By Marianne Salza
For 35 years the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund (LEAF) has been providing technical assistance and financing to co-operative organizations and social ventures across the nation. The non-profit community development financial institution (CDFI) hopes to continue expanding its recent initiative of creating and retaining jobs for low-income communities in Greater Boston.
“We feel like we could do even more in this area,” said Ben Selden, Developmental & Marketing Manager. “We’re excited to keep working on our program in Boston. Projects are exciting and turn into tangible success stories.”
LEAF works primarily with co-operatives, businesses that promote equality at all levels. In a work co-operative, employees are given part ownership of the institution, and workers are given stronger voices in decision-making, such as through voting for or serving on the institution’s board of directors.
Over the last year LEAF has worked directly with over 30 low-income, minority, immigrant, or women-owned small businesses in Chelsea, Dorchester, East Boston, Mattapan, Roxbury and more, in addition to holding workshops that have benefitted more than 100 emerging and established business owners.
“Investors in LEAF want to make both a moderate financial return and also a social return. LEAF uses those funds to finance small businesses and co-ops in economically disadvantaged areas,” Selden said. “These businesses often aren’t able to receive financing from a traditional bank. Banks often require a personal guarantee, which can be impossible when a business is jointly owned by, say, two dozen low-income workers.”
LEAF recently discussed the values and benefits of co-operatives during a November 16 workshop and networking session at the East Boston Public Library entitled, “Small Business Center – New Business Model: Co-operatives,” presented by the City of Boston’s Office of Economic Development. The City of Boston is actively promoting worker ownership in the city, and supports LEAF’s business development activities through its On-Site Technical Assistance Program.
“We are well qualified to not only approve a loan to a business, but sit with them on a one-on-one basis as mentors and coaches,” said Selden. “We look at what problems are preventing them from growing and succeeding. It’s of no cost to the business owner.”
LEAF is working with a former East Boston café owner who hopes to restart her business as a food co-operative grocery store. In Chelsea, LEAF is collaborating with several immigrant entrepreneurs who aspire to build a housing co-operative, where residents are joint owners of the property.
“LEAF has been working with a start-up worker co-operative in Downtown Crossing called Democracy Brewing,” Selden said. “LEAF is helping to build the sizeable capital stack for the project, as well as providing assistance as a lender.”
Since its business assistance program started in 2015, LEAF has been helping business owners develop better tools for tracking their finances by explaining government taxes and grant applications, providing business venture advice, and creating spreadsheets and other adaptable tools to organize production costs.
“It’s exciting and impactful because I get to see business owners who are hard working and passionate, but at times, get overwhelmed with the financial side of things,” described Selden. “We help prepare them as best we can and free them from a lot of that anxiety around the numbers.”
To apply for support or learn more about co-operative businesses across the country, visit www.LEAFFund.org. Register for upcoming workshops in the Small Business Center series at Boston.Gov/Small-Business-Center. Attend Growing Your Food-Based Business on Thurs., Nov. 30; or Immigrant Entrepreneurship: Success Stories & Business Resources, on Thursday, Dec. 7, both from 4-7:30 p.m. at the East Boston Public Library.