Road tripping in Alligator country
So far, I’ve spent my whole fellowship in ACCION Texas-Louisiana HQ in San Antonio. But, as the name implies, there’s a lot more to ACCION than this office. So I recently decided to take a road trip and visit some of the other offices. I visited a few offices in Texas (more on that in a later blog post), and all four Louisiana offices.
Here’s the Louisiana portion of my trip, in reverse order.
As soon as I got here, my friends back home started asking me about Katrina and what shape New Orleans is in. I wasn’t there for long, so I couldn’t personally see much impact. But I have it on good authority that New Orleans is still recovering. The Loan Officer here, Stephaney, told me “we still do see a lot of impact from Katrina. Mostly on applicant’s credit scores … People are still struggling. Some have come back based on vouchers from the government, but their existing property is still not intact… Rebuilding is the focus in New Orleans for homes, communities, business and credit scores are all being revitalized.”
Stephaney actually works at ACCION because of Katrina. After the hurricane displaced her, she moved to San Antonio and ended up getting a job at ACCION. “We thought we were only going away for the weekend… we didn’t realize we wouldn’t be coming back.” But a few years later she did move back to New Orleans and took a different job.
Then, in March 2009, she got a call from ACCION. Capitol One had given a grant to expand ACCION into Louisiana, did she want to work for ACCION again as the first Loan Officer in the state? She said yes, and started work out of her home.
The office now is housed in the Goodwill Headquarters in Louisiana. By “office” I mean that Stephaney and the Loan Processor Tawana each have a room in a huge complex of offices used by groups like JOB1, the local unemployment office, and Goodwill. Like most ACCION offices, it’s not in the nice part of town. But it is much more accessible to clients than their previous office or Stephaney’s home.
I also got to spend a surprisingly cold, but excellent, weekend in New Orleans. I walked a wilderness preserve on Saturday. On Sunday the city was pretty quiet, since all the locals were watching the Saints game. This is the most football-oriented city I’ve been in since Pittsburgh.
The Baton Rouge office is ACCION’s newest. The Loan Officer arrived here in May 2010, and the office opened in July.
Opening up new branches is difficult. I’ve heard here, and in other cities, that marketing is the biggest challenge. I heard from many people “this is a new market, so no one has heard about us.” When it comes to doing business, trust and reputation matter a great deal. And that takes time, effort, and relationships. In an office like this, with only one ACCION employee in the city, there is only so much the Loan Officer can do at once.
Tonya, the Loan Officer, said that her greatest success is the people she helps. “I’m a social worker by nature, so nurturing people and getting them through the loan application – seeing people smile or cry when they get the check. That’s what motivates me.”
Alexandria, referred to locally as ‘Elec’, is full of banks. The city is a big market for local banks, but there is so much competition it’s not attractive for larger banks. It makes for an interesting loan market.
A lot of businesses here are struggling. Some Restaurants in Louisiana are only open half the day. And a lot of small businesses in Alexandria have been around for generations. They are trying to get more new businesses, but that takes time.
I had the good fortune to meet a member of Cenla Advantage Partnership(Cenla = Central Louisiana). They are one of ACCION’s partners here. They teach entrepreneurial skills at different levels. As he said, you have to unlearn what you needed at one skill level in order to be successful at the next level. They’ve been around for four years with good results, and they refer clients in need of small business loans to ACCION.
Marlene, the Loan Officer here, also took me out to lunch at a Cafeteria; which was a new kind of dining experience for me. Very tasty!
The first ACCION loan in Shreveport helped fund the opening of a new small business incubator on the other side of town; Blue Print Incubator & Services. I was very excited to hear this, and even more excited to get to tour the incubator. Beyond the office space and amenities, rent in the incubator includes use of a conference room and services like accounting, marketing, financial planning, image consulting, computer and IT support. There are already a couple businesses using the space.
That first loan is very appropriate, as the ACCION office here is also in a Small Business Incubator. The incubator is part of Southern University, and it also houses the only bank for miles. Donna, the Loan Officer here, described it as “a grassroots community location.” It’s a beautiful building, but far away from most of the city.
Donna drove me around the city during my visit. On our drive she pointed out some “We care” signs on people’s lawns. This is because of Community Renewal International, which got started here in Shreveport. Their goal is to revitalize communities from the inside.
One of the things they do is identify community leaders and ask them to put up “we care” signs at their homes. “The idea is to say that just because you live in the ghetto doesn’t mean you have to be afraid of people there. We do better if we’re not afraid of our neighbors. We care about our communities.”
Back on the Road…
On the whole, I got a whirlwind view of Louisiana. Now it’s back to San Antonio via Houston. Look for another post about Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth.