After successful weight loss post-pregnancy, Janine Cox wanted to started a personal training business in Corpus Christi, Texas, which would cater directly to other moms. She didn’t have a lengthy credit history, nor a track record of successful entrepreneurship. “You don’t have the numbers,” the banks told her. But when Cox went to LiftFund, a microlender that’s disbursed 17,404 loans worth $211 million since 1994, her background wasn’t a liability. “They wanted to know about me and what my goals were,” she says. After reviewing her business plan, Cox received a $6,000 loan with a low, 5 percent interest rate. Today, she’s been in business for nine months.
“Our focus [is] on helping or assisting small businessmen and women who don’t have access to capital from traditional sources, like large financial institutions. These individuals are people that, if not for LiftFund, have to go and borrow from payday lenders or title-loan establishments, predatory lenders where they are going to be paying 300 percent over the next four years,” explains Adriana Biggs, a former white collar crimes prosecutor who became LiftFund’s chief strategy officer in 2014. “Because of heavy regulation, banks cannot lend to anyone with a credit score under 680. Our average is at 599. We know that we’re dealing with individuals who are ready to work — they have a business idea or a business in place — but all they need is access to capital.”
Microfinance is one of the preferred strategies for infusing money into developing countries, but it remains fairly uncommon in the United States. LiftFund, which issues loans ranging from $500 to $250,000, started in San Antonio serving primarily Latino residents as they opened restaurants, retail stores, hair salons, warehouses, accounting and consulting suites and tattoo parlors. The initiative reports thousands of success stories: 96 percent of recipients repaid their loans in full, and from 2006 to 2011, nearly three quarters of funded businesses survived, according to an independent study. Racial minorities remain frequent borrowers, and LiftFund now offers business consultation services in 15 offices across the country.
To increase impact, LiftFund is now working with various cities to offer loans with lower interest rates than the organization would be able to offer on its own. (Cox was a beneficiary of this initiative in Corpus Christi; other participating cities in Texas include San Antonio and McAllen.) It’s an easy way to stimulate local economies because a young business can put the extra cash towards inventory or employment instead of interest charges.
Ultimately, LiftFund hopes to change the borrowing system to one where everyone can access capital. This could bring about its demise, but that’s a feeling LiftFund is used to, as customers often qualify for bigger loans from banks or no longer need money. “We always lose our best customers,” Biggs adds with a laugh.
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