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Grassroots Micro Lender Responds to Crisis

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Nonprofit has experience helping very small businesses

Adam Cherkaoui, the owner of Taste of Casablanca, found himself shuttering his food cart to protect his family and clients from the spread of COVID-19. He one of the small businesses served by Micro Enterprises Services of Oregon (MESO), a nonprofit born out of the Black United Fund. With MESO’s help he received a grant to help him support his family until he can reopen. Photo courtesy MESO.



By Michael Leighton

The Portland Observer

A small business micro lender born out of the Black United Fund is building up its resources to help firms survive financially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon’s (MESO) “40/60” loan product is gearing up to help very small businesses with flexible loans to help them pay rent and other expenses as public health stay at home orders have locked out customers and starved their businesses of cash flow. Because the loans are meant to be small, under $10,000 each, they can help a lot of firms, according to MESO Executive Director Nita Shah.

The loan account will be backed by contributions from foundations, traditional banks and other donors.

Shah said her nonprofit is being inundated with requests for help.

“These obstacles seem insurmountable right now, but I believe and trust in what I have seen in the past 15 years: MESO entrepreneurs have the skills, grit and perseverance to not only survive the current situation, but emerge stronger for the experience,” she reported. In an interview with the Portland Observer, she described how the coronavirus public health crisis has brought “an alarming trajectory” of financial need from the variety of very small business owners her nonprofit traditionally serves, like hair and nail salons, family-owned markets and dry cleaners.

The micro lender normally sees about 600 to 700 people a year, but is now getting nearly a hundred calls each week, she said

“There’s been small victories but there’s also a lot hardship” Shah said. “It’s what it is right now. Quite devastating.”

Shah is quite optimistic, however, over the long run. She worked at MESO through the 2008-2009 Great Recession, which had a very bad impact for many local minority businesses. But over time, she says MESO saw great success in helping small firms get a start or keep their doors open.

“These are people with amazing dreams, and we try to help them make their dreams happen,” Shah said.

Always based in northeast Portland since its beginnings in 2005, MESO has offices on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Shaver Street. It also has satellite offices in Beaverton and Gresham’s Rockwood neighborhood. But now because of the state stay at home orders, its 16 employees are getting used to working from home, utilizing video conferencing and other online tools to reach people.

Shah says her staff of is responding to twice the amount of work during the current crisis and “putting everything they can into helping.” She is hopeful that small, minority businesses can make a rebound, especially based on what happened after the last major economic downturn.

After the last recession, Shaw said lots of unemployed workers came to MESO wanting to access its resources and programs with help to start their own business and be their own boss. She expects this to happen again.

“There’s no damper on people’s ability to come back, though it’s hard right now,” she said.

A unique feature of MESO’s new loans is providing flexible payment plans for its small loans, unlike banks. The patient and flexible lending will have payments that can be stretched out so the small business can catch up with expenses like rent until cash flow returns, Shah said. The loans are geared to businesses that often do not have financial relationships with banks and bigger financial institutions.

“We don’t want to get any one in too much debt. We are not predatory,” Shah said.

MESO also works to connect small business owners and entrepreneurs with other important resources, from links to emergency relief grants, to a free online platform to help connect with customers, to tips for marketing during COVID-19.

And when there is success, MESO likes to share the good news, as they did in a recent newsletter featuring two minority-owned firms who worked with them and the city for help, Taste of Casablanca and Ladybugs Childcare.

Adam Cherkaoui, the owner of Taste of Casablanca, had invested $2,000 earlier this year to relocate his food cart to a food cart pod in the Sellwood neighborhood from his previous location in St. John's. But instead of a grand opening celebration, Cherkaoui found himself shuttering his business to protect his family and clients from the spread of COVID-19, MESO reported. Cherkaoui was able to negotiate with the owner of the food cart pod to temporarily pay reduced rent and recently learned he’s been awarded a Small Business Relief Fund grant from Prosper Portland, the city’s economic development agency, with support from the Oregon Community Foundation, another nonprofit. The grant, along with the federal stimulus, will help him support his family until he can reopen his food cart.

Angela Benson has spent the past nearly three years building Ladybugs Childcare into a state-certified home-business serving between 16 and 22 families. In the space of a single day in March, however, Benson saw her monthly business revenue drop by more than 50%, MESO reported. While Ladybugs Childcare is still open for business, it is limited to provide care for a maximum of 10 children at a time under state requirements adjusted for COVID-19. MESO said Benson was happy she could help essential workers with much needed child care, but she worried about whether she would be able to keep all of her employees on the payroll. Her concern was eased after she was selected to receive a $10,000 Small Business Relief Fund grant from Prosper Portland with support from Oregon Community Foundation.

Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon was formed by the Black United Fund as a grassroots initiative to assist small businesses that were experiencing challenges in the wake of gentrification, new development, and increased rents in North/Northeast Portland.

MESO is a designated Small Business Administration micro lender, an IDA fiduciary, a USDA Rural Micro-entrepreneur Assistance Program lender, and a Community Development Financial Institution.

For more information about MESO, email meso@mesopdx.org or call 503-841-3351. To make a donation or learn more about the “Open for Business” fund, email Nita Shah at nshah@mesopdx.org or visit mesopdx.org/donate. If you prefer to make a donation offline, you can send a check payable to "MESO" and mail it to MESO, 4008 NE MLK Jr. Blvd., Portland, OR 97212.

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