WEDI: Partnering to provide loans, grants and mentoring during pandemic

In a time that could be seen as discouraging, Catherine Dolan and her colleagues at the Westminster Economic Development Initiative continue to be impressed by the resilience of the small business owners and entrepreneurs with whom they work.


“I was worried about the number of small businesses and entrepreneurs who might give up,” says Dolan, assistant director of economic development for WEDI, a nonprofit organization located on Buffalo’s West Side, which aims to reduce barriers to success and opportunity through economic development, community building, and education. “But everyone called to tell us not that that they were throwing in the towel, but how they are adjusting. Despite feeling pressure and dealing with the current difficulties, they are still able to keep moving forward. It’s so inspiring.”"We want to work with people," Catherine Dolan, assistant director of economic development, WEDI.


Like every other business, WEDI suddenly had to shut its doors in the middle of March. “On Friday, we were in the office, talking about making some shifts in how we work, and on Monday, it was just ‘everybody has to work from home,’” says Dolan.


“We needed to adapt our communications platforms and our loan process,” she adds. “We asked ourselves, ‘how can we help businesses right now?’”


Their lending model shifted from funding brand-new businesses to continuing to work with their current clients and portfolio to help them stay afloat. “Many of our clients are minority- and women-owned businesses. We worked with them to help fill out applications for PPP and other emergency funding,” says Dolan.


WEDI also put a loan program in place to provide bridge loans while clients were waiting for those other sources to come through, with help from the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation and Citizens Bank. “WEDI is fortunate to have good support; funding came in to help us help our clients—so they could survive or even pivot,” she says.


As an example, Dolan points to a WEDI client who had been successfully running her party-planning business. “Of course, all her events got canceled,” says Dolan. “She pivoted to doing lawn decorations and planning drive-by birthdays and other events in safe and careful ways.”


Working with other organizations in the area, WEDI was thrilled to discover that it would be able to offer not just loans, but grant money, thanks to the ongoing support from KeyBank Business Boost & Build powered by JumpStart and additional donors.


“Our Neighborly Fund has now been opened to the public, and we will make loans to qualifying businesses until the resources run out. We’re also collaborating with NeighborWorks® Community Partners Buffalo, which is providing no-interest emergency loans to individuals for personal financial assistance,” says Dolan. “We weren’t sure about the grant money—it’s fantastic that it actually worked out; it was after the fact and was a surprise to those who also received loans.”


Veronica Deas, owner of accounting firm Ravenell Services LLC, was one such client. “I had been approved for a loan from WEDI in December, so that I could grow the business,” says Deas. She started Ravenell in 2007 from her home, and now has an additional office in Niagara Falls and one employee. “While I was able to continue doing business, COVID-19 stopped the growth. WEDI deferred the first loan payments until next December. They also found another loan that I don’t have to pay until December. And then there was the grant money! I can continue to pay bills that affect my business.”


"Knowing that...WEDI is looking out for you, makes it a lot easier," Veronica Deas, owner of Ravenell Services, LLC.“Knowing that the staff at WEDI are looking out for you makes it a lot easier,” says Deas. “Part of my business is working with other small businesses, helping them understand why they need a budget, how to do their tax returns properly, and advise them on investing their returns. In that way, I’ve been a caregiver for small businesses, and WEDI does that for me.”


In addition to funding, WEDI continues to connect clients with volunteer mentors. “During the shutdown, mentors worked with clients to do things like help them get their products and businesses online,” says Dolan.


Deas meets (virtually) with her mentors, and likes it when they might point out where she could be doing better. “On things like my website, advertising, and social media, I can sometimes drag my feet,” she says. “They help to ‘un-drag’ them; I know I have to do it.”


Dolan supplies that WEDI makes even greater efforts to help during the pandemic. “We know that not everyone will be able to pay back their loans on a normal schedule; we are being as flexible as we can, and offering deferment options to all clients, no matter what,” she says. “We’ve reached out to every person in our portfolio to help work with any other creditors, and came up plans for things like credit card and loan payments. The goal is always to help people improve their credit, and especially now, to make sure they are not negatively impacted.”


Now that the state and region are starting to reopen, and businesses are getting back to it, Deas has seen some positive activity. “Calls are starting to come in from some who have gone back to work,” she attests. “I’ve heard from some of my construction guys, they need me to help with payroll. I’m excited for that.”

Read more articles by Jana Eisenberg.

Jana Eisenberg is a Buffalo-based freelance writer/editor. In October, 2019, she was named managing editor of UpstartNY. She grew up in Los Angeles, called NYC home for 20 years, and now enjoys telling the stories of life in Western New York.
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