At the OFN Annual Conference, OFN awarded financial crusader Inez Long with the 2020 Ned Gramlich Lifetime Achievement Award for Responsible Finance. Presented annually, the Gramlich Award is the CDFI industry’s highest individual honor.
Inez is president and CEO of the Black Business Investment Fund (BBIF) of Florida, the largest minority-led CDFI in Florida. Founded in 1987, BBIF helps Black-owned businesses statewide gain access to business development training and capital. She has helmed BBIF for nearly three decades.
Said OFN President and CEO Lisa Mensah about this visionary leader: “Inez is an exemplary leader among CDFIs, providing unparalleled local impact through her organization. She is a former banker, a barrier breaker, and a bridge-builder. Her vision, commitment, and determination have created opportunity for thousands of Black, minority, and underserved small businesses – and with today’s heightened awareness of racial and economic injustice, she has set a course for others in the finance industry to follow.”
Don’t miss her Gramlich Award acceptance speech from the OFN annual conference. We also spoke with Inez about the award, her career, small-business financing during the COVID-19 crisis, and the call for justice and equity in financing.
Congratulations on receiving the 2020 Gramlich Award. How does it feel to be recognized by your peers?
I am so humbled to receive this award from my CDFI colleagues. People that run CDFIs know this work isn’t easy. Many of us have lean teams, and those at the helm depend on our staff to embrace our visions and run with them.
To do our work well, all of us must have a passion for it, and we need to hire people with the same passion. And we have to stay committed, even when we’re feeling defeated.
This award is such an honor because it says my peers know how hard I have been working and that I have created really strong, amazing teams. It is also an acknowledgement to me that my fight for Black businesses matters. That Black businesses matter. That we are a critical part of the economy and need more attention and more support.
You’ve said before that you’ve often felt like a ‘salmon swimming upstream.’ What do you mean?
There’s been a lot of attention given to Black businesses recently and a lot of conversation about the inequalities Black and minority business owners face – particularly during the COVID-19 crisis.
But it hasn’t always been a popular topic. For most of my career, I’ve had to fight the notion that Black businesses aren’t worth investing in. I can give so many examples of pushing against the current. One goes back to the early days when I was a commercial bank lender and one of my colleagues asked me why I was bringing Black businesses into the bank.
This blew me away, but then I realized none of the bank’s other commercial lenders met with Black businesses.
I also noticed that it was extremely difficult for me to get loan approvals for my Black customers. I had been trained as a commercial underwriter, and I knew the bank’s policies, so I knew these were viable businesses to underwrite. But I still couldn’t get the loans approved.
How did this experience lead you to BBIF and the CDFI industry?
Ultimately, the painful double standard I saw every day is what led me to BBIF. I was sitting at my desk early one morning with a Black customer trying to get him a $200,000 line of credit. There was article in a newspaper about a new organization that had opened about a year earlier in Orlando.
The organization was called “Black Business Investment Fund.” It provided loan guarantees to major banks for Black-owned businesses. I called them right away, and I was able to get a guarantee on the line of credit for my customer so my bank would approve it. That phone call led to more calls and then lunches with the people at BBIF. And eventually it led to my working for the organization.
Even at BBIF I was swimming against the current. I once had an investor encourage us to change the mission of BBIF from focusing on Black businesses to minority businesses. Thankfully, I had a tremendous team and board that agreed our mission would remain Black businesses.
We are fighters for our borrowers when others won’t go to bat for them.
You’ve been with BBIF for 30 years. What are you most proud of during this time?
BBIF has evolved and grown to invest more than $60 million in roughly 655 small businesses in Florida. We have created almost 15,000 jobs. And I’m so proud of our borrowers!
We serve everyone from little guy food trucks to some of Florida’s largest commercial contractors. The owners of these small businesses are making things happen for themselves, their families, and their communities. And they push through many barriers to get their businesses up and running and grow them.
They make me so proud.
The common outlook for small businesses during the COVID-19 crisis has been bleak, particularly for small and minority-owned businesses. Can you share your experiences on the ground and how you are helping to counter that narrative?
At the very beginning of the crisis, we looked at our portfolio and saw roughly 25 percent consisted of contractors. And construction has been strong during the pandemic. So, we made a conscious decision to focus on those types of businesses and raise more money to make more working capital available to contractors.
We also have been working with local governments to get to their procurement and minority development departments to issue contracts to these businesses. And we created a contractor assistance program that offers construction-industry focused consulting services in areas like technology, contract management software, and QuickBooks. Our goal is to strengthen the capacity of contracting businesses so these folks can create more jobs in their communities.
For businesses that are more impacted by social distancing and shutdowns, like retail, we’re helping them create business strategies that don’t rely so heavily on foot traffic but maybe more so on technology.
I think that CDFIs really need to do this type of work overall, not just during crisis. We need to know who’s in our portfolios, do surveys, find out how weak/strong our customers are, and look at the ones in industries that are still going. For example, daycare centers. Of course, during the pandemic, we’ve found that the daycare centers still needed help. Because the essential workers still need daycare.
CDFIs need to continue to invest monies in new entrepreneurs and help established businesses find different ways to work in today’s uncertain environment.
What do you want people to learn from your life’s work?
I want everyone to understand that financing Black-owned and minority-owned businesses is not just a question of justice and equity, it’s a strategy for economic growth. The more businesses that succeed, the more our economy succeeds – so capitalizing Black businesses is good for all Americans.
Black businesses are good investments. I’ve seen in my career that people tend to think that lending to Black businesses is going to equate to large loan losses. I’ve found it to be the opposite.
BBIF has gotten so much money out into the community, and our organization remains firmly solid because the loan losses have been so small.
The kind of work BBIF does – that so many CDFIs do — is really like banking in years past when bankers really got to know their customers. We know our customers so well. When they have hard times, they’ll come to us and work with us and find a way to pay us back. I always say that character is what pays back loans. Our borrowers have strong character and commitment.
Black businesses are in the news a lot today. And there has been a heightened call among corporations—like Google and Twitter—to invest in Black, women, Native, and Latino-owned small businesses. How does it feel to see leaders supporting CDFIs like BBIF?
It’s exciting to witness the growing awareness of CDFIs this year, as well as the growing focus on inequities in financing.
BBIF received a Grow with Google Small Business Fund loan and a Google.org grant, and we are grateful Google and others in the corporate sector are using CDFIs to make their capital work for the nation’s small businesses. It’s great to see they recognize the CDFI model is proven and impactful.
I hope this attention shifts the tide for Black people and businesses for the long-term.
Where do you want to see the finance sector and CDFI industry head now?
I want to see more inclusion and more CDFIs led by people of color. I’m hoping that younger people will be more open to working with each other—that they will build more diverse and representative workplaces.
I want CDFIs and other finance institutions to bring the staff that looks like their customers. And I want BBIF’s successes to drive more investment in Black and minority-owned businesses.
I also want us to continue to advocate for our customers. Even when it’s not popular, we’ve got to be willing to swim upstream for our customers. We’re their voice.
That’s the loudest message I have for my peers: Advocate and fight for your customers. They’re the smallest folks on the street, and they often come to us when they’ve run out of options. But guess what? Even when you help the smallest person out, they’re teaching their children how to be entrepreneurs and they’re making money to take care of their families. All of this stuff matters in the scheme of the economics within our communities and in the larger economy. All of it matters.
The Ned Gramlich Lifetime Achievement Award for Responsible Finance is named for a staunch, longtime advocate for responsible finance. As former Board of Governors’ primary liaison to the Fed’s Consumer Advisory Council, Ned Gramlich advised on community development and consumer finance policy matters. He was an outspoken voice against predatory lending and a strong defender of the Community Reinvestment Act. He served on OFN’s Board from October 2006 until his death in 2007.
Previous Gramlich awardees include Michael Swack (2019); Nancy O. Andrews (2018); Linda Davenport and John Berdes (2017); Elsie Meeks (2016); Moises Loza (2015); Bill Bynum (2014); Ron Phillips (2013); Juliana Eades (2012); Jeremy Nowak (2011); Sister Corinne Florek (2010); Martin Eakes (2009); Cliff Rosenthal (2008); and Ned Gramlich (2007).