by: Shannon DeCelle
Loan fund supports microentrepreneurs
in ways traditional banks would never dream of
Ravenell, owner of Mahogany Barber and Beauty Salon, doesn’t
mince words when asked what it was like seeking start-up financing
from banks. “The experience was not very pleasant,” he says,
in a tone that implies he’s understating by a wide measure.
Despite having a strong business plan and even some business
school, Ravenell had a bankruptcy almost a decade in his past,
and the banks just couldn’t get past that, he said.
Microenterprises—businesses with five employees or less—often
face these kinds of problems, says Paul Stewart, senior loan
officer at the Capital District Community Loan Fund, a nonprofit
community financial institution headquartered on Orange Street
in Albany’s Arbor Hill. Microentrepreneurs have to jump hurdles
not only of credit history, but also collateral, and the fact
that banks just aren’t as interested in smaller loans, which
are just as much work for less profit. Even if a microentrepreneur
can get a loan, it’s likely to be at a steep interest rate.
This, says Stewart, is a shame, since these very small businesses
are the foundation of a functioning community. “If large businesses
are allowed to drive small ones out, the communities are the
losers,” he says. With small businesses you get a better mix
of goods and services and the businesspeople are more invested
locally. Stewart describes his vision as “locally owned, locally
controlled businesses, keeping the wealth in the community.”
In order to promote that, the loan fund accepts deposits and
donations from socially concerned investors (individuals,
churches, banks’ community reinvestment departments) and makes
loans of up to $25,000 to microentrepreneurs starting or expanding
businesses. (It also makes loans to nonprofits—its original
mission.) It focuses on women, minority, or low-income businesspeople
and businesses serving low-income communities.
Staff respond to about 300 funding inquiries a year, and they
look at each borrower on a case-by-case basis, examining not
just credit and assets, but also business plans and overall
wherewithal to carry out the plan. Final determinations are
made by a volunteer loan committee that meets monthly. “The
primary importance,” says Stewart, “is that the entrepreneur
is heading in the right direction.” The loan fund’s fixed
rate of 8 percent is usually well below market rate for these
kinds of loans—especially considering the number of small
business owners who resort to credit cards for start-up.
Ravenell, and hundreds of others, turned to CDCLF for financing
when the banks said no—or seemed likely to. When Laurene Walsh
needed a loan to covert her garage into a day-care room for
her expanding home child-care business, she didn’t even go
to the banks. Having worked in banking for 13 years, she knew
her numbers weren’t going to be worth their while. Besides,
the loan fund had the best rate out there. “The loan fund
really wanted to lend,” she recalls. “A large bank, they have
a lot of business, they don’t have to look at a small businessperson
Chris Pepe and John Wallner of Anokha Imports learned this
the hard way. Pepe had begun importing and selling handmade
crafts from India after she spent a year there for graduate
school. Fluent in Hindi and comfortable traveling to meet
the craftspeople herself, she had a great advantage over most
importers, who bought from middlemen in New Delhi at steep
markups. After a summer trade show netted them $17,000 worth
of wholesale orders, they knew they needed funding to invest
in inventory and business infrastructure.
Banks, however, “more or less laughed at it,” recalls Wallner,
who first encouraged Pepe to make Anohka a “real” business,
and then joined her as a business partner. “They said if you
want to take a second mortgage on your house, you can do that.”
But then a loan officer at HSBC introduced them to Stewart.
“We didn’t know what to think after being told by everyone
in the world that we were unbankable,” says Wallner. But Stewart,
he remembers, said they had a great story and a great potential
to help both their community here and the craftspeople in
India. After a little work on the business plan, they got
a $15,000 line of credit.
The loan fund’s “community-based banking” model goes far beyond
being less strict about credit scores, emphasizes executive
director Bob Radliff. It’s about providing a “complete package”
to help entrepreneurs succeed. The fund offers classes in
conjunction with the College of Saint Rose, legal clinics,
marketing seminars, and energy-efficiency advice. Recently
it introduced a special program focusing on the needs of child-care
providers, and there are plans for a special seminar on issues
facing hair- and beauty-salon owners.
The loan fund didn’t always have such a wide range of support
services and trainings, but as its microenterprise lending
got going in the mid-’90s, “We realized we couldn’t make these
loans in a vacuum,” says Radliff.
Mike Mathews, associate professor of business and MBA program
coordinator at Saint Rose, is enthusiastic about the training
partnership, which began in 2000. “I owned a business for
several years, so I have a soft spot for people starting businesses,”
says Mathews. He and several other faculty teach, and bring
in experts like loan officers, lawyers, and accountants. He
says their program isn’t necessarily so different from a number
of great business training programs in the area—except that
it’s focused on the truly micro enterprises. “Really small
businesses sometimes get lost in the shuffle,” he says.
Even this full catalog of offerings misses one of the main
things that borrowers say sets the loan fund apart from its
for-profit banking peers: the personal touch, from helping
with the business plan to networking with other funders.
When Lissa D’Aquanni, owner of the Chocolate Gecko, wanted
to move her homemade chocolates operation out of her basement,
Radliff came with her to look at buildings. Wanting to stay
in her Delaware Avenue neighborhood, she settled on an abandoned
building that needed a complete gut rehab. Banks had no interest:
The project was far too big for her current sales. “Their
response was, ‘You need to be looking at a kiosk in a mall,’”
she says, still shuddering at the thought. “I knew that was
so antithetical to this business.”
The loan fund was on board, but its maximum loan was only
a drop in the bucket for what D’Aquanni needed. “On paper
the Community Loan Fund portion of it was so minute, but in
reality they played a partnership role,” says D’Aquanni. When
she went back to Radliff, despondent over the banks’ response,
she says, “He charged me back up again, and went to the meetings
with me.” That worked. “Having him there gave me credibility,”
says D’Aquanni, and it made people at least look at the business
plan seriously, which showed that the plan actually would
work. And even once the funders were lined up, she remembers
Radliff making phone calls and going to bat for her as the
complicated closing process came together. “It wasn’t just
like ‘I got you the funding now you make it happen,’” she
D’Aquanni’s project wasn’t a traditional plan: The construction
portion included 20 to 30 neighborhood volunteers working
every Saturday for a month doing everything from pulling down
old walls to laying floor tile. Today, volunteers still help
with projects from decorating to packing baskets at busy holiday
times. D’Aquanni donates 5 percent of her gross sales (in
the form of chocolate) to community organizations. The two
other businesses in the building—a yoga studio and yarn store,
neither of which existed before the building project—draw
in additional customer base and make the little plaza an anchor
in the community. “It’s a community-based business model,”
That’s exactly the reason the loan fund was so excited about
it. “It was more than a small business,” says Radliff. “It
was an attempt to help improve a neighborhood.” They were
also thrilled because they had given her a small equipment
loan previously, and were happy to see that her business was
ready to take the next step. “The relationship doesn’t end
at loan closing,” says Radliff.
The loan fund is always excited about helping borrowers expand,
and about taking on new and promising businesses. Radliff
says he feels like they’ve finally reached a point of having
all the pieces in place to do microenterprise lending right.
The only limit at this point, he says, is that they need more
investors. “There’s a tremendous need out there, and we have
a limited capacity,” he says. “It’s the only thing holding
by: John Whipple
While other high-profile urban-renewal
efforts get the money and the press, Troy’s River Street is
quietly reimagining itself as a haven for arts-driven business
on stylish but homey modern furniture, Nadia Trinkala and
George Pisegna are discussing the relative merits of various
urban environments, from San Francisco to Manhattan, as a
well-groomed cat rouses itself from its sunbath and leaps
to the arm of a sleek sofa for a bit of attention.
A husky female voice croons sultry neo-soul over the stereo,
reinforcing the laid-back vibe, and conversation wends its
easy way from the price of real estate in the Castro district
to the architecture of downtown Troy.
why so many movies have been shot here,” says Pisegna, a former
architect himself. “There have been six movies shot in downtown
Troy, because of this incredible architecture. I don’t know
of any other comparable small city with such great buildings.”
Curled on the couch, Trinkala concurs, referencing the plaque
mounted in front of the nearby Rice Building commemorating
the filming of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.
then the front door swings open, and a pair of women step
in from River Street to investigate the colorful crafts and
knickknacks artfully displayed around the intimate space,
as the kitty hurries over to investigate the newcomers. The
sudden entrance of the two women serves as a subtle but irrefutable
reminder that the conversation isn’t taking place in a well-appointed
loft space, or the rec room of bohemian friends—as would be
easy to believe—but in one of River Street’s many arts-themed
retail establishments, All Blues Arts and Curios.
Before making disparaging assumptions about the easygoing
Trinkala’s and Pisegna’s work ethic, though, know that neither
really works in All Blues, which is owned by artist Jean Kreugger.
The duo are just chipping in, manning the shop as a favor
to their vacationing friend. (Pisegna laughs, “Poor Jean,
she’s going to come back and find that Nadia and I have completely
remerchandised her shop. Everything’s different.”) Trinkala,
a dealer in modern furniture, actually operates out of the
Bournebrook multidealer space, just down the street, and says
she was attracted to Troy for exactly this genial and informal
Previously, Trinkala operated a store and gallery, Trink,
in Cohoes. In her years there, she says she saw commercially
driven renewal efforts begin and falter repeatedly. “Often,
it seemed like, ‘Well, maybe it’s going to happen,’ but one
shop would open, then close within a year. Then, another would
open and close within a year. They never synchronized their
efforts, and so there just weren’t enough people to maintain
Eventually Trinkala sold her business and took some time off.
But the native Trojan reports that many of her Troy-based
friends encouraged her to return, at least professionally.
“They were telling me to come down here even when I was in
Cohoes,” she says.
Despite some initial apprehension, Trinkala decided to give
Troy a shot. She took a space in Bournebrook and, she says,
on River Street she has found what she never quite got in
here,” she says definitively. “It’s really nice, and with
the other merchants there’s a real sense of community. It’s
a groovy atmosphere.” An atmosphere that includes everything
from the aforementioned modern wares to antique furniture,
office supply stores, a record and rock-memorabilia shop,
a historic-home-supply warehouse, several hair salons, a live
music venue, and all manner of arts-and-crafts retailers.
Pisegna agrees, though he notes there are some improvements
to downtown Troy yet to be made—the addition of a significant
nightlife first and foremost among them. “We need an after-5
life,” he says. “Right now, there’s nothing to do after 5
or on the weekends.”
Nevertheless, both Trinkala and Pisegna are optimistic. “We’ve
overcome the really bad things,” Pisegna claims. “The city
has really stepped up. It just needs the last ummph, the last
like to see the return of the river festivals, like the Arts
Center used to put on,” says Dana Rudolph, who owns and operates
Dana Rudolph and Company, a jewelry, bead and gift shop on
River Street. “One a year, like Larkfest. I think it would
put River Street businesses on the map. I mean, no one knew
about Lark Street before Larkfest.”
Rudolph is in a position to know: In 1977 she opened her first
jewelry shop on Lark Street in Center Square, and was instrumental
in engineering the first Larkfest. She and buildingmate, Mary
Miller, the proprietor of long-defunct Lark Beat Records,
cooked up a scheme to call attention to local musicians, artists
and artisans—a scheme that worked in spades.
Larkfest has continued to expand and to grow in popularity.
For her part, though, Rudolph is not sure that it hews tightly
enough to its original purpose. “It’s become increasingly
commercial,” she says, suggesting that she would prefer something
more focused for her new home on River Street.
Because, despite the old regional prejudice against the Collar
City—“We called it the ‘Troylet,’ right?” she says laughingly—Rudolph
has been won over by the city and its growing cadre of artists.
She says she’d like to see a celebration of the creative community
emphasizing—and offering for sale—their contributions: “I
would want to do antiques, arts and crafts—juried craft shows
and the like. Enough with the tube-sock stalls, Larkfest can
In fact, Rudolph is full of ideas for the continued revitalization
of Troy; in addition to her own, she is a storehouse of jumpstarts
she’s heard others propose. Various restaurants, coffee shops
and performance spaces, for example (Rudolph is in agreement
that more restaurants and nightlife opportunities are imperative
for Troy’s long-term success), or the creation of a summer
Writer’s and Artist’s Institute at Sage’s Troy campus.
ago, I saw the poet Nikki Giovanni speak in Troy, and she
said, ‘Mark my words, in 10 to 20 years Troy is going to be
on the map,’ ” Rudolph recounts. “And it’s true, it’s happening.
We’re hot. I think it’s going to continue to develop along
an arts line, and it could be a real mecca. It’s got all the
plusses of small-town friendliness, but it’s a city, and I
like the fact that I walk over to City Hall and talk to the
not like a real businessperson: I’m an artist,” Rudolph says.
“But when I was looking into this place, I just had a feeling
that it was going to pop. It just feels magical.”
In All Blues, the cat has left off attending to the shopping
couple, who have smiled their goodbyes and set off down River
Street to root through the sidewalk displays of antique desk
chairs, outdated kitchen accessories, steamer trunks, kitschy
religious prints, etc. Trinkala and Pisegna have have finished
discussing the coffee and tea house soon scheduled to open
across the street, and Pisegna suggests that they should open
a jazz club.
yeah,” enthuses Trinkala, “a really funky jazz club would
In the minds of its residents, it seems, all systems are go
on River Street—if you’ve got an idea, all you need to do
is move on it.
can only go up,” says Pisegna. “The future is bright and obtainable.”
by: Leif Zurmuhlen
A Mansion Neighborhood store
owner builds her business— and her ties to the community
Kouchpileava, owner of Diana’s Wine & Liquor at the southwest
corner of Grand Street and Madison Avenue in Albany, is waiting
for the customer to make up his mind. After looking intently
at the selection in a display case for a few minutes, he decides
on a particular Australian red wine, a shiraz.
a good wine,” Kouchpileava says; however, she adds, it’s “a
little watery” compared to another, similarly priced Australian
shiraz she likes better. She muses on the relative merits
of another of the Australian brands she has in stock, then
stops herself and laughs: Kouchpileava says that she probably
shouldn’t be putting down anything she has on hand. “I have
to sell everything in the store.”
She’s certainly trying hard enough. She’s doing her best to
build the business by being responsive to customer requests.
She also stocks a good selection of New York state wines,
as well as some rare Russian vodkas. Walk past the store any
day except Monday, when it’s closed, and you’re likely to
see Kouchpileava inside. She explains, “I work from 9 to 9
everyday.” Even when business is slow—as it is on a weekday
morning like this—she has plenty to do, taking inventory and
stocking shelves. Most customer traffic, she notes, doesn’t
start until after 4 PM, when people are going home from work.
Diana’s Wine & Liquor will celebrate its second anniversary
in business this June. Kouchpileava, who already owned and
operated Stephanie’s convenience store just across Madison
Avenue, decided to open a wine-and-liquor store after hearing
so many requests from customers.
The liquor store is located in what was previously a butcher
shop; the space was empty for many years. Kouchpileava remembers
that when she first took a look, it “was horrible inside.”
The floor was a mess, she explains, and an entire “rotten”
wall had to be replaced. Even knowing what the old meat-market
looked like, it’s hard to picture it as being the same place
as this clean, well-appointed store, with its wine bottles
in sparkling glass cases and liquor bottles neatly shelved
in every conceivable nook and cranny.
Not everyone in the neighborhood was enthusiastic about the
prospect of a liquor store, however, when she made her plans
known. Such businesses in urban neighborhoods can be problematic,
attracting homeless alcoholics and other, as one resident
put it, “undesirable” elements. The Grand Street area is fragile
in a way both peculiar to, and typical of, many distressed
urban blocks. One bad influence can make the quality of life
Happily, through Kouchpileava’s careful planning and the design
of the store—with all the merchandise behind the counter or
in a display case—none of the worst-case scenarios came true.
The wine-and-liquor store has become part of the fabric of
mini-marts, sit-down and take-out restaurants, beauty parlors
and beauty supply stores that form the economic backbone of
Grand Street resident Theresa Johnson is one of those won
over by what Kouchpileava has done with the place: “I’m psyched
that she’s successful.”
Tom McPheeters, longtime member of the community and one of
the forces behind the effort to restore St. Anthony’s Church
into a community center, was initially in the opposition,
too. But that has changed, and he now says, “She has certainly
done her best to be a good neighbor.”
This goes beyond the well-maintained store, and the flowers
she plants out front in the summer. For a period of three
months last fall, Kouchpileava donated 10 percent of wine
sales to Grand Street Community Arts, the organization that
is revitalizing St. Anthony’s (the church is located directly
across Grand Street from the store). According to McPheeters,
this came to more than $700.
Kouchpileava came to the United States from Poltava, Ukraine,
on Dec. 22, 1992; she has no trouble remembering the date.
Beginning with practically no money, she began as a waitress
and housecleaner. Summing up two decades of effort, she notes
that she worked hard, and for as many hours as necessary,
to build a life here. She’s not the first to say it, but Kouchpileava
means every word when she says that this is “the best country
in the world.” The sentiment was reinforced by a trip home
three years ago; the Soviets may be gone, but the difficult
lives of her friends haven’t improved much.
One can’t help but wonder, what’s with the names of the stores?
After all, her first name is Lina. Well, it turns out that
Stephanie and Diana are her granddaughters. She proudly has
their pictures on display by the cash register. When Kouchpileava
had only the convenience store, Stephanie, the older sister,
would repeatedly ask her grandmother: “Baba Lina, whose store
is it?” Then, she would turn and mercilessly tease her sister:
“See—it’s my store.” So, to restore sibling harmony, Diana
got “her” own store, too.
Though this causes some confusion with customers, Kouchpileava
doesn’t mind: “I love it when they call me Stephanie or Diana,
[instead] of my own name.”