Self-care isn’t a buzzword for Tamara Johnson; it’s a way for underserved communities to escape cycles of trauma.
That’s why she placed her yoga and meditation studio in the heart of a neighborhood with one-third of its residents living in poverty.
Despite being forced to close her studio in 2021 to focus on retail, the community she formed on East Rosedale Street still supports her at pop-up events across Fort Worth. She greets them with open arms and hands on her heart.
Her 5-year-old business, Enso Apothecary, is a holistic lifestyle company that sells handmade vegan skincare and holds yoga and nutritional classes. It’s exactly the type of business city leaders say will benefit from its newest program, CDFI Friendly Fort Worth.
“My business is a unique concept that isn’t appealing to traditional funding sources,” Johnson said. “If it wasn’t for angel investors, I would not have gotten as far as I have gotten.”
While southeast Fort Worth embraced her, traditional financing continuously shut her out, Johnson said. In the absence of short-term lending and heightened challenges created by COVID-19, she was eventually forced to close her studio.
“The barriers that are in place are more systemic. They have nothing to do with a person’s ability to repay a loan,” Johnson said.
CDFI stands for community development financial institutions. They are private financial institutions that fill gaps and meet credit needs outside of conventional finance. They focus on providing loans to underserved communities, and look to make a profit on loans but aren’t profit-maximizing like traditional lenders. CDFI’s offer loans to businesses, individuals and nonprofit organizations.
The city of Fort Worth recently announced its investment of $3 million American Rescue Plan Act dollars into the creation of CDFI Friendly Fort Worth. The new organization will partner with CDFI Friendly America to bring CDFI investors to Fort Worth and connect them with borrowers from disadvantaged communities. The city plans to start facilitating loans later this year.
A 2019 survey shows that most Black-owned businesses received none of the financing they applied for, while the majority of white-owned businesses received all the financing they applied for, according to the Federal Reserve Bank.
“Where traditional lenders stop because of regulatory restrictions, CDFIs can step in,” Christina Brooks, Fort Worth’s chief equity officer, said. “Their sole purpose is providing access to capital to individuals and organizations where, for whatever reason, traditional lenders can’t fill that space.”
“The goal here is to create an independent, community-controlled, financial institution that isn’t dependent on the city,” Mark Pinsky, a partner with CDFI Friendly America, said. “It isn’t dependent on the banks. It isn’t dependent on the philanthropies. It organizes all of them to get them to work together.”
CDFI Friendly organizations have already been established in two other cities. CDFI Friendly South Bend and CDFI Friendly Bloomington said both their Indiana-based organizations have successfully connected CDFI lenders to members of their community. Both cities are much smaller and less diverse than Fort Worth. Although Fort Worth will present unique challenges, the organization plans to follow a similar model to the one that has worked in both Midwestern cities, Pinsky said.
CDFI Friendly Bloomington was established in 2017. Bloomington’s mayor, John Hamilton, worked in CDFI lending for 30 years before his election. Bloomington made an initial financial commitment to create CDFI Friendly Bloomington but the organization is now sustained by private sector partners.
“Early money is indeed like yeast, you need it to help things grow, and city money was essential for that,” Hamilton said in a statement to the Fort Worth Report.
Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said she’s noticed the gap between viable minority business opportunities and access to capital.
“It has nothing to do with their talent, or the business’ potential, it’s about the relationship game,” Parker said.
For Pinsky, CDFI Friendly Fort Worth has already seen substantial interest from borrowers and lenders. Small businesses, nonprofits and others have already submitted 176 financing requests totaling more than $94 million to the 17 CDFIs planning on doing business in Fort Worth, he said.
CDFI Friendly Fort Worth will meet with potential borrowers to fine-tune paperwork and match them with the CDFI that fits their needs.
CDFI financing from 2005-2019
Fort Worth: $34 million
Dallas: $94 million
Advice from similar organizations
The leaders of CDFI Friendly Bloomington and South Bend said their organizations have been able to build relationships with communities typically distrustful of traditional lenders and government support.
“One of the big problems we’ve had is the information gap and doing the work of educating the community to the existence of this resource,” Brian Payne, executive director of CDFI Bloomington said.
Other CDFI organizations can connect with their community by being flexible to its needs, Payne said. For example, his organization didn’t expect to provide so many small business loans, but in the wake of COVID-19, that became a top priority for Bloomington businesses, he said.
Existing lenders need to buy-in to the program, Payne said. By engaging with banks, Payne said, the organization can make existing lenders see CDFI Friendly Fort Worth as an asset to the community, rather than competition.
“You’re not going to get funding, you’re not going to get participation unless the traditional finances and the existing lenders are on board with this being a positive asset,” Payne said.
Sam Centellas, executive director of CDFI South Bend, said he found success by reaching out to the Hispanic community in South Bend through a liaison. Specifically, by partnering with a well-known Hispanic-owned ice cream shop at small-business gatherings to explain how CDFI lending can help their business succeed.
He added that making it clear to business owners that CDFI Friendly South Bend doesn’t receive compensation from the loans they recommend, makes businesses more likely to participate.
Help for businesses owners
Johnson, of Enso Apothecary, said lenders could help build trust among minority business owners by being willing to make long-term investments in minority-owned businesses.
“Even when there was a big movement toward supporting Black-owned businesses, all the money available was around $10,000, which is a little tone-deaf,” Johnson said.
Systemic barriers often prevent business owners of color from obtaining traditional loans. Instead, they often receive microloans, or loans of less than $50,000, leading to lower revenue potential compared to their white counterparts.
Johnson would be an ideal candidate to receive a loan from a CDFI lender because depending on the organization and the applicant, CDFIs are occasionally willing to invest larger amounts of money than traditional lenders, Brooks said.
That’s because, unlike other lenders who consider credit and other factors, CDFIs look more at cash flow. So, if a business like Johnson’s is making steady revenue, they’re likely to invest.
Brooks said it will be all hands on deck to connect Fort Worth residents with funds through CDFI Friendly Fort Worth.
“The model is geared toward having more personalized relationships with its clients,” Brooks said. In addition, the city is developing new ways to connect with minority business owners and prepare them for the growth new funding sources could bring.
Johnson envisioned what her yoga studio on East Rosedale could have looked like in five years if she had the resources she needed to stay open through 2022. She envisions a place where diverse groups of people could come together to celebrate wellness in a community with a life expectancy eight years lower than the Tarrant County average.
“Not only was it a beautiful concept, but it also allowed the people in that community who suffer constant trauma and stress a safe place to escape that,” Johnson said. “That’s what we lost.”
It’s a community she finds again and again at pop-ups across Fort Worth. At her Sunday spin class, former students showed up to support Johnson, where her mission continues across town from her former East Rosedale studio.
Editor’s note: This article was updated Feb. 23 to correct the year Johnson was forced to close her studio in 2021.
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.