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By Borrower Stories

Meet Christine Uwimbabazi, The Entrepreneuring Immigrant Behind The Wheel of Prime Care Transportation

When Christine Uwimbabazi came to the United States from her home country of Rwanda in 2000, she didn’t plan to open a small business. Instead, she came for college.

Christine enrolled at LaRoche University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Six years later, she married Reverien Mfizi, one of her classmates. The two had gone to the same high school in Rwanda, and with their undergraduate diplomas in hand, their next move was to Buffalo, New York, where Reverien had been accepted to a graduate program.

Over the 10 years that followed, Reverien completed a PhD in political science, he and Christine had three children, and she took a job in customer service. Still, it was difficult to make ends meet, and the couple wanted something more — they wanted to be financially independent.

“As immigrants and students,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had a hard time. But at the end of the day, nobody’s going to take care of your family for you.”

In 2017, during a summer free from his academic teaching requirements, Reverien decided to work as a driver for a non-emergency medical transportation service company. Seeing that there was a “huge shortage” of wheelchair vans capable of shuttling patients to and from regional medical centers, hospitals, and doctors’ offices, Reverien convinced Christine to take a week off from her full-time job to give driving a try.

She loved it, so much so that the two decided to start their own company: Prime Care Transportation. They applied to be a NYS-licensed Medicaid transportation provider. While they were waiting to be approved, Christine got her Class C driver’s license and took a job as a service manager at a local mechanic’s shop so that she could learn more about vehicle maintenance. However, once the couple was given the green light to begin operations in March of 2018, Christine left the garage to drive full time.

In the beginning, she drove during the day, and when Reverien got home from school, he’d drive at night. As Christine says, the two started from scratch, but with each new client, contract, van, and employee, Prime Care Transportation began to grow.

“We are risk-takers, and we needed a change in our life,” Christine said. “We needed to be able to support our kids, so we just did it. It’s the African way: you try it, and if it doesn’t work, oh well. If it works, then you continue. We knew that there was a need, and if we took the right approach, we knew people would come. At the end of the day, I wasn’t going to let myself fail.”

Reliable Roadside Assistance

The Prime Care Transportation Team

Christine’s can’t-fail attitude and people-first approach translated into rapid growth; however, she and Reverien still needed help — both financial and non-financial.

That’s when she connected with Pursuit Community Finance, an Albany-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that serves minority- and women-owned businesses across New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. CNote partners with CDFIs like Pursuit in communities across the country, investing dollars into local small businesses and empowering entrepreneurs like Christine.

Christine had previously heard about Pursuit from one of her friends who’s also a small business owner in Buffalo, and in 2019, Christine decided to enter a pitch competition hosted by the CDFI. She ended up walking away the winner. Christine received a $1,000 check, but more importantly, she walked away with a new relationship.

“We were growing and trying to expand into different remote counties,” Christine said. “The problem was funding to get more vans and to hire more drivers, but we also didn’t know if we were losing or gaining money each month. We were working in the dark. Pursuit helped us to find a CPA who could help us balance the ins and outs. After that, we could plan.”

Pursuit also provided Christine with someone to help her improve her company’s marketing and social media strategies, as well as a human relations consultant who helped her draft an employee handbook. Additionally, this past March, Prime Care Transportation received a $32,000 loan from Pursuit to cover the costs of business insurance, operations, and payroll.

As much as she’s grateful for the money, Christine is arguably more thankful for how much Pursuit continues to care about the success and growth of her business.

“I don’t have the right credit score to go to a bank,” she said. “But what bank does what Pursuit does? They come to me and ask: ‘How are you doing? How is business? How can we help?’ These are things no bank will do. It’s one thing to give money, but Pursuit gives peace of mind. I don’t just have someone who gave me a loan. I have a friend.”

Christine says that the personal connection she feels with Pursuit has injected more stability into her business, and the CDFI’s on-the-ground presence and ability to connect dots in the community has paid major dividends for both her and Prime Care Transportation.

Rerouting for the Road Ahead

Despite all of the business support she’d received from Pursuit, Christine and Reverien’s business has been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the slowdown of non-urgent medical care and surgeries, as well as a shift to telemedicine, Prime Care Transportation went from having 22 vehicles on the road to six, and Christine had to cut her team of drivers in half, to 11. Although those numbers are higher than they were a couple of months ago, when only Christine, Reverien, and two other drivers were working, Christine doesn’t think that business will return to normal anytime soon.

According to her, that’s okay. She’s finding the silver lining.

“COVID is the biggest challenge we’ve had,” Christine said. “But it’s given me an opportunity to focus on marketing, and it’s given me a break to step back and to rethink and to reevaluate what we can do in the future, because our market is not going to be the same.”

The lull created by the global pandemic has also given Christine some time to reflect on how far she and her small business have come in such a short period of time. She need only look out the window to be reminded of Prime Care Transportation’s very first ride. The van she used to shuttle her inaugural client to the medical center is parked out front, broken down and unfixable. Christine can’t bring herself to part with it — there’s too much emotion wrapped up in it.

“To even still be in business itself is a good thing,” she said, “but I’ll never forget the first day. We make such a difference in peoples’ lives. We are more than drivers. We make people feel comfortable and safe and cared for, and if we don’t transport these people, then the doctors won’t be able to do their jobs, and these people won’t get their blood cleaned or their shots or their surgeries. We’re part of the circle. We complete each other.”

It’s that focus on the big picture that’s driving Christine forward.

“I’m scared about what will happen tomorrow,” she said. “I don’t have money, and I don’t have connections. The only thing I have is me, working hard, and showing that I can do the best I can for other people. If we’re going to outcompete all the other companies out there, then we’ll beat them with tenderness.”

Learn More

  • Prime Care Transportation
  • Pursuit Community Finance: An Albany-based Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that serves minority- and women-owned businesses across New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like Pursuit Community Finance, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By CNote, Impact Investing

The Impact Investment Case For Cash- Featuring San Francisco Foundation

CNote is happy to release our Impact Investment Case For Cash Case Study, which discusses how the San Francisco Foundation (SFF) partnered with CNote to put pre-deployment program-related investment (PRI) dollars to good use.

SFF, which is committed to improving life in the Bay Area through its Bay Area Community Impact Fund, realized in 2018 that the portion of their funds, which we were not actively deployed, were sitting in a community bank CD deposit- doing little work from an impact and financial perspective.

By choosing to invest a portion of its Bay Area Community Impact Funds in CNote, SFF benefited by getting financial and impact returns from those idle PRI dollars without sacrificing on return or liquidity.

Click here to read more about how CNote can drive more impact for your foundation or company.

 

 

By Borrower Stories

How a PPP Loan From a Low-Income Designated Credit Union Gave This Bay Area Nonprofit The Promise of a Brighter Tomorrow

Barbara McCullough knows a thing or two about nonprofit management. She’s been the CEO at Brighter Beginnings, a nonprofit created in 1984 to respond to the needs of families in resource-poor neighborhoods across Contra Costa and Alameda Counties, for nearly 24 years. With that level of experience comes the understanding that government funding is anything but certain.

Barbara McCullough outside of Brighter Beginnings

Take, for example, what happened during the Great Recession. Regardless of the organization’s altruistic mission to partner with parents to support healthy births, foster the successful development of children, and build strong communities, its program budget was slashed by $1 million. Barbara had to lay off employees, and the nonprofit had to squeak by with 50 percent of its anticipated budget.

“It was really quite traumatic,” she said. “It led me to working with the board to think toward the future and to figure out what we can do that supports our mission but won’t be as subject to these kinds of blue pencil reductions to our budget whenever there’s a setback.”

Brighter Beginnings tried to build itself to be more resilient; however, no one has been immune to the economic upheaval triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Barbara, the nonprofit ended March with $38,000 in its bank account. For an organization with a $5.5 million operating budget, the future never looked more bleak.

Less Money, More Demand

The nonprofit’s uncertain future was once again tied to California’s budget. In six month’s time, the state budget went from a $100 billion surplus to a $50 billion deficit. With the $150 billion swing, Barbara was right to question whether or not it’d be feasible to keep the doors open.

That’s because of the tenuous realities of a nonprofit that survives on government contracts. As it works, the way contracts are typically reimbursed means that organizations like Brighter Beginnings have to maintain two to three months of receivables in reserve — hundreds of thousands of dollars — to cover payroll. That creates headaches, especially during a public health crisis.

“There were months where I had to hold onto my paycheck until we got a payment,” Barbara said. “And if we couldn’t make payroll, I’d call up my medical director and several senior staff to see if they could hold onto their checks too.”

However, despite the economic slump and its shrinking bank accounts, demand for Brighter Beginnings’ services has grown during the pandemic.

The nonprofit operates two federally qualified health centers in Contra Costa County that are funded through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Each clinic provides comprehensive primary care, including prenatal, perinatal, child wellness, women’s services, behavioral health services, chronic care management, and senior care to low-income and minority populations.

“They’re more impacted by almost every health factor,” Barbara said. “That’s due not just to the link to poverty, but it’s also directly linked to the stigma that they carry. Systemic racism exists even in health care delivery, from the types of medications doctors prescribe, to their reception in the waiting rooms.”

Brighter Beginnings’ work also extends into people’s homes — at least they did before social distancing. Now, thanks to the pandemic, instead of in-home mental health counseling, financial coaching, and in-person visitations, all of those same services are now offered over Zoom. Collectively, staff have gone from seeing 50 clients a day, face to face, to between 70 and 80 a day, virtually.

In order to serve its at-risk, high-needs clients and to keep its head above water, Brighter Beginnings needed help — fast.

When The Bank Says “No”

Barbara thought she had a good relationship with the bank that she went to apply for a Paycheck Protection Loan (PPP), a forgivable loan offered through the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to provide economic relief during COVID-19. After all, they’d been working together for well over a decade. The bank, however, thought differently. It said that Brighter Beginnings didn’t meet the funding criteria and didn’t qualify for a loan. Barbara was furious. She decided to change banks and to go to Self-Help Federal Credit Union.

Self-Help is a low-income designated credit union that was chartered in 2008 to build a network of branches that serve working families and underserved communities. It currently has more than 78,000 members across 19 branches in California, 10 branches in Illinois, and one branch in Wisconsin, and it has over $1.2 billion in assets. CNote partners with low-income designated credit unions like Self-Help across the country through its Promise Account program.

Self-Help’s PPP lending is strongly focused on assisting small businesses and nonprofits like Brighter Beginnings that are run by women and people of color, especially those with social justice missions. As of July 1, 2020, Self-Help lent $176 million PPP loan dollars to nearly 1,600 recipients. Of those recipients, over half were led by people of color, and two-thirds of the dollars went to nonprofits. Through its efforts, Self-Help has helped to maintain 19,000 jobs.

“Self-Help gave us permission to apply for PPP lending,” Barbara said. “We applied, and within two days, we were told that we were going to be funded. We got the money in May, and we’re literally here today because of that. We probably wouldn’t have made it without them.”

With the funding, Brighter Beginnings was able to not only rehire the six employees it had laid off in April, but Barbara says the nonprofit has been able to hire additional staff members and grow its team. Better yet, the organization’s bank account jumped from $38,000 to over $1 million in two months.

A Better, Brighter Future

In addition to the PPP support from Self-Help that was pivotal in keeping Brighter Beginnings up and running, Alameda County, following the lead of San Francisco County, began offering advances to contracted organizations.

“Instead of me putting my money out and then waiting two to three months to get paid back,” Barbara said, “We got two months’ worth of advances, and for some of the public health programs, they said ‘you don’t have to pay the money back: we’re investing in your future.’”

Barbara hopes that nonprofits’ days of funding government services, out of pocket, and then waiting to be paid back are a thing of the past. She also hopes to expand Brighter Beginning’s services in Alameda County with a new clinic, hopefully in the next year.

In the meantime, the nonprofit is beginning to offer COVID testing in its two Contra Costa clinics, as well as continuing its other programs. Its early child development program is at maximum enrollment, and the organization’s staff continues to deliver weekly meals, free diapers, and groceries to some of the area’s most marginalized families.

Additionally, Brighter Beginnings is applying for a grant to add financial coaches to sit in its clinics to help people apply for health insurance and to talk about basic financial literacy.

“It’s probably the least-funded public service out there,” Barbara said. “Some CDFI banks have curriculum available, but we work with immigrant families that have experienced generational poverty. They don’t have bank accounts. When no one in your entire family history ever went to college, you grow up with a whole different set of assumptions about what’s possible. It’s a high-need, unmet service that could go a lot farther in terms of helping people move out of poverty.”

The Brighter Beginnings Staff

Learn More

  • Brighter Beginnings
  • Self-Help Federal Credit Union was chartered in 2008 to build a network of branches that serves working families and underserved communities. Serving more than 78,000 members, Self-Help Federal is one of the fastest-growing low-income designated credit unions in the country. 
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like LiftFund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.
By CNote, Impact Investing

Latino Community Credit Union Case Study

CNote is proud to share a new case study: The Case for Reaching More Impact Investors which explores how the Latino Community Credit Union (LCCU) was able to increase its deposit base by partnering with CNote, through our Promise Account program.

The case study highlights how CNote works with low-income designated credit unions and CDFI banks to grow their deposit base and improve their ability to provide financial resources to the communities they serve.

Here, the Latino Community Credit Union, while in a phase of rapid growth, recognized the need to grow and diversify its deposit base. Enter CNote’s Promise Account-a new, fully insured cash management solution, which gives investors a single place to achieve attractive market-rate returns while fostering positive social impact. CNote’s Promise Account Funds are a way for LCCU to access more investor deposits and meet its members’ growing demand for loans.

By Borrower Stories

Ebony Harris, The Entrepreneur Putting Children — And Parents — In Good Hands

Ebony Harris has a special way with children — it’s a gift. She thought about pursuing a career as a pediatric nurse, but that didn’t appeal to her entrepreneurial spirit. Instead, in 2015, set her sights on opening a childcare center, where she could educate, support, and influence kids.

Her and her husband, John, had a long way to go in order to make that business dream come true. The two, who met when they were 17, both came from families who had very little.

“We really struggled,” Ebony said. “We really worked very, very hard, working two or three jobs each to try to save the money up to start this business. We had to save all of our nickels and dimes while raising our two sons and while I was in school.”

Ebony Harris, Founder of In Good Hands Learning Center

It took three years for the family to save up the necessary funds to open In Good Hands Learning Center in their hometown of Jackson, Tennessee, but when they finally did, it was well worth the wait. Ebony refers to May 14, 2018, as the happiest day of their life.

 

Within six months, Ebony already had a full roster of 60 children, complete with 11 staff members, and a growing waitlist of interested parents. Given how rapidly the business was growing, Ebony and John began talking about opening a second location.

“That feels good, knowing that people want us to open a second location,” Ebony said. “It means I’m doing something right for us to have grown so fast.”

However, because Ebony and John had depleted their bank account to get the first center open, the two needed to first get some financial help before they could embark on opening a second location.

In 2019, the Jackson Small Business Administration referred Ebony to LiftFund, a Texas-headquartered Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that supports businesses in 13 states. CNote partners with CDFIs like LiftFund in communities across America, funding loans to small businesses, and empowering local entrepreneurs like John and Ebony.

One of the In Good Hands team members

“LiftFund provided us a loan, and it came at the perfect time for when we needed it,” Ebony said. “The loan helped us to be able to  buy other supplies and equipment that we needed to meet the quality that I want to provide my kids.”

Although John and Ebony aren’t currently working with LiftFund to open a second In Good Hands location, she says she feels grateful for the support she received from them, and she believes that if they needed help again in the future, whether financial or business coaching, LiftFund would be there as a reliable resource for her and her husband.

Helping Parents During A Global Pandemic

Like other small business owners, Ebony’s childcare center has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, since the outbreak began, In Good Hands has only been closed for two weeks.

“I wanted to close, but my parents really needed daycare,” she said. “Most of my kids are from parents who are essential workers, and they don’t have family members who can watch the kids while they’re working in hospitals or nursing homes or at grocery stores. That’s why I built this center: to provide help for parents who need child care. I didn’t want to leave my parents lacking help during this time, and I didn’t want them to lose their jobs.”

Although Ebony and John were worried about the health of her employees, the other kids, and her own family, she says the sacrifice to stay open for children of essential workers was well worth it. Not only have those parents appreciated her efforts, but they’ve shown that appreciation by recommending other parents to take their kids to In Good Hands.

Subsequently, Ebony says that over the past few weeks, In Good Hands’ phone has been ringing off the hook, sometimes as many as 20 times a day. She knows that if they had a second location, she’d be able to enroll those incoming kids; but, that’s not in the cards right now. However, when it does happen, Ebony and John will continue to support both children and parents through the work she and her staff do on a daily basis.

“That’s what makes us very special and different from other centers,” Ebony said. “It’s our passion, and it’s how we involve parents in what we’re doing. It’s not just about making money for me. It’s about really touching other people’s lives and helping them.”

Ebony and her team

Retirement Goals

As passionate as Ebony and John are about her work, she’s equally enthused about discussing her plans to one day retire. Being a business owner isn’t a “forever thing” for her, and in 20 years, she wants to retire alongside John, who works part-time at In Good Hands and full-time as a FedEx driver.

“My long-term goals are for my two boys,” she said. “I don’t want them to have to struggle like me and my husband struggled. I want to build a foundation for them where they can have something that they can go build themselves and have a great legacy. When I retire, I want to be able to look back and say, ‘my kids are good, me and my husband are good, and we impacted a lot of people’s lives.’”

The sentiment echoes the girls’ empowerment work Ebony does in her community. She hosts an annual womens’ conference called “Cool, Classy, and Saved Women,” which shows girls how to grow, have confidence and build a business as a woman.

“It’s always been powerful just to see these young girls’ eyes light up, seeing something that they normally don’t see, and being able to connect with a woman or a mother figure or someone that looks like them,” Ebony said. “It’s something that’s close to my heart.”

Learn More

  • In Good Hands Learning
  • LiftFund is a community small business lender that transforms lives by opening doors and providing capital, financial coaching, tools and resources to entrepreneurs who do not have access to loans from commercial sources. Since 1994 LiftFund has provided over $360 million in capital, propelling the dreams of over 20,000 diverse small businesses throughout its 13 state footprint.
  • CNote – Interested in helping create another story like this? CNote makes it easy to invest in great CDFIs like LiftFund, helping you earn more while having a positive impact on businesses and communities across America.