06/10/2014 01:00 pm ET Updated Aug 10, 2014

Janie Barrera: Faith in Action

A while back I set out to tell the stories of leaders that inspire people to follow -- not through celebrity or ego or fear, but through humanity. The book -- Peerless: Defy Convention. Lead from the Heart. Watch What Happens has, as often happens with books, taken on a life of its own. And, quite honestly, writing it changed my life. What I found in this process was encouraging and inspiring. These servant leaders we spotlight have changed their world, and achieved amazing results through commitment and effort. Over the next few weeks I want to share some of their stories with you.


On a recent morning, attending a breakfast event sponsored by Goodwill San Antonio, Janie Barrera-former nun, and daughter of parents who she describes as the most generous people in the world- listened as a man named Kenny shared his story about dropping out of high school, doing drugs, going to prison and finally turning his life around through Goodwill's Workforce Development program. A husband and father of three children, he subsequently went to barber school and, with a loan from the micro lending organization ACCION Texas, opened his own barber shop.

Upon learning that Barrera was involved with ACCION, Kenny approached her as the meeting drew to a close. "I'm almost through paying you guys off," he said. "I want to expand, bang down that wall and add three more chairs."

"Here's my card," replied Barrera, amused by the man's surprise when he saw her title - President and CEO of ACCION Texas.


Giving Credit to Small Business

Barrera learned about ACCION International during her first job out of graduate school as a Marketing Director at Randolph Air Force Base. The hiring colonel, a devout Baptist, admitted she was overqualified, but urged her to apply all the same. "He was intrigued by the idea that I had been a sister for all those years," she says.

Barrera eventually became dissatisfied with her job at the base, feeling that she had limited scope for social activism and making a difference in people's lives. She took a mentor's advice and began looking outside the confines of the military base. Soon a friend called whom she had met through her volunteer work in San Antonio. "An idea was gaining ground to establish a nonprofit organization that would lend to small business people," said San Antonio Councilwoman Maria Berriozabal, and they were looking for a director.

ACCION International had been founded in the shanty towns of Venezuela in the 1960s, and its micro lending model had spread throughout the Third World. An effort had begun to expand ACCION's concept in the United States, and in 1993 four cities with large Latino populations had been chosen - Chicago, San Diego, Albuquerque and San Antonio. The initiative would provide credit to small business owners - people like Barrera's parents - and teach them how to run their businesses successfully and sustainably. Barrera applied for the position but was rejected because she had no banking experience. Berriozabal urged the founding group to reconsider, and Barrera was invited in for a conversation.

As she sat down for her interview, Barrera thought about what her mom and dad's restaurant could have become if there had been more support like this. "I told them about my parents," she says.

Barrera got the job and began building the organization from scratch. It had no office, minimal staff, no funding, and no legal status. Unlike a bank, which has depositors, ACCION needed grants and investments to fund its lending, and Barrera approached banks, community foundations, corporations, and individuals - anyone who could help. Levi Strauss came in with a $50,000 grant and four local banks joined together to create a lending pool of $125,000. In March 1994 ACCION Texas became a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization. On the advice of a friend, Barrera visited the Wells Fargo Bank in downtown San Antonio, where by coincidence the president had just read a news article about ACCION. He donated office space and two desks, and then joined the board.

Three months later, with the fortitude and moral support of the board - "Janie, you can talk all you want, but you better make loans. It's okay to make a mistake, just do it," said Charter Board Member Sylvia Pena - ACCION Texas went into business with its first loan.

The demand for its services was widespread from the beginning, and Barrera and her board members were soon approached by community leaders in other parts of Texas. Barrera discovered the nascent effort could minimize costs and avoid risk by opening satellite offices with a shared infrastructure rather than spawning new 501(c)3 organizations in multiple locations. The first satellite opened in 1998 in McAllen, and then, upon the collapse of a local fund, in Houston. ACCION Texas answered a Request for Proposal in Dallas, and started an operation there next, and then took over operations of an organization in El Paso, where the fundraising effort had never gotten off the ground.

In 2007, the Wachovia Foundation awarded ACCION Texas $2.75 million in a combination of a loan and a grant to expand its partnerships with additional micro lenders. One of the two largest micro lenders in the nation at that point, ACCION Texas was making loans between $500 and $50,000 in eighty Texas counties. It had lent more than $58 million to more than eight thousand clients since its formation in 1994. People who would not have qualified for loans from a bank due to the small size or youth of their operations, or the risk of failure in a highly competitive industry, were running successful businesses with the capital and training ACCION Texas provided.

Expanding Beyond Texas

With the help of its supporters, ACCION expanded its reach beyond Texas, and it now provides underwriting and loan servicing to counterparts in Illinois, California, New York, and Colorado. Meanwhile it has reached an agreement with CitiGroup that calls for the New York-based bank to purchase up to $30 million in loans from ACCION over five years. ACCION makes the loan and sells it to CitiGroup; then ACCION services the loan, sharing half the revenue, and half the losses. "It provides for a meaningful infusion of private capital into the marketplace," says Barrera.

In December 2010 Chase Bank in New York asked Barrera what ACCION Texas would do with a $5 million grant for small business loans and technical assistance. "I almost fell out of my chair," she says.

Today, ACCION Texas is the largest microfinance lender in the nation, with assets of more than $35 million. It has disbursed more than $140 million in loans to more than thirteen thousand clients from offices in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri; new offices are planned for Kentucky and Mississippi. Loans sizes now range from $500 to $5 million. Its ninety-five percent repayment rate is achieved by clients who would not have been extended credit by a private bank, and who, without ACCION, would not have been able to build their businesses.

Barrera continues to form relationships with other organizations, including a micro financing initiative with the University of Houston-Downtown and providing small business loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration. She is currently working with the Haven for Hope in San Antonio to start an incubator community that will give homeless people the chance to start entrepreneurial ventures.

With these accomplishments has come regional and national recognition of Barrera's leadership. She has been listed by the San Antonio Business Journal as one of "Twenty Defining Players: People Who Have Helped Shape the City," and she received the 2008 Innovator Award from American Banker Magazine. She has served on the Federal Reserve Board's National Consumer Advisory Council and most recently been appointed to the President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability, a panel formed by President Barack Obama to promote and enhance financial literacy, and as a Board Member of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank's San Antonio Branch.

Moved "With Providence"

On a recent morning, the employees and friends of ACCION Texas gathered to celebrate Three Kings Day, or Epiphany, in their renovated headquarters near downtown San Antonio. Cookies and cold drinks were arranged in the conference room whose ceiling is a painted mural of a bright blue sky with puffy white clouds. For the past day and a half, Barrera has been making menudo, an aromatic stew that a Mexican recipe book says will "stimulate the senses, arm the insides, and clear the head."

Her role has evolved as ACCION Texas has grown from one to ninety people, by being there for small businesses. "This organization has moved with providence and by not being afraid to say yes," she says. "We've always been organic. What we do comes from the community."

She sees her responsibilities as being a motivator, cheerleader, financial steward, and always as an advocate for people like her parents. "Bringing a voice to the very small business," she says. "Bringing a voice to the Mom and Pop shops. You're telling their story all the time."

After leaving the Sisterhood all those years ago, Janie believed that she would still be able to make a difference in some way. That career juncture, along with the life lessons from her parents, gave her the steadfastness to find her calling ... ultimately at ACCION. And, indeed she has been able to do just that. She is a striking role model for servant leadership, living out her faith every day by providing opportunities for many underserved individuals who are willing to build something great for themselves, their families and their communities.