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The New Face of Microfinance

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Simonida Cvejic flashes a devilish smile after I inquire whether her bootstrapped success is a cultural byproduct. "My mother's side is Liburni -- maybe that's why I am so stubborn."

The Liburni were an ancient seafaring society in Croatia, speculated to be the region's only matriarchical society. Cvejic makes this speculation entirely possible. As a woman thriving since she first launched what is now a million dollar business with $1,000 in savings and microfinance loans, her natural glamor undoubtedly would have made ancient Greek Mariners swoon.

Cvejic came to the United States in the mid-nineties, leaving the turmoil that was tearing apart the Balkans during the region's brutal civil war. She landed at Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, and was transferred to Silicon Valley before the office closed in 2001.

She recalls the point at which she realized that the purely profit seeking motives of her life at Goldman were not consistent with her values. "My team was advised that we should be encouraging our clients to invest in Raytheon, a company that was a leading missile producer for the conflict in Kosovo at the time. I have family in Kosovo. This idea of wealth at all costs -- I just couldn't do it anymore."

After taking off a few years to begin a family, Cvejic -- now a single parent -- decided to start a business to support her two young girls. With $1,000 in savings, she rented a classroom and hired a friend to begin teaching phlebotomy trainings, which were required by the California Department of Health. Slowly, she added curriculum and students and, by 2008, she was ready to expand. Like many other small businesses during the recession, however, she lacked access to formal credit.

Turning to a little known source of small business credit in the US, Cvejic found the Opportunity Fund, a Bay Area nonprofit microfinance organization. With the help of a small loan, she moved to a larger space and bought office and medical equipment, preparing her business for its next stage of growth.

Just four years later, her business, Bay Area Medical Academy, has a location in San Francisco and San Jose, over 5,000 square feet of space, 16 employees, trains over 500 students a year, generates over $1 million a year in revenue, and is expanding to other locations.

Taking lessons from Wall Street, and her views on the unsustainable nature of our wealth-centric culture, Cvejic prides herself on the social mission of her business.

"We help people overcome barriers to employment -- people who many have given up on. Many don't have any work experience; some are still working on their GED. Some are overcoming substance abuse issues or a criminal history. We provide them with the skills they need to enter the healthcare field and start a career that would provide them a chance to improve their economic status. We give them a second chance."

The Bay Area Medical Academy staff reflects these values, as they come from different levels of education, socioeconomic backgrounds and barriers to employment. The staff sounds more akin to a family than a staff: employees are eligible for part ownership in the company after two years of employment, and she enjoys counseling them on their own entrepreneurial endeavors. She smiles as she tells me that she is helping one 22-year-old employee launch his own Palestinian-style hummus business. With such a rich story of her own, it is clear that she loves the colorful stories of the people she works with.

In many ways, Cvejic symbolizes the next phase of microfinance -- one that is rapidly evolving from a developing world frame of reference to one that has grown exponentially with the emphasis placed on community finance in the economic recession. She tells me about her first Opportunity Fund Loan when she was featured on CNN, her face placed adjacent to a basket weaver with the subtitle "Third World Lending," on the screen. "I was shocked," she said. "We have people in this country living in a perpetual state of poverty and crisis, and the media portrays these problems as only happening in the third world."

"We are really at a tipping point. It's not just about disparity in income, but also about unequal access to healthcare, childcare, and education. Microfinance is about equal access to capital -- it's about creating a sustainable economic initiative in the United States."

Microfinance, although still undergoing critical review domestically, finally appears to be attracting some of the spotlight in the United States. With acknowledgment by the Obama Administration of the importance of community development financing and lending and talk of new microfinance savings products through organizations like the Opportunity Fund, financial inclusion for individuals and small businesses will hopefully become a reality for millions of Americans in the near future.

"It's really amazing to see people transform just by making them aware of their strengths in a job setting. You literally watch them take back their lives."

For more information on Simonida, and other microfinance recipients' stories, visit the Opportunity Fund website.