Funding will be the topic of our next series on Nebraska Entrepreneur. Big to small, the topic comes up in some form for most startups.
When Alice Dittman was a banker, she wasn’t able to give all the loans she wished she could. Now that she has retired as the president and CEO of Cornhusker Bank, Dittman is loaning money on her terms. In August, Dittman established Alice’s Integrity Loan Fund and four businesses are already benefiting from this micro-lending program that invests in underserved entrepreneurs.
“My career was made through people who took a chance on me at a time when women were not influential in business,” Dittman said in a press release announcing the program. “There are plenty of great business plans with smart entrepreneurs that have been overlooked much like I could have been.”
Sarah Allison of Hallow Candle Company needed money for inventory and marketing heading into the busy fall season. Her store in central Lincoln specializes in soy candles, goat milk soaps and spa products.
“The Alice Integrity Loan Fund has enabled us to be ready and successful in our busiest time of the year,” Allison said. “Without the funding, we wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the business we’ve been offered.”
Dittman is investing $1 million in the loan fund over the next three years to provide capital to individuals who are committed to becoming self-sustaining entrepreneurs. Loans of up to $5,000 may be used for start-up ventures or to fund growth opportunities for existing businesses. The loan is payable over three years at 6 percent interest. The fund is managed by Deb Payne at the Community Development Resources.
“When Alice was the owner of a bank, she often had to turn people down for loans because of the requirements of the bank,” Payne said. “With this program she is able to do away with some of those requirements and give loans to people she believes in.”
Loan applicants are evaluated on character, their ability to carry out their business idea and their commitment to repaying the loan — in other words, their integrity. Lack of collateral or a poor credit score will not necessarily keep a business from receiving money from the fund. In fact, the fund is not intended primarily for individuals with better-than-average credit scores.
The thing that will keep applicants from getting funded, Payne said, is the lack of a business plan.
“The key to getting the loan is just like with any other loan, you’ve got to have a business plan,” she said. “Several people have come in with ideas in their heads, but nothing on paper. The business plan is the key to the whole thing.”
Loan participants must also be willing to accept mentoring from the Nebraska Business Development Center and the Service Core of Retired Executives. Payne, herself an entrepreneur and business coach, also works with program participants on understanding everything from giving a business pitch to using social media.
“This is a super opportunity,” Payne said. “When someone receives a loan, they also get free coaching.”
Payne remembers securing funding for her first business, a text book store in Topeka, Kan. She did not know anyone in Topeka, but she had a business plan and made a list of five banks. She saved her top two banks for last.
“I went to the other three first and practiced my business pitch and revised my plan. Then I went to the two local banks I really hoped to work with,” she said. “The banker who gave me the business loan also gave me a home loan. That’s the great thing about local banks. He knew I needed somewhere to live in the community.”
Payne describes the first phase of Dittman’s loan fund as a pilot year that focuses on Lincoln and Lancaster County. Dittman hopes to give 100 loans between now and next August. If the program is working well, it could be expanded statewide, Payne said.
Patty Kreifels is using her $5,000 loan to buy equipment and begin marketing her new business, Picture this Digital Inventory Service. Picture This provides video and photo inventories of personal and business assets.
“Alice’s Integrity Fund has not only helped Picture This with funds for equipment and marketing to start my business, but it has been the catalyst with contacts with other entrepreneurs for our brochures and website,” Kreifles said.
“Alice has helped my dream come true,” John-Beckstrom said. “She has provided the funds to begin my business but also set up the process of sustaining a successful business.”
While Dittman’s fund is currently limited to residents of Lancaster County, a similar micro-finance program is available in Omaha through Grameen America. The micro-lending agency opened its Omaha branch in June 2009 and has loaned more than $3 million to 1,030 area entrepreneurs. Nationwide through its six branches, Grameen America has loaned more the $24 million and has a loan repayment rate of 99 percent.