Microbusiness Programs Help Fledgling Entrepreneurs

The Refugee Assistance in MicroEnterprise Project in Florida

Throughout the Catholic Charities ministry, a small but growing number of agencies have been exploring “microbusiness” programs, providing entrepreneurship training and access to small, credit-building loans for clients who want to start their own business. Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA) has partnered with the SunTrust Foundation to support additional agencies in piloting microbusiness programs.

One such program is the Refugee AIM Project of Catholic Charities Diocese of St. Petersburg, Inc. AIM stands for “Assistance in Microenterprise” and serves as shorthand for what Jeff Currie, AIM loan officer, provides for refugees in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in Florida. The program provides low-interest loans to refugees who want to start a business, but it has a wider objective as well: to foster integral human development, which is centered on the inherent dignity of the human person, each of whom is much more than the sum of his or her economic activity.

“It’s a whole different type of lending,” Currie said. “We’re not just concerned with a person’s credit score. There’s a human element that’s involved. I get very emotional when I think about it; you’re changing someone’s life.”

AIM was made possible through a 2010 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Loans could be no larger than $15,000, clients must have refugee status, and the area served is confined to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. Although the initial grant period has ended, Catholic Charities is allowed to continue under the same conditions.

AIM still has money to lend thanks to high repayment rates of its clients and the management by Currie. The program has never been simply about handing a person a check, Currie said. He meets with each client and discusses the particular situation. Based on the client’s needs, Currie offers something as basic as an introduction to the U.S. financial system or as detailed as writing a business plan. The process may take a few months or a couple of years. If a loan is made, the significance of repayment for the overall program and the individual client is emphasized. “It’s all part of the human dignity,” Currie said. “We’re going to trust you, but you have to step up to the plate.”

Most of the clients who have borrowed money have met their repayment terms. Catholic Charities, therefore, is able to continue to lend money to other clients. Loans have gone to truck drivers starting their own businesses and to other people opening printing shops, graphic design firms, and roofing companies.

Currie tells a story about a refugee who settled in Florida after escaping his own country. The man began to work as a truck driver for a private company. The pay, however, was not enough to provide for himself and his family. He heard of AIM and made an appointment with Currie.

“When I first started working with him, we did a business plan to show the viability of repayment. As an employee he made so many cents a mile, but when we did the math and saw how much he could make as an independent contractor, the numbers just worked,” Currie said. With a loan from AIM, the man was able to purchase his own truck, and he made five times the money as an owner than he did as an employee. The client has gone on to buy several more trucks, hire family members to drive them, and provide for other people as well.

Organizations like CCUSA and SunTrust Foundation are able to help with resources, training, and best practices. “Homegrown small businesses remain the backbone of our economy, but in many communities, emerging entrepreneurs don’t have access to adequate training or financing to help them gain the confidence they need to be successful,” said David Fuller, president of SunTrust Foundation. “The SunTrust Foundation sees this collaboration as an important way to meet the unique needs of our communities.”

Currie would like to expand the AIM program so that it is able to help other populations in need start their own small businesses.

“I’m hopeful that there is a foundation or lender out there that would like to provide some support for us to continue so we can be more productive,” Currie said. “There’s got to be people out there interested in the human element, and not just the number churned out after an application has been processed.”