OFN launched the Small Business Finance Forum (SBFF) six years ago. Every year since, we’ve topped the one before in attendance numbers and interest—and we expect the trend to continue well into the future.
This year, we welcomed more than 320 attendees—CDFIs and mission-driven lenders, banks, business owners, funders, investors, and others. With the support of lead sponsor JP Morgan Chase & Co., and sponsors Capital One, Woodforest National Bank, and Fifth Third Bank, SBFF featured panel discussion, interactive sessions, and networking opportunities to spark new ideas and inspirations for supporting small businesses, especially those owned by entrepreneurs of color, the fastest growing community of small business owners.
We kicked off on Thursday morning with a welcome from OFN’s new President and CEO Lisa Mensah. Lisa spoke of the possibility and hope small businesses offer everyone in the U.S., reminding us that, while there are many challenges and hurdles to entrepreneurship and a wide and growing racial wealth gap, this country ultimately offers a powerful opportunity—one that many countries do not and cannot offer—to bring everyone in. The opportunity finance industry and CDFIs, she said, do the work of providing this opportunity for all.
Illustrating Lisa’s thoughts, the opening plenary—Serving Entrepreneurs of Color—featured a lively and energizing discussion about the challenges communities of color face in starting and growing small businesses, as well as the creative and pioneering ways CDFIs can and are responding. Center stage in this discussion were two Milwaukee small business owners—Citlali Mendieta-Ramos of Antigua Latin Restaurant and Rashaad Washington of Pro Painter MKE and Pro Trade Job Development. Both addressed the importance of trust in establishing a lending relationship with entrepreneurs. When asked what lenders can do to attract borrowers, two essential pieces of advice stood out. From Rashaad: “Get involved in the communities your lending serves.” And from Citlali: “Build relationships with banks, who can refer small business owners to you when they don’t qualify for bank loans.”
A morning of sessions, including What Businesses Are Millennial Black Entrepreneurs Entering?, led to lunch with keynote speaker Mae Whiteside, President and CEO of CKL Engineers. She told us about starting her business and how CDFI CNI Micro Finance Group, an OFN Ally, helped bridge capital gaps to keep her business afloat. A great example of Lisa’s point that CDFIs do the work of bringing everyone in.
And back to that Millennial-focused session—it was about understanding the demographic of millennial black business owners in terms of how their attitudes about entrepreneurship shape the type of businesses they are starting and what they want to achieve through these businesses. Panelists discussed how in many cases a millennial black business owner looks at the service or product they'll provide and how it connects with their identity as a young black person in America. The panelists also discussed how so many funding programs and business incubators/accelerators don't connect with millennial black business owners because they don’t create environments where these entrepreneurs feel they can succeed. Many people told me afterward that this was not only their favorite SBFF session, but one of the most enlightening discussions they’d heard recently. Clearly, this is an area to explore some more…
There was, of course, so much more to the two days. See our full recap here for more highlights, recordings of the Opening Plenary and lunch keynote, and select presentations to download.