How one organization is funding equity in the Chicago area
For over 1,600 small businesses in Chicago, Greenwood Archer Capital has provided crucial support that otherwise wouldn’t be there; President Erica King and board member Eva Brown share how.
The intersection of Greenwood and Archer Street was once the epicenter of one of the most prosperous Black districts in American history. Known as Black Wall Street and located in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this business hub was built by ambitious entrepreneurs and business owners. Adopting that intersection as its namesake, Greenwood Archer Capital continues to inspire and actualize Black wealth today.
Doing things differently
Greenwood Archer Capital (GAC) is a non-profit organization working in Chicago, Illinois and the greater county. They specialize in lending to small businesses that are unable to get funding through traditional means. Originally founded in 2014, their inspiring mission is no small challenge. As stated on their website, GAC lends their knowledge and capital to “reverse the impact of institutional racism, grow independent vibrant Black communities, and create an environment led by purpose.”
“We can't just offer the same types of things [other lenders do], thinking that we're going to create equity that way. You create equity by doing something different.”
Erica King, Greenwood Archer Capital’s president, is passionate about that mission. “Our goal is to fund equity,” said King, “and we can't just offer the same types of things [other lenders do], thinking that we're going to create equity that way. That's not how you create equity. You create equity by doing something different.”
As a longtime partner of U.S. Bank, GAC is one of the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that is working with the African American Alliance of CDFI CEOs, one of three partners U.S. Bank is working with to provide $25 million in funding to more than 30,000 women of color-owned microbusinesses over three years through the U.S. Bank Access Fund.
More than a number
That difference that King is referring to is in how GAC assesses potential clients. Typically, there are standard hurdles to cross if you’re trying to get a business loan: applicants need to have a high credit score, a healthy financial history and some form of collateral. For many of the underserved communities in Chicago, these requirements simply aren’t an option.
“Those [healthy financial] behaviors aren't discussed growing up,” said King, “Many don't know how to properly handle credit. We don't want to penalize folks that may not have had that wherewithal.” Instead, King continued, they look at the behaviors behind the numbers. If an applicant has a low credit score but demonstrates that they are working towards improving it, that behavior is counted. “That credit score,” said King, “doesn't matter as much to us, more so than the behaviors that we see there and [the applicant’s] appetite for learning and changing.”
"If we're truly lending to underserved populations, we have to do some things differently.”
The same is true of collateral. Usually, a business owner would need to put up their car or home as insurance, but for many Black business owners in Chicago, this isn’t possible.
“If we're truly lending to underserved populations,” said King, “We have to do some things differently, right? [Our applicants] already come in at a disadvantage, so we didn't want to have [collateral] be a barrier for someone being able to access capital.”
Equity vs. Equality
Equity differs from equality in that equity assumes not everyone starts at the same place. The board members at GAC are passionately working towards creating an equitable world where accessibility is for everyone. Eva Brown, GAC chairperson and U.S. Bank’s Segment Lead for Minority and Women-Owned Businesses, refers to the organization as a mission-driven lender. “I like to say we're story credit,” Brown said, “so we really listen to the business owner’s story, we try to understand what's behind those financial issues, and we understand that they're not just a number.”
GAC’s unconventional lending approach takes into consideration the possibilities behind the loan application. “The main thing that we look at when deciding who to lend to is based on strictly their ability to repay,” explained President King. “Of course, we look at other things, but as long as that business can demonstrate their ability to repay that debt, we can almost always get around other all other issues.”
Equity at work
At GAC, not only are they helping fund small businesses in Chicago and the surrounding areas, but they also provide tools to help those small businesses succeed through the many programs they offer. As King said, “All of our programs have been introduced with intention to reduce those barriers to capital, to level playing field, to reduce the impact of systemic racism.”
One such business that’s getting funding from GAC is Uncle Jerry’s Cheese and Mac , a frozen food manufacturer specializing in pasta and vegan pasta alternatives for the classic southern dish mac and cheese. The company’s products can be found in grocery stores around Chicago.
Deborah Moore, owner of Uncle Jerry’s, said had been having trouble accessing funding through traditional lenders due to her family’s credit history – an issue that was exacerbated by the 2008 economic collapse and the financial realities of living paycheck-to-paycheck. But GAC was able to help fill that gap, providing funding for critical elements of the business. Uncle Jerry’s is using funds from GAC to support commercial kitchen occupancy costs, distribution, and marketing,
Moore is proud of the role her company has taken in being a leader and inspiring others from her community. She says she loves seeing the look on her customers’ faces when they learn that a struggling family living check to check was able to create this company during a pandemic – and continue to survive post-pandemic.
“There are no words for giving that hope,” she said.
Equity equals a better community
By offering funding to businesses that might not otherwise be able to secure that capital, GAC isn’t just helping businesses open — it’s helping create even more jobs opportunities for its community. “Our job is to bolster these businesses,” said Brown, “and I think the impact in Chicago is real jobs — livable wage-paying jobs — to businesses located on the south and west sides of Chicago that without this capital may not exist.”
Get more stories about the people who are making a big difference in our communities.