As soon as Perla Perez cashes her $1,000 check, her business plan kicks in.
She’s been making cheesecakes and other desserts out of her kitchen, but wants to expand. She’ll buy business cards, and kitchen equipment to bake more efficiently. Then she’ll start marketing.
Perez was one of four women to receive the first microloans from Grameen America’s new Charlotte branch on Friday.
It’s the latest expansion of the microfinance nonprofit started by economics professor Muhammad Yunus that won a Nobel Prize in 2006. The organization’s goal across the world is to lift low-income people out of poverty through entrepreneurship.
And it caps a three-year effort by three local business leaders to bring the concept of microfinance to the banking town of Charlotte.
“We are going to put our name in the history of North Carolina,” branch manager Shah Alam told the crowd gathered to see the checks awarded, as they celebrated with bags of Doritos, iced sugar cookies and bottled water. “Let us put poverty in the museum.”
Fast paced start
Alam has worked with Grameen since 1985, originally in its home base of Bangladesh. He came to the United States to help launch its New York City branches several years ago.
His plane touched down in Charlotte on Nov. 25. Since then, he’s moved into an apartment, hired several center managers, reached out to low-income communities and sampled chicken and dumplings for the first time.
They’ll squeeze the Charlotte branch into a small, wood-floored former classroom in the International House building on Central Avenue.
The three other women receiving loans Friday have been making a living predominantly out of their living rooms and kitchens.
Gladys Rivera, who’s lived in Charlotte for 12 years, will put her $1,000 check toward building her Honduran food business.
Gloria Turcios received $1,200 to put toward her business selling clothing, often at flea markets.
And Dunia Chacon will use her $1,000 to build her nutritional product business.
All four took classes to explain the program and brush up on financial literacy. Once they get their business going, they’ll be responsible for weekly repayments of $42 – of which $40 is principal and $2 in interest.
Then six more women are scheduled to receive micro-loans. Over time, Grameen’s Charlotte branch will help clients around the city launch or expand home-based businesses.
A $27 start
Grameen grew out Yunus’s experience in the 1970s, when he gave $27 to a group of Bangladeshi women who worked bamboo into furniture and baskets. They used the money to buy more materials, and all repaid him.
Several years later, he founded the Grameen Bank to support entrepreneurs, mostly women, in poor areas around Bangladesh. It eventually became an international nonprofit, and expanded into the U.S. It touts a nearly perfect repayment rate.
The Charlotte branch marks the fifth U.S. city to have one. They’re already in New York City, Omaha, Neb., Indianapolis and Oakland, Calif.
In each city, loan officers find groups of borrowers who would make good candidates for the program. They must set up savings accounts and be legal residents of the U.S.
Wells Fargo corporate banking managing director Joe Mynatt, former mayoral candidate John Lassiter and Red F Marketing chief executive Sara Garces Roselli took the lead on fundraising the $2.5 million it would take to bring a branch to Charlotte.
“Being a banker, the microfinance concept makes a lot of sense to me,” Mynatt said. He said he began sending emails and making phone calls several years ago to help bring a branch to North Carolina.
Their committee approached the city of Charlotte in 2010, pitching it as a way to help people making less than $12,000 per year support their families.
The city ultimately kicked in $230,000.
Wells Fargo ponied up $500,000, and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation pledged $450,000. Other donors included Whole Foods Market’s foundation, the Merancas Foundation, Leon Levine Foundation, Bank of America and Duke Energy.
They had originally hoped to have the branch operating by the middle of 2011, but fundraising delays pushed it back.
Some of that was because of the nature of the organization, which isn’t yet common in the United States, Mynatt said Friday. The increase in charitable needs during the recession also played a role.
“It’s nice to see it finally get here,” Mynatt said. “It works. That’s the bottom line.”