The shoes of Stacey Saggese, co-founder and development director of Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute
Photo by Stacey Saggese
Stacey Saggese, development director and co-founder of Rocky Mountain MicroFinance Institute (RMMFI), grew up in Hingham, Mass. – 20 minutes south of Boston and yes, she is a Red Sox fan and proud of it! Saggese came to Colorado in October 2006 in search of adventure and creating the life she was meant to lead. She worked in the corporate world in Boston after college and realized it wasn’t for her. She then moved to Thailand, taught English for 18 months and travelled around Southeast Asia. Coming back to the United States gave her an important opportunity to pursue her dreams.
Today, Saggese and her husband live in Whittier – currently renting but hoping to find a house we can work on over the years to turn into a home. The couple has, to quote Saggese, “a wicked big cat, Frida.”
Long interested in the relevance of micro-lending and small business development, I met Saggese shortly after Saggese and three other Coloradans founded RMMFI in 2008. The idea of an interview this month with Saggese was a natural next step. In an article titled, “MicroFinance Institute offers education, loans,” in the July 8, 2011 print edition of the Denver Business Journal. Heather Draper captured this quote:
“’RMMFI is filling an unmet need for the very earliest stage of financing and training,’ said Carolyn Paul, Denver-based regional manager for Bank of the West’s Wealth Management Group. ‘They also are sparking new thinking about how best to help unemployed and underemployed people move toward a sustainable future of economic independence.’”
Saggese is not only a fearless young woman leader committed to economic development for often under-resourced adults in our state, she is wise beyond her years.
- Together with your co-founders, what made you want to start your small business training institute and micro lending fund in Colorado?
The four founders of RMMFI were employees at another microfinance organization in Denver before RMMFI was founded. We all worked to develop and deliver programs directly to clients (business owners). When the organization abruptly and shockingly shut its doors, staff was laid off, and programs were cancelled. There was, however, a mission to serve; clients that depended on the organization, partners and funders who had made commitments, and work to be done. The four founders came back every day – working with the Board to make tough phone calls and do anything we could to “save” the organization. Through this process two things became very clear 1) the organization could not be saved 2) there was now a gaping hole in services and resources available to low-income entrepreneurs in Denver. The four of us felt there was a better way to help people start businesses. We recognized the opportunity in front of us so we grabbed it, ran with it, and never once thought it wouldn’t work. That was August 2008 – now more than four years later I am so thankful and proud to be able to do this work – it’s incredibly rewarding.
- What makes you passionate as a woman about this particular social justice or economic development issue?
Business ownership is about opportunity. It cares not for your degree or your address; success in business is not determined by education level or past decisions. Business ownership starts with valuing each entrepreneur where they are now. Whether you’re a single mom, caring for older parents, going through a career change, depending on family or public assistance, or following a dream - you can be a business owner. You have a skill, a passion, a recipe – you can be a business owner.
Many times I’ve seen women realize their value through business ownership. A woman who recently graduated from RMMFI’s Business Launch Boot Camp opened a burrito business and she has told me on numerous occasions that she has found her life’s mission. Every time a customer tells her that her burritos are “the best she’s ever had!” she beams and is excited to sell to the next person. Business ownership puts the reins of life in the hands of the business owner. Instead of depending on others, feeling unsatisfied, wondering when and how life can get better – a woman can start firmly where she is, look boldly into the future, and work hard to build a better life with more purpose and more income potential. We know that women have a knack for working hard and a business is something she can own for herself as result of that work. A business becomes an expression of her talent and desire. It’s something that builds her skills and gives her the chance to learn new things, all of which she will pass on to her kids. Business also means flexibility - don’t mistake that for short working hours – and the chance to build a schedule around her kids and her family which means she’ll be have the chance to invest in the relationships that mean the most. As a business owner, she steps into the light of the self-reliant, strong woman she always has been. Her kids see it because she believes it, and then, the whole world changes.
- What has been the biggest challenge you’ve addressed since starting RMMFI? The biggest accomplishment?
When we began RMMFI, we were the new kids on the block, starting a non-profit in August 2008 which was the beginning of a huge economic downturn. With these challenges, we also carried with us the tarnished reputation of the previous organization. Though we had strong experience in the industry, we found ourselves constantly defending and explaining our youth as an organization and our connection with an organization that had failed. We had the same conversation over and over – with foundations, banks, partners, volunteers, and donors. At this time of RMMFI’s development, we learned an important lesson which has helped to define us as an organization and has contributed to our success.
Instead of trying to “convince” everyone that we could do it, we invited them to get involved. Instead of asking foundations when we could submit grant proposals for funding, we asked them for meetings to help us understand the non-profit landscape in Denver and who we should partner with. We engaged individuals from the business and banking world to help us in program development and we partnered with non-profits who serve similar communities to get and in-depth understanding of the needs of the people we wanted to serve. We realized that “community” is not just a tool or a buzz word, it’s essential to build an organization that is rooted impact. From that moment and until this day, everything we do includes input and involvement from stakeholders from for-profits, non-profits, government, individuals in the community, and academia. Therefore, the lesson we learned through the times of our biggest struggle continues to be the reason we continue to accomplish great things.
The graduation ceremony of the inaugural class of the Business Launch Boot Camp is one of the most significant accomplishments we’ve had. It was the day we realized it worked – business owners were planned, funded, supported and ready to launch their businesses. The majority of that first class is still in business – one business, Radiant Gardens, is a boutique garden design and maintenance firm and pays the owner a salary. This salary allows her to support herself and last summer she hired four contract workers.
Another great success – simply because in this way we proved our own model – was the day we received our first paycheck after 18 months of not receiving one. We created our own jobs through business ownership, just like our clients do.
- Tell me a little about your three partners? What made you four decide to do this together? What was the tipping point to help you make that the year you all opened RMMFI? Tell me about your nonprofit and who its clients are?
The four of us all chose roles as partners that fit our skill-sets, experience, personalities, and professional desires and we are fortunate it ended up that way. It takes some reflection to really understand the journey we’ve been on. From the beginning, nothing has been certain, though we never once talked about the organization failing. We went without paychecks
for 18 months and each had to work other jobs or rely on family members in different ways to give us the flexibility to make the business work.
When you put your heart into something like that and share it with other people a bond is created that is very special. Certainly our relationships have changed over the years and will continue to change as the organization does, but the beginning of RMMFI will always be filled of memories of being with Rob, Brendan, and Ben and I love each of them for that. As the only woman, I’d say I learned quite a bit about the importance of having positive female influences. Truth be told, I enjoy working with men! It was fun to be the only girl most days, a card I wasn’t afraid of playing when I didn’t want to do certain things. It also reminded me and encouraged me to find female role models and mentors that helped me tremendously. Fundraising was a new role for me and RMMFI was new organization. I was a sponge and open to learning whatever I could from whomever I could. What I learned is that the women in Colorado’s non-profit community are unstoppable. The smarts, toughness, vision, care, humility, and hunger I saw to create a better world blew me away. I continue to be inspired every single day. I want to be one of them.
RMMFI provides learning, lending, and coaching to low-income entrepreneurs in the Denver Metro Area who seek to create self-sufficiency and self-worth through business ownership. Our flagship program, the Business Launch Boot Camp. is offered three times a year, as a 12 week intensive program aimed at bringing 10 qualifying and committed entrepreneurs from idea to launch, through a heavy dose of learning, lending, and coaching.
Each entrepreneur selected for the Boot Camp receives:
- 8 Weeks of intensive core learning and planning to complete a business plan based on the "Four Pillars of Business" (Marketing, Operations, Management, and Financials)
- 1-on-1 Business Coaching to keep on track & 1-on-1 Business Mentorship (meet weekly)
- Access to business experts for help on planning specifics
- 4 Weeks of coaching and mentoring focused on actually opening the business
- Access to business loan funds ($250-$2,500) to launch or expand the business concept
- Have you always had an entrepreneurial spirit? Or is it a new for you?
I grew up around small business. My great grandfather started a produce company in Boston in the 1930’s which eventually was passed down to my grandfather. I grew up going the office with my mom as a little girl and my grandfather, my aunt, my uncle, and family friends worked there too. Everyone knew each other, it was a family business and everyone was family. The business was eventually sold, but my experience growing up in that environment had a profound impact on what I believe is the power of business ownership to create opportunity, create meaningful work, transform families, and improve communities.
My dad, as a high school math teacher for nearly 40 years, opened and operated two different small businesses in the summers while we were growing up. The first was a counter-style restaurant that served breakfast and lunch on a marina in Massachusetts. I’m thankful to my dad to this very day for the killer fruit basket I can carve out of a watermelon that wows at every cookout! He also opened a baseball card store, which was perfect as he is still a passionate lifelong collector of sports cards and lover of baseball. These were passion projects for my dad – something that he could call his own and something he could involve his family with. He loved it and so did we.
I bring this up because I think the entrepreneurial spirit has been around me for my entire life. My brother had a lemonade stands as a kid and would even try to sell things he’d take from the house and display in our driveway. I’ve always been willing to try new things, I’ve been up for anything, and sought out adventures. My life’s path has been entirely in the pursuit of my passions and I thrive in situations where I need to make things happen and bring people together to do it. Because of the gifts my family gave me and the opportunity I had to create the life of my dreams, I believe my life’s mission is to give others the opportunity to do the same.
- What questions or ideas have been raised so far for you since 2008 when you co-founded RMMFI? What was surprising or compelling in your view?
The first suite of programs we launched at RMMFI consisted of a series of business classes that clients could advance through when the timing worked for them. For example, if an aspiring entrepreneur took Class 1 in January, s/he could choose to take Class 2 in February or even March. As a result, we had clients that were advancing through the system and finding value – but the number of businesses that actually launched was much lower than we had hoped for. We took a long look at the model and our desired impact and realized that the way we were delivering services created an unintended “cliff” that clients were falling off of. From this, we developed the Business Launch Boot Camp. When we switched to this model, we took a big risk; instead of being able to serve 300+ individuals with a breadth of services, we were going to serve between 30-36 individuals with a depth of services. This ensured that those individuals that were the most business-ready had everything that they needed to actually open a business and to begin to make progress toward their economic goals.
We did involve our foundation partners in this conversation. To our delight, we were greeted with applause (literally in one case!), and congratulated for taking a risk and changing the model to focus on impact.
This was a big a-ha moment for me. The non-profit community has so much opportunity to be inventive and impact-focused and we have to continue to encourage innovation in the work we do. It’s easy to get complacent for fear of losing funding or confusing the community. However, we must remember that at we are ultimately here to serve a purpose. It is our responsibility to do what it takes to get that done. Non-profits need to be bold and embrace the entrepreneurial spirit and be willing to be risk-takers and unflinching, in the name of impact.
- Would you comment on what’s ahead in 2013 for your nonprofit?
In 2013, RMMFI will celebrate our 5th Anniversary. We are also proud to announce the 50th business launched through the Business Launch Boot Camp. We will soon have disbursed over $100,000 in loans, and we plan to grow staff to accommodate the increased demand for our services. We are expecting exciting program expansion that is the result of direct feedback from the graduates of the Business Launch Boot Camp. As helpful as the Boot Camp is in preparing for and launching a business, the first year of business is always the scariest and the most volatile. Business owners have asked RMMFI for additional targeted support to help them successfully navigate first phase of actually running a business.
- If you saw a newspaper headline 5 years from now that meant your community work had been successful, what would it say?
“Economic independence and personal prosperity is at its highest level ever in all of Denver’s communities, thanks to a thriving and eclectic network of interconnected local businesses”
Not only because she a woman to watch, with RMMFI fast becoming one of the most fantastic nonprofit start-up stories of Colorado of all time, Saggese personifies some of the best practices in taking care of herself and her health while being a community leader. This is an individual who commits to being active – in the summer, it’s hiking and camping. She finds peace and strength in yoga all year round. And a little known fact about Saggese is her favorite thing ever is to go apple-picking. There seems something poetic about a woman who helped establish a complex nonprofit such as RMMFI liking the simple act of walking through an orchard on a nice fall day.
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