NEW ORLEANS — When Haley Burns began studying International Development at Tulane University, she assumed that she would take what she learned global.
But during her freshman year, when her service learning experiences took her into a neighborhood near to campus but impoverished, she realized that she didn’t need to go anywhere to translate her classroom lessons into real-life solutions for tackling poverty and income inequality.
In 2012, Burns spent a summer interning as one of six college students nationwide for “Lend for America,” an organization with the mission to “empower emerging social entrepreneurs to build strong businesses and communities through innovative microfinance.”
Started in 2009, Lend for America focused on connecting energetic college students with microfinance institutions, also called MFIs, founded on the belief that, “America’s university students bring talent, passion, and fresh ideas to help serve America’s underbanked population. In a dream world there would be a Campus MFI at every university in the country so that creating a MFI becomes as ubiquitous on college campuses as ultimate frisbee teams.”
The term microfinance is often used internationally in the context of providing financial services to people in poorer nations who don’t have access to banking institutions. Burns said that it has existed domestically in various ways — but also has been a growing movement in the U.S. since its founding in Bangladesh in the 1970s.
Burns, a native of Huntsville, Ala., said the internship helped her lay her groundwork, and by the end of the summer she had started the nonprofit Fund 17 (for 17 wards in New Orleans). The organization is run by six volunteer Tulane students, but isn’t affiliated with the university.
While conducting health surveys in New Orleans, Burns said, she was shocked by the proximity of multimillion-dollar mansions to some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. “I don’t think I’d ever seen such a stark contrast of income inequality,” she said.
An aspiring hairstylist, for example, will want to start a business out of his or her residence, but needs money for a license and products, Burns said. Or a food truck will need a new oven.
Even if it’s a $75 loan for a pair of work boots, even a small amount of capital can make a big difference, Burns said.
According to Lend for America: “Reports of crime and poverty in America’s inner cities miss the positive. Hardworking entrepreneurs strive to succeed. Working as part-time cooks, cleaners, handymen, jewelry makers and seamstresses, ply their trades at so many kitchen tables throughout America. Long on talent and drive, these would-be entrepreneurs could revitalize urban economies throughout the country from the ground up. Why haven’t they? They lack the capital to expand, the skills to manage their books, and access to customers who can pay the prices they deserve.
“Meanwhile, thousands of college students hunger for a substantive way to make a difference in their communities,” Lend for America says. “They want to be part of something that calls not only for manual labor, but for intelligence and analytic ability as well. They want to lead a movement in which profitability and social responsibility go hand-in hand.”
While Fund 17 raises seed money for lending, its volunteer helpers are working with two New Orleans organizations to provide educational seminars.
“Education, to me, is one of the most crucial parts,” Burns said. “The point is to help people transition to the next step in the business world. If we have a client for too long, we are doing something wrong.”
With Puentes New Orleans, the students advocate for Latino residents — providing information about the pitfalls of predatory lenders and credit cards and instruction on building credit and steps toward homeownership.
At the Covenant House, they are helping homeless and other at-risk teens financially transition into a working adult life.
Once Fund 17 starts lending, it will have a goal of reaching those people who want to start their own business but aren’t served by the banks. Burns said there will be no minimum amount on the loans, and the maximum will be $5,000. Aside from income, credit, and collateral barriers, the loans Fund 17 will be working with are “a dollar size banks aren’t interested in,” Burns said.
The interest rate of 10 percent may seem high, Burns acknowledged, but noted it is against a small amount of capital and involves just a short-term agreement. Plus, the driving force behind the loan isn’t profit — it’s impact, she said.
The idea is to build a partnership and empower people. A partnership is built through the repayment — less charity and more a mutual transaction. And, the interest on the money paid back will go back into the community — providing financial education and loans to others.
Through their “Fund an Idea, Change a Life” campaign just being launched, Fund 17 is seeking to raise $5,000 by April 17 for a loan pool so it can begin lending later in the spring. For more information contact Fund 17 at http://www.fund17.org or by mail at 31 McAlister Drive No. 3695, New Orleans, LA 70118.