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Tag: family

Innovations: Making the Invisible Visible


CEO Jose Quinonez gives a behind-the-scenes look into MAF’s origin story in MIT Press’s “Innovations” journal.

The following excerpt was originally published in “Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization,” a journal published by MIT Press. Read the full essay here.

I was 20 years old when I realized that my mother had died because we were poor.

She passed away when I was nine, too young to understand the complex and dangerous nature of life in poverty. At that time, I had to muster everything inside of me just to survive the avalanche of sorrow and change in our family life.

It was only as an adult that I came to terms with my painful childhood. I see it now as the source of the deep empathy I have for people who suffer and struggle in the world.

That is why I’ve dedicated my life to working against poverty.

And it is how I became the founding CEO of Mission Asset Fund (MAF), a nonprofit organization that strives to create a fair financial marketplace for hardworking families. When I joined MAF in 2007, the organization was a nonprofit start-up with plans to help low-income immigrants in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Eight years later, MAF is nationally recognized for developing Lending Circles, a social loan program based on people coming together to lend and borrow money. With cutting-edge technology, we transformed this invisible practice into a force for good.

Program participants are freeing themselves from the grasp of predatory lenders by opening bank accounts, building credit histories, paying down high-cost debt, and increasing their savings. They are investing in businesses, buying homes, and saving for a better future.

Lending Circles brings to light what’s already good in people’s lives.

And within that light, participants are forging a sure path into the financial mainstream, unlocking their true economic potential every step of the way. The program’s success is serving as a model in the fight against poverty, demonstrating new and effective ways of helping low-income people without belittling them in the process.

This is the behind-the-scenes story of how we made this happen.

Celebrating the Many Moms of Our Community


This Mother’s Day, we’re celebrating all the “MAF Moms” working hard to create better lives for their families through Lending Circles.

This Sunday is a day dedicated to the strong, wise, generous, and caring mothers in our lives. In the spirit of Mother’s Day, we’re celebrating a few MAF clients who are working hard to build bright financial futures for their families.

Three Generations of Chefs

For Guadalupe, cooking authentic Mexican cuisine has always been a family affair. As a girl, she and her mother made the tastiest tortillas from scratch, and now she and her daughters do the same. She used her Lending Circles loan to buy equipment and help pay for a van to expand her catering business, El Pipila — which she runs with her daughter to support their family.

When we last shared Guadalupe’s story in 2014, she dreamed of opening a small, brick-and-mortar food stand. Now, she’s a food vendor at The Hall in San Francisco and a food truck regular at Bay Area festivals. Guadalupe’s family is key to her success. “I am doing this for my daughters. I want to make sure that neither of them has to work for anyone but themselves”.

A Mom on a Mission

Helen, a single mom from Guatemala, came to MAF with a simple dream: to have a safe home for her children. Because she couldn’t afford the hefty security deposit and didn’t have a credit score, she had no choice but to rent rooms in shared apartments — including one with families living in hallways.

After joining a Lending Circle, Helen saved up enough for a security deposit and built her credit score. Now, she has her own three-bedroom apartment for her daughters, and even bigger dreams.

Whipping Up Cupcakes with Her Son’s Support

Elvia’s son ignited her passion for baking with a simple question: “Mom, what do you love to do most?” After building a reputation for having the best desserts at parties, her family and friends encouraged Elvia to start a bakery.

She used a $5,000 loan from MAF to invest in a fridge, business license, and a number of necessities to grow her bakery, La Luna Cupcakes. She now has a cupcake shop in Crocker Galleria in San Francisco, and her children continue to be her North Star. “I always taught them if you want something, you can do it! Believe in your dream!”

Thanks to Lesley Marling, MAF’s newest Partner Success Manager, for her contributions to this post.

Policy Must Uplift People’s Strengths, Not Criticize Their Character


A recent article from sociologist Philip N. Cohen underscores the importance of policies that respect the dignity & strengths of the families we serve.

Last week Philip N. Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and senior scholar with the Council on Contemporary Families, published an article in the Washington Post arguing that “American policy fails at reducing child poverty because it aims to fix the poor.”

The headline grabbed my attention.

It succinctly captured what decades of work with low-income communities have taught me: We don’t need saviors to teach poor people the right morals. We need advocates to recognize and cultivate their strengths so that they move out of poverty themselves.

Current anti-poverty policies that aim to fix them, actually work against them.

Cohen’s piece scrutinizes this current approach, and dispenses with it. He challenges the motives, logic, and outcomes of anti-poverty policies that pressure poor parents to get married or find jobs as a precondition for government assistance:

We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. … Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.

Tax benefits like the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit are reserved for those able to find and hold a job, which can be all but impossible for people struggling to care for young children or older parents and people with disabilities that make it difficult to work. Welfare payments are restricted by work requirements and time limits that leave millions of families out.

Other past, present, and proposed anti-poverty policies are designed to incentivize marriage, effectively penalizing parents who choose not to marry – a choice that everyone, rich or poor, should be able to make freely.

Policies like these fail to treat poor people with the respect they deserve.

And they fail to provide solutions that work for all families. Cohen proposes simpler alternatives, programs that serve all parents equally and offer poor families a leg up without imposing moral judgments on their individual decisions and needs.

This brings us to a broader lesson that all of us – policymakers, nonprofit leaders, community members – can learn from: We must meet people where they are, respect what they bring to the table, and build on the strengths they have.

This approach is not a pipe dream. I see it work every day with Lending Circles.

MAF’s social loan programs begin from a position of respect, acknowledging and valuing the rich resources and financial savvy that our clients already possess. We then build on those strengths by integrating their positive behaviors and informal practices into the mainstream financial marketplace.

Poor people are not broken. They have strengths that we too often fail to recognize.

Rather than judging their behavior and imposing our own values on them, we must treat them with dignity and seek out solutions that work for everyone, whatever their background, abilities – or marital status.

Law School & Tamales: DACA Opens Doors for Kimberly


With the help of Lending Circles for DACA, Kimberly is finishing her degree and prepping her law school applications — all while helping her mom and sister grow their family tamale business.

It’s hard to miss Ynes’s tamale stand.

On weekday mornings in a quiet Oakland neighborhood, you’ll find all the energy of a street market packed into one small food cart. “I was about to get breakfast across the street, then I saw you all!” shouted one of Ynes’s regulars as she approached the cart.

For years Ynes and her daughters, Kimberly and Maria, have been coming to the same spot to serve up authentic Mexican tamales. Ynes and her husband moved to Oakland from Cabo San Lucas 20 years ago to create a new life, with more opportunities for their young daughters.

From an early age, Kimberly was determined to make the most of these opportunities.

Kimberly is one of the many thousands of young people who have used Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to attend college and secure jobs. And she’s one of the hundreds who have used Lending Circles for DREAMers to fund their DACA applications.

But before DACA, many doors were closed to her.

As a child, Kimberly worked hard in school and ultimately graduated with the grades she needed to go to a 4-year university. But because she wasn’t born in the US, she didn’t qualify for financial aid or even in-state tuition. Instead, she enrolled in a local community college that she could afford to pay out-of-pocket.

One evening, Kimberly saw a segment on Univision that would change everything: a profile of a local nonprofit that provides social loans to help immigrants build credit and apply for DACA. Hoping this could be the key to her dream school, she came to our office to learn more.

Two years ago, Kimberly joined her first Lending Circle.

Right off the bat, she found MAF’s financial management training extremely helpful. “In school they teach you how to do math problems and write papers, but they don’t teach you about credit,” she said. Next, with her Lending Circles loan and a $232.50 match from the SF Mexican Consulate, she applied for DACA and was soon approved.

Her new status lifted the barriers that had been holding her back from her dreams.

Kimberly could finally access the financial aid she needed to transfer to San Francisco State University. She was hired for two part-time jobs. And with better credit, she secured a loan to buy new equipment for her family’s business: tables, chairs, and canopies so their customers to sit and socialize.

Today, Kimberly is finishing her degree in political science at SFSU — and her second Lending Circle.

She’s giving back to her community by volunteering at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, an organization that supports refugees and immigrants in the Bay Area. She’s also studying for the LSAT and preparing her law school applications, working toward a career in immigration and family law.

And all the while, she’s helping her mom grow their family’s food cart business.

Kimberly and her sister Maria are still by their mother’s side, serving tamales to an ever-growing clientele. What’s next for the family business? With an improved credit history, they’re seeking a larger loan to expand their operations with a second food cart. Ultimately, Ynes dreams of opening a restaurant to bring her delicious tamales to even more eager, hungry customers.

An Important Question for Every Relationship: “What’s Your Credit Score?”


From finding your next great relationship to paying for a special night out, having good credit is important.

This blog was originally published on CFED’s “Inclusive Economy” blog as part of the Assets & Opportunity National Week of Action.

We all love the excitement of getting a notification that someone is interested in you after looking at your dating profile. You quickly check theirs, see where they live, what interests they have, what their pictures say about them.

But what if you could see their credit score, too?

So many relationships are fraught with money troubles, so it’s understandable to want to know whether your potential partner is sound financially. Dating sites are good at determining compatibility based on self-reported measures, but using a seemingly objective indicator like credit score seems like it would help make better matches–and potentially help love birds avoid some serious financial problems down the road.

What about folks who don’t have any credit history at all?

There are an estimated 26 million people in the United States who are “credit invisible”, meaning there is not enough information in the borrower’s profile to generate a credit report or a credit score. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites or Asian Americans to be credit invisible or to have unscored credit records. Millions more have “subprime” credit, meaning that they have less-than-ideal credit profiles or scores.

There was a woman who dropped by one Friday afternoon at Mission Asset Fund (MAF), the nonprofit where I work. She asked if she would be able to get money so that she could take her son out to dinner that night for his birthday. Unfortunately, MAF’s social loan program does not provide the immediacy of funds that she needed.

So where does someone like her go?

If she does not have credit and is unable to borrow from friends and family, her only option may be to go to a payday lender that can offer her money that same day as an advance on her regular earnings with an employer. Even though payday lenders are known to charge exorbitant interest rates and fees, the trade-off may seem worth it to her in order to have a celebratory meal with her family.

I saw so many people make this same decision at the payday loan shop that my mom managed in Indiana. The challenge was that, once someone took out a payday loan, it became very difficult for them to get rid of it.

What seemed like a short-term loan ballooned into a long-term commitment.

While in high school, I came back from California to visit my mom every six months, and I would see the same customers every year, again and again. They would even get my mom gifts for Christmas. The payday lender soon became the lender of choice and at times the only lender, a place where customers felt listened to and understood, but which did little to break them out of a credit-and-debt cycle so that they could truly build assets.

Many state laws protect consumers against predatory lenders, but borrowers can still access these loans online if they are not available in their neighborhood. New York has warned online lenders about its interest rates caps and rules against title lending, while other states like California have seen operations move out of state to tribal reservations in order to thwart regulations and continue business. Laws are not enough to protect consumers from accessing bad loans, as people will always need access to capital.

One of the barriers to strong consumer protection is the way our country goes about credit.

It is not intuitive that a person may be dinged on their credit report for failing to pay an electricity or cable bill, while at the same time being unable to benefit from making regular on-time payments for such services–even though these often require a credit check or a sizable deposit. Increasingly, credit has become so important that it can impact where you work and even where you live.

From finding your next great relationship to paying for a special night out, having good credit is important. My immigrant father who came to the United States from India repeatedly told me to avoid credit cards as a young adult so I would avoid the same mistakes he made. He added me as an authorized user to his AMEX charge card so I could build a credit history early on without taking on debt.

I encourage you to start similar conversations with your family members and friends about credit too.

You may even want to connect with one of the organizations in the A&O Network to help you realize larger financial goals. You, your relationship and your credit profile deserve to be powerful.

Luis and Zenaida: A family of chefs

An exhausting work schedule motivated Luis and Zenaida to envision a different future for themselves. Lending Circles helped them get there.

Zenaida and Luis reacted differently when they found out Zenaida was pregnant. While Luis shed joyful tears, Zenaida worried about morning sickness.

“But everything happened to Luis. He was sleepy, he was tired, he was sick – I was fine!” she said.

The spunky thirty-something couple from El Salvador had very different experiences with their fathers.  Luis never really knew his dad, while Zenaida still feels the sting of her father’s passing three years ago.

“I was very close to my father and I wanted the same for Luis and Mateo,” she said.

In 2012, Luis found himself working brutal hours with little time left over for his son, Mateo.  He often worked 14-hour days juggling two jobs as a chef.  Zenaida knew it was just a matter of time before he just couldn’t stand it anymore.

A new business idea

So, the couple started their own business, D’maize Catering, in hopes of spending more time together as a family. They quickly learned that they needed credit to take on bigger orders. But, Zenaida had no credit history because she always paid bills in cash.

Zenaida joined a Lending Circle and established a credit score for the first time, an impressive 750! She qualified for a small loan to invest in a car for the business and plans to apply for more to invest in a commercial kitchen and a home for her family.

Now, the couple has 8 employees and regularly cater events for Silicon Valley companies like Foursquare and at food festivals in San Francisco. They continue to be inspired by their son, Mateo, who also wants to be a chef when he grows up.

“Everyone has a dream, but sometimes you need help,” Luis said. “We’re not special. We did it with help from our community.”