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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. – If you’re a woman, and you dream of starting or expanding your own business, Santa Cruz Community Credit Union wants to help. In fact, efforts by SCCU to build economic opportunity for women have won national recognition from the Community Investing Campaign, a Washington, D.C. – based project of the Social Investment Forum Foundation and Co-op America. “We don’t just hand out a loan,” says Sheila Schat, SCCCU director of community outreach and marketing. She cites a range of support available through the credit union and allied groups. Many of the female-owned businesses are startups. Often the women entrepreneurs are working parents looking for ways to make a living in what is – like virtually all of California – a very expensive area. These women are launching a wide assortment of businesses, from day care centers and ice cream shops to California’s first woman-owned surfing store. “They find it difficult to get loans at other financial institutions because they don’t have lot of collateral and they don’t have a lot of previous business experience,” Schat notes. “That’s where the credit union comes in. We have partnerships with groups such as the Small Business Development Center. We can send them over for technical assistance so they’re a little more ready to actually start a business,” Schat adds. Another resource is El Pajaro Community Development Corporation, which especially serves the southern part of the county. Yes, these loans mean SCCCU often shoulders more risk than the bank down the street may accept. That greater risk does not necessarily mean a higher interest rate. The credit union reviews a number of factors, including the applicant’s character, even if they do not have a history of borrowing. “We pride ourselves on being able to help everybody in our community. The repayment rate has been excellent, so we continue to take those risks because it has paid off. Not only do our loans get paid back, but it’s a real concrete way we are helping our community,” Schat says. A lot of the women entrepreneurs learn about SCCCU through word of mouth. Businesses already helped by the credit union spread the word. Newspaper reports on those successful operations often mention the credit union was the one financial institution that didn’t turn them away. SCCCU’s notion of community development goes beyond business loans. The credit union offers Individual Development Accounts that allow low-income individuals to save money for specific asset goals. Each dollar an IDA participant saves, up to $5,000, is matched with $2 by the SCCCU IDA Program. There’s a Family Loan Program to help working parents meet unexpected expenses such as buying or repairing a car, making a security deposit, and purchasing uniforms or tools needed on a job. It’s a revolving loan fund in partnership with the Family Service Agency of the Central Coast and Families in Transition Inc. There’s also a Child Care Revolving Loan Fund offering low-interest, short-term loans to child care providers who want to modernize equipment, pay for educational supplies and toys, improve facilities, obtain technical assistance and meet short-term cash flow needs. A related effort, Child Care Ventures, focuses on business management training and other support for child care facilities. “Child care is such a significant part of every person’s early development. It really impacts families and their quality of life,” Schat stresses. “I’m speaking as a new parent. You realize the significance of child care once you become a parent. Being able to afford child care, and feeling confident your child is going to a safe, nurturing environment, is so important.” Schat offers some advice for credit unions interested in helping women establish and run businesses: * Connect with other organizations that help small business owners or women. Create partnerships. * Once you establish those alliances, realize word of mouth will play a key role. It will be far more important than print or television advertising. * Try not to be intimidating. Project the idea no question about how to get a loan or invest a small amount of money is considered dumb, and you’re eager to help business loan applicants develop a business plan. * In some areas, such as much of California, not being intimidating may mean making sure you have enough bilingual staff to ease a visit to the credit union for someone whose first language isn’t English. -

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