Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
For 20 years, the food was delicious and the service friendly in the family-owned Mexican restaurant. And though the owners, a couple who never attended high school, worked hard and saw their daughter off to the convent and higher education, they never learned to read a financial statement and had no pension when it was time to retire.
Janie Barrera grew up working in that Corpus Christi restaurant her parents ran. “And I saw their struggles,” she said. Though Barrera eventually left the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, her family and personal experience still inspire a commitment to serve others.
At 62, Barrera is president and CEO of LiftFund, a financial and business-support service organization that manages the nation’s largest microlender portfolio. It is a job she’s held since 1994 when the nonprofit small-business lender formed as Accion Texas and hired Barrera as its first employee.
Today, now independent of Accion since 2015, LiftFund has made over 18,000 loans — to entrepreneurs in 13 states — totaling more than $228 million. In the five-year span between 2010 and 2015, the creation or growth of small businesses, in Texas alone, amounted to $1.4 billion in economic impact.
The impact of microlending around the world has been debated, and many experts agree it is not a magic bullet for ending poverty, nor a substitute for infrastructure investments in health and education. But Barrera’s advocacy for small business owners transcends societal impact — it’s as much about dignity and compassion.
“We are told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless,” she said. “But if you don’t have a dollar, how can you do that?”
More than half of LiftFund clients are Hispanic, 24% African-American, and 17% white. Over 60% report low-to-moderate income levels, and 38% of borrowers are women.
Women-owned businesses are one of the fastest growing sectors, especially in Hispanic communities, Barrera said. Although women represent half of the U.S. workforce and control 80 percent of the country's buying power, they still make up fewer than 5% of investors. Last year, LiftFund’s Women’s Business Center (WBC) and Launch SA provided thousands of hours of technical assistance to small business owners.
Next month, the WBC will serve as the local host of the 2017 InnovateHER Challenge, a nationwide business competition to promote innovative products and services that help improve the lives of women and families. Entrepreneurs will compete here for the chance to move forward and vie at the national level for $70,000 in prize money.
“Competition is good,” Barrera said of the Challenge. “Everybody wants to be a winner and competition is good for all of us, not just a company. In this world, we want everybody to be able to make money.”
To do that for all entrepreneurs, Barrera’s goal is to level the financial playing field. By all accounts, she’s been successful.
LiftFund clients have a 74% success rate, compared to 30% small-business survival overall. Borrowers experience 73% sales growth compared to 41% for non-borrowers. With a hundred employees and a $17 million budget, LiftFund has experienced only one year when its expenses exceeded income.
“Not many nonprofits can say that,” she said. “But we run LiftFund like a business with a social justice cause.”
As “Sister” Janie Barrera in the 1970s, she led a successful telecommunications system and radio and television programs for the Diocese of Corpus Christi before coming to San Antonio to pursue an MBA at the University of the Incarnate Word.
“It was the first time I had ever lived by myself,” Barrera said. “I never went back.” But she needed a job. In 1989, she went to work at Randolph Air Force Base as marketing chief of MWR (Morale, Welfare & Recreation). She traveled around the world, and it was fun, she said, “but not satisfying.”
Friend and former Councilwoman María Berriozábal recommended her to Accion. “At first I was rejected because I had no banking background,” Barrera said. “But after meeting me, I had the job.”
Twenty-three years later, evidence that she was the right hire hangs on the wall of Barrera’s office on West Martin Street, including photos of her with Hillary Clinton (as First Lady), former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and former President Barack Obama, who appointed Barrera to the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability.
Barrera has been named Small Business Administration Financial Services Advocate of the Year and the Minority Enterprise Development Consortium’s Corporate Advocate of the Year, and she was named to the board of directors for the Federal Reserve of Dallas’ San Antonio Branch.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t know anything about the stock market, anything about the financial world. If you had asked me 23 years ago if I would be sitting across the table from the president of the United States, [I would have said] ‘Really?’ Or ringing the New York Stock Exchange bell in 2015. But that’s happened.”
Barrera also has adeptly led the organization through growth that includes developing methodology and loan delivery procedures, rebranding the organization in 2015, expanding from three to 105 in staff, and managing several office relocations.
The current headquarters of LiftFund was established following a successful $7.9 million capital campaign two years ago and features a business incubator known as the Wells Fargo Business Launch Center (currently housing The Social Being), a conference center, and office space for LiftFund operations.
LiftFund also operates the WBC at the San Antonio Public Library and co-working space on the Southeast side, LiftOff.
Next, she wants to make LiftFund a self-sustaining organization.
“Instead of us borrowing the money to lend, LiftFund needs its own money to lend, so Liftfund then has equity and a stronger balance sheet,” she said. “Right now, we’re doing that. We’ve created a Dream Fund where 100% of the funds stay in San Antonio, and we have a separate Dream Fund for each city. So dollars raised in a community stay in that community.”
It will take a few years, she added, to build the fund. But it’s worth the effort if it can break the cycle of poverty so people can leave something for the next generation.
“There’s that saying that if you give someone a fish, she can eat for a day. Teach her to fish, and she can eat for a lifetime. But we want to help people buy the pond, to own something and have equity.”