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Dorm room startup gives $100,000 in loans

When Brunonians exit through the Van Wickle Gates during commencement, they take with them ideas cultivated in classrooms and steeped in academic rhetoric. With some fresh air, those ideas can grow to be bigger than their originators.

The Capital Good Fund, a microfinance organization that began as a proposal by co-founder Andy Posner MA '09 in a social entrepreneurship class, has given out over $100,000 in the form of 70 loans to entrepreneurs in the Providence community since its start in 2008. The project, first run out of a Brown dorm room, is a full-fledged non-profit with full-time employees.

Now, the fund is refining the curriculum of its business workshops and adding one-on-one financial coaching to its list of services for low-income Providence residents.

Alan Harlam, the director of social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center, said the fund has "made it over the hurdle that very few projects do." He lauded the organization for creating jobs as well as increasing economic activity and civic engagement in Providence.

The founders and employees of the Capital Good Fund said they were drawn to the project by an interest in microfinance and a belief in the large impact small loans can have on whole communities.

The workforce of Providence, once a manufacturing city, has suffered from the exportation of factory jobs abroad, according to Posner. As a result, "we have an unskilled, uneducated workforce and only skilled jobs coming to the city," Posner said. The Capital Good Fund targets the jobless, providing the opportunity of entrepreneurship to create local businesses that will in turn "create jobs for other people," he said.

The Capital Good Fund's offers business, "digital equity" and citizenship loans. Its business loan, which candidates qualify for upon completion of a five-class business workshop, provides capital to entrepreneurs. The "digital equity loan" or more simply, a loan to buy a computer, is the organization's most popular service, Posner said. The recipients are granted access to education and have the ability to search for jobs using the Internet, he said. The fund also provides citizenship loans to help defray the costs of becoming a U.S. citizen.

Students with previous experience in microfinance have been attracted to the organization. Gabi Lewis '13, the workshop instructor at the Capital Good Fund, said he observed the positive impact of microfinance in the Ecuadorian Amazon, where he spent a year before coming to Brown. This experience led him to search for opportunities for similar work.

"I've learned more doing this than in any other class at Brown," Lewis said.

After teaching a full workshop, Lewis said he could "see a real difference" in his students' understanding of basic business concepts.

Innovative thinking has allowed the fund to collaborate with Amos House, a prominent South Providence social services agency. The joint effort gives the fund access to its target community as well as to a trained staff of philanthropists, Harlam said.

The organization's response to the recession is its one-on-one financial coaching, Posner said. He added that rather than give loans to help pay off bills, the fund teaches people how to get "out of the cycle of debt," build credit and lower interest rates. The cost of the coaching, which is conducted by Brown students, is $150 in a series of 10 payments reported to credit bureaus as loans. The exchange in turn improves the trainees' credit scores, allowing them to apply for more loans in the future, Posner said.

The Capital Good Fund remains close to its roots, with half of its staff consisting of student volunteers.

"We hope this experience will shape the kind of decisions they make when choosing careers," Posner said of the Brown volunteers.


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