Month: November 2014

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Blanca’s childhood wasn’t always happy. Growing up in Mexico, her family was not supportive of her drive to learn, and constantly told her that she would be better off learning how to clean and be a wife. The happiest times that she had with her family were the days that everyone would line up and ask her to cut their hair. For Blanca, haircare was an outlet for her creativity that she learned from her uncle, one of the few people in her family supportive of her talent.

As she grew up, she knew that she wanted to own a salon. After discovering that her uncle had his own barber shop, she quickly swept up his scissors and found herself  eager to give haircuts to family and friends. But after she got married, the time spent raising her family made her lose touch with her passion. It wasn’t until she came to the United States to get better care for her daughter’s medical condition that she began to entertain her dream once again.

After coming to the United States, Blanca realized her first step to achieving her dream was going to beauty school.

To accomplish this, she needed to save money for the expensive tuition fees. After working two jobs for several years, she finally decided it was time and enrolled in California Beauty School. But Blanca could not transform into a full time student over night; she still had to work eight hours each day on top of her studies.

IMG_6642“I was working, working, working; but I never gave up,” she said.

Upon graduating, Blanca went in search of salon jobs. She worked for little or no pay to learn everything she could taking jobs at different salons throughout the Bay Area, even though they were hesitant to train her.

“At every single salon, I learned a little something new.”

Once she built up her list of clientele and had accumulated a great deal of expertise, she saw her opportunity to move to salon owner. Opening up a new salon often requires taking out loans, so Blanca was determined to build up her credit to access them.

Though she sought advice from local credit-building and finance organizations, Blanca left these conversations “depressed and confused.”

Mission Asset Fund soon connected her to several business classes where she gained a better grasp on what it would take to get her business up and running, and she slowly began mapping out her business plan. Through MAF, she accessed business loans so when the chance to purchase a salon came knocking at her door, she was prepared. The owner of the salon she was working in was ready for retirement and looking to sell, so it was a prime opportunity for Bianca.

Though the transition to salon ownership was by no means smooth sailing.

Like every other stage of her life, Blanca had to fight hard to get the right documentation to establish ownership. Mountains of paperwork and licensing agreements delayed the process. Finally on October 1st, 2014, the salon became hers. Now Blanca can finally turn her focus on expanding her dream. Knowing all too well the difficulties that arise as a new employee of a salon, her goal is to attract people with a drive to learn and pay them well as they are trained. “I want the best for them and the best for the business.” She recognizes that certain employees may learn faster than others and may have strengths in specific areas.

“Like the fingers on your hand, all of us are different.”

The salon is now a family affair. Bianca and her daughters all manage a piece of the business. In the future Blanca wants to expand her business to include a beauty store, make up salon, and multiple hair salons. And with her drive and motivation, it’s hard not to believe in her success.

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When I was working in a startup incubator space last summer, I had the chance to hear all sorts of advice on starting a business. What I remember so clearly was the old “get out the door” expression. Need to figure out if your idea is plausible? Go out and ask people on the street if they would use it. Need to adjust pricing? Go out and ask people how much they would pay. You can do nothing from the comfort of your own chair.

While this is of course very true, I couldn’t help but wonder about the problematic nature of such a suggestion. If you have to force yourself out your door to connect with your customers, should you really be offering your service in the first place?

I began my fellowship with MAF already skeptical of this “getting out the door” idea, and after just two months here I feel I finally gained some clarity.

This month I was offered the chance to interview Blanca, a Lending Circles member. In order to do so, I literally had to leave the office to meet her at her beauty salon. Now, based on common startup wisdom, I should have felt nervous or concerned about taking such an action. But in fact, I was really excited. I couldn’t wait to hear her personal story – to hear how she had raised her family while achieving her dream of starting a business. I left the interview even more energized than I had entered. I told everyone who would listen about Blanca’s strength and resilience and spoke of how amazing it felt that MAF had played even a small role in her journey.

And just like that, the get out the door illusion had officially been shattered.

When I came back into the office, I walked past our programs team in deep discussion with a potential member-a normal day in the office. That’s when it struck me, that doors don’t exist here. If an organization is built correctly, it devises its solution from the minds of those its trying to serve. The walls are never there because the source is the community itself and so a solid foundation is created.

The community-driven environment enables MAF to grow stronger as time passes.

Seeing the inspiring aspects of Blanca’s character enabled me to leave her beauty salon reenergized with a stronger sense of our mission. Stepping beyond the mission-building cliche, the interview actually help me do my job better. The real reason I was interviewing Blanca wasn’t for a morale boost; it was to hear her story so we could share it with our members and partners and use it to better our programs.

This hits at the core of MAF’s values; the interactions with our members tell us not what they are lacking, but instead all they can offer. Identifying our members’ strengths will allow us to devise and implement programs that capitalize on them; this makes for a better MAF and a stronger community.

Everytime I think of all the MAF members who have reached the next stage of their life, I think of all the organizations missing out by hesitating at the door, complaining about how difficult it is to walk through it.

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Expanding community with a new board member

I am thrilled to announce that we have added a brand new member to our family – this month our board voted in Aqui Soriano, Executive Director of the Pilipino Workers Center, as our newest board member!

Aqui has been working with the Pilipino Workers Center in LA for 14 years and is a leader in the national domestic worker’s movement.

AQUI2One thing people don’t always know about Aqui is that she will keep calling until it gets what she wants for her community.

When she heard we were expanding Lending Circles to other organizations, she started calling me periodically to see if we were ready to go to L.A. Each time I would tell her “We’re just working on the Bay Area right now, but soon. Soon.”

Once the time was right, and thanks to winning the LA2050 Challenge, we brought on PWC as our very first L.A. partner. Fast forward a few years later and PWC is the only partner who is currently offering all of MAF’s programs – from Lending Circles to Security Deposit Loans.

“As a partner, we have seen firsthand the impact the organization has had,” Aqui says.

So when we were thinking about expanding our board membership, Aqui’s name immediately rose to the top because she has a unique perspective as a partner. I recently asked Aqui what her goals are in joining our board. She said “I see the value MAF has in building communities – in its lending circles as well as building broader community. I also appreciates that MAF knows how to build organizational infrastructure and systems to grow and scale.”

I couldn’t be more thrilled to have Aqui join us on the board and really look forward to your future with MAF.

 

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Journeying to the “land of 10,000 nonprofits” as Minnesota is known was the perfect opportunity for MAF to visit one of its strongest Lending Circles providers and host a roadshow event to engage new organizations looking to serve the financial needs of their clients.

Comunidades Latinas Unidas en Servicio (CLUES) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1981 in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. CLUES’s programs and services focus on the Latino family, but the organization has the experience and capabilities to serve individuals and families from all walks of life including new immigrants and low income families who dream of a better future. This organization has a tremendous reputation in the Twin Cities for their comprehensive services ranging from mental health to education as well as their culturally competent client engagement.

102714clues193On our first day in Minnesota, my colleague, Daniel, and I went to visit CLUES to get to know the staff and clients.

The weather was chilly but we were happy to get such a warm reception from everyone there as we got a full tour of the Minneapolis office and met all the passionate CLUES staff.

CLUES has been a partner of MAF since May 2012 with funding support by the Northwest Area Foundation.The organization currently offers Lending Circles, Lending Circles for Citizenship, Lending Circles for Dreamers, and just launched a new program, Lending Circles for Homeownership. I was amazed at how many services they offer the community and the diversity of languages spoken there.

102814clues009The Lending Circles program, managed by Alejandro and David in the financial empowerment team, is actually advocated to all clients who may not be aware of the importance of credit building when they come to CLUES seeking other services. The Lending Circles for Homeownership idea came out of the desire to help CLUES’ clients who want to buy a home in the next year but need to repair their credit or build their credit. After those clients complete their required homestretch class and learn the process of buying, they can join the Lending Circles for Homeownership program to access capital and build their credit. CLUES is the first organization to offer this program, so they’ll be piloting it this fall with 20 people.

Because so many of CLUES’s clients and staff are Latino, they were familiar with tandas and extremely receptive to a culturally relevant program like Lending Circles.

I took some time to interview a number of inspiring clients who were trying to pay off their debt, grow businesses and save up for a home, as part of our new campaign to share the diverse stories of our partner clients across the country. They were all thankful for their new credit scores and the opportunity it gave them to work towards their financial goals.

We also hosted a presentation at the Northwest Area Foundation, allowing us to connect with more local organizations who were all very interested in asset and credit building. Some had heard of us through CLUES and others were learning about the impact of Lending Circles for the first time. It was great to meet so many different nonprofits represented and hear what they’ve been doing on the ground to meet the needs of entrepreneurs, job seekers, aspiring homeowners and immigrants.

On our second day, we held a staff training on Lending Circles and I got to interview the staff about the partnership experience.  I met with President Ruby Lee and VP of Programs, Karla Bachmann, who shared CLUES’ inspiring mission and strategic approach to community development. The four pillars that guide the organization’s work are: Health and family well-being, economic vitality, educational achievement, and cultural and civic engagement. Lending Circles fits perfectly into the economic vitality category and serves as a vehicle for integrating communities and providing opportunities.

20141028_123505I hope we’ll be able to build off of the enthusiasm and creativity of nonprofits like CLUES to open more doors for financial inclusion and empowerment.

Our schedule was definitely packed over the two days with all our events and meeting, but we did get to squeeze in some time to grab lunch at the Midtown Global Market and explore the enormous Mall of America! This was my first time in Minneapolis so I didn’t know what I’d expect, but thanks to the fantastic staff at CLUES and the Northwest Area Foundation, I’m inspired to come back to explore the offerings of such a welcoming place to so many different communities.

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Unlike many MAF staff members, Karla became part of the MAF community well before she had walked through its doors. Her friends and members of her family had participated in tandas when she was a child in El Salvador, so she understood the benefits and drawbacks of informal lending circles.

While in college at SF State, Karla helped with the research behind MAF’s programs. With an understanding of their effectiveness, Karla decided to take a chance and join a lending circle. Through the experience she came to know and love MAF’s mission and its people. In short, she was hooked.

When word of an opening on MAF’s programs team made its way to her, Karla thought “this is my chance” and she jumped to apply.

With such a strong grounding in MAF’s model, she was the perfect candidate for the job. As the Programs Coordinator, Karla spends her days directly interacting with our members. She walks them through our services and the services of our partners. To accomplish this, she does much more than listening to their financial history; she listens to their life story.

karla_body1“That’s really rewarding, to know that people trust us to share their personal struggles.”

In this way, Karla represents so much of what we do here at MAF. Our clients aren’t just looking to improve their credit score, they are looking to move forward with their lives by starting businesses, gaining citizenship or securing stable housing.

What’s so inspiring about Karla is how she has come to see her role at MAF and the world. Growing up, she never thought she’d end up in the financial sector.  “I was always told, ‘finance is a man’s world,’” she says.

At MAF, Karla talks to many women without a checking account and with little financial independence. She loves that MAF’s programs enable them to take control of their finances and motivate her to do so as well. She explains, “the more I learn, the more empowered I feel.”

The time Karla has spent here has also made her reflect upon her high school and college careers. Though she was involved in all types of community outreach, the one commonality she found was the community need for financial stability.

“If people had the financial resources to have a better life, then maybe they could move out from the violent neighborhoods or find a better job,” Karla says.

Outside of the office, Karla finds herself often chatting about MAF and successfully recruiting several of her friends into Lending Circles. But she’s not all about work. She loves her zumba classes and uses them as a way to unwind and let loose with friends.

Her favorite part of the MAF philosophy is that we “embrace what our community already has.” We transformed a tool the community has used for centuries, and in so doing we enable our members to build brighter futures for themselves. That’s something Karla can relate to.

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