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Inside Tucson Business: Micro loans target often overlooked businesses

Katrina Calderon, a BIPOC Loan recipient and one of three owners of Regal Fierce Media.

By Karen Schaffner, Inside Tucson Business Staff

May 3rd, 2024

From Inside Business Tucson: Community Investment Corporation (CIC) BIPOC Loans are changing the game for often overlooked businesses. Katrina Calderon, one of three owners of Regal Fierce Medi

a Company, remembers very clearly the day she received the email saying she and her partners had been approved. 

The $10,000 loan enabled Calderon and partners — Luke Ralston and husband Daniel Calderon — to upgrade their cameras, lenses and other equipment that catapulted the fledgling company to outstanding local professionals making $500,000 a year.

“It was the greatest feeling once we got notified we were going to get the money,” she said. “It just truly was life-changing for us because after that we were able to get a nice job with Tucson Federal Credit Union because we had nice cameras. … These cameras made us look that much better and then that one job led to multiple other jobs … and it was just simply because we leveled up our game.”

This is just one example of what the BIPOC Loan Fund can do. 

Entrepreneurs who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) receive business funding less often and what they do receive is “pebbles, pennies,” said Kenisha Raymond, director of entrepreneur success and access to capital at Startup Tucson. 

CIC’s BIPOC Loan Fund seeks to level that playing field. With no-interest, five-year payback micro loans from $500 to $10,000, it can make the difference. It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up, according to Raymond, who is one of the people applicants will meet along the way.

“I am the first person (applicants) talk to when they are looking to apply,” she said. “I am the person they talk to to get help and then once they receive (the loan) they interact with me at check-ins. I connect them with mentors. They come through one of our programs, but I am there the whole time.” 

Because Regal Fierce Media opened right before the pandemic pause, contracts were scarce. The partners were concerned because they had all left their career jobs to open the media company. Because the business was so new, it had no history, and banks would not give them credit. Things looked worrisome.

“We completely started this business with our own capital, our own money,” Calderon said. “I was freaking out. I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do?’”

There was an answer.

“Right when I was almost going to give up, this email came through from the BIPOC Loan (Fund),” she said. 

The email described the loan and it was almost exactly the amount the partners had asked the bank for. They jumped right on it.

To qualify for the BIPOC Loan, applicants have to identify as BIPOC, but it doesn’t have to be an official designation. It mainly has to do with how people describe themselves. Calderon identifies as Mexican-American.

“It’s really just what you identify as, not what society identifies you as,” Raymond said. 

In addition, businesses can be in any stage of development for their owners to apply, including those just starting up as Regal Fierce Media was when they applied.

The process of applying is not difficult but it does require thought, although the BIPOC Loan committee and the CIC staff will help anywhere along the way. It’s also really about applicants’ character and their ideas for their business. 

More than anything, the CIC wants applicants to tell their stories. Why is the business unique? What space will it live in? How will the money be used and what is it that makes the business stand out? This is what the BIPOC Loan Fund committee members want to know when they review a loan application. They are not looking at credit history nor how many times an applicant has been denied at the bank. They will consider applicants even if they have a criminal record. The members are focused on applicants and what their story entails. 

In addition, the application is not a traditional one. Since what the committee wants to hear is an applicant’s story, it can be told in any number of ways. They will accept the traditional paper application, but they will also accept videos and audio files.

“I think the biggest thing that people get hung up on is the video part,” Raymond said. “Understanding that they can apply any way they’re comfortable, but then the other part of it is that when you’re applying, think of it as you’re having a coffee chat with your friend, and so it should be less intimidating because you’re getting to know us through the process of watching videos and more conversational because we are two friends. The idea is for us to get to know you and really get to know your character, which helps us in making the decision about lending funds.”

The seven committee members are volunteers. All come from the communities the loans seek to serve, representing many different segments of society. 

“The BIPOC Loan committee represents people that they work with,” Raymond said. “We do come from some of the same situations that (applicants) are coming from. That is, entrepreneurship out of necessity. … A lot of times we resonate more with them because we do come from those backgrounds. We’ve been told ‘no’ because of the color of our skin.”

Currently, the BIPOC Loan Fund committee is seeking new applicants to sit on the committee, including Indigenous people.

There are conditions. First and foremost, the money has to be put into the applicant’s business. The business cannot be engaged in multilevel marketing or direct sales, financial sales or anything illegal.

There are other requirements. At least 50% of the business ownership must identify as BIPOC and the business must be located in Southern Arizona.

However, there are no fees to apply and there is no deadline. Raymond said the committee meets and reviews applications once a month every month of the year.

Additionally, assistance for BIPOC-owned businesses does not begin and end with the loan. Help from the CIC through partner support with the YWCA’s Women’s Business Center, Startup Tucson and other partner organizations are able to offer assistance for other issues a business owner might face.

If, after all that assistance, a business owner cannot pay back the loan, guidance for navigating their way back is available as well. It’s in the CIC’s best interest to help business owners who have defaulted with advice and encouragement to get them back on track. What is paid back goes back into the BIPOC Loan Fund, so if a business owner defaults it means there is less money to go around and other applicants could be denied. The point of the loan, though, is to help businesses and business owners succeed, so staffers from CIC will do all they can to see that happen.

“It’s important for them when they’re taking these loans, one, knowing that they have support (although) we support whether they get a loan or not,” Raymond said. “But also, when they’re taking these loans, understanding that as you’re paying back you’re paying back into something that was lent out to you and that you’re paying forward to help another business.”

At Regal Fierce Media, Calderon stays busy marketing her own company. She knows the road to success would have been a lot harder without the BIPOC loan. She wants other business owners to consider applying for it.

“The only time you fail is when you completely stop taking action,” she said. “I believe what the CIC loan program does is it makes you feel safe enough to come to them and say, ‘In all honesty, this is who I am as a business owner. This is what I am trying to achieve in my business.’ When you can articulate that, there are resources out there to help you fund your business.” 

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