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By Olivia Boler
Since it opened in December of last year, Just Awesome, the board game store on Diamond Street, has become a regular hangout for neighborhood kids, especially since schools are out for summer. On a weekday morning, boys wait with their Razor scooters for the door to open so they can hit the back room and select a game from the shelves to play. Co-owner Erik Mantsch points to the tables the kids use. "We've gone through three or four of these, so we want to buy some really nice ones that will last."
With the receipt of a recent $7,500 loan, Mantsch and his partner Shane Alan will be able to do just that, and they'll have a lot of people to thank, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver.
Mantsch and Alan are clients of Opportunity Fund, a Bay Area nonprofit community development lending institution with offices in San Jose and downtown San Francisco, which gives out micro-loans to small businesses that haven't been able to qualify for loans from larger lenders and banks. The fund often smiles on small businesses that are in the first two years of operation, with little or no credit history, and that need a loan in the $1,000 to $10,000 range. Another important factor: entrepreneurial enthusiasm.
"It was obvious that they [Mantsch and Alan] were really passionate about their business," says Shaolee Sen, Opportunity Fund's marketing and communications director. She, along with her colleagues, actually paid a number of visits to the Just Awesome store after receiving its loan application, something that seems to be unique to micro-lenders.
None of the big bankers Mantsch approached, including Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank, ever came to the store. And none of them gave Just Awesome a loan. In fact, Mantsch says Wells Fargo hurt his credit rating by mishandling his loan application.
Eventually, Mantsch, who is an U.S. Air Force veteran of the Iraq War, applied for a Small Business Administration "Patriot Express" loan. These loans are earmarked for veterans or their widowed spouses, to help them start small businesses.
"These are loans for me, a veteran with a dream!" says Mantsch. But he was turned down by the SBA too.
He then looked at online lenders, but that seemed a dodgy route. "They wanted us to have assets, like own a building, and then they wanted us to open up our business and they would take 20 percent of our credit card sales."
It's no wonder, after all this disappointment, Mantsch was skeptical of Opportunity Fund. But to his surprise, "it was really different and wonderful. They were just so positive. They wanted to know about our motivating factors [for the business]. I hate to call it character-lending, but that's what it is."
"A key component of microfinance is the one-to-one advising process," says Sen. "From the application through the loan closing, we figure out the right amount for our clients that will help their businesses grow. By sitting down with them, we get to know the people behind the loan form."
Kiva Inspires Arnold
But how did California's governor get involved?
Traditionally, Opportunity Fund funds its clients' loans through loan pools received from banks at a below-market rate of interest.
"One of the reasons banks do this is they get Community Reinvestment Act credit by lending through us," says Sen. "Other sources we use are government and foundation grants."
In the case of Just Awesome, however, the money is coming from a San Francisco Mission Districtbased organization called Kiva.org.
Kiva is the Swahili word for "unity" or "agreement." The nonprofit, founded in 2005, partners with micro-finance institutions around the globe to give out loans to mostly poor entrepreneurs, in places as far-flung as Peru, Afghanistan, and Mongolia. Over 180 countries are now home to clients of Kiva.org.
What makes Kiva unusual is that anyone from anywhere in the world--with a computer, an Internet connection, and a PayPal account or credit card--can lend as little as $25, interest-free, to the small entrepreneur of his or her choice. (Want to make a loan? Go online to Kiva.org, scroll through the profiles to read about people's dreams, and click to invest.)
Kiva collects the loans and gives the money to its micro-lending partner in the field, which then distributes the funds to the client. Over time, the borrower pays back the loan to Kiva's online "social investors," who can then reinvest the money or pocket it. Kiva.org says its rate of return to investors is 98 percent.
On June 10, Kiva.org launched a pilot program in the United States, enabling U.S. small business persons to receive loans just like their international counterparts. The launch event received international press coverage, including a five-minute segment on ABC-TV's Good Morning America. During the show, ABC co-host Robin Roberts and Kiva president Premal Shah highlighted several U.S. entrepreneurs in the program, and one was Just Awesome Games.
Within hours, Mantsch and Alan had received their entire $7,500 on Kiva.org, including loans from Gov. Schwarzennegger and California First Lady Maria Shriver.
"Wouldn't it be cool if they stopped by my store?" Mantsch says with a laugh.
Getting serious, he says, "It shows that everybody's equal with Kiva, because you can see who gave [on the website], but the loan amounts are discreet. It levels it out and shows we're all one community. People from all over the world lent to us! A woman from Wisconsin who likes games lent to us!"
In addition to the tables for the game room, Mantsch and Alan plan on fixing the store's ceiling to reduce heating costs and increase soundproofing. They'll also buy new fixtures and shelving as well as inventory. The two partners have 36 months to pay back the loan, which does include interest that goes to the micro-lenders to cover their costs.
"The pressure's on," Mantsch says. "You really want to pay the investors back. We knew the first year in business would be tough. It's not supposed to be easy--we're in a recession.
"What's great is Kiva lends to all types of people, and what they're doing, letting regular people decide whom to lend to, feels right for where we are in society right now. It's just awesome."
To learn more about micro-lending --or just to follow the board game store's progress--visit the websites www.kiva .org or www.opportunityfund.org.