Friday, October 11, 2013

A Taste of Microfinance

Opportunity Fund, California’s largest, non-profit micro lender held a fundraiser last night (10/10/13) in San Francisco featuring several “superstar” ventures they support with working capital loans. Since its inception in 1993 Opportunity Fund (OF) has made loans totaling $39 million to small business owners in the Bay Area and Los Angeles to start or grow their businesses. Not satisfied with this level of scale, CEO and Founder Eric Weaver announced their goal of lending an additional $100 million over the next five years. Based on OF’s experience to date, this level of lending will support 5,000 new or expanded small businesses and create 15,000 new jobs.

As the theme “A Taste of Microfinance” implies, the highlighted ventures were food service providers. Outside the event venue two food trucks, “Kung Fu Tacos” and “Triple Dash 3” offered delicious Latin-Asian fusion tacos. Inside, several other ventures such as “Chiefo’s Kitchen” (West African cuisine), “d’maize” (modern Salvadorian food) and “El Buen Comer” kept the crowd well fed. The founder of “Cool Haus” addressed the crowd and spoke of how her company has been able to grow into a company with $5 million in annual sales and 65 employees thanks to the support of Opportunity Fund.

Micro lenders like Opportunity Fund play a critical role in creating economic opportunity in our local communities. Small businesses create 64% of net new jobs in the U.S. economy yet many fail due to a lack of financing they need to grow. “Opportunity Funded” business on the other hand have a 90% success rate. Not all achieve the “superstar” levels of the ventures highlighted in the event, but they are able to provide a family with a living income. When roughly 40% of households in California have less the $500 in financial reserves, financing from OF is literally a life line. In addition to its lending programs, OF also provides savings programs for its clients which has enabled them to save more than $15 million.

As I write this post I am on my way to the Lend for America Summit held this year at the University of Pennsylvania. It is a gathering of small micro financiers formed around university communities. Although these small, mostly student led organizations may never achieve the scale of an Opportunity Fund, they do have the capacity to have a significant impact on their communities. There are over 700 registered CDFIs (Community Development Finance Institutions) in the U.S. but only 10 report making at least 100 loans a year. They do however, offer critical financial literacy training, help improving credit scores, savings programs and business support services such as tax preparation assistance, help with business plans and accounting. One should also not discount the value of these programs to the students themselves. They are learning real life skills while helping others.

I had the chance to talk in some depth with one of the young entrepreneurs at the Taste of Microfinance event—Cathleen Li, the owner and pastry chef of Oui Oui! Macaron. After graduation from college, Cathleen set out to learn how to make pastry, especially the particularly tricky French macaroon. I can attest she succeeded spectacularly! Her macaroons are delicious. She has been selling her confections through other retail outlets, including the Kung Fu Taco truck. Now with the help of a loan from Opportunity Fund she will be able open her first brick and mortar shop. Her passion for pastry and her drive to succeed are impressive--clearly OF is backing a winner. But it has not been easy. How many other young entrepreneurs like Cathleen are out there waiting for the assistance a Lend for America MFI might be able to offer?

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