing to build homes, and she welcomed the opportunity to work with IDF when she joined Elevation Community Land Trust. That was especially true when the nonprofit began work on one of its first projects: a 92-unit condominium development called La Tela, located in Denver’s Art District on Santa Fe. Even with public and private funds, Elevation Community Land Trust had to put $3 million into the project, which would take two years to complete. “It’s expensive to use conventional financing over that long of a hold,” Stefka said. “We started talking with IDF about our cashflow pinch points. The great thing about IDF is that they are strategic thinkers, and we started talking about what we wanted to accomplish, not what we needed, and how we can work together to get that done.”

According to Stefka, unlike other lenders, Elevation Community Land Trust was able to access Capital Magnet Fund (CMF) dollars through IDF, which came with a 1% interest rate. More so, IDF was able to work with Elevation Community Land Trust to save the nonprofit financing charges over time, which in turn reduces the total development cost of each unit of housing built. In addition to that low-cost capital, IDF also offered Stefka and her team industry know-how that they wouldn’t have received elsewhere. “Affordable housing projects are super complex,” she said. “One of the things that is often a challenge for a bank is the idea of doing something that is not the ‘normal way.’ The creativity, expertise, and willingness to think outside the box on things that might be traditionally unbankable really is where the value of IDF and other CDFIs lie.”

Building into the Future

These photos were taken in Westwood, Denver, the location of Elevation Community Land Trust’s Stay in Place Program.

Stefka and her team at Elevation Community Land Trust have lofty goals: together, they want to add 1,000 affordable home-ownership opportunities to the Colorado housing market by 2027. They don’t plan on stopping there; however, that’s the critical stabilization point where, organizationally, the trust will be able to bring in enough revenue to cover its operating costs, which means the nonprofit won’t have to rely on philanthropy to stay above water.

The need has never been greater. According to Stefka, over the past year, Elevation Community Land Trust has seen a 10-fold increase in its application rates. It’s too early to know if the inundation of people wanting to buy affordable homes is a result of COVID or something else, but the present reality has added a sense of urgency — and purpose — to the land trust’s day-to-day operations. That’s led to deepening conversations around how Elevation Community Land Trust can help to proactively create racial equity through its work. In its first impact evaluation, the nonprofit learned that the percentage of its homeowners who identify as Black, Asian, Latinx, and female-heads of household are as much as three times higher than the general market.   

“We’re looking at what tools are at our disposal so that we can make real impact generationally,” Stefka said. “Homeownership and building something for yourself and your family is something that’s a real cornerstone to American life, and when people are shut out from that opportunity, they are shut out from the American dream, so we want to do everything we can so that everybody can share in the prosperity that is part of this crazy real estate market that we’re experiencing in Colorado.”

Learn More

  • Elevation Community Land Trust makes homeownership more accessible for Colorado families through the community land trust model, a proven tool for creating and preserving accessible, inclusive communities for generations.
  • Impact Development Fund (IDF) is a Colorado-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that creates economic opportunity by delivering flexible capital to develop and preserve affordable housing and nonprofit facilities in under-served communities across the state.
  • CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like Impact Development Fund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.


By CNote

How Treasurers Can Lead Their Company’s Impact Investing

This article, authored by CNote’s co-founder and CEO, Catherine Berman, was originally posted on GreenBiz

When you think about who makes the greatest social and environmental impact with corporate dollars, you probably think of the head of ESG or the chief investment officer, not the treasurer. Today’s corporate treasurers, however, are redefining their role beyond risk mitigation, and they’ve become a surprising source of impact within their organizations, moving millions of dollars of cash and investments into low-income communities.

Corporate finance departments haven’t historically been positioned to create impact within their organizations, but an ever-increasing amount of attention on ESG; diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and racial justice initiatives has led C-suite executives to look holistically at their business practices for opportunities to innovate. That’s led corporate leaders to recognize that they need new tools to advance change, demonstrate corporate leadership and be good corporate citizens.

According to the philanthropy research organization Candid, following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, American corporations emerged as the leading funding source for social and racial justice initiatives. And because many of these ESG and DEI initiatives are directly tied to money movement, whether it’s cash or investment, corporate treasurers are an often hidden but essential driver of social impact within an organization.

There’s such an opportunity today for treasurers to redefine how corporations align their dollars with their values.

So, first and foremost, we need to recognize the great work that many treasurers already are doing in terms of aligning corporate dollars with impact initiatives. Let’s not forget that this probably isn’t part of their job description. Instead, treasurers who are being intentional about impact investing are going above and beyond what they’re paid to do and, more often than not, they’re learning as they go. Until recently, there was no playbook for this.

With that in mind, here are four key learnings that corporate treasurers may want to consider when thinking about how they can leverage their position within an organization to create tangible impact.

1. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. The most common approach I hear from corporate treasurers trying to create impact is this: They call up a few mission-focused banks and try to move in millions of their deposits. What these treasurers eventually realize, however, is that this isn’t a scalable strategy. Indeed, too much capital actually can be a bad thing, negatively affecting the capital ratios these organizations must maintain.

That’s not to say that you need to hire a boutique consulting firm that takes two years to put together a roadmap and deal plan for you, or that you need to hire a team of lawyers to pull this off. The low-friction approach is to take advantage of technology platforms created to help you efficiently, sustainably and intentionally move money, generate impact reports and evaluate risks. There’s a common myth among corporate treasurers that this is really hard, but remember, you’re not the first one to do this  and you definitely don’t have to invent anything from scratch.

2. Invest in long-term partnerships. I’ve heard from a lot of treasurers that they reached out to a minority depository institution, or MDI, which turned down their corporate deposit. It’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean that deposit programs are a bad idea. Instead, that rejection likely indicates a mismatch in either timing or scale (or both). That Black-owned bank might not need your deposit tomorrow, but they would likely take it sometime in the future. Partnering with impact deposit platforms such as CNote can help resolve the need-supply mismatch in a scalable, authentic way, while empowering corporations to foster deep, direct relationships with those same institutions.

If the timing is not right with an MDI, it isn’t necessarily a reason to walk away in frustration. Instead, when thinking about generating impact through your corporate finance department, be prepared to forge partnerships built with the future in mind. A long-term approach to these capital programs will increase the positive impact your organization’s funds have on underserved communities.

3. Don’t fall victim to analysis paralysis. For risk-minded treasurers, there’s definitely the friction of identifying who to work with and where to channel cash and investments to create impact. Some treasurers view community investments through the same risk framework that they use for all of their investments, while others acknowledge that it makes little sense to apply those same risk standards to low-income communities. It can be hard to know where to strike the right balance.

If you’re feeling stuck, I suggest reaching out to a peer at another corporation who’s experienced success. For example, Alfred Kibe, the corporate treasurer at Mastercard, is a passionate champion of leveraging deposits for impact, and he’s an approachable leader in this space. Similarly, Peter Filipovic, Starbucks’ treasurer, has been investing in community development financial institutions (CDFIs) for years, funneling hundreds of millions of investment dollars into federally certified private financial entities that are 100 percent dedicated to providing responsible, affordable lending to historically underserved borrowers. These include low-income households and business owners, women, minorities, unbanked borrowers, first-time homebuyers, nonprofits and tribal organizations.

Others like them are doing equally effective work. You probably know one, so consider tapping your network of peers to test ideas and share best practices.

4. Look beyond the obvious targets and leverage your networks. Many high-impact organizations need long-term capital partnerships. Asking the people you know and offering to make a multimillion-dollar deposit in their MDI may seem the quickest path, but it doesn’t necessarily ensure that your deposit will reach the communities that would benefit most. For example, more than 1,000 CDFIs in the United States are investing in everything from minority-led small businesses to affordable housing projects to gender equality. Because investors can invest both thematically and geographically in CDFIs, consider the full spectrum and diversity of impact opportunities out there, and remember that the people you’ll need to work with likely won’t show among your LinkedIn connections.

There’s such an opportunity today for treasurers to redefine how corporations align their dollars with their values. We’re seeing treasury leaders step into this opportunity because they recognize that there’s massive potential to invest in underserved communities, further racial justice and shrink the wealth gap in our country. And by doing so, corporate treasurers are demonstrating that impact investing isn’t risky business. It’s smart, it’s human, it’s achievable and it’s the future.

By Community Partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn More

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

Meet Tawnya Dee Sanford, The Formerly Homeless, Big-Hearted Entrepreneur Behind The Little Engine Learning Center

If you ask Tawnya Dee Sanford what her secret is to running a successful business, she’ll tell you that she’s willing to give people a chance. After all, she wouldn’t be where she is today — as a person and as an entrepreneur — if it weren’t for the chances that people gave to her.

Tawnya was raised by her grandmother in a low-income household in a little town in Oklahoma. When she moved to San Antonio in the early 1990s to take an assistant manager job with a national restaurant chain, she thought she was moving up in the world. Instead, seven months later, she ended up homeless. A friend stepped in to help get a roof over her head, but then she was evicted. During her second tussle with homelessness, Tawnya lost her car, and her credit score nosedived. Still, she found a way to persevere.

“It was very humbling,” she said. “I started over twice. And the thing is, you can start over, but it takes a lot of work and a lot of dedication. You gotta have the want, and you have to put your hands to the plow and you have to work to make it happen and to change. It’s hard.”

Considering what she’d been through, starting an in-home daycare didn’t seem daunting to Tawnya, who, at 30, became a mother and wanted to work from home while she raised her daughter. With support from her husband and sister-in-law, she opened up the family home for business. Eleven years later, she wanted something bigger.

In 2011, Tawnya began to look for properties around town where she could open a larger daycare center. She felt like she struck gold when a friend put her in touch with the owners of a childcare facility who were looking to sell their building — and their business, The Little Engine Learning Center.

The owners liked Tawnya, however, they got cold feet and decided they weren’t ready to sell just yet. They asked Tawnya to instead come work for them for a summer. She ended up working there for four years. Then, when the time finally came to purchase the business, Tawnya ran into a different challenge: 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 went to Randolph-Brooks Federal Credit Union (RBFCU), who referred her to LiftFund, a San Antonio-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). CNote partners with CDFIs like LiftFund in communities across America, funding loans to small businesses and empowering local entrepreneurs like Tawnya.

In 2015, Tawnya was able to get a 401(k)-backed loan that allowed her to purchase the business portion of The Little Engine Learning Center, and in 2019, LiftFund helped her to secure a loan so that she could purchase the building, which she’d been leasing from the previous owners.

“LiftFund 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, and working with them has been great.”

Tawnya with one of her employees at The Little Engine Learning Center.

It’s no surprise that Tawnya’s most exciting day as a business owner was the day she signed all of her loan paperwork with LiftFund. For her, it was a tangible reminder of how far she’d come.

“Nothing has ever come easy, and I’ve struggled for most of my life,” she said. “I’ve always had to fight for everything I’ve wanted, so to have my dream come to fruition was amazing. I don’t know if you can put into words how exciting that day was for me. I got in the car, and I just cried while my husband held me. Who would’ve thought? It took me 20 years. That’s why you don’t give up on your dreams.”

Today, Tawnya gets to focus on helping others to dream big, and that means building up the children who come to The Little Engine Learning Center so that they can “be great in their futures,” as she puts it. Tawnya and her team of 13 full-time staff strive to teach morals and values at the daycare, and she loves every child that walks through her doors. The center accepts children regardless of their background, meaning that Tawnya doesn’t turn away kids who have been kicked out of other daycares because of behavioral issues.

“In spite of their behavior, you have to love these kids beyond where they are,” she said. “We don’t really know what goes on at home, so I just love them and we make things work.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Tawnya was looking for another property to expand her business; however, she paused that search. She says the crisis will push back her plans to grow The Little Engine Learning Center into a second location, which she wants to be located in a low-income area. Until then, she’ll continue to support her children, her staff, and her community as best as she can.

Given her own personal journey, Tawnya has a particularly soft spot for homeless individuals, and she helps with providing food and medical supplies however she can. She also buys groceries for families in need, and she’s helping to organize a diaper, baby wipe, and food distribution in her community.

“My heart is so squishy,” she laughed. “I think when you lose everything, you realize what’s really important in life.”

Learn More

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


By CNote

Corporate Treasurers Get Serious About Shifting Cash to Communities

This article, authored by CNote’s co-founder and CEO, Catherine Berman, was originally posted on Sustainable Brands.

There’s been some skepticism regarding the announcements of big corporate investments in CDFIs and minority deposit institutions — are these one-offs just to generate a press release or first steps on long-term commitments?

Shareholders increasingly want to know how their companies are investing in diversity, equity and inclusion — both within the enterprise and in the communities where they operate. Employees are asking that question, too — often enough to make meaningful investments an important retention and recruitment factor. A talent pool that cares deeply about addressing disparities that the pandemic year laid bare will not be satisfied with pretty CSR reports and a few one-time grants.

In recent conversations with two corporate leaders — one in tech and one in banking — both characterized moving deposits and investments into visible community institutions as a way they could lead in addressing shareholder and employee demands. And I’m hearing similar observations from a widening circle of Fortune 1000 chief financial officers and corporate treasury leaders.

Tracking the Trend

Data is just starting to accumulate on corporate investments in response to these market drivers, but what we have backs up the anecdotal evidence. CNote recently completed a survey of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) focused on their capital needs and found that 37 percent said they’ve seen increased inquiries from corporations.

Looking at publicly available reports, one of our analysts found that at least 15 corporations have invested or committed $500,000 or more to CDFIs, most of them in the past six months. The majority are banks, as you’d expect, but five are tech companies; and Starbucks recently committed $100 million to a multi-city initiative.

Answering the skeptics

There’s been some skepticism regarding the announcements of big corporate investments in CDFIs and minority deposit institutions — are these one-offs just to generate a press release or first steps on a long-term commitment? It’s hard to say at this point, but enough corporations are pursuing multi-year efforts that this qualifies as a real trend.

Companies that are serious about diversity and inclusion are integrating initiatives throughout their business operations; and many see their cash management and community investments as the next step. Mastercard, for example, has been a consistent and vocal supporter of women-led businesses through its Start Path accelerator, and is now working to move $20 million in deposits into underserved communities.

Another common question is about the value of shifting corporate investments and cash to communities: Do community deposit institutions even need liquidity in this environment? The answer is yes — and both timing and partnerships matter.

Corporate investments, including secondary capital and corporate deposits into mission-driven credit unions and banks, can be a critical driver of impact for low-income communities for years to come. This is not the time for corporations to press pause: Now is the time to get engaged.

Finding a frictionless path forward

One large corporate partner told us they’d been wanting to work more with CDFIs for years. But the time it took to do due diligence on, execute and report on investments in a largely manual and decentralized industry made acting on that desire time- and cost-prohibitive. And while community investing is exciting and meaningful work, it’s not the treasury department’s day job, and most teams don’t have the staff resources to do it.

Now, though, new technology platforms are unlocking investments in CDFIs that corporate treasurers used to find too complex to pursue — and offering insured options that mitigate the risk.

Impact reporting is another key piece of the puzzle that’s coming into place. The level of public scrutiny on what impact is and how companies are measuring it has dialed up considerably over the past year. The metrics on investments in low-income-designated credit unions and CDFIs are clear: They have to meet the needs of underserved populations to earn their designations from the federal government.

Feeling pressure to perform

I recently spoke with a senior executive at a major bank who had environmental, social and governance metrics and the bank’s disclosures front and center in her mind. She’s particularly interested in climate justice and how technology can make it easier for the bank to invest in climate initiatives within low-income communities. She said she feels a time crunch around walking the walk and not just talking about diversity and inclusion as a corporate value — she’s looking to take action.

More and more of her peers are going to be joining her as companies face rising expectations related to their ESG performance. In this light, managing cash for impact by moving a fraction of it into insured community deposit programs is low-hanging fruit. It’s like building a diverse board: It reflects a commitment to equity and it contributes to a better competitive position. That’s a big reward for one small, low-risk step beyond business as usual.

By Borrower Stories

How A CDFI is Helping Knox County Homeless Coalition Address Affordable Housing in Midcoast Maine

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

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

Stephanie Primm, Executive Director of Knox County Homeless Coalition

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

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

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

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

Building Affordable Housing for the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primm hopes that COVID-19 illuminates the state’s lack of an organized emergency response system that addresses homelessness as part of protecting public health. “The silver lining is that COVID has shed light on this for the first time,” she said. “People are more aware of it and more aware of what we are working on, and affordable housing needs are definitely on the radar—where they should be.  I hope that’ll help in the years to come.”

Learn More

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

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

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

It might even be stronger.

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

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

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

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

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

An Eye-Catching Partnership

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Affordable Housing for Everyone

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

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

Learn More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re In This Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michea Rahman and her assistant, Jannah Shurafa

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

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

Learn More

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

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

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

Julia Sleeper-Whiting

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

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

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

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

A Google Search, and a Lucky Encounter

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rooted in the Community, Ever-Growing

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

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

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

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

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

Learn More

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn More

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


By Change Makers Series

Change Makers Interview: Leah Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Borrower Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leading By Example

Gloria had her work cut out for her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Have to Give Them Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreaming Beyond The Pandemic

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

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

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

Gloria and the We2Gether Creating Change Team

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

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

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

Learn More

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


By Change Makers Series

Change Makers Interview: Janine Firpo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CNote: What did you end u