Loaning to the Person, Not Just to the Business
Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC) has been serving the business-development needs of underserved Wisconsinites for over a generation. “Because we’ve been around for close to 35 years, folks come in and ask us for just about anything,” says Renee Lindner, an outreach specialist focused on urban areas for WWBIC. “By virtue of that reputation, we sometimes have to manage expectations.”
But WWBIC comes by that reputation honestly. Baked into their organizational approach to helping small business owners — especially women and business owners of color — is a refreshing approach to meeting business needs that doesn’t just focus on the financials. “We’re not just giving loans,” Lindner points out. “We’re making sure they are in a position to run their businesses well, to help them earn the profits they need, yes, to pay back their loans. But also to leverage their loan capital to realize growth.”
As a CDFI, WWBIC offers a range of business loan products covering amounts from $1,000 to $250,000. In partnership with Kiva, WWBIC also offers smaller-dollar, zero-interest loans that open up the lower rungs of the lending ladder for the newest borrowers.But many of the 5,000 or so clients WWBIC works with each year to start, sustain, and grow their small businesses face daily challenges that extend beyond access to capital and may be intensely personal or familial. After all it’s hard to focus on creating a successful business if you’re worried about paying off credit cards, or getting enough nutritious food for your family on any given day. That’s why every loan recipient is paired with a small business consultant that serves as a sort of case manager for the business owner. It’s the consultant’s role to connect the business owner with other resources. That might be enrolling in the dozen or so business-related classes that WWBIC conducts across Wisconsin (and online). But it might also include counseling to help business owners think about how to better manage household finances, or plan nutritional meals affordably, or repair their personal credit. And if an owner’s needs go beyond business fundamentals or financial wellness, WWBIC’s consultants make referrals to other service providers throughout the state.
At least one-fifth of WWBIC’s loan recipients are producers. (Of almost 900 active loans, 18 percent are makers or manufacturers; another 22 percent are food-related, which includes a mix of restaurants and producers.) One success story is Milwaukee-area herbal tea producer, Swaye Tea. Owners Aisha and Shiree Henry came to WWBIC for a Kiva loan as they are moving from selling at farmers markets to wholesaling and a dedicated retailing space. “I walked into their new space soon after they had a very successful spot on local TV and realized they were trying to figure out the balance between production and customer service,” says WWBIC’s Lindner who is working to connect them with some customer service training. Lindner is also helping the Henrys to get into a new program supporting entrepreneurs who are military veterans. (They met in the military and Aisha is currently in the U.S. Navy.)
“It’s the creative spirit and ability to pivot of makers and manufacturers that will help our whole economy stay resilient through tough times that urban communities, and lower- middle and working class people have always faced. Makers figure things out, it’s how they think. I’m proud to be their ally,” says Lindner.
Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation
The Sherman Park neighborhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin has a rich history of industry and civil rights achievements. It’s also where Renee Lindner, outreach specialist at Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC), spent her childhood. Her 83-year-old mom still lives in the same house where she raised her six children as a teacher and single mom.
Lindner remembers the neighborhood as a tight community in which families supported each other with their day-to-day needs. “Neighbors looked out for another,” she said. “It didn’t matter who you were or what you looked like — we were all in it together.” And they still do. Her mother’s neighbor, the former President of the Milwaukee Urban League, shovels snow in return for a batch of homemade cookies.
In her role at WWBIC, Lindner is helping neighbors in Sherman Park and surrounding neighborhoods access the capital and education they need to sustain their businesses.
The neighborhood has changed since Lindner was a kid; the A.O. Smith factory was a big employer before selling to new owners and shutting those plants down and moving to the suburbs in the 2000s.
But its spirit remains intact. “Different folks and different business owners look out for each other and if somebody needs something they’ll step up to be that person to go help out — whether it’s a business opening or a water flooding issue,” said Lindner.
WWBIC has helped anchor economies in neighborhoods around the Milwaukee area. The largest microlender in Wisconsin, their sector-agnostic loans have funded the launch of a nail salon, an empanada kitchen, and a bouquet of other Main Street-style enterprises.
African Americans make up 22 percent of their loan profile despite comprising just 7 percent of the state’s population. Six percent of Wisconsinites are Hispanic, but 13 percent of WWBIC’s loan portfolio is Hispanic.
Those ratios are intentional. “In each market, we concentrate as directed by our mission on women, people of global majority, people of lower wealth and incomes, and veterans and military families,” said Lindner. “All of these groups are likely to be disadvantaged and face barriers to realizing their entrepreneurial dreams — most often in accessing capital, business and professional networks, and higher education.”
They also provide business education, tools to help build financial wellness, and ongoing business support after loans have been distributed. Lindner wants to help them out much like Sherman Park neighbors help her family. “We really talk about a person as a whole,” said Lindner, referring to her clients. “This is one reason we were so glad to be part of UMA’s Pathways to Patient Capital program — to collaborate with organizations taking similar whole-entrepreneur approaches.
UMA has assembled our Pathways to Patient Capital practitioner cohort because each member has found a successful or promising approach to helping entrepreneurs of color — including makers and manufacturers — to get access to the capital and know-how they need to realize their business ideas and plans at scale. We know there is great benefit in lifting up and sharing this information among other practitioners, but also with other audiences, such as policymakers, lenders, and other funders. We compiled the brief profiles you are about to read to give these audiences a sense of both the personal and the practical: one section describes the people and organizations doing this work and the inspiration that guides them (“The Practitioner”); the other describes the innovations in capital access or readiness that each is pioneering or bringing to scale (“The Practice”). You can read the full report here.