Poverty is one of Saint John’s biggest issues and there’s no shortage of organizations and causes trying to solve it.
But some organizations are taking a different, entrepreneurial approach to the problem, and the Saint John Community Loan Fund is helping lead the way.
The Saint John Community Loan Fund got its start in 1999 as a microloan-lending program where people in the community were invited to lend money. The money was then pooled and loaned to others in the community to start businesses, get back to work or to move into better housing.
“We still do that. We have about $200,000 that we rotate,” says Seth Asimakos, general manager of the Saint John Community Loan Fund. “But we’ve also added financial literacy training and enterprise development training and transition-to-work types of training.”
The Community Loan Fund’s mission is to help individuals create income build assets and attain greater self-reliance. With help from partnerships with organizations like the Pond Deshpande Centre and the Canadian Women’s Foundation, the organization is able to offer a variety of programs to people from all walks of life. There’s the Power Up, a program to help women build self-confidence; Enterprising Women program, a 20-week training program dedicated to women who want to start their own businesses in the city; The Money Matter$ course, designed to help individuals understand the world of finances. They also offer a youth entrepreneurship program.
Community loans are still an important part of what they do, but Asimakos says the Saint John Community Loan Fund now has a wider focus on solutions for poverty reduction, including reimagining the way the organization operates.
“We’re really more of a development corporation now. So we started as purely a micro-lender, added training and coaching for enterprise development and then added a bit of real-estate, what I call ‘mission-based’ real-estate,” he says. “There’s a mission to the real estate that we do, which is all about poverty reduction.”
The organization’s journey into “mission-based” real estate started about six years ago when they were sharing a space with Saint John’s Human Development council. As the Community Loan Fund grew, they knew they needed to have their own space. Instead of renting an office, they decided to buy and renovate a building on Prince Edward Street in Waterloo Village, one of the city’s priority neighbourhoods.
“Instead of going to rent somewhere else we bought [the 133 Prince Edward Street location] and renovated it,” says Asimakos. “We put our offices downstairs and two housing units above for people who were on low-income.”
The act of social enterprise not only provided safe, affordable housing for those in need, it also helped the organization become more self-sustaining. But the vision didn’t stop here.
“Then we bought lots next door with the idea of building something bigger and better and I pitched it to a couple people … I pitched it to investors and donors and was able to get enough money to do that,” says Asimakos.
The result was the Social Enterprise Hub, which officially opened in Fall 2016. It’s home to a number of Saint John non-profits, including the Saint John Community Loan Fund, the Saint John Learning Exchange, ACAP Saint John, the Human Development Council. The Hub will be a place for non-profits and other ventures to better collaborate to create innovative solutions that help reduce poverty.
Asimakos says poverty in the province has decreased since he started at the organization, mostly due to non-profits and private sector groups helping out with the cause. However, the numbers are still alarmingly high, especially in Saint John where there are pockets of people living below the poverty line. A big part of reducing poverty depends on structural improvements like increased minimum wage, maternity leave, access to education and government benefits. But Asimakos says creating a different culture is also part of the solution.
“We also have to look at what kind of culture we want to create,” he says. “We like to think we’re creating a culture of entrepreneurship where individuals living in poverty and low-income still have a desire to take risks and either create their own employment or become employed.”
For many, the word “entrepreneurship” evokes thoughts of hoodies, tech companies and Silicon Valley, but Asimakos says the definition is much more broad. The Saint John Community Loan Fund aims to give people the resources needed to control their own destiny, no matter where they are financially or socially. If they don’t have the programs or resources needed, they will lead them to somewhere that does.
“That’s the way we see entrepreneurship. It’s really about going after a challenge, taking risks, being creative,” he says. “You have to create a really good envelope for people for them to really take those risks. There are little steps that have to be taken.”
Christina Allain has helped many people take these risks and succeed. As the micro and social enterprise program coordinator with the Saint John Community Loan Fund, she’s helped people in the city overcome barriers and become their own bosses.
“We’ve seen a lot of people who have had a business idea and they never got to it. Maybe they had a job, maybe they had a child, then all of the sudden their job got cut and they had nothing,” Allain says.
“We’ve seen somebody going from unemployed to starting their own business, to hiring someone else. It’s not only helping individuals, it’s also helping the economy directly.”
Past graduates of the Saint John Community Loan Fund’s Enterprising Women program include Alisha Anderson of Dioné Cosmetics and Ashley Daigle of Photography by Ashley Daigle. Before enrolling in Enterprising Women, Daigle says she was stuck working a minimum wage retail job as a single mother. The program helped her realize she could turn her passion for photography into a full-time business.
“There’s a lot more to [starting a business] and I felt that Enterprising Women really helped bring out the details of things. Anything I needed to know they were right there to help,” Daigle says.
“Every time I went to class, no matter what kind of day I was having … every time I walked into the class feeling unsure, I walked out on top of the world,” she says. “It was so uplifting to be surrounded by other women that are maybe doing a different business, but starting out where you are.”
Though the Saint John Community Loan Fund helps individuals, they also want to help businesses and non-profits become more self-sufficient by starting social enterprise ventures.
“We believe a lot of it can be fixed with entrepreneurship. That’s why we have the Social Enterprise Hub,” Allain says.
“They’re running a successful business with their own learners,” Allain says. “So they’re helping their learners get skills, they’re getting paid and they’re generating revenue for themselves. That’s why our mandate is to create more social enterprises.”
With more non-profits grasping for funding from government and donors, Allain says social enterprise is a way for them to become more sustainable while furthering their mission, whether it be poverty reduction, or anything else.
“You have non-profit organizations who are great at doing missions because they’re mission-driven,” Allain says. “They give back to the community, but they are relying too much on government grants or special foundation and projects. Once that’s cut, they might not exist anymore and their beautiful program is not being given.”
“We believe social enterprise fixes that in the middle. We say to these non-profits ‘Look, don’t just rely on these sources of funding, sell something.’”
Whether you’re an individual wanting to start your own business or a business or nonprofit looking to start a social enterprise, entrepreneurship can be daunting. But Allain says the organizations at the Social Enterprise Hub want to provide the help needed to get started.
“We know there are problems to fix. In entrepreneurship, everybody is [thinking] ‘what’s the problem, how do we fix it?’ So it’s the same thing,” Allain says. “Not only is it a collaborative space, but Saint John is very collaborative. Don’t be afraid. Just come in. We’ll hook you up and we’ll hook you up to other organizations as well.”