In its sixth year, the Lend for America Summit is set to take place on November 15-16 in Berkeley, California to offer student leaders from across the country a once-a-year opportunity to access must-know information for doing microfinance in the U.S. The following is a guest blog by Erica Boden, who will share at the summit her experience working with Forza Financial, a campus microfinance institution at the University of Alabama.
Walking up and down the streets of Marion, Alabama, I am overwhelmed with a sense of small-town joy. Quaint businesses line the main road. If you glance to the left, a classic, white-pillared courthouse stands. A cool breeze rolls through the air, and for a split-second, I forget about the sweat that’s brimming on my forehead.
Marion is a one-of-a-kind town. It’s also an impoverished one in the Black Belt of Alabama with a dire need for financial help. With its mixed track record of small business success, a microfinance company nearby seemed like the perfect solution. The University of Alabama is home to a student-run, student-led, not-for-profit microfinance company called Forza Financial, which was established in 2009 by a group of students setting out to help small businesses.
Earlier this year, my friend Caroline and I spent three weeks in Marion. We initiated relationships with small businesses, exploring the financial needs of local entrepreneurs, struggling businesses, and start-up shops. We started simple—we went door-to-door, business-to-business, meeting and interacting with owners and employees. The cliché is that word travels fast in small towns, and we were hoping that just that would happen. If a business was doing well, they often had friends they knew needed help. We jumped from lead-to-lead, telling businesses about Forza’s vision and sharing Forza’s services: small loans, business coaching, and seminars.
We learned quickly that time runs a little different in Marion. While we live in a fast-paced, hustle and bustle world, Marion is in no such hurry. As we attended meetings with potential clients, we often stayed late learning their stories, struggles and successes. We were given tours of local farms, an inside look into renovated businesses; we heard about dreams of expansion and the financial struggles they’ve gone through to get where they are.
That is something I love and something that has kept my passion and interest in Forza and in microfinance: it’s about helping individuals accomplish their dreams. Dreams, families, and business are at the center of what we do, making it both a personal relationship and a team effort. I originally joined Forza because I wanted to learn more about different small business sectors, their struggles, and help offered. I have kept and will continue to keep coming back, though, because of the tangible difference we can make on an individual, family, and business’ well-being.
In the end, we connected two local businesses with loans. The first loan was to Bessie Kelly, the owner of a day care, for $2,000. The loan paid for signs and advertising for the outside of the business and playground equipment for the children. Since posting the signs, Bessie has noticed increased calls and clients. She has also paid her loan back each month successfully and on time so far. The second $2,000 loan was to Bessie’s daughter Yolanda who was starting up a hair salon. The loan helped her open her store on time with all of the proper inventory.
The resources Forza Financial helped provide for these business owners goes much beyond capital. They’re on their way to financial stability and achieving their dreams. Whether that is a loan written or a business coaching session with a local entrepreneur, Forza is actively and efficiently trying to improve the economic development and structure of Alabama. It’s also part of a national movement, Lend for America, that has more than 25 student-led initiatives in 17 states.