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Kiva Zip Joins Forces with Innovative Mentoring Programs for Small Business Entrepreneurs in Underserved Communities

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This is part of a series of guest blog posts highlighting the amazing work of Kiva Zip's trustees and the inspiring stories of the borrowers they endorse. Jill Johnson is the CEO of the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership in Newark, NJ. For more information about lending to small business owners in Newark and the U.S. visit zip.kiva.org.

As I witnessed the President's inaugural address and listened to his directives on American collective efforts, it reinforced to me how important the Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL) is to our clients and the communities that we serve.

Our entrepreneurs are mostly people who see starting a business as an avenue to a better life. They have an idea, a vision and a lot of passion. The resilience of small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs never ceases to amaze me, particularly those whom IFEL supports. On a daily basis, they continue to push forward and succeed against considerable odds.

For over ten years from our base in Newark, NJ, we have provided one-on-one mentoring to women, minority and inner city businesses with revenues less than $250,000. Often referred to as mom and pop businesses, we celebrate these entrepreneurs as the agents of change in communities where change is most needed. If we can help these businesses grow, we make a difference for the people they employ, the customers that they serve and the communities that benefit from their company.

What they are often lacking is business training or deep pockets to buy the expertise that they need. They may have some personal savings, but capital is scarce and traditional lenders are not an option. This is where IFEL finds our calling -- working with those who are left behind by the mainstream entrepreneurial support system. We are now taking our model on the road and establishing affiliate partners who can replicate the model to support entrepreneurs from low income and under-resourced communities across the country. Already, we have six affiliates in five states: Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Virginia and Florida.

IFEL is focused not on the entrepreneurs who start businesses with loans from their parents or SBA, corporate buyout packages or by raising money on Wall Street. Our focus is not on the high tech, high growth businesses that grab the attention of wealthy angel investors. Our clients are regular people who aspire to live a better life, people for whom the American Dream is a concept worthy of pursuit.

In 2011, we joined forces with Workshop In Business Opportunities (WIBO), an amazing organization that has trained over 15,000 over 46 years in the areas of New York City where the angel investment dollars do not flow -- communities like Harlem, South Bronx, Washington Heights, and Bedford Stuyvesant. Just one year into the relationship we have created an end-to-end training, mentoring and a support continuum for the entrepreneurs that we have long served.

Funding was the piece of the puzzle that was missing from our continuum.

No matter how much training and mentoring we have done, there have been few options to address lack of access to capital, which is inextricably linked to poor personal credit which often stems from trying to run a business without capital -- a vicious cycle.

Most small business and entrepreneurial experts agree that small business success is strongly correlated to access to capital for startup and growth. No, money can't fix a business without a fundamentally sound business model, however money can help to buy expertise and can keep you in business long enough to figure things out and adjust.

Undercapitalized businesses have no room for error and little capacity for weathering any storms.

At a time when even nontraditional capital resources are not an option for many our clients, in walks Kiva Zip taking the international Kiva microfinance experience and bringing it home to the U.S.

Kiva Zip is a pilot program of Kiva.org that seeks to crowd fund loans to small business owners and aspiring owners through a new Trustee model. Trustees can be individuals or organizations, like IFEL. The Trustees endorse entrepreneurs, who in turn post their own profile on Kiva Zip so that they can begin crowd funding their small business loan among friends, family, community members, customers and a global Internet community of small dollar lenders. We are so excited about the possibilities!

To give Kiva Zip a test run, we endorsed the winner of our first WIBO Pitch Competition, Precious Williams, owner of Curvy Girlz Lingerie. Curvy Girlz offers well-fitting, beautiful lingerie to the 14 million plus-size women in the U.S. overlooked by other popular retailers. Precious not only has a great market opportunity with a solid business model to support it, she has the drive, determination and fortitude necessary to go the distance. She is willing to listen to advice, take decisive action and work tirelessly toward her goals. Not even one month into being up on the Kiva Zip platform and she is 100% funded! She and we are so excited about her future. The accessibility of funding through Kiva Zip will enable her to move forward at a steady pace, taking advantage of opportunities as they come her way.

Within the next few months, we intend to work with several other clients to get them up on Kiva Zip, use the funding in a way that will take the business to another level AND create a plan to pay the lenders back on time.

For so long, the entrepreneurs with whom we work have been struggling with the issue of access to capital. While Kiva Zip may only provide very small loans, it is at least a start. And for so many of our clients, that is what they need...a start. This is the type of helping hand that without creating additional tax or government intervention, gives people an opportunity to improve their lives and their communities. It also gives everyone a chance to be involved in their success as lenders.

With the support system that we provide combined with access to capital through Kiva Zip, I have no doubt that we can help a lot of hungry entrepreneurs learn to fish, sell the fish, buy boats, hire other fisherman and build communities in which everyone can eat.

The work is hard, but the concept is simple. A community of people who care can support entrepreneurial success with just a $25 loan.