Kasie Coleman recalled a terrible day in April 2012 when she feared her plans for a Baton Rouge bakery business were in trouble.
The wife and mother of two had undergone a second round of cancer surgery only five months earlier, and money was in short supply.
“My credit cards were maxed out,” she said last week at the Main Library. “The Bank of Mom and Dad was closed. I was tapped out. I thought: ‘I need $20,000. What am I going to do?’ ”
Coleman said she couldn’t afford to walk away from her dream of a bakery business. “I’d already signed a lease.”
Through the Louisiana Small Business Development Center at Southern University, she heard about the Baton Rouge office of a Texas-based lender that specialized in small-business loans.
Using the Internet, Coleman filed a loan application with Accion, now known as LiftFund. She received the loan that enabled her to open her boutique bakery, Sugarbelle, in the Delmont Village Shopping Center in the 5100 block of Plank Road.
LiftFund officials also encouraged Coleman to enter a business pitch contest sponsored by Capital One bank. She entered the contest and won $25,000.
Today, her wide variety of Bundt cakes, cookies, cupcakes, pralines and other delights are so popular that she also sells them at a neighboring business, Tony’s Seafood, and the Matherne’s Supermarket near the intersection of Perkins Road and Bluebonnet Boulevard. By the middle of this month, she said, Sugarbelle’s sweet somethings also will be sold at the Rouses Market at Juban Crossing.
“Thank God for LiftFund,” Coleman said. “They’re very helpful. They’re a phone call away.”
Officials of that giant among the nation’s micro- and small-business lenders, Accion Texas, appeared with Coleman at the library last week to announce they’re providing the same services under that new name — LiftFund.
“After 20 years of having the same name … we believe the name LiftFund describes what we do,” said Janie Barrera. She was the founding president of the nonprofit organization in San Antonio in 1994 and remains its president and chief executive officer.
“We help people dream something, and we help them fund it,” Barrera added. She said the lender has had an office in Baton Rouge since 2010, the same year another was opened in Shreveport.
A year earlier, the lender began funding clients in New Orleans and Alexandria.
“They’re investing in people,” said Janie M. Gonzalez, president and chief executive officer of Webhead, a San Antonio-based website designer. Audio and video of Gonzalez’s recorded remarks were shown on a big screen at the library. Webhead was among the lender’s first customers in 1994.
LiftFund describes itself as the largest nonprofit micro- and small-business lender in the nation, having disbursed more than $180 million across 15,403 loans over the past two decades.
It began, however, as a very small operation.
In 1994, in San Antonio, the lender’s largest loans were limited to a maximum of $25,000. Only $160,000 in loans of all sizes were approved that first year.
Today, Barrera said, “We make loans from $500 to $250,000.”
Last year, she added, LiftFund disbursed more than $25 million.
Company officials also reported those borrowers created 2,082 jobs in 2014 and retained another 3,693 existing jobs.
In Baton Rouge over the past five years, LiftFund provided 186 loans totaling a combined $2 million, according to the lender.
In New Orleans, 338 loans have been funded at a combined total of $3.7 million since 2009.
Seventy-seven borrowers in Shreveport and another 70 in Alexandria have borrowed combined totals, respectively, of $1.2 million and $1.1 million.
“We still make small loans as low as $500,” Barrera said. “The difference between (1994) and now is that we are … able to work with a small-business owner at whatever business cycle level they are in.”
Since its founding in Texas and expansion to Louisiana, LiftFund also has established offices in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The organization’s workforce has grown from three to 115.
Last year, LiftFund had $40 million in loans under its management. Its average loan balance was $14,027.
Also appearing last week in Baton Rouge was Donna J. Gambrell, retired director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.
Barrera’s “work has not gone unnoticed,” said Gambrell, now a visiting scholar at the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta. “When you look up the definition of inspirational leader, you’re going to find Janie Barrera.”
Barrera’s lender was established when Texas, Louisiana and most other states were still dusted with the ashes of the nation’s savings and loan industry. That industry was destroyed by waves of grossly inflated commercial loans following federal deregulation in the 1980s.
Why would Barrera venture into the lending business at that time?
“My parents, grandmother and uncle were entrepreneurs,” Barrera recalled. “They loved what they did. They worked hard, provided for their families and, in turn, helped other families.
“I also saw the struggles and challenges my parents experienced during their 20 years of running a restaurant” in Corpus Christi, Texas, Barrera added. “They lacked the financial skills and working capital to build wealth.
“At the end of 20 years, they had no pension or retirement funds and had to rely on $900 a month from Social Security,” Barrera said. “I wanted to help educate hard-working small-business owners with business financial information and resources.”
Maria Greenup, a loan processer at LiftFund’s Baton Rouge office, said Coleman frequently makes use of available information.
“Kasie is committed to her business, and she attended more than one class for business support,” Greenup added. “She is very dedicated to maintaining her bakery.”
Coleman said she appreciates Greenup’s assistance and calls her often.
So, how did Accion survive its first few years in San Antonio?
“By surrounding the organization with smart people who cared for and had a passion for our work and mission,” Barrera said. “Microlending was being used as a tool to help people out of poverty in developing countries for decades. The question, when we got started, was ‘How can this work in the U.S. with the rules and regulations that need to be followed?’ We learned to lend money and get it back by establishing a relationship with the customer.”
How did Accion, now LiftFund, continue to grow during the Great Recession’s worst days of 2008 through 2010?
“We had been making loans to hundreds of small-business owners for more than 14 years,” Barrera said. “We had a track record. Many of our borrowers are resilient and know how to keep their heads above water in the tough times. So, we just kept doing what we had been doing.”
Thus far, the lender’s winners vastly outnumber its failed ventures.
LiftFund officials note researchers at the University of Texas, University of California at Los Angeles and New York University analyzed five years of the lender’s loan applicant files for a 2012 report. That report, the lender said, showed borrowers had a 74 percent survival rate.
The description of LiftFund’s average customer varies by location.
Nationally, 60 percent of the lender’s customers are men. Sixty percent are Hispanic. Nineteen percent identify themselves as African-American, and another 16 percent identify themselves as white people.
The numbers in Louisiana show some differences.
Men are 59 percent of the LiftFund borrowers in Baton Rouge. Eighty-four percent of the borrowers identify themselves as black people, and 13 percent identify as white people.
In New Orleans, 60 percent of the lender’s clients are men. Sixty-one percent identify themselves as black people. Twenty-four percent say they are Hispanic, and 12 percent say they are white people.
Barrera expressed great pride in the organization’s 20-year loan-success rate of 94 percent. She said the success rate for 2014 was 97 percent.
That success was recorded despite LiftFund borrowers’ disadvantages on paper.
The lender’s president and CEO noted LiftFund’s average borrower has a credit score of 580, 100 points below that of large banks’ customers.
Barrera said she remains grateful to several of those banks for donations to the organization. Chase Bank provided $5 million in 2010, she recalled.
“We’re not in any competition with banks,” Barrera added. “We’re partners with banks.”
If her dreams become reality, she said, “LiftFund in 10 years is in a position to help hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs (annually) and not just thousands every year.”
Meanwhile, Barrera said, “We continue to work with banks, chambers of commerce and federal agencies to provide the capital to grow local economies.”
Last week, John Matthews, executive director of small-business services for the Louisiana Department of Economic Development, expressed support for LiftFund’s efforts.
That department, Matthews said, “is there as a partner for LiftFund now and in the future.”