Recap of Small Business Finance Forum 2019: Unlocking Entrepreneurial Potential

Caroline Valvardi

Thank you to the nearly 400 attendees and other supporters who made the eighth annual Small Business Finance Forum in Chicago a productive and inspiring experience this year! 

“We are ending our Forum on a note of hope. We are so moved to learn about everything that is being done to improve the lives of young adults, people with a prison record, and others who are just struggling to take that next step up. CDFIs connect to more than just making a good loan. We are heartened by our discussions and ready to do more!” shared Lisa Mensah, OFN President and CEO. 

Special thanks to the Forum’s generous sponsors for supporting the event and for their ongoing partnership with CDFIs: 

Lead Sponsor 
JPMorgan Chase & Co.  

Additional Sponsors 

Wells Fargo 

Capital One 


Woodforest National Bank  


  • In her welcome address, OFN Executive Vice President of Knowledge Sharing Donna Fabiani proudly announced that OFN recently joined the Responsible Business Lending Coalition 
  • The opening plenary kicked off with a video featuring a conversation between Mission: Launch founder Teresa Hodge and musician John Legend, also an avid criminal justice reform advocate, about entrepreneurship as a way to reduce recidivism rates.  
  • During the opening plenary, Teresa Hodge and OFN President and CEO Lisa Mensah discussed Teresa’s experience as a formerly incarcerated woman and how CDFIs can support economic mobility for the 70 million Americans with an arrest or conviction record. 
  • Attendees participated in concurrent sessions throughout the Forum on topics new to SBFF and other hot button issues, including Opportunity Zones, rural technical assistance, Truth-in-Lending Act protections, developing industry verticals, and lending to Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). 
  • Led by OFN’s Amir Kirkwood, Tuesday’s lunch plenary featured a conversation with Gary Cunningham of Black Vision Fund, Yuliya Tarasava of CNote, and David Gough of Grameen America about innovative approaches to raising new capital.  
  • During the SBFF Small Business Partner Showcase held throughout the Forum, nearly a dozen exhibitors provided opportunities for attendees to learn more about products for small business service providers. 
  • Led by Next Street’s Marina Linhart, Wednesday’s closing plenary focused on preparing for the next recession, with panelists Julie Huston of immito, Claire Kramer Mills of Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and Michael Rapaport of Opportunity Fund emphasizing the importance of tracking economic indicators. 
  • To close out SBFF 2019, former U.S. Secretary of Education and current Managing Partner at Emerson Collective Arne Duncan joined Lisa Mensah to discuss Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Destiny), a program he founded to reduce gun violence and provide economic opportunity for young adults in Chicago. 
  • Following the conclusion of SBFF 2019, a group of about 40 attendees headed to local CDFI-funded project The Hatchery for a tour led by Mary Fran Riley of Accion Chicago.  

With a special focus on supporting entrepreneurs facing the greatest barriers to (re)entry for starting and growing their own businesses, the Forum offered a renewed call for mission-driven lenders to continue pursuing innovative approaches to growing capital tailored to the unique needs of the target populations they intend to serve. 

Want to know more? Check out this year’s session slides.