During 2010, ACCION gained two loan funds in San Antonio; the South Texas Business Fund and the Community Development Loan Fund. Along with South Texas Business Fund came the South Texas Women’s Business Center (STWBC), a program that provides business education, support, and advocacy.
Celina Peña, Vice President of Business Support and Central Texas, is in charge of the center. “I tell folks we’re really a sounding board. When people have a celebration, a sorrow, a bump in the road, a successful contract; we’re here to support them… When you’re a business owner, you’re alone. We provide support and community.”
In specific, the center offers seminars, individual counseling, networking and mentoring opportunities, as well as support around business, market, and financial planning.
Just to be clear, the center offers support to any business owner, despite the name. As Celina explained it to me “The goal is to reach veterans, women, people of color, people with education at or below a high school level, and the poor… but we have a mix of folks – even people who have PHDs come to talk to us, because they need guidance on how to run a business.”
A wealth of expertise
Currently the center has three people dedicated to the STWBC; Martha Zurita, Mario Riojas, and Celina. Each brings their own expertise.
Mario was ACCION’s first CFO and then worked in the underwriting department. During his 13 years at ACCION he has counseled hundreds of small business owners on microfinance. And he knows what he’s talking about; he owned a pharmacy for 28 years before joining ACCION. So he brings a wealth of financial and business experience. Mario’s mantra is “grow your balance sheet.”
Martha used to be a resource navigator for an education initiative in San Antonio. She’s glad that working at the STWBC lets her use her degree in International Business and Marketing. Like the other two, she is friendly and obviously cares about her clients.
Celina used to do policy work for a health care non-profit. When asked why she wanted to work at the STWBC, she said “my parents are small business owners, so I’d really like to help small business owners.” But that wasn’t how she got involved. “I fell into this arena because of my political activism, to be honest with you.” She was the chair of a senatorial district sessions, which is how she was discovered by the STWBC.
The center also brings in successful women business owners and other experts to run sessions and hold luncheons with their clients.
Martha showed me one of the business plans she’s helping a client work on. “We guide them through it, and when it’s done we review it and edit it and make sure it’s ready for when they present to a lender.” When reviewing the plan, she explains to the client what’s important and why.
Education, training and loans
The combination of services really makes sense. As Celina put it; “When a client fails and we lent to them, we failed. And we feel it. So our goal is to figure out how we support our clients before and beyond lending… so we can help them become successful, not just provide the capital. For example, we had a client come in who says she’s been a salonist since 1952, and her clients are dying off. They’re old. So we help here figure out how to refresh her business.”
Clients of the STWBC have a greater exposure to ACCION as well, creating a pipeline of new potential borrowers.
But Celina says they’re still struggling with awareness of their services. “People say that ACCION is just about lending or doesn’t do business support – well, ACCION always provided it, but it was informal… Our loan officers provide business assistance all the time.” And they’re working to improve the support they offer.
Better support in more places
ACCION is working on a toolkit for training and support. “It is a toolkit by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs. I’m really excited about it.”
Since STWBC is only in San Antonio, the Toolkit is a way to support ACCION’s employees and clients elsewhere. “Take El Paso. They have a class on marketing. So now we’ll have this in place so if they have a class, they can have a strategy to implement” And when a client needs to write a business or financial plan, “we can have a template available to people. We can support them so they’re not going in cold.”
The idea is to “formalize an approach to business support.” Just in time too, because ACCION is opening a new incubator project in the Rio Grande Valley. And ACCION recently received a $2.4 million grant from the Louisiana OCD Disaster Recovery Unit, $400,000 of which is for technical assistance for small businesses affected by the hurricanes.
One-stop shop for business support
Spreading STWBC’s expertise to ACCION’s offices is part of STWBC’s ongoing integration into ACCION. Another part is bringing ACCION to STWBC. They’re moving some of ACCION’s employees, including loan officers, next to the STWBC office to create a “one stop resource” for business owners.
That one-stop business support was part of why ACCION merged with the two other loan funds in San Anotnio. “ACCION is the only non-traditional, non-bank lender in the greater San Antonio market after the mergers… Before it was kind of hodge-podge, we had to keep passing the baton.” Now ACCION offers loans of a much wider range and variety, as well as STWBC’s business support. “The name’s the same, but we’ve changed. We’ve grown up a little bit.”
“What makes us different from a bank or other lenders? We want to be a sounding board, and we want to walk with our client at all stages of their business life cycle. I don’t want you to come and leave, I want you to come and stay, and build community.”