Micro-lender contributing to economic rebound a loan at a time

By Guest Columnist GRACE FRICKS, founder and CEO of the non-profit Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs

Small business is the backbone of the economy; the engine for economic recovery.

You won’t find a politician, a pundit or an economist who will disagree with that statement. But by 2008, with our economy in full slide, most lenders tightened the purse strings to the extent that a significant population of small business owners – those defined as microentrepreneurs – couldn’t get access to the money they needed to create or maintain their enterprise.

The board of directors at Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE), a nonprofit I founded in Cleveland, Ga., in 1999, approved a bold plan. We made a conscious decision to be part of the recovery, to ramp up lending and put as much capital as possible into the hands of small business owners.

Instead of hunkering down and riding out the wave, we not only bet on recovery but also aimed to be a part of it. The results have been amazing.

ACE is a community development finance institution, certified by and accountable to the U.S. Treasury, and dependent on a complex mix of public and private funding.

Grace Fricks

We started out as a small, local lender in North Georgia, primarily serving technical college graduates with microloans to get their entrepreneurial dreams – the American dream – off the ground.

Today we’ve expanded our mission and our reach, serving 68 counties from North Georgia down through metropolitan Atlanta, as far south as Jones County.

We’ve also expanded our mandate, underwriting $9 million loans in the last 10 years to over 400 institutions who have created in excess of 2,500 jobs. We were honored to be named one of the top microlenders in the country by CNNMoney, and Wells Fargo gave us an Innovation Award.

One reason we’re so sympathetic to the small business entrepreneur may be because we recognize ourselves in their passion. When ACE started, we were hyper-local, serving just our small community and limiting ourselves to the underserved populations there, serving credit-worthy businesses that were too often overlooked by traditional financial institutions. My early degree was in social work, so that came naturally to me.

But over time, our small nonprofit saw not just the need but also the opportunity to grow our presence, to expand our reach, to increase not just our loan size, but also our mix of funders. We have acquired some philanthropic support, but to truly live up to the “community” in community development financial institution, we need to better integrate public and private funding into our model.

In 2011, we saw our first operating “profit” since the recession, and I understood even more fully the satisfaction that our clients feel when their dream becomes that more real.

Last week, we took our mission national when we hosted an academy for microlenders to talk about an emerging area of focus: funding for green business.

We paid it forward with 50 lenders from around the country who were handpicked because they, too, not only feel the need but see the opportunity. We brought together experts and clients, and this time, we didn’t go it alone.

The Small Business Administration, Wells Fargo, Georgia EMC, Georgia Power, and the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation sponsored the event. Equifax funded a green business expo where some of our local success stories were showcased. Interface sent one of its executives to inspire and motivate.

The green lending conference featured a diverse group of participants, including Native American tribes from Oklahoma and South Dakota, Hispanic organizations from California and Texas, tourism destination groups from Cape Cod, African American lenders from Georgia, Washington D.C, and North Carolina – representing cultures as rural as Appalachian West Virginia and as urban as NYC.

A highlight of the symposium was the Green Business Showcase featuring Georgians who have benefitted from microloans, including a woman organic farmer from Albany; a Bulgarian immigrant who started a recycling business from Marietta; an artist who creates of handcrafted cutting boards; and an award winning architect and sustainable designer.

Symposium participants were so engaged with one another that they have decided to create an ongoing working group that will stay in touch to develop new ideas around growing locally-owned businesses.

As our economy recovers, we have the chance to get it right.

We have the chance to rebuild based on a new set of fundamentals, one that is inclusive and based on what society needs to thrive: Massive public and private collaboration around community development; investment that recognizes the potential for everyone to be a part of the new abundance that is coming; and one that offers economic opportunity for those with the drive and self-determination to work hard, build a business and create financial security for their families and communities.

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