Austin nonprofit builds community of entrepreneurs one microloan at a time
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Just Community did not win the Lone Star Prize. It is a finalist.
Almost five years ago, Claudia Lopez and Jesika Zuñiga heard about the Austin nonprofit organization Just Community, or Just, when Senior Community Director Ivonne Salinas came to visit them in the Pflugerville store they share. Lopez owns Nice Boutique, which sells quinceañera dresses, and Zuñiga has an events business, JZL Events.
Becoming part of Just would mean both of their businesses would qualify for an initial microloan of $750 to be paid back over 13 weeks. The women also would take a business development class and be part of a community group of like-minded entrepreneurs.
"I thought it was too good to be true," Lopez says. "People don't do good things."
Zuñiga thought, "Why would they lend me money if I don't have credit? They don't know me? When I saw Ivonne ... she transmitted a lot of trust to me, she believed in me, she thought I deserved this opportunity."
With that first $750, Zuñiga bought a margarita machine. Lopez used her $750 for marketing the business, including business cards and flyers.
Since then, Zuñiga has had seven different loans, the largest for $5,000, and has been able to buy a photo booth, a used car for hauling things and another margarita machine. Lopez has had 10 different loans and now can borrow up to $10,000. She has been able to buy more dresses, mannequins and an outdoor sign for the store.
"Now every time I see it, I get the chills," she says of the sign.
Just began in 2016 when Steve Wanta, who had been the global program director at Whole Foods Foundation and a Peace Corps volunteer, went to breakfast with Bill Wood, who is a venture capitalist, and Andy White, who is an attorney with experience in how to structure a nonprofit organization.
Wanta was familiar with microloans on a global level, and he wanted to create a microloan program that would make sense in the United States. It couldn't just be a loan, he says; it had to be an opportunity to transform people's businesses and their communities.
Just has now given more than 4,000 loans worth about $7 million to about 700 people. Most recipients are women; 42 percent are single mothers; and 54 percent have a monthly household income of between $1,000 and $2,999. The nonprofit has focused primarily on the Latina community. Just started in Central Texas and has expanded to North Texas.
In January, Just became one of five Texas nonprofit organizations finalists for a $10 million Lone Star Prize grant from Lyda Hill Philanthropies and Lever for Change. It intends to use some of the money to open more Just communities in Houston and El Paso.
"The vision is to be from Brownsville to Texarkana," Wanta says. The vision is also to expand to 20,000 women as part of the program, he says.
Just also will create a program to help its entrepreneurs with the down payment on a home.
A community of entrepreneurs
At its heart, Just is about creating a community. Women get invited by other women to join their Just circle. Occasionally men are invited, too, but they're not the primary demographic.
The circles are led by JETAs, or Just Entrepreneur Trust Agents. Once someone is invited to join, the JETA and a co-borrower secure the first loan. They don't do credit checks or ask for a business plan.
If you cannot repay the $750, with interest that is the equivalent of $15, your JETA and co-signer help you find a way to repay the loan or their own loans will be frozen. People sometimes get creative and do bake sales or raffles to help repay loans.
"We've gotten it back 99.9 percent of the time," Wanta says.
He says that's possible because Just is building "transformational relationships founded on trust," rather than transactional loans based on credit scores.
Just offers a leadership development program, which is a once-a-week course for eight weeks to become a facilitator of a group. There's also more training offered online.
Just's goal is to "help you build a stronger business ... something that is transformational," Wanta says. "We help them see their money differently," he says.
The program's training on business practices has been helpful to its members during the pandemic.
While Lopez and Zuñiga could take out more loans, because of the pandemic they are waiting until people are having more events again.
"We don't want to get into big debt," Lopez says.
Angelica Castro, who owns the jewelry store Rinconcito de Oro (Little Corner of Gold) inside a laundromat on East Riverside Drive, has taken the valuable information from Just to survive in the pandemic when her business had to be closed because it wasn't considered essential.
"I was able to sustain my business because of the time it has been operating. I am loyal to clients, my clients are loyal to me," she says.
She has been able to connect with them virtually to continue to sell to them.
Just also pivoted during the pandemic to virtual circles as well as to being more understanding about loan repayments. It quickly raised $472,000 last March to get personal loans of $1,000 into entrepreneur's hands to help them pay bills in April. All but $15,000 of that has been repaid.
Building your circle
To qualify for larger and larger business loans, entrepreneurs bring people into their circle and become a JETA.
Wanta says the model is based on groups such as Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous and churches.
"Peer support is so important," he says.
Just, Castro says, "is like a motor that gives you more energy and motivation. You meet women that are very motivated."
The circles meet weekly in the language of their choice and virtually now. They talk about what their struggles are as well as their successes.
"You meet so many women with different stories, with different businesses," Castro says. "They inspire you and help you succeed."
Castro has learned how to save, how to budget, how to reduce expenses, how to manage inventory and many other business skills from Just.
"When you start, you don't know much about business, about entrepreneurship," she says. "Now I learned through other women how to register my business, how to keep the account system, how to do announcements in Google, in Facebook."
She first heard about Just from her mother, a fellow jewelry business entrepreneur. Her mom invited her to an orientation.
Castro has had six loans and reached the $5,000 level. The loans have allowed her to buy more merchandise and add displays.
"I have reinvented my business because of the variety of jewels I have been able to buy," Castro says.
Before she had her business, she worked in a day care. She loves having her own business because of the independence and because it gives her more time with her family. She can earn more in a week than what she was earning in 15 days before.
Castro became a JETA and also now works part-time for Just as a community director. Just now has 12 employees in Austin and Dallas, including three who have come up through the program.
Recruiting other women to join her circle has not been hard for Castro. "I trust the program it is," she says. "When you really love something, you want to share it with others."
As JETAs, Castro, Lopez or Zuñiga's ability to get future loans is tied to the people they recruit.
"We have to be cautious who we can let in," Lopez says. "We have to trust the person. It's easy to find women that have a dream, but it's not easy to find people that are committed like we are."
A home of their own
When Lopez began with Just, her goal was to buy a house. She and her husband were able to accomplish that in 2019.
Wanta says the No. 1 goal the entrepreneurs have is to own their own home, but "the down payment is a major hurdle," he says.
The Lone Star Prize grant is going to help Just train women on how to build their credit, how to fix credit issues and how to qualify for mortgages as well as help with the down payment.
Castro started working toward buying her own home as part of a Just pilot program that was put on hold when the pandemic began. With the grant, that program will be running again.
Just will invest the down payment toward an entrepreneur's home and will continue to own that percentage of the home until the entrepreneur decides to sell the house or refinance.
Zuñiga hopes to enroll in the home program. "The help will allow us to accomplish our dream of buying a house," she says.
Zuñiga has been in the United States since she was a child, but she says many people who come as adults just want a roof for their family. "If Just can bring them this support, it will be amazing."
Wanta sees this program as co-creating with clients "what makes sense for them, to help them move faster to a place of less stress, more joy. We'll be able to create change in our communities," Wanta says.
"All of this is a journey in our ability to create a clear path that ends in the destination of the purchase of a home," he says. "It's a profound opportunity."
Zuñiga sees Just as being a big support not just financially, but emotionally, too.
"In one word, it is an opportunity," she says. "They give us trust, giving us the opportunity and support to achieve our dreams. Just has been a family. You feel protected, supported."
Nicole Villalpando writes about nonprofit organizations for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out more about Just at hellojust.com.