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On a Mission

Generally when I post something here (which isn’t that often, I know), for some odd reason I write the post like a magazine column or essay, or something of the sort.  Not sure why I do that.  Probably because I can’t imagine anyone would care much about what I would write if it didn’t at least try to have some point to it.  But this time I want to tell more of a story, and how it affected me.  So, I apologize in advance if it’s a little longer than my usual post, but it’s more of a day in the life story than a typical post of mine.

I was already planning to be in San Francisco this past Thursday to be a part of Twitter’s new product launch event, where I was lucky enough to be asked to say a few words about the Create Jobs for USA initiative that Starbucks founded in partnership with the CDFI umbrella organization Opportunity Finance Network.  Twitter has been a great partner for that project in terms of helping us with our integrated marketing plans for that initiative, as well as actually helping the cause directly as part of their “Twitter for Good” program by making a donation for tons of wristbands, donating pro bono sponsored tweets, and by allowing the @jobsforUSA profile page to be one of the first to enjoy the upgraded enhancements on the new Twitter platform design.

Since I was going to be in San Francisco for the day, I wanted to take advantage of the time by meeting-up with one of the local CDFIs, and by meeting some of the small business entrepreneur clients of this particular community lender.  CDFIs, by the way, are community development lending institutions that are generally non-profit, and are almost all certified by the Treasury Department.  They loan money to community businesses in underserved neighborhoods or to low-income or minority borrowers that can’t otherwise get funding from traditional financing sources like banks or investors.  I had met Emily Gasner, the Executive Director of a San Francisco-based CDFI called Working Solutions, while at the annual OFN CDFI conference in Minneapolis last month.  Emily offered to take me on a “tour” in the Mission District of San Francisco to meet some of her clients (borrowers) so I could learn more first hand about CDFIs, community business entrepreneurs, and the impact these small businesses were having on their community.  I had done something similar in Harlem in October (courtesy of the amazing Sheena Wright and the Abyssinian Development Corp), and I jumped at the chance to have a west coast version of the same experience.

I met Emily at our first stop of our “tour” at Mission Cheese.  Emily introduced me to the entrepreneur, Sarah Dvorak, who told me her story of how she had raised as much capital as she could from family and friends, even crowdsourced some funding from the internet via a campaign on indiegogo (very cool!) and also by working with a CDFI for some funding from Working Solutions.  I learned how, besides providing Sarah with much needed capital, Working Solutions had provided help for Sarah with her original business plan, and even continues to work with her every quarter on her financials.  Meeting Sarah and hearing how and why she started Mission Cheese (which you can hear for yourself here), standing in her amazing 8-month-old cheese cafe, I was so impressed and inspired.

Sarah’s story is the classic, smart, energetic entrepreneurial story.  She was inspired to quit her corporate job, follow her passion about learning about cheese making, created her own point of view about what a great cheese experience for retail would look like in the Mission District of SF, and she just went and did it.  And boy did she ever.  If you live in SF, or get down there from time to time.  Go check it out – amazing, unique cheeses, each with a story behind why it found its way into Mission Cheese (trust me, they were absolutely amazing), bread, biscuits, sandwiches and, yes, ahem, coffee from a local roaster.  Her buildout was so cool; she was using an iPad app as her point-of-sale register; she even had a cool chalk art piece hanging on the wall recognizing all of her fans, friends and peers that had helped her out with her start-up capital.  I’m convinced that Emily is every bit as capable of building a world class brand on the foundation of what she is doing with Mission Cheese, but my guess is that she would probably shrug if I asked her about that and say that she’s just trying to give her customers and employees a great, unique experience every day and isn’t worried about visions of grandeur.  She just had that feeling of the humble, passionate, pay-attention-to-every-last-detail successful entrepreneur, if you know what I mean.   She had already created seven jobs (employees) with her new business.  And she was a CDFI borrower.  How cool.

In the process of walking from Mission Cheese to our next stop I asked Emily about her entrepreneurial venture:  the non-profit CDFI, Working Solutions.  Her story was just as entrepreneurial and impressive as her clients’.  She started out in her endeavor by providing job placement for low-income, recently retrained workers, when she realized that she could and should also help out some of the community businesses with loans and technical training.  And so she just did that.  Years later she has made nearly100 loans to small businesses in Northern California ($5k to $50k), all of which come with community involvement in the loan selection process, as well as mentorship and technical training as part of her quarterly reviews with her clients.  Talk about a hero doing good.

Emily and I next met with Georgia Howard, whose hairstyling-meets-art-gallery (the Pretty Pretty Collective) was as unique and cool as Georgia herself.  Besides describing how, like Sarah, she had raised dollars from a variety of sources – including Working Solutions – to get her business launched, Georgia walked me through how she also happened to be in the middle of a totally unique digital media mapping project designed to help her fellow Mission District business owners get more visibility and traffic and engagement.  You can imagine I was totally interested to hear more about that one!  Her shop had cool art on the walls, and the whole layout and concept was this innovative “Transformers” concept of a retail experience where it was a stylish salon with cool clientele by day, and could turn into an art gallery or fashion runway space by night.  Georgia was no less impressive than Sarah and Emily.  Georgia had created not just a job for her and an employee or two, but she rents out space to independent contractor stylists, and thus in a sense helps the independent entrepreneurial hairstylists that use her business’ space.


Our last stop was down the street at the Curiosity Shop, where we talked with entrepreneur Lauren Smith.  Lauren and her husband Derek had started the business nearly five years ago with some of their start up capital coming from Working Solutions.  Lauren’s store (which I’m guessing reflects her and her husband’s personality) was upbeat, smart, positive, optimistic, unique, and totally creative.  Lauren explained how she and her husband had a knack for finding crafty, creative, unique things for themselves, and so thought, “why not create a store that carries things like this?” Yeah, why not?  Classic entrepreneur.  Loved every minute of being there.

The fact that CDFIs are an important part of the story of each of these businesses – where they probably wouldn’t have received the same start-up capital from a traditional bank – made me smile.  And it humbled me.  Reminded me of why I love being around entrepreneurs.  And made me proud of the work we are doing at Starbucks with OFN and CDFIs on the Create Jobs initiative.  So much more to do.


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