Northern Initiatives’ Blended Learning Approach to Technical Assistance
This is the second in a six-part series spotlighting CDFIs in the Wells Fargo Works for Small Business®: Diverse Community Capital program network, funded with a $175 million commitment to help diverse small businesses grow, through a story and case study that highlight an innovative program or service of these CDFIs.
Rachel and Andrew Brand own Bake Superior Bread, a European-style artisan bread and pastry bakery in Ironwood, Michigan. The couple knows everything there is to know about levains and sugars, fats and fermentations. But before opening their storefront in a converted electronics store, they didn’t know all the ins and outs of running a small business.
“We thought we knew what we didn’t know, but we had no idea how much there was to learn,” Rachel said. Both bakers, the husband and wife came to this realization after working with Northern Initiatives, a CDFI serving Michigan and Wisconsin that’s part of the Wells Fargo Diverse Community Capital network.
The Brands came to Northern Initiatives for a loan when a bank turned them down, referring the couple to the CDFI for help. As Northern Initiatives borrowers, the Brands received personal small business coaching and access to a treasure trove of supportive resources in Initiate, the CDFI’s online technical assistance platform.
Person and Portal: A Complementary Approach
Initiate is a web portal and one component of Northern Initiatives’ blended learning approach—technology and personalized coaching—to financial literacy and small business education.
Northern Initiatives, which serves a broad geographic, primarily rural footprint and a large percentage of entrepreneurs from underserved communities, conceptualized the program a few years ago.
“As our loan volume grew, we started exploring ways to scale the technical assistance we offered,” said Amanda Blondeau, Director of Business Services at Northern Initiatives. “Technology was one area we turned to. We had a large selection of resources business coaches emailed to clients. We thought: ‘It’d be great if we could have a central location where customers can go directly for learning tools.’ So, we started creating one.”
Around the same time, Prosperity Now issued a Call for Solutions to find and uplift interesting ways organizations were providing financial literacy to help microbusinesses thrive. Northern Initiatives was one of the programs selected.
“Northern Initiatives spent more than a year learning how and when small businesses learn best,” Amanda said of the Prosperity Now experience. “We tested our online portal with owners and used their feedback to inform its design.” In 2017, the CDFI formally launched Initiate. (Learn more here about the testing phase of the project and lessons learned while working with Prosperity Now.)
24 Hours a Day, 365 Days a Year
Built on a WordPress foundation, Initiate offers 24/7 access to more than 100 educational resources—”Business owners need to login at odd hours,” Amanda explained.
All potential Northern Initiative borrowers receive an automated email when their loan package goes to underwriting. The email prompts recipients to create an account in Initiate.
Once users are set up in the system, they benefit from tools in three key areas: Money, Marketing, and Management. These borrowers also receive individualized coaching for business challenges and customized guidance through the portal.
“We never want the web-based tools to replace human interaction. They should complement each other,” said Amanda. “But that individual one-on-one time, which is so crucial, is also limited. The blended approach enables coaches and business owners to really maximize their time together—coaches can talk through issues and answer questions and direct people to the right resource for deeper understanding.”
It worked for Rachel.
“I consulted with our business coach, Amanda, on many different areas,” recalled Rachel, who handles the bakery’s books, retail sales, and customer relations—and she bakes the pastries! “What stands out most about the experience was learning QuickBooks—Nicole and Amanda guided me through all of the online resources and Christine helped in person while I was learning.”
A Portal for All
Northern Initiatives also makes the platform available for other CDFIs. “There’s a lot of great technology for loan underwriting but not for technical assistance,” Amanda said. “We had that in mind when we built Initiate.”
For an annual fee, CDFIs can customize the portal, adding their logo, a unique dashboard, and their own resources to Northern Initiatives’ library.
“It’s a great addition to our technical assistance toolbox,” said Athena Agoudemos, Small Business Consultant Manager at Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative (WWBIC). “We have our own WWBIC client resource manual, business coaching volunteers within our network, and classes in our offices. The portal rounds these out nicely, especially because it’s available all day, every day.”
WWBIC is one of six CDFIs currently using Initiate. The others are Accion, Colorado Enterprise Fund, LiftFund, RCAC, and Southwest Initiative Foundation. With Northern Initiatives, these CDFIs cover a 31-state service area.
“WWBIC works throughout Wisconsin,” said Athena. “We have hub offices, but we also have clients in rural areas where there’s one WWBIC person. Entrepreneurs in those areas don’t have as many technical assistance opportunities, so our rural staff are excited to share the portal.”
About Wells Fargo Works for Small Business®: Diverse Community Capital program
The Wells Fargo Works for Small Business®: Diverse Community Capital program (DCC) will deliver $175 million in capital to Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) that serve diverse small businesses. Since program launch, DCC has awarded $94.8 million in grants and capital to CDFIs to grow their lending and services to diverse small businesses.