Prioritizing Education in a Pandemic

The pandemic has halted the world’s usual activity, allowing the dust to settle and revealing inequities that lay just below the surface.  The cracks in our social bedrock are now painfully visible in many sectors, not least of which is higher education. Even before this moment, so many students had to overcome staggering barriers to access and navigate our higher education institutions.  First generation students, for example, often juggled multiple jobs and a full course load to reduce debt and support family.  Students with children balanced their studies alongside care-taking.  The stresses of our pandemic reality have only magnified these challenges.

But as always, they persevere. Driven by the hope of using their education to support their families and communities, these incredible students carry on.

At MAF, we recognized our duty to use our platform to support students as they weather this crisis (on top of managing a full course load and a full life load). This is why we started the California College Student Emergency Support Fund — an effort to offer immediate relief to students in the form of $500 grants.

Below, we’ve included a few statements shared by grant recipients that illustrate what their educational opportunities mean to them and the valiant efforts they are making to continue their education during these difficult times.

As a former foster youth, I have already aged out of a lot of programs and services that could support me financially. Given the current pandemic, there are few to no programs to help students in situations like mine. This grant would allow me to take control of my life and alleviate the burden that this pandemic has already placed on me and my family.

-Sheneise, CA College Student Grant Recipient





Due to the pandemic, I was forced to move back home in order to support my dad and my brother. I support my dad financially, and I also pay rent on an apartment near campus. When the lockdown ends, I know I will have little to no money left, and I am also at risk of losing my remaining two jobs. I have a lot to manage, and this is affecting my academics. I want to break the cycle of poverty through my schooling, but these adverse circumstances make this goal very difficult. This grant is important because it provides security and relief.

-Gabriela, CA College Student Grant Recipient



I am currently 8 months pregnant with my second child. I am no longer able to walk across the stage for graduation. I must give birth alone due to the travel restrictions that are in place. I cannot easily access childcare because most facilities are shut down. I spent six years in the navy, and all I could think about was getting out, getting my degree, and doing something I love. I’m ready to graduate strong so I can do what I love for once in my life. I want to show my daughter that she can do anything and be anything no matter what life throws at her.

-Chelsea, CA College Student Grant Recipient



One year ago, I was living on the streets with my children. After losing my daughter to the court system, my son to the county jail, and my husband to state prison, I found myself alone, hopeless, tired, and ready for change. I had reached the point in my life when I had to make a stand and better myself. With my first granddaughter on the way, I wanted to start right away, so I decided to enroll at Coastline Community College. Regardless of what comes my way, I will continue my education. In three years, I hope to be a Professional Paralegal Assistant.

-Betty, CA College Student Grant Recipient



The challenges of the past few months have made it nearly impossible to focus on my education, and I have thought about dropping out to find a part-time job to support my family. Since 2013, I have dedicated so much of my life to this higher education experience. Now, I’m within reach of a huge milestone in this journey and I don’t want to walk away from it. It’s a difficult road ahead, but I’m confident that the skills I’ve gained throughout my life will allow me to stay resilient and work towards obtaining my degree in environmental science while continuing to support myself, my loved ones, and my community.

-Cristobal, CA College Student Grant Recipient



I was working in security and catering—which both involve large gatherings of people. I don’t know when I’ll be able to schedule any gigs in the near future. This grant is important because it could help relieve some of my financial burdens during these troubling times. I believe that grants like this are what help young poor people like myself to continue our education and to pursue careers that can help us and our families.

-Patrick, CA College Student Grant Recipient

Energy Watch Chronicles: How A Small Business Owner Sweetened His Customers’ Experience By Brightening Up His Shop

Whether you’re a San Francisco Bay Area native, or have only visited the city a handful of times, you may have explored the famed “North Beach/Little Italy” neighborhood and crossed paths with the candy shop Z. Cioccolato (cioccolato is the italian word for “chocolate”). The storefront is hard to miss with its bright, playful, showcase window and a personality to match. The intoxicating smell of freshly popped caramel corn fills the sidewalk, compelling passersby to come inside and take a look around. 

Upon entering, you find yourself overwhelmed by bountiful barrels piled high with vibrant saltwater taffy, nostalgic vintage candies, charming childhood toys, and so much more. But there’s one holy grail that makes this candy shop so different than any other– here at Z. Cioccolato, it’s all about the fudge. Each customer that walks through the door is encouraged to try one of 60 unique, regularly rotated flavors.

Each detail of the sensational Z. Cioccolato experience is carefully preserved by the current and sole owner, Mike Zwiefelhofer, who has been on a mission to enhance the retail space by creating an unforgettable customer experience.

Mike comes from a long lineage of business owners.

For Mike, the ability to run a business runs in his blood. Mike’s great grandparents owned a small department store chain in Northern California for over 100 years and he has since followed in their footsteps: he began his first job as a box boy at the age of 14, worked his way up to a frozen yogurt shop owner, and worked in furniture sales before he arrived at the opportunity to purchase Z.Cioccolato.

“There were two major things that attracted me to this shop: One is the location, it’s an amazing location… But the main thing that attracted me to this business is the fudge…Without the fudge, we are just a normal candy shop, but with the fudge, we have something award winning, unique, and different. That is our signature.”

When Mike bought the store from the now-retired owners four years ago, he was excited to put his culmination of experience to the test:

“I did not know much about chocolate, but I did know about desserts from my frozen yogurt shop and I definitely know a lot about retail. So, the chocolate portion I was able to learn over the last 4 years…All of my experience is put to use here at the shop.”

As sole owner of Z.Cioccolato, Mike wears all the different hats in the shop. He has a sales staff to work the front and a chocolatier to work the kitchen, but every job in-between is his daily responsibility. When asked to describe a day in the life of a small business owner, Mike thought about how to answer for a brief moment and articulated:

“It’s a hard question. There are too many things I do…”

Life as the sole owner of a small business comes with its challenges; it can be exhausting and overwhelming at times. As a testament to Mike’s perseverance, in his first two years of learning the ins-and-outs of Z.Cioccolato, he maintained his second job as a furniture salesman to pay his personal bills and remain financially stable. That era was full of long hour days, back-to-back. Despite the odds, four years later, Mike focuses on building a future for his business.

As a small business owner, Mike has to carefully manage his business expenses.

During our conversation, Mike talked about the harsh reality that small businesses typically don’t make that much money. The high cost of running the shop makes it difficult to raise profits. Mike is constantly searching for areas where he can save money, but those opportunities are sparse when it takes a minimum amount of resources to simply run the shop. 

One day as Mike was operating Z.Cioccolato, he received a call from Mission Asset Fund (MAF) introducing the Energy Watch Loan Program. The Energy Watch Loan Program provides small businesses zero-interest, credit building loans up to $2,500 to finance energy efficiency upgrades. Business owners have the opportunity to save energy and money on their utility bill, while at the same time reducing their impact on the environment. The Energy Watch Loan Program is a collaborative initiative between MAF and the San Francisco Department of the Environment.

In a space where sales calls are frequent and in high volume, Mike was protective at first glance and filed away the information as being “too good to be true.” One year later, however, he was reintroduced to the program:

“I happened to meet the contractor who did the lights. He lives nearby and stopped into the store and he brought up the program. Now this is the second time I had heard of it, and I was able to ask him a lot of questions. He gave me an estimate of how much he thought I would save on my PG&E bill, and that’s what really made me say: ‘Well, it’s a no brainer.’

Mike utilized the Energy Watch Program to brighten up his shop (with a few added benefits).

Mike proceeded to get two different lighting upgrades over the following year, totalling around $3,000. Rebates and incentives from the Energy Watch Program enabled him to lower the cost to around $1,680 with a monthly loan payment of about $100 to be completely paid off in the next year. Right off the bat, the gains were noticeable: monthly savings on his PG&E bill added up to about $100, matching the monthly payments and totalling a value of $1,200 a year.

For a small business owner, a $3,000 out of pocket cost may be a high hurdle. As Mike pointed out, saving energy and “being green” is a privilege to some extent. If a business is not especially profitable, an energy efficiency project with upfront costs may become less of a priority. The Energy Watch Program removes this hurdle with affordable, flexible loan products. According to Mike:

“It allows you to do a project that otherwise wouldn’t get done…As a business owner, there are very few times where there’s something with no risk and no downside. It’s interest free money, it helps your business, it saves on your monthly PG&E bill.”

Mike’s energy efficiency upgrade had a bigger impact than just monthly savings.

Mike described that prior to the upgrades, the majority of his lights were burnt out, broken, and slightly different colors which gave the store a “run down” and inconsistent look. A business with this kind of lighting may appear on its way to closing down. Mike described the lighting upgrade as analogous to his ever-flowing candy bins:

“It’s the same thing with my candy bins, I don’t like them to get empty looking because it makes you look like you’re going out of business…”

Since the upgrades, every corner of the store is illuminated and appears the same, consistent, color. Although it’s a fine detail, the customer is positively impacted by it.

Mike is satisfied with his energy improvements and ties the project’s motive back to his commitment to creating a comfortable environment for his customers.

Throughout our conversation, Mike circles back to his loyalty to his customers and dedication to providing them with a unique product for their enjoyment. The shop’s signature seven layered Peanut Butter Pie fudge exemplifies this uniqueness. From what Mike and his staff can tell, Z. Cioccolato is the only candy shop in the world that makes a seven layered fudge.

Mike believes that part of Z. Cioccolato’s future is making the in-store retail experience something so unique and unforgettable that customers prefer to shop in-person rather than online. Over the past year, the lighting upgrades have helped to preserve and further cultivate the look and feel of Z. Cioccolato’s customer-centered, indoor atmosphere.

Mike has a deep passion for his work at Z. Cioccolato and will continue to advocate for the enhancement of all retail experiences to save small businesses the burden of competing with corporate giants. And as his customers, we have the sweet privilege of experiencing all the indulgence they have to offer. If you haven’t already, plan your next trip to make a candy shop stop at Z. Cioccolato on: 

474 Columbus Ave
San Francisco, CA 94133.

MAF Staff Spotlight: Doris Vasquez

Meet Doris Vasquez, MAF’s Client Success Manager. Though she’d never admit it herself, Doris embodies what it means to be a community leader. As MAF’s Client Success Manager, Doris is engaging with the community every day — enrolling clients in MAF’s programs, facilitating the monthly Lending Circles formations, supporting participants throughout their journey, and connecting participants with the best resources for their circumstances and needs. Throughout her nine years at MAF, she has always placed the community at the center of her work. In honor of her incredible tenure, we asked her to share a few reflections on her experience:

How did you first learn about MAF?

DV: One day, I was attending a school council meeting at Sanchez Elementary School and as the principal was speaking, I found myself going back and forth between nodding in agreement and shaking my head in disagreement to whatever he was saying. Suddenly, someone tapped me on my shoulder and said ‘you should speak up and say something if you disagree.’ She could tell that something was on the tip of my tongue, but I was hesitant to speak up. Little did I know that this person was going to be the someone who led me to a lot of really incredible opportunities in life. After this incident, I started getting more involved with school groups (PTA, SSC, ELAC). I didn’t quite have a vision for the work just yet, but I knew that I wanted to make a difference in my kids lives. Soon enough, the woman who had encouraged me to speak up during the school council meeting —  Lorena — was training me to be an organizer and a leader. Little by little, I started volunteering more of my time with San Francisco Organizing Project (SFOP), a non profit based in San Francisco, and Lorena was also working with them. As I attended more trainings and rallies, I slowly began to understand the system behind organizing. Eventually, Lorena started working at MAF, and when a position opened up, she told me about it and I decided to apply.

What inspires you to do this work?

DV: My family inspires me. As an immigrant, I know the struggle of coming to a new country and not knowing what opportunities this new country offers. When my dad moved from El Salvador to the U.S, I didn’t hear from my dad for weeks. I knew that he had gone to another country, but I didn’t realize there was an immigration status attached to that. My dad eventually sent for us to come to the U.S, and at first, I didn’t want to be here {U.S.}. In El Salvador, I felt more freedom to be a child and I had the support of my family. I was always very close to my abuelitos. When I moved to the U.S., I had to learn a new language and navigate a new school system. Additionally, my family was going through their own set of financial struggles. My dad was the only one working, and sometimes, we didn’t have food for dinner. I recall my mother and I going to the local store to buy ‘TV dinners’ or standing in line at food banks. Though my parents were always able to financially support our family, we were definitely struggling financially. Even so, my parents never really talked to me about managing finances or what it meant to be in debt. As an independent adult, and especially after I became a mother, I experienced my own set of financial struggles. When I first started working at MAF, my former colleague Alex was MAF’s financial coach at the time. He started guiding me on how to manage my debt and pay it down. I would take part in the financial classes and workshops he would facilitate, and as I started to learn more about managing finances, this topic became really interesting to me. Managing finances is such a huge part of our day-to-day life. Slowly, I was also able to get out of debt.

Oftentimes, when I listen to the stories that our clients share about being in total debt, struggling to support their family back home, those stories start to become part of me and I think back to my own experiences. I feel a strong need to give back by assisting our community be part of the financial system.

Given that MAF’s work is rooted in ‘trust,’ how did you build trust with the community?

DV: I think I built trust by taking the time to listen to each person who walked through the door and providing them with that space and time to open up. At the beginning, I was afraid to get too involved because I’m naturally a very empathetic and emotional person. There have been times that a client has been on my mind for days, weeks, months, and sometimes, even years. But even if I’m bombarded with work, if a client walks in and I see that they want to talk about something, my time is given to them. Sometimes, we just need someone to listen to us. Most of the time, that’s what I end up doing. There are some clients that I’ve worked with since 2009, and I feel like they’ve made me part of their family. I feel like I’m very lucky to have clients that are so thoughtful — clients who think about me even when they shouldn’t. Over the years, I’ve been able to build a strong relationship with every person that walks through MAF’s door.

How has the way you’ve approached your work evolved over the past nine years?

DV: All my life, I’ve known that I love working and meeting people. When I first started working at MAF, I had very little formal experience working with the community. Most of my prior experience involved the organizing work I did within the school districts. When I started working at MAF, I didn’t know what this work would require. In the beginning, I didn’t feel like I was giving my 100% because I felt as if I didn’t have all of the answers to the questions clients were asking. It took a lot of independent research to really understand the issues affecting the community and how I can refer them to the right resources. I had no idea that there was such a strong ecosystem of nonprofit organizations in San Francisco. Over the years, I’ve made it a point to get to know these organizations and build my knowledge and relationships with my companeros en la lucha of where to refer clients for different resources.

Even if I can’t help someone in the moment, I feel it’s important to treat everyone with respect, make the effort to direct them to another resource, and offer whatever support I can.

Given that you started working with youth and organizing in the K-12 education space, what your advice to youth?

For me, personally, Lorena, one of my mentors, saw a potential in me that I didn’t see in myself. It’s why I make it a point to always see the incredible potential in everyone who walks through MAF’s doors. I want everyone to know that they are on this earth for a reason. Maybe the reason is not clear right now, but at some point you will realize why you’re here and what you need to make of it. That’s why you can never give up.

My MAF Journey: Bridging Tech and Financial Inclusion

In celebration of the MAF Lab having hit its one-year mark, we want to recognize the role and work of our Tech Advisory Council in supporting our successes. We’ll be sharing a series of blog posts from TAC members, starting with one from co-chair Kathryn Weinmann.  

Everyone should try cold-calling at some point. Let the likely rejection be a reminder that you’re reaching further than you have before. And it’s a total rush when you actually get through. Five years ago this summer, I reached out to Mission Asset Fund, and I haven’t looked back since.

I had tasted microfinance in college and consulted for big banks thereafter, and increasingly I wanted to help define the next generation of financial services. I looked at loads of fintech companies and nonprofits in the Bay Area, but there was something special about Mission Asset Fund (MAF). They had the values and personal touch of a nonprofit, but their approach to technology was more typical of a hungry startup eager to scale. So I guessed the email of MAF’s founder/CEO José Quiñonez, and by some stroke of luck he was free to meet that afternoon.

In our first meeting, José announced the passage of California SB896, game-changing legislation that acknowledged the importance of credit-building loans and empowered nonprofits to support them. I couldn’t believe it. While many fintech companies were struggling within gray areas of the law, this nonprofit was out changing it.

MAF develops critical tools to help people build empowered financial lives. And the effects are far-reaching.

Their Lending Circles program is distributed through a network of nonprofit partners across the country. Jose’s Hierarchy of Financial Needs helps people of all backgrounds by providing structure around an otherwise nebulous and intimidating topic.

For the past few years, I have had the privilege to serve as co-chair for MAF’s Technology Advisory Council (TAC). MAF is constantly innovating – always seeking to serve their clients and nonprofit partners better. The TAC supports that innovation and serves as a bridge to the startup community. We share our experiences to inform MAF’s tech strategy, product roadmap, and implementation approach.

Our team has a diverse set of backgrounds across software development, fintech, and social impact. Together, we strive to support the next generation of product initiatives at MAF.

I constantly learn from this exceptional group, who bring expertise from Google, Stripe, Salesforce, and other incredible organizations.

TAC members come from a diverse set of backgrounds and are united toward a common goal of supporting MAF.

I have seen firsthand the thoughtfulness and intentionality that MAF brings to product development. Whether we are discussing the structure of the MAF Lab, beta testing the MyMAF app, or providing input on the product launch process, the MAF team grounds our contributions in specific goals that further the mission of the organization.

What’s more, my involvement with the TAC makes me better at my day job. I invest in consumer tech, often at an early stage. On more than one occasion, I have pointed founders to MAF as an example of putting the user’s needs first. MAF’s approach to realizing their mission can help us all identify and challenge the assumptions behind inclusive product development.

MAF changed my life, as they continue to do for members of the Bay Area community and beyond.

I am immensely grateful to serve on the TAC and support their mission to bring financial stability to the millions who live in the financial shadows. MAF’s clients are resilient, tenacious, and optimistic. So is MAF – and they inspire me to be that way, too.

About the author: Kathryn has been working with MAF since 2014 and now serves as Co-Chair of the Technology Advisory Council. She is an investor at Norwest Venture Partners in San Francisco.

MAFista Spotlight: Samhita Collur

Samhita Collur has held many roles during her nearly three years at MAF. Officially, she’s been a Partner Success Manager and Communications Manager, but she’s also been a storyteller, a mobile app content developer, a community advocate, a strategist for new programs, a co-chair for an advisory council, and a friend to many MAFistas. Now, she’s off to law school to learn to advocate for community members in new ways. We asked her to impart her wisdom before her last day at MAF.

How would you characterize your experience at MAF?

First of all, my experience at MAF has really shaped the way I now think about working with a community. I was originally drawn to MAF for the values of the organization: meet, build, and respect. Throughout my experience being on the programs team, I’ve seen those values carried out. I’ve seen it in who MAF hires. I think we hire people who are true community leaders. You see how important it is to see those community leaders at the forefront of the work. What’s made my experience so special is seeing the relationships that staff build with community and the way those values are implemented. I want to take these values with me in law school, where I’ll be in a more academic setting, and the community may feel distant at times.

You mentioned seeing MAF’s values in action. Do you have an example of this?

One of the things built into our values is trust. We need to earn the trust of our community. One example that comes to mind is these three blog posts I wrote about MAF clients: Connie, Boni, and Rosa. These three people were actually hesitant to tell their stories. But they had trust in MAF. Boni had trust with Diana, a Financial Coach. Connie had trust with Doris, a Client Success Manager. With Rosa the trust she had with MAF was built through the DACA grant program. These are just a few illustrations of how MAF engages and interacts with the community. You never want to assume that someone is willing to tell their story. People’s stories are complicated — they’re filled with ups and downs. People want to tell an accurate story that shows resilience and lessons learned. Not one that’s super fluffy. I found that there is a way to write someone else’s story, and do it on their terms.

What are you proud of?

Even playing a small role in the DACA campaign is something I’m very proud of. That really made me reflect on what I wanted to do next. It inspired me to pursue law school as a next step. Seeing this small team really shift gears and work so well together to implement this large scale initiative. During this time, I observed what it means for MAF to be at the intersection of financial services and immigration. We end up being an entry point or gateway to other issues. Observing that and seeing how MAF continued to respond to the injunctions that were issued after the initial rescission allowed me to reflect on, how various approaches fit together. That was a big learning. MAF allowed me to see how different organizations can work together to do something really great. It can’t just be one organization. I saw that evidenced through our partnership model, the DACA campaign, and partnering with legal service organizations for referrals.

I’m also proud of being a part of the programs team. I’ve really appreciated the relationships I’ve built with partner organizations. It’s really special to see how they tailor the program to their unique community. Partners like Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI) that really embody what it means to be a community organization. And every organization we partner with is so rooted in the community.

What’s next for you?

This fall, I’ll be going to law school. Something I realized that I really do enjoy here is communicating and writing. This idea of communicating with different audiences and taking information and finding ways to tell a compelling story. I hope to build on that skillset. I want to use this legal knowledge as another toolset to continue telling stories that support and uplift a wide range of communities. The law, at the end of the day, is a really powerful tool that can be used in the right or wrong way depending on who is telling the story. I want to pair love of communications with that knowledge set to continue doing this work in a slightly different arena.

What will you miss?

I want to give a shout out to MAF staff. The programs team is the best team I’ve ever worked with. Just seeing the way that we have a diverse set up of perspectives, and seeing how that plays out in the conversations we have as a team. When we’re brainstorming, seeing different view points adds a really unique element. This is something I hope I continue to get in law school. I’ll miss the dedication on the part of the staff. The way everyone understands the work, and how to work respectfully with the community.

What Resistance Looks Like: MAF’s DACA Campaign, a Year Later

The Trump administration blatantly targeted immigrants by rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 5, 2017. Shocked and angered by his actions, we did not retreat. We stood up and fought back. With little time to waste, we quickly transformed ourselves into a rapid response grantmaker to help young immigrants through the uncertainty of the Trump-inflicted crisis.

We launched a campaign to enable eligible youth to renew their DACA status by offering grants of $495 to help cover application fees.

And when a federal judge in California issued an injunction that ruled the Trump administration’s decision unconstitutional months later, opening the door for more Dreamers to renew DACA, we kept on processing grants, giving young immigrants the support and love that this government was denying.

For college students making minimum wage, $495 can mean choosing between DACA or paying for rent. That’s a choice we didn’t want them to have to make.

That’s why we provided 7,600 fee assistance grants totaling $3.8 million to Dreamers across the country. This was a defining moment of resistance for DACA, and for ourselves.

As the federal courts continue to fight over the future of DACA, we stay vigilant. At this year’s Summit, activists, advocates, and allies across the country will come together to explore how our communities can thrive in Trump’s America. We believe Dreamers will help lead the way. We’re inviting them to share with us their stories of resilience, stories that can inspire and energize us all for the long haul.

Today we remember the work by highlighting stories from our DACA grant recipients that will motivate us for years to come.

[infogram id=”daca-1-year-later-1h984w80npgg4p3″ prefix=”Y0E”]

DACA: The stories behind the checks

After September 5, 2017, MAF quickly mobilized to provide financial assistance to DACA recipients across the nation. Our campaign was inspired by our belief that DACA recipients and their families deserve the opportunity to continue building their future in this country. Hundreds of scholarship recipients shared with us the significance of receiving a $495 check from MAF to renew their work permits. The stories we heard reinforced the injustice of the administration’s decision to rescind DACA. But each story also revealed a force more powerful than injustice – hope for the future.

7,000+ scholarships. 7,000+ powerful stories. Here are just a few of the messages we received:

Ramos:

“It’s really hard to save $495 while having rent, utilities, veterinarian costs, and other bills to pay. I am also saving for college and my medical expenses. We always worry and try to help abandoned animals in need over helping ourselves. You help us get closer to our dreams and goals that will help the world someday. It may take forever, but I have hope that we will reach our dreams.”

Josue:

“I had a very difficult year battling with cancer, and I’m just getting back to work. Without your help, it would’ve been incredibly difficult to put together that amount of money in such a short time. Once again, Thank you very much for your help and all you continue doing for us Dreamers whom solely purpose is to live just everyone else, because we too are Americans.”

Ana:

“I was running on a great amount of stress because I knew my family was having a hard time economically, and the deadline to submit our renewal applications was very close. I was worried about my future, and even spoke to my college adviser about what would happen if I lost DACA. Thankfully, the president of our school informed us right away that DACA being revoked wouldn’t affect any DACA students at my school. Soon after this, I filled out the application for your scholarship.”

Kevin:

“My fiance and I were really worried that we wouldn’t be able to renew because of the money. You have inspired us. Thank you for all the things you guys are doing. It makes me feel that I have a voice and that I am being heard.”

Rosa:

“I am a student studying Political Science with a minor in Philosophy. I plan to attend law school in the future. I am on a competitive dance team, I have a dog, and I work three jobs, to not only support me financially but also to prepare me for a future career. You may feel this is bizarre, but I just wanted to help put life to the name you wrote a check to. I wanted you to know that your work goes beyond financial assistance. You’re helping us feel secure and pursue our dreams.”

And we will #RiseUpAsOne

Pilar’s Story: An ode to Prince and homeownership

Pilar celebrates her one-year homeownership anniversary this year. Her home is a beautiful, cozy, and peaceful place in South Minneapolis. She recalls the warm and loving home her mother created for her when she was young, and feels a sense of pride in the home that she has been able to create for herself.

 

A bold and passionate young girl growing up in a small town in Minnesota, Pilar and her mother had a very close knit relationship and relied on each other for support. 

Pilar’s mother struggled to make ends meet as a single parent working a number of factory jobs. Despite the financial hardships, she provided Pilar with a warm and loving childhood. She made sure that her daughter was given every opportunity. When Pilar showed a passion for dance, her mother signed Pilar up for ballet lessons and sent her to a performing arts school.

In high school, Pilar was a cheerleader, a dancer, and a musician. She was never afraid to express herself – from sharing her opinions to dressing how she wanted to dress. She was a child of the ‘80s who adored the movie “Purple Rain” and the musician Prince. She saw parallels between herself and Prince: both were Minnesotans who never quite fit in and had dreams to make it big.

“Prince came from poverty, and was able to accomplish so much with so few resources. He gave people hope that they could make it too. He had a big influence on my life, and I listened to his music to get through hard times.”

Pilar worked hard and won a scholarship to attend St. Mary’s University, making her mother immensely proud. 

She dedicated her professional life to public service, and she eventually moved to the Twin Cities after she was offered a job at Project for Pride in Living (PPL). PPL is an award-winning nonprofit organization in Minneapolis dedicated to empowering low income individuals and families to become self-reliant. Pilar is now the face of PPL. She works the front desk at PPL’s Learning Center, and she’s the first point of contact for anyone who walks through the doors. She hears intimate personal stories on a daily basis.

“I always wish that our clients only knew what they were capable of when they first walk in to the office. When I hear stories of people coming into PPL, I understand their stories and their background. I can relate. This is much more than a job for me – it’s a mission.”

PPL has employment and training programs, and holds graduations for participants who complete their programs. It’s common for graduates to express their thanks to Pilar at their graduation ceremony, saying that it was her encouragement and smiling face that made them sign up and stay on track.

 

Pilar first heard about Lending Circles from Henry, a fellow staff member at a Project for Pride in Living. PPL first started offering Lending Circles in 2015, and so far, they have served over 40 clients and generated a loan volume of a little over $13,000.

Henry encouraged her to sign up for a Lending Circle so she could both better explain the program to prospective participants and work towards her own financial goals. At the time, Pilar didn’t have any credit — she wanted to avoid credit cards because she’d heard stories about people spiraling into debt. Her only experience with credit was her student loans, and this wasn’t enough credit history to provide her with a credit score.  

She met with a credit counselor and, for the first time ever, realized that homeownership was within reach as long as she could build her credit score. Motivated by this news, Pilar signed up for a Lending Circle. Her group decided on a monthly contribution amount of $50, and she felt closer to the group after each member shared information about their financial goals. When it came time for Pilar to receive her loan, it was the end of June in Minnesota and the heat was sweltering. She used her loan funds to purchase a much needed air conditioning unit. Pilar was living paycheck to paycheck at the time, and she could not have afforded the unit without the Lending Circle funds. It was not only a relief to her, but also her two dogs — brother and sister rescues —  who were suffering from the heat. She described the financial education videos that accompanied her Lending Circle as “eye opening.” For the first time, Pilar felt comfortable managing a budget.

“This might sound crazy, but I honestly didn’t know that I had to pay my bills on time.”

 

Pilar is now a proud homeowner. “If it wasn’t for the Lending Circle and meeting with Henry, I wouldn’t have thought it was possible,” she says as she reflects back on the process. Pilar’s whole demeanor lights up when she talks about her home. She describes the house as a place that “lets me be who I want to be. After a stressful day at work, it provides a wonderful reprieve.”

But there is an additional bonus for Pilar. Her house is right next door to a very special house – known as the “Purple Rain house” to locals – the house that appeared in the iconic 1984 film featuring Prince.

Pilar knows her home purchase was meant to be. On the one-year anniversary of Prince’s passing, fans poured into her neighborhood in the rain and congregated at the Purple Rain house. Even though Pilar never ended up as Prince’s neighbor, she still feels like the magic of his presence and his legacy in her neighborhood. Laughing, she says, “at night, I think I see purple lights coming out of the basement. It’s really something.”

On the topic of of homeownership, Pilar says “I thought it wasn’t possible. So know that it is possible, regardless of where you find yourself.”

Claudia’s dreams: health, credit & a new bakery

When Claudia’s husband was offered a job in the United States, she encouraged him to take it and insisted that the entire family—the two of them and their two children—move from Guatemala to build a new life for themselves. It was important to Claudia that their family stay together.

Three thousand miles later, their family reached Virginia, their new home. Claudia’s husband started his new job, and Claudia devoted herself to caring full time for the children and improving her English skills. She did this with a specific goal in mind: she wanted to start a bakery business, just like the successful one she had proudly founded and operated in Guatemala.

Claudia and her family had been living in Virginia for just over a year when Claudia had a fainting episode and had to be rushed to the emergency room. She had low blood pressure, and her blood sugar had dropped suddenly.

Shortly before, her husband’s employment contract had ended. Claudia no longer had health insurance. The doctors quickly cleared her and ran minimal tests, but the hospital bill still added up to $6,000, far more than she could pay out of pocket. Claudia had no option but to enroll in a payment plan with the hospital.

Before applying for the payment plan, Claudia hadn’t given much thought to building a credit history. Moving to a new country required her to navigate countless unfamiliar systems and bureaucracies. Claudia had enough on her plate. Building credit simply hadn’t been a priority.

But when she applied for the payment plan with the hospital, Claudia had her first encounter with the costs of being credit invisible in the United States. Without credit, she was subject to high-interest rates on the bills that were already a burden to her household budget. She had to use her husband’s credit card to make the payments on her medical bills, and the medical debt resulted in his credit score dropping considerably.

With her bakery aspirations in mind, Claudia decided to prioritize building her own credit history. But motivation wasn’t enough. She had no idea where to begin.

A friend encouraged Claudia to visit Northern Virginia Family Service (NVFS), a social services nonprofit that supports families throughout the region and facilitates leadership-building and innovation among community members. One of NVFS’s programs, called Escala, provides one-on-one small business development counseling to Latino families. A long-term goal of the program is to contribute to asset-building and wealth creation for low- and moderate-income Latino residents of Northern Virginia.

Claudia enrolled in a seminar called “How to Start a Business.” It was in that course that she first learned about Lending Circles.

NVFS had joined MAF’s nationwide network of Lending Circles providers in 2015. Given their existing programs to support asset-building, credit-building, and small business ownership throughout Northern Virginia, and their reputation as a trusted provider of culturally relevant programs, the partnership was a perfect fit. By integrating Lending Circles into the existing suite of programs, NVFS was able to offer a proven path to better credit for clients already dedicated to improving their family’s financial health.

Without her own income, Claudia was not eligible to join a Lending Circle on her own. But the Escala staff helped her leverage her husband’s income to meet the eligibility requirement. This accommodation captures what makes the Lending Circles approach different than the rigid requirements of many standard financial institutions’ credit-building opportunities.

The Lending Circles program is built to work with families, not against them. It takes into account the reality of their lives, and the services are tailored to meet people where they are.

Claudia joined a Lending Circle and began making payments to build herself a credit history. The financial education integrated into the program provided her with tools she could use to pursue other credit-building opportunities and develop her financial health. She opened her first bank account, set a savings goal for herself, created a budget that would help her achieve her goal, and began exploring the financial products that would be available to her once she had established sufficient credit. Through Lending Circles, Claudia’s credit score has increased from 0 to 680.

Becoming credit visible was empowering for Claudia. She felt an expanded sense of hopefulness and opportunity. Doors were opening for her. She was getting closer and closer to her dream of opening her own bakery.

With her new credit score, Claudia first turned to her medical debts. She was able to refinance her payment plan at the hospital to lower her interest rates, immediately saving herself $200 that the previous interest rate had added.

Next, Claudia applied for a personal loan that she used to contribute to her nephew’s tuition in Guatemala. Her credit score was a personal feat, but it also had important implications for both her immediate and extended family. The opportunity afforded to her by her credit score transcended her social network and crossed international borders.

Claudia has since joined a second Lending Circle. Beyond continuing to build her credit score, Claudia’s goal for this circle is to use her loan to finance the startup costs of getting her bakery business off the ground, including business registration, access to a commercial kitchen, and business supplies. Every day, Claudia’s credit score, her financial savvy, and her determination and perseverance take her closer and closer to her dreams.

Special thanks to NVFS Lending Circles Site Coordinator Karina for her contributions to this story.

With ❤️, From: Mom, Charu, Mama, 엄마, Hajurmuma


From a thriving chocobanana business to a spicy pinch of kimchi that literally means “I love you.”

At MAF, we’re always looking for an excuse to share stories. In celebration of Mama’s Day 2017, a few MAF staff members and Lending Circles clients told us about their moms, grandmas, and chosen mothers—and just what makes them so special.

She’s an inspiring example of resilience for me.

Charu, aka “mom” (Chicago, IL)

Well, aside from the fact that she’s simply the most radiant woman I know, she’s hilarious—especially when she’s feeling #nofilter. She has the best commentary when we’re watching Bollywood movies together.

I also admire her creativity and her drive to keep learning and trying new things. In addition to being my mother, she sells her handmade jewelry at trunk shows and craft fairs around Chicago, and she teaches, performs, and delights her family with her Indian classical music singing!

$$ LESSONS: She taught me the importance of financial independence. As a result, I’ve made an effort to spend wisely, save consistently, and manage my debts responsibly.

– SAMHITA, Partner Success Manager

I lost my mother 10 years ago, and Reyna stepped up to the plate.

Reyna, aka “mama” (San Francisco, CA)

Reyna is my best friend’s mother, but I felt a very motherly love from her from the moment I met her. She is hilarious, hardworking, and she has a drive at the age of 52 that can barely keep up with! She told me, “no matter what you need, I am here.” She has done that—and more.

$$ LESSONS: Never give up. Reyna struggled as an immigrant coming to this country 25 years ago. I went through similar immigration battles, but thanks to her guidance early on and her unconditional love and support, I was able to persevere. She even told me about a traditional lending circle (long before I discovered MAF!) she had been part of, and she encouraged me to join. That helped me save money for all the costs that came along with my immigration process.

– SHWETA, Lending Circles Client, Member Advisory Council

She’s the most selfless person I know.

Irene, aka “mom” or “Reeny” (Long Island, NY)

She is a deeply and naturally generous person. I always joke that she never sits down at dinner because she is making sure everyone else has what they need. She’s taught me to find the humor and a silver lining when things don’t go as planned. This was especially relevant while we were planning my wedding!

$$ LESSONS: Her own mother passed away when she was 19, so my mom had to learn by necessity how to save for the future, spend wisely, and stretch a dollar. She instilled in me from an early age the value of being intentional about spending. Sometimes it’s worth paying a little extra for something if you anticipate keeping it for a long time. Don’t be tempted by things that are inexpensive in the short term—that’s often a waste of money.

ALYSSA, Partner Success Manager

She’s always been hardworking and trustworthy. Now she has the credit score to prove it.

Celia (San Francisco, CA)

Oh, my mother is so special! She is my inspiration, my role model. She is joyful and courageous. No matter what life obstacles she faces, she is fearless with a smile on her face.

$$ LESSONS: She’s a natural leader, and people flock to her for advice. People would come to her with their money problems. She created many lending circles in her community to help people pool resources and build savings. Although my mother has always been a dedicated saver, she didn’t have the opportunity to establish a credit history. I was thrilled to introduce her to MAF. After participating in a few of MAF’s Lending Circles, she’s built a beautiful credit score for herself!

PATRICIA, Lending Circles Client, Member Advisory Council

She’s a fighter.

Ana, aka “mami” (San Francisco, CA)

My mom? She raised three girls on her own. She overcame enormous obstacles to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.

$$ LESSONS: When I was about ten years old, before we moved to the U.S. from El Salvador, my mom helped my sister and me get a little business going that we ran out of our house. We offered two distinct services: photocopying (we’d invested in a printer) and chocolate-covered bananas (official name: chocobananas). We didn’t even have to advertise—people just knew to come to us for their printing and chocobanana needs. And we learned some very valuable lessons from this entrepreneurial venture, most importantly: 1) work hard; 2) try not to eat all the chocobananas in your inventory. Those lessons continue to guide me to this day.

KARLA, Client Success Manager

She was one of the first women from her home state of Orissa, India, to attend medical school.

Sarat, aka “Mama” (Odisha, India)

There’s so much I admire about my grandmother: her ambition, intellect, passion, and humor, just to name a few. And she’s given me so many gifts throughout my life. My grandmother has been my yogi. It’s thanks to her that I developed my own yoga practice and have even taught yoga a different points in my life. Another gift that I cherish: her stories. Her letters, previously handwritten and in more recent years delivered by email, are simply the best.

$$ LESSONS: My grandmother taught me the importance of savings and frugality. She would know. It was her rupee-pinching and homemaking that ensured opportunities for her children and grandchildren. She instilled in me an appreciation of the importance of being able to stand financially on my own two feet.

MOHAN, Director of Programs and Engagement

My 엄마 / umma is my #1 bae.

Young Ki, aka 엄마 (Queens, NY)

She’s her own type of “tiger mom.” She never pressured my brother and me to get straight A’s but instead to find and pursue our passions. She’s a fierce dreamer who came to NYC with no idea what was going to happen to her. I’ve definitely inherited that idealism and rebellious spirit. I also inherited her love for food. Growing up, we weren’t always able to communicate in Korean or English too well. I learned that a pungent bite of kimchi could literally mean “I love you.”

$$ LESSONS: My mom taught me the importance of taking risks. She never saw money as an end goal but always as a means to something more. She was the one who pushed my dad in owning our grocery business, purchasing our first home, and investing in my brother’s and my college educations. Her financial philosophy guides and inspires me.

JAY, People, Fun & Culture Coordinator

She exudes joy, warmth, and love.

Nilsa, aka “mama” (Mission District, SF)

My mom is the most powerful woman I know. I look up to her, and everything I do is to make her proud. I feel very fortunate and honored that she is the woman that raised me into who I am today. She’s given me so many gifts over the years: excellent hugs, wise and compassionate advice, and a love for music and salsa dancing.

$$ LESSONS: My mom has taught me so many important financial lessons that have saved me money and heartache, and I’ve been sure to pass them down to my own children. And those lessons have been about more than just money. They’re about life: save consistently and manage your money wisely, no matter how much you have or earn. Focus on paying your bills and rent on time; worry about the wants later.

DORIS, Client Success Manager

She is one of my “five stars,” the five most influential women in my life.

Sulochana, aka hajurmuma (Kathmandu, Nepal)

Hajurmuma is the official term for grandmother in Nepali – hajur means “with respect” and muma means “mom.” And my grandmother is worthy of every ounce of respect. I so deeply admire her strength, grace, and beauty. She’s taught me so many important lessons that have made me the person I am today. Her best piece of advice? That no matter what happens in life, you must always remember to dance. It keeps your spirit alive.

$$ LESSONS: My grandmother’s life is an example of the lessons she’s taught me: the importance of working hard, getting a good education, and achieving financial independence. As a young widow, my grandmother managed to successfully run a business in her community in Nepal. In those days, it was unheard of for a woman to do that. I am so inspired by her bravery and independence! She also bought me my first piggy bank and taught me my first lesson in finances: “save, save, save.” That’s a lesson I have practiced to this day, and finance has become my life’s work.

SUSHMINA, Accounting Specialist

No one can make spare ribs and asparagus like she does…

Chau Phung, aka “mom” (San Francisco, CA)

There are many things I love about my mom… But one of the first things that comes to mind is her cooking! She is a very talented cook and baker. And she has shared those skills and her passion with me!

$$ LESSONS: Well, considering I’m the Financial Services Associate at MAF, you can probably guess that finance is pretty important to me. And that’s all thanks to my mother. From the time I was very young, my mom always made a point to teach me important financial skills so I would be independent and prepared for the future. She taught me how to make a budget, stick to it, and save for a rainy day. She’s a dedicated saver—no matter what challenges came up, she always had savings to count on. She’s diligent about living within her means and not overspending. I’m grateful to have learned those skills from her.

JENNIFER, Financial Services Associate

My mother is superwoman incarnate.

Sonia, aka “mami” (Key Biscayne, Florida)

Take for example: her daily routine when we were kids. She would get us all fed and out the door, go to work managing senior home care services, squeeze in a quick 30-mile bike ride, and finish the day off cooking a delicious dinner while singing along to her iPod. Her energy and upbeat attitude radiate from her. Through the ups and downs of life, she keeps us all in good spirits.

$$ LESSONS: Starting when I was little kid, my mom would “encourage” (um, force) me to put my birthday money straight into savings. She even gave me a credit card on my 18th birthday to teach me about credit and how to build it slowly! It was painful back then, but I’m forever grateful for those lessons.

CARLOS, Partner Success Manager

Thank you, Mom.

With love,

The MAFistas

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