Luz Urrutia arrived from Venezuela at the age of 17 and finished university studies in the United States that began in Caracas. She found a job at Wachovia Bank (acquired by Wells Fargo during the great recession) in Atlanta and one of the things she did at the time was apply for a credit card. They denied it for lack of credit history. Today she runs a California institution, the Opportunity Fund, which lends to small businesses and funds community development.
The anecdote of being refused a credit card, repeated in countless cases of immigrants, was a difficult and decisive lesson “180%” to guide the mission of her work, she explains to this newspaper. She learned that banks make things very difficult for immigrants and newcomers.
“That was when I made the promise to establish, one day, a organization to offer affordable and responsible financial services that would be open to people who did not have access to a bank.
Urrutia worked at Wachocia for 18 years ” they were wonderful but I wondered if I was having the impact I wanted to have on other peoples lives.”
To answer this question she joined other people in order to create the Bank of Our Community, based in Georgia. It’s mission was to serve the Latino population that did not have bank accounts or did not use them very often. “the immigrant spirit was inside me and along with other people we started writing the business plan and raising capital for the bank we opened in April 2001.”
We opened accounts, cashed checks, facilitated payment of bills, prepared credit cards and loans for mortgages,” they ended up with $600 million in assets, she recalls. The bank was sold in 2013 and she went to work at Oporturn, formerly known as Progreso Financiero, and they expanded with new branches into several states.
Speaking of the Bank Of Our Community, Urrutia explained that “it shows the great opportunity that there was in the market, at that time and that now there’s even more for banks and financial institutions like Opportunity Fund that offer responsible services with credibility that can help consumers,” she explains.
Urrutia became the CEO of Opportunity Fund in late August. It is a non-profit financial institution based in California created 25 years ago by Eric Weaver for community development. “Workers are helped to save, earn and invest in their future. The focus has been on small businesses and college students so they can finish their degree and save, “she explains.
Clients are not necessarily Hispanic but as their business is focused in California, many of the small businesses they have served are. The profile of our client is a company that has little credit history or do not have collateral and that a bank has rejected their loan application. “We have a somewhat more expansive credit application methodology [than traditional banking], with alternative data that improves credit score and which are not always seen on a credit report.”
Among its clients, it lists, there are businesses with few assets, sole proprietorships that need $ 25,000 or $ 30,000 and small established companies that need a bigger financial push but do not meet the requirements that a regular bank would ask of them.
And they also work with food trucks. They work directly with the manufacturers to be able to finance them.
Urrutia’s goal as the head of Opportunity Fund is to solidify aspects of the strategic plan for 2017 to 2020. One is to make commercial loans of about $ 500 million that directly impact about 50,000 people. Most of this $ 400 million capital will be devoted to just over 9,000 small businesses, the rest going to infrastructure projects in communities and education for college students.
A couple of years ago Opportunity Fund realized that the need for its products is greater than just California and they are expanding through partnerships. The first has been with Lending Club through which they are making loans in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Oregon, North Carolina, Ohio, Washington and New York.
“New York is a wonderful market for our model because it has many small businesses and there not many financial products aimed at micro-businesses,” she explains.
The reality of the partnership with Lending Club is shown by the fact that if they deny a loan, but it falls within the parameters of Opportunity Fund, they will automatically review the pre-screened applicants and then fund qualifying loans..
Urrutia says that in addition to working on that strategic plan and managing a healthy and responsible loan portfolio, she wants to better understand her customers, “the products we offer can expand entrepreneurs ability to improve their cash flow.”
To the entrepreneurs who have difficulty getting funded Urrutia tells them not to give up. “There are opportunities and institutions that can help them grow with technical assistance and financial advice”.
She admits that many times the founders of small businesses think they have no options and resort to loans and predatory firms that charge very high rates. “It is important that microentrepreneurs do their homework before taking money and that they do not work with companies that can destroy their credit.”
“with each loan we make we create three jobs and for every dollar invested, two in economic activity.” Luz Urrutia