Recently, OFN’s Lisa Mensah was a panelist at the NEXUS USA 2018 Summit, a gathering of young philanthropists, impact investors, and CDFI allies—including family business members, successful entrepreneurs, and inspiring social change leaders—to discuss national and global challenges and innovative solutions.

Lisa participated on the Impact Investing in Rural America panel, which had a variety of experience along the financing spectrum. Lisa and panelist Jenna Nichols, CEO of Impact Experience, spoke with moderator Alex Amouyel, Executive Director of Solve, about economic development in rural communities, from Appalachia and the Mississppi Delta region to tribal reservations.  Jacob Israelow, founder of Dirt Capital, discussed his work helping farmers in upstate New York purchase additional farm land so that local farmers don’t face the hard decision of selling their biggest income producers—cows—in order to expand farm production. Casey Verbeck of Veris Wealth Partners provides clients who care about sustainable investing with opportunities for investment in rural America. His firm is an investor of Dirt Capital!

Alex asked Lisa to provide a broad overview of the economic challenges in rural America, and how CDFIs can spur economic development and bridge capital gaps. Lisa, from her perspective as CEO of a national CDFI network and a longtime champion of CDFIs, said that community financing institutions are essential tools for community transformation.

Among her key messages:

  • According to the 2010 census there are 429 persistently poor counties. Of them, 86% are entirely rural and located in Appalachia, the Colonias along the US-Mexico border, the Mississippi Delta, and Native communities
  • CDFIs move money, strengthen communities, and amplify voices
  • CDFIs working in poor rural communities create jobs, support critical services, like affordable housing, and build infrastructure

Lisa referenced Lakota Funds as an example of a CDFI providing access to capital that supports essential services and economic development. Lakota Funds, which serves the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, was the first Native CDFI. It started out as a mico-lender and has grown to providing housing counseling and assistance, as well as other wealth building resources, in one of the nation’s poorest counties.

Jenna talked about her work at Impact Experience of bringing a diverse group of individuals (impact investors, philanthropists, non-profit leaders) to Appalachia to develop a deeper understanding of the extreme poverty and inequality in our country and discover ways to inject capital into these areas. She discussed the waning coal industry in West Virginia and how to create employment opportunities and retain coal-mining workers.

Lisa’s final word to the audience at the end of the session was “Seeing is believing!” She urged everyone in the room to travel to rural areas, visit these communities, and talk with “the leaders who take the money to where it does not normally flow.”


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