Ambrosia Johnson, Youth Services Coordinator for MESO’s Future Leaders Youth Program for youth and young adult entrepreneurs, represents the organization during a Good in the Hood community event parade in Portland. 

Ambrosia Johnson, Youth Services Coordinator for MESO’s Future Leaders Youth Program for youth and young adult entrepreneurs, represents the organization during a Good in the Hood community event parade in Portland. 

Portland CDFI Adapts Small Business Services to Hybrid World

Avery Kaplan, Membership Associate, Opportunity Finance Network

OFN member Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon shifts service model to accommodate for today’s hybrid environment while maintaining deep community engagement.

Read time: 5 minutes

In March, CDFI peers and other mission lenders and partners convened in Portland, Oregon, for OFN’s West Regional Meeting and training.

Cobi Lewis is the CEO and Executive Director of Portland-based Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon (MESO)

Ahead of the meeting, OFN connected with Cobi Lewis, CEO and Executive Director of Portland-based Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon (MESO), to hear about this OFN member’s work in Oregon and how they are meeting current challenges.  

MESO’s mission is to improve economic opportunities through empowerment, education, and entrepreneurship for the benefit of the greater community. MESO brings a holistic array of services and programs to small businesses including access to capital, business planning, market research, individual development accounts, bookkeeping, networking, mentoring, and resources and referrals.  

What is one unique aspect about MESO and the community you serve?  
 

A unique aspect of MESO and our community is that there is no single, prescribed method of providing services to our clients. Every person and every business in every community is very different. We are proud of our ability to customize our approach to meet the specific needs of each client and work hard to maintain that flexibility as MESO grows.  

Pictured from left to right are members of the MESO team: Asian Doan, Tyhis Dickens, Lé King, Cobi Lewis, Poison Waters, Kyle Sanchez, Celina Sanchez, and Isis Ilias. 

Pictured from left to right are members of the MESO team: Asian Doan, Tyhis Dickens, Lé King, Cobi Lewis, Poison Waters, Kyle Sanchez, Celina Sanchez, and Isis Ilias. 

What’s the biggest opportunity for MESO to create greater impact?
 

Our current priority is to shift our service model to accommodate for the current hybrid environment, while still offering that in-person and community approach to our work.  

MESO is beginning to incorporate a series of in-person workshops and networking events, as well as opportunities for our clients to interact with stakeholders and cohort-specific partners. At the same time, we have continued to provide online classes and services through our digital classroom program, because we realize that virtual options provide flexibility for clients who are differently abled and/or have busy business schedules or family obligations that may make in-person attendance challenging.  
 

What is the biggest challenge or opportunity for MESO in 2024?
 

Our biggest challenge is making predictions in the volatile economic climate and in light of whatever the most popular “issue of the time” for funding might be. We have to balance our investment portfolio with interest rate fluctuations — we manage a balance of government and private funding — while at the same time providing a sense of stability for clients and staff.  

MESO staff help client Israel Martinez (third from right) celebrate the grand opening of his food cart business, El Cuadrilátero, in Beaverton in October 2023.  

MESO staff help client Israel Martinez (third from right) celebrate the grand opening of his food cart business, El Cuadrilátero, in Beaverton in October 2023.  

What is a challenge facing the CDFI industry right now, and how can the industry rise to meet that challenge?
 

The instability of our funding sources is a big challenge, as are the sometimes aggressive reporting and audit requirements. These can take a toll on organizations and consume valuable staff time and resources that would be better invested in directly serving our community.  

It would be interesting if OFN could advise its members on advocating for industry standards on reporting. If we could get our funders and foundations on a standard schedule, then we would be able to match up our reporting and accounting schedules. At MESO, we work actively to educate our funders — not just about the challenges we face, but also about possible solutions that involve them as true partners. 

What advice do you have for people who are interested in learning more about community development and the CDFI industry?
 

Develop a balanced understanding of the community you serve, both the people and their needs. Second, partner and collaborate with other organizations in the CDFI or community development peer group to gain an understanding of the roles they play and what projects and initiatives are active.  

Does your CDFI face similar challenges?

Stay connected with MESO via Facebook, Instagram , and LinkedIn, and hear more of MESO’s story and impact from staff and clients in this video: MESO Breaking the Glass.  


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