The global pandemic of 2020 has made starting and building a small business in west central Missouri even more difficult. Now a regional effort to develop micro loan financing for rural entrepreneurs is gaining the steam it needs to help local businesses get going and growing.

The START HERE Revolving Loan Fund is ready to lend from a small startup pool of capital. Lisa Zimmerman, recently the Small Business Administration’s Lender Relations Specialist for the region, has joined the effort. She will lead the regional START HERE collaborative work to build this micro financing lending pool and program for west central Missouri. Her background includes work as a rural business loan counselor with the St. Louis-based micro financing organization Justine Petersen and building Individual Development (savings/escrow) Account programs for low-income families.

Experience and Expertise. “We are excited to welcome Lisa to this team and this important initiative,” said Chris Thompson, President and CEO of the West Central Missouri Community Action Agency and affiliated community development corporation New Growth. As West Central’s Economic Inclusion Director, Lisa will work with New Growth and START HERE to build micro financing resources into west central Missouri’s “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”

START HERE is a group of regional support organizations that formed a business acceleration network last year to better connect and build resources for rural entrepreneurs. The network’s Start Here-Grow Here-Stay Here initiative targets assistance to new and small businesses, which are essential to rural economic resilience and growth. In Missouri, 80 percent of all new jobs in 2018 came from new and young firms.

In addition to coordinators West Central and New Growth, START HERE members include Kaysinger Basin Regional Planning Commission and its regional team of economic developers, the Missouri Small Business Development Center at State Fair Community College, and University of Missouri Extension-West Central Region.

Gap Financing. The START HERE Revolving Loan Fund will help fill a major financing gap for startups and smaller entrepreneurs. As the recent statewide study Show Me Capital confirmed, these essential entrepreneurs need smaller dollar loans that most banks are unable to provide given strict lending criteria.

“Growing up in this area, I saw firsthand the lack of financial resources for those who need them most,” Lisa Zimmerman said. “Banks want to help, but the regulatory constraints keep them from serving those who lack high credit scores or those with few assets.”

The START HERE Revolving Loan Fund will build a pipeline of business borrowers for area banks by offering more flexible micro-financing to early stage and smaller enterprises. Main Street retailers, food and farm entrepreneurs, and everyday services like auto repair are among those the revolving loan fund can help rural communities support.

Loans ranging from $500 to $50,000 will target this under-served group of startup, credit-challenged, and smaller rural entrepreneurs. The lending will also come with business development assistance, including help addressing challenges with credit.

“Credit education for ‘would-be’ entrepreneurs and those businesses struggling with limited access to credit coupled with dollars for growth will be a powerful way to strengthen our local economy,” said Dick Fleming, acting chair of the Community Association for Regional Enterprises Inc. CARE is a Clinton Missouri-based nonprofit administered by the Kaysinger Basin Regional Planning Commission.

Startup Lending. Along with West Central, CARE contributed dollars, from an existing inactive loan fund, to build a small pool of startup lending capital for the START HERE Revolving Loan Fund to use. The START HERE loan selection committee will begin making a limited number of loans this summer and fall from this pool. Lisa Zimmerman will lead the START HERE team’s work to gain further investment in the loan fund while building an initial track record of lending along with related technical assistance and support.

“Our goal is to fill the void from unbanked to bankable with credit building, financial coaching and asset building services, including micro loans,” Lisa Zimmerman said. “We want to build households that can get the financial services they need in times of crisis and better prepare for the future.”