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Fighting San Diego Poverty One Loan At A Time

Microlending is a proven poverty fighter in the third world, and now the idea is gaining traction in San Diego.

Microlending is a proven poverty fighter in the third world, and now the idea is gaining traction in San Diego.

— Micro lending is a proven poverty fighter in the third world, and now the idea is gaining traction in San Diego.

The San Diego-based Foundation for Women is trying to stoke the entrepreneurial fires in women who otherwise wouldn't be eligible for credit.

There's nothing particularly exceptional about the outside of this Lemon Grove business. But inside, a group of San Diego women are channeling a bundle of entrepreneurial energy.

For eight months, Malou Gibson has run her fledgling massage therapy business here. Her vision always included other women.

"That desire to open a wellness center expanded to actually have a wellness center and a bazaar inside the wellness center - from the women, for the women. So that's what got me to say, yeah, let's do it," said Gibson.

Bric-a-brac, beauty supplies and aromatic wonders fill the small lobby. The wellness center offers a variety of services and products made possible with the support, connections and small loans offered through the San Diego Foundation for Women.

"It's been helping us to build up - business wise," said Gibson. "So we got the structure. We just have to hold it and grow up on it. And we have people that have come from all roads of life and have all kinds of experience that brings something to the table that is very important."

The foundation began raising money in 1997 to help women struggling with poverty in Liberia. Success there got the foundation thinking about other places where they could have an impact.

"What I realized is there were a lot of poor people that were almost invisible," said Foundation for Women Chief Operating Officer Judy Bee. "Wait a minute. San Diego has a lot of poor women here. Why aren't we doing something here?"

She says a 2009 study by the Women's Foundation of California found 250,000 San Diego women live below the poverty line; 80,000 of those women live in dire poverty. That knowledge was enough to start a microlending program here and the program has already made about 500 loans.

"When you come to the foundation, you become a member of a group of five women. You're there for four weeks," said Bee. "You get to know them; they get to know you. Very often one of those women has referred you. And at the end of those four weeks, you stand up and say: I need a $250 loan and I plan to do this. And we have a show of hands of the women in her group."

The next loan might be $500 or $1,000, or it may be denied. The group decides, according to Bee. But San Diego is not a developing economy. The city has a mature and complex economic environment, and the focus here is not about survival. It is about competing and navigating the local business world.

San Diego State University professor Chamu Sundaramurthy studies how small enterprise groups work together. She says the microlending program is a social business system.

"You give them access to credit so they can start their own business. You unleash the entrepreneurial energy, which in turn helps them become self-sufficient," said Sundaramurthy.

The women also understand the unique economic opportunities that exist in their communities.

"In addition, they can wind up employing their neighbor or friends as they do well. So there again, this is job creation at a very small level. But there are benefits there," said Sundaramurthy.

It's interesting, she said, that micro loans were conceived in developed countries as a way to fight crushing poverty in underdeveloped nations. Now, that innovation has made it's way back to a developed economy as a way to fight poverty.

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