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Tag: Innovation

SPUR of the moment

MAF explores the connection between urban planning and financial access.

It’s mid afternoon on an exceptionally warm summer day in San Francisco as people begin to file into a sun-drenched room at SPUR’s offices on Mission and 2nd Street waiting to hear about creating a new path to financial empowerment. Unlike the usual groups of people (banks, tech companies, nonprofits, asset-builders) who usually come to hear Jose talk about MAF, all of the people in this room are urban planners.

These are the people who work to make the city’s streets navigable, the buildings impressive and unobtrusive, the parks green and inviting, and the traffic flowing smoothly. So why would urban planners – people who are interested in the tangible aspects of city planning –  be interested in financial empowerment? Simply put, a strong vibrant city needs an economically empowered base.

A city is like a living organism; when its residents get stronger, the entire city gets stronger.

Jose started with talking about how important economic empowerment is for creating a sustainable urban environment. It’s not an argument we often talk about because we’re usually in a different sort of crowd. So we weren’t entirely sure how this would go over, but to our surprise the crowd was in full agreement.

We used this opportunity to dig deeper into the meaning of financial empowerment and its immediate impacts upon communities and cities. We talked about innovative approaches to creating financially empowered communities that no longer have to resort to subsisting on payday loans and other high cost debt.

One of the SPUR members asked, “I’d love to see an effort made to make credit unions feel more accessible… by emulating Check Cashing stores.” Jose replied, “ While on the surface that may seem like a constructive idea, to create a familiar space for individuals. Emulating pay day lenders would encourage and reinforce the cycle of debt as well as the subsistence patterns that we are trying to move people away from.”

By emulating a pay day lender, we are not modeling positive financial behaviors. We want to move people from those groups towards lower cost, mainstream financial services.

It was at this point the crowd fully understood what MAF was about. When we meet people where they are, we recognize the financial aptitude of our members as well as how they navigate the financial pain points of their lives.

We see the financial savviness they have developed and we use it to transform them. For us, neither subsistence nor replacement is the goal. We don’t want to replace a broken system with another system. We want to move our members to a functional and formalized pattern of saving, investing, and credit building.

Economic planning goes hand-in-hand with the financial stability of an entire city. That’s just as important as creating bike lanes that are wide enough or buildings that are up to code. It’s about taking a longer view of sustainability of a city, its culture, and the quality of life for everyone. Urban planning does not end with the sidewalk; it begins with the people who use that sidewalk.

Leonor Brings Sunshine to the Community

Find out how Leonor used Lending Circles to launch a business to promote good health in her community

For as long as Leonor Garcia can recall, the driving force in her life was to support her community. Even when she was a little girl in El Salvador, Leonor says she always had a keen sense for business, but would use her savviness to help the people around her.

She grew up on a sprawling tobacco farm which her father and mother were in charge of. On the side, her mother owned a small shop that sold food, beverages and other items for the men working in the field. Leonor would spend all of her time tagging along with her father as he inspected the fields, managed the workers, and tended to the crops. When the growing season had ended, she would go with her mother and watch her negotiate sales prices and contracts with various companies and stores that wanted to purchase the tobacco.

Leonor learned a great deal about business and the relationship between products and money, but she also learned that working for the community yields the greatest rewards.

Leonor went on to become a teacher in a local school. For her, teaching children was a dream job. She worked her way up to become the headmaster of the school. During this time, Leonor kept her dream of entrepreneurship alive by owning and running a highly successful grocery store. After she retired from teaching, she decided that it was also time to sell the store. Leonor needed a new adventure and she knew just where to find it. She knew that in the US she would have more opportunities and more freedoms to grow a business.

After moving to the US in 2001, Leonor wanted to start her new business immediately, but she was blocked. Whenever she went for a loan, she was denied because she had no credit. For Leonor, that was a slap in the face. She had run a highly successful business in El Salvador while running a school. She also grew up watching and learning everything she could from her parents.

Leonor wouldn’t give up, but she needed a reliable way of getting money and building her credit. That’s when she found out about Mission Asset Fund through one of her friends. She was able to get a micro loan and build up her credit for future investment. The loan helped her purchase a generator, display shelves and other medical equipment to open up her business, Leonor’s Nature Sunshine.

Leonor’s Nature Sunshine is a business built upon Leonor’s desire to help people live healthier lives.

She provides the latest natural health products, supplements, diagnostic tests and homeopathic remedies for people’s needs. A few minutes in her chair and Leonor will know exactly what ails you and how to fix it! Leonor believes in finding affordable products that treat the root of the problem and the whole system. Her most popular products are for digestion, chlorophyll and probiotics.

Leonor’s store used to be located in a flea market in Richmond, but after her surgery, she moved it to the comfort of her home which was also more private and confidential for clients. She is so client-centered that if they can’t pay her upfront, clients are able to pay her in installments for their purchases. Leonor has become so popular that people come to her house daily to have a meeting with her.

After she appeared on local TV last year, Leonor said she was inundated with calls as soon as the interview was over.

“People said ‘it’s such a blessing to have your phone number!’,” she recalls with a laugh.

Through her successful business Leonor has been able to focus on healing her community and she’s got big dreams for her future. “ I want to have more capacity and more recognition to help people have a satisfied, healthy life,” she says. Leonor also wants to challenge herself new trends in her field, attend conferences and become savvier with social media. She hopes to improve her economic status and begin training others as health promoters.

Right now, Leonor is training her husband, a welder, to work with her in the business. Her interest in nonprofits motivated her to be an ambassador and funder for A New America’s first entrepreneurship class as well as donate funds and time to various nonprofits around the Bay Area. She says that without MAF, none of this could have ever happened and she is thankful every day that she has been given this amazing opportunity to be Mother Nature in her community.

Screwing in the light bulb with GoogleServe

How many Google employees does it take to screw in a light bulb?

We don’t know. But we do know how many Google employees it takes to elevate the user experience for our new online social loan platform: five.

How did we get five Google employees in our office in the first place? No, we didn’t trick them by luring them onto a MAF bus. (We didn’t have time to pull off a plan like that.) Instead, we had the honor of hosting five amazing employees for the 2014 GoogleServe event.

Google encourages their employees to build relationships and create positive impact within the communities that they live and work in. One of the many options Google provides to employees is a day of service known as GoogleServe.

As one of the organizations lucky enough to be chosen as one of the GoogleServe locations in the Bay Area, we began to compile a laundry list of tech-related needs. Realizing that five people weren’t going to be able to provide solutions to all of our requests we whittled it down to one – helping us create a better flow for our new Lending Circles enrollment process.

It had been an issue we had been working on for a little while, and we felt that some fresh eyes and highly analytical minds would give us some clear direction towards an answer.

That Thursday morning our staff puttered around the office in hot anticipation of our incoming visitors. As the volunteers began to filter in, we were met with warm, friendly people who were excited to meet us and get started on the project at hand. Arriving with a box full of sandwiches from the Google office, Axel, Wenzhe, Dan, Chris and Sudarshan were happy to join a startup environment.

Together, we set out to create a better experience for our members and partners when they enroll in our program and we wanted the volunteers to make that process even more intuitive. It is important for us to show the ease of our program from start to finish, and the enrollment process is the first interaction that everyone has with MAF.

They were interested in every angle of our process, the members needs, the partners needs, the ways to access the new platform, even the times of day we expected our partners and members would be trying to access the enrollment process. Once they had gathered the important information, they set to work. By noon, the MAF staff sat down to have lunch with the volunteers and thank them for all their hard work. We all discussed what it was that made us so passionate about our respective work.

Like the volunteers, we had a thirst for knowledge and a drive to create a better world through technology.

The volunteers talked about their experience as residents of the Mission, their admiration for the local communities, and the love they felt for the vibrant cultures and characters that make up the neighborhood. For them, credit was not something they thought about often, so they were surprised to hear how the lack of credit and access to a fair financial marketplace was negatively impacting the ability for families in the Mission to thrive.

One volunteer offered his own experience moving to the states from another country and how difficult it was for him to build credit. We also received a tutorial on how to quickly fold t-shirts, for Doris this was a life changing experience.

As the day progressed, we watched in awe as the whiteboard became progressively covered in words, lines, numbers, and random scribbles.

After a few hours, the Google employees had taken our goals for the new enrollment process and laid out a simple, workable plan to achieve them. We were able to find a solution to an issue critical to increasing access to our Lending Circles program as well as a new approach to creating innovative solutions.

Through the Google team we learned some creative new strategies for viewing a question, and creating innovative solutions. We talked about the importance of credit and financial stability for the health of our communities. Most importantly, we had time to sit down and meet like minded people who love San Francisco and its residents as much as we do. Plus, a few staff members even learned a unique way to fold a t-shirt. It was an interesting and eye opening experience, and we would do it again in a heartbeat!

Jonathan D’Souza is the Marketing Manager at Mission Asset Fund and he loves to talk to talk to people about the importance of credit building while showing them too many photos of his dog Phoenix. You can reach him at

Is a new logo like getting a new uniform?

When a new nonprofit is founded, it’s usually someone’s cousin or friend who gets the task of designing the new logo. They do the best job they can and the organization eagerly eats it up, grateful that one more thing is done. Even if they don’t realize it, the staff quickly adopts a brand identity created around that logo. With flyers and websites and presentations all using the same fonts and color schemes, they strive for making everything look like it has a sense of belonging. But after a while, the organization usually comes into its own and that old look just can’t keep up. Who the organization is now no longer matches the colors, fonts and visual style that it needs to represent itself to the world.

MAF, the nonprofit in San Francisco where I work, is no exception. About seven years ago, we were started by an amazing group of community advocates. When the Levi Strauss Company, a long-time neighborhood employer, closed its last factory in San Francisco, community leaders and the company forged together to imagine a new kind of future. With proceeds from the sale, they would create a new nonprofit to help low-income residents of the Mission District. And so Mission Asset Fund was formed. And a spouse of one of those community leaders created our first logo. When I look at the first logo, I imagine our members looking at the growth of their bank accounts over time, meeting various milestones along the way.

Our 2007 logo

But that was seven years ago, when the nonprofit had two employees, a few dozen clients and brand new programs. Now it’s seven years and several awards later and our social loans can still be found in the Mission District, but also in six other U.S. states. The old look with rigid building blocks has broadened into a larger tapestry of people, communities and nonprofits working to build a fair financial marketplace, together.

What colors your organization wears are meaningful.

Pink, a color that in the 19th century was reserved for the clothing of young boys, is now “only for girls,” according to my five-year-old son. Pink is also now associated with a nationwide network of breast cancer advocacy. For MAF, the dark blues of our first logo indicate knowledge, power, integrity and seriousness. But as anyone who knows us, we’re also agile, community-based and not afraid to change the conversation.

If a brand is everything someone says or knows about your organization, a logo is like a team uniform.

So year after year, even as your body grows and your mind matures, you can still be stuck wearing a uniform stitched together in 2007 back when the Sopranos faded to black. This time, we know where we’re going and we know how to get there. So we worked with the amazingly creative team at Digital Telepathy to come up with a uniform that fits who we are now.

Our new logo

We’ve traded the rigid shapes and dark blues for vibrant Pantone colors of varying sizes, energetic aqua blues, bright grass greens, rich purples.

We think our new look does a better job of showing the world what our vision for change is all about.

What does it say to you?

Shifting the focus on social lending

Jan Stürmann, a videographer based out of San Francisco, produced four awesome new videos highlighting MAF’s programs and how social lending really transforms people’s lives. He was gracious enough to share his thoughts with me on capturing our story and what he learned from the experience.

What is your process like when you begin a new video/storytelling project?

The first part is trying to get some sense of the story the client is trying to tell (which the real story is often only emerges in the editing process.) Then it’s identifying the key people who can tell this story. Before an interview I try to let my curiosity be my guide in generating a list of questions to ask. I find writing a script is generally not very helpful. It’s by engaging in a conversation, whilst trying to ignore the camera, that the surprising details emerge. Once I have the interview, I get it transcribed and from there build a first draft script. Then, ideally, I go back and shoot b-roll footage, which is what I lay over the interview.

Community and relationships are two important values for Mission Asset Fund. How did you try to capture those concepts in the videos?

I try to work as unobtrusively as I can, normally alone, so what ever interaction can happen as naturally as possible. My direction is never going to be as good as some surprise happening spontaneously. My job is to be attentive to those moments.

Was there a particular video you had the most enjoyable or interesting experience putting together?

It’s always a privilege to be invited into a world I’m unfamiliar with and to be trusted with people’s stories. On the surface a topic like money and credit seems boring. But talking honestly about money is one of the last taboos in our culture. Personally I’m very interested about how we interact with money. So being able to indulge that interest professionally was very gratifying for me.

Did you find it difficult to visualize financial concepts like credit and loans in an engaging way?

What I did not want to do going into this project was create a boring video filled with a lot of graphs and charts. The trick was to figure out how to find the stories behind the graphs and charts. We all grapple with money daily with varying degrees of awareness.

You can view the videos to explore the communities and projects that MAF is involved with at following links: The Power of OpportunityEveryone Deserves a Shot at Success, Creating a Fair Financial Marketplace, and  Building Credit, Building Communities