Microloans Bring Macro-Benefit to Detroit

Boyga Adeseye made a safe bet that operating his new business out of the trunk of his car would appear, shall we say, less than professional.

If his new business Talents of Motown LLC, a talent agency and promotional company, was to go anywhere, he needed a respectable office. So Adeseye went to the bank to apply for a loan -- in fact, he went to two banks. They both turned him down.

"We got two slaps in the face," says Adeseye.

That was when he turned to the Small Business Detroit MicroLoan Program, a partnership between the Detroit Mayor's Office of Neighborhood and Commercial Revitalization and the Center for Empowerment and Economic Development. The program offers loans to small businesses that can't obtain funding from traditional sources like banks.

"We really want to support businesses that are sustainable businesses," says Robin Duncan, business development manager for the Small Business Detroit MicroLoan Program.

Adeseye obtained the loan, and now Talents of Motown has a home in the Dime Building in downtown.

"I'm just a firm believer in people having a vision and pursuing it," says Adeseye. "The more money that goes to small businesses, the better the economy of Detroit will be. We have to make sure we support as much as possible those who want to make Detroit a better place."

That's pretty much what the people behind Detroit's microloan finance institutions were thinking, too.

"Banks aren't going to take a lot of risk," says Lorenzo Thurman, executive director of Detroit Micro-Enterprise Fund, a nonprofit organization started in 2004 as part of a grassroots community effort to provide loans to underserved businesses in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck. "That's why we're here."

Shelia McBride, for one, is grateful they are here. McBride is founder of GradeCheck, a Detroit-based company that provides academic guidance to high school students hoping to be eligible for an athletic and/or academic scholarship. When she wanted to expand her business to include a national online database, she believed she wouldn't qualify for a traditional loan and turned to the Micro-Enterprise Fund.

"It was important for me," says McBride. "Obviously I had nowhere I could turn. It was really a boost for me. I really appreciate them believing in me and giving me help when I needed it."

How it works

Microloans aren't a new concept, having been around for more than two decades and providing those with less-than-stellar credit or entrepreneurs with little to no capital the chance to start a business.

But their popularity is rising in recent years thanks to a skittish credit market and tight-fisted loan institutions still smarting from the subprime mortgage collapse last fall.

"A lot of times banks are going to focus on your credit score," says Thurman, "and if your credit score isn't at least 680, most banks won't touch you."

According to the Association for Enterprise Opportunity, a microenterprise is a business with five or fewer employees, needing a loan of no more than $35,000 and typically one proprietor. The AEO estimates that these types of businesses make up more than 85 percent of businesses in the U.S.

Unlike traditional lending institutions, microloan organizations usually offer some sort of business counseling and mentoring. In the case of the Small Business Detroit MicroLoan Program, orientation classes are required to qualify.

After the loans are granted and a repayment schedule in place, the Micro-Enterprise Fund and MicroLoan Program still offer follow-up help in the form of workshops or business training.

Microloan financing does require a certain element of risk, seeing as how the lending goes to entrepreneurs who are either unproven in the business world or have otherwise bruised their credit.

The Detroit Micro-Enterprise Fund, for example, will review an applicant's whole story not just a bunch of numbers, says Thurman. In other words, if applicants don't have a good credit score, do they at least make payments on time? Do they show passion and dedication to their businesses?

"Basically," says Thurman, "what we do is character lending."

The amounts of the loans vary. The Detroit Micro-Enterprise Fund is funded by grants and fund-raising and lends up to $10,000 to start-ups and up to $25,000 for established businesses located in Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck. The Small Business Detroit MicroLoan Program, funded by the Casino Business Development Fund, will loan up to $35,000 to businesses located within Detroit city limits.

Economic impact?

The biggest distinction between banks and microloan organizations is in their ultimate reason for existing. Banks are banks, and they exist to circulate money and investment to boost the credit markets. Microloans don't aim to show up on the NASDAQ anytime soon. Instead, to hear supporters tell it, they're as much about helping one business as they are about spurring economic redevelopment in struggling communities.

It's about "really doing outreach," says Duncan. "It's about community outreach."

She adds the MicroLoan Program is currently focusing on businesses in the dense Southwest Detroit area, offering business roundtables and networking events in the area. In February, the MicroLoan Program helped fund popular coffeehouse Cafe Con Leche's move to 4200 W. Vernor and Scotten.
"We believe by supporting small businesses, that is spurring and assisting the revitalization of the city," says Duncan.

But with huge companies like GM and Chrysler at their respective economic precipices, can helping a small community coffee shop truly make any difference to Detroit as a whole?

Vittoria Katanski, marketing director of the Southwest Detroit Business Association, thinks so. She says Cafe Con Leche's move is the start of a whole transformation of the district.

"It's completely altered one of the most traveled corner of our business district," says Katanski, adding that big-box stores and national chains are surprising absent in the area. Instead, residents can walk to locally based grocers and salons. "We are absolutely the model of what people should be doing. Those loans help those businesses get started."

Helping one business at a time can help aid the overall health of the surrounding community, she says. Cafe Con Leche getting that microloan was needed "not just for them but for the community. We needed Cafe Con Leche to stay here."

Thurman says the massive layoffs seen in the region recently, though painful, have helped spur a certain entrepreneurial spirit in the city. "It's enabling some people to fall back on a skill," he says, "and they can parlay that into a business."

To Katanski, that sense of starting over, that energy to help make a difference, that is the real virtue of microloan financing and that is what will ultimately shape the city's next incarnation.

"It's more than just money," she says. "It provides someone the opportunity to realize a dream."

The Detroit Micro-Enterprise Fund is looking for businesses in the city interested in obtaining a microloan. The pre-application is free. For more information call (313) 263-4032. The Web site www.dm-ef.org is under construction and will be available soon.

The Small Business Detroit MicroLoan Program can be reached at (313) 255-1020. For more information, visit the organization's Web site here to download application forms.


Shelia McBride, founder of GradeCheck

Robin Duncan, business development manager for the Small Business Detroit Micro Loan Program.

Lorenzo Thurman, executive director of Detroit Micro-Enterprise Fund

Gradecheck offices at Techtown

Cafe Con Leche - Southwest Detroit

Photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D Contact Marvin here
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