Mountain Microenterprise Fund began in 1989 as a small demonstration project to a shortage of financing for small businesses, particularly those owned by women and minorities.
MMF started out as part of Warren Wilson College’s Black Swan Center, which some may remember for its “Green Pages” directory of small businesses in Swannanoa/Black Mountain (the area’s first “go local” guide). MMF began operations in a cramped basement office on campus, supported by a two-year grant of $25,000 from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. In order to make loans to small startup businesses, MMF had to apply for its own loans — $2,000 at a time — from the Self-Help Credit Union and the N.C. Rural Center.
On its tiny budget, Chris Just was hired as MMF’s first executive director, bringing to bear his Peace Corps experience and graduate studies that focused on the Grameen Bank, an innovative microloan group in Bangladesh.
MMF’s first classes of would-be entrepreneurs met in homes and at a local church. By the end of 1989, MMF had five clients. They studied each other’s business plans and voted on the most feasible one to receive a loan.
The winner of the first loan, to everyone’s dismay, disappeared with the money and was never seen again. Thankfully, most future loans were fully repaid.
After 12 months of operation, MMF had established five “groups,” representing 25 Buncombe County business ventures, and had made nine loans.
MMF’s peer-lending model — which was based on the Grameen Bank’s approach — caught the attention of Grameen’s founder (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Mohammed Yunus, who visited Asheville and attended an MMF peer group meeting at the Mystic Eye.
One Friday night in 1992, Chris received a phone call at home from Asheville philanthropist Julian Price. Chris listened as Julian said he liked the mission of the organization, wanted to help and asked how much was needed. After catching his breath, Chris said, “Next year’s budget is $75,000.” Without hesitation, Julian said he’d have a check on Monday.
Prominent people in the community, such as Mimi Cecil, Roger McGuire, Joyce Harrison and Carol King, joined MMF’s board or served as advisers. Pat Whalen, representing Julian Price and Public Interest Projects, asked if the organization would like to move downtown and offered a “sweetheart” rental agreement.
Successes followed, and entrepreneurs — such as Joe Eckert, former owner of City Bakery and co-owner of Laughing Seed and Jack of the Wood, and Hector Diaz, owner of Salsa’s, Modesto and Chorizo — were important clients whose businesses have prospered. Diaz’s initial business plan envisioned food carts at weekend festivals!
Foundations like Janirve, Z. Smith Reynolds and Mary Reynolds Babcock provided funds to support MMF’s community-building operations.
When MMF’s future executive director, Greg Walker-Wilson, took an interest in the group in 1997, Chris crossed the hall from his office to that of Public Interest Projects, where Julian Price happened to be sitting, and said, “We have a man here who can write the proposal for a $150,000 Mott Foundation grant that we’ve been asked to apply for. What do you think?” Julian responded, “Would $10,000 help us to hire him?”
By the year 2000, MMF had grown to a staff of seven with a $351,000 budget and had served more than 770 entrepreneurs in 11 WNC counties, providing them business training and loan capital. Two years later, the budget had doubled, the thousandth entrepreneur had graduated from MMF’s nationally recognized “Foundations” training course and the U.S. Treasury had certified the organization as a Community Development Financial Institution. MMF also opened the MountainMade store in the Grove Arcade to provide a retail outlet for locally made crafts.
MMF’s budget topped $1 million in 2004, and it raised its maximum loan amount to $25,000.
In 2007, MMF rebranded itself as Mountain BizWorks to reflect its expanded mission and community impact. That year Aspen Institute named BizWorks as one of eight highest-performing microenterprise programs in the nation, and Greg Walker-Wilson provided testimony on SBA Small Business Program Reauthorization demonstrating reputation beyond WNC. To date, Mountain BizWorks has provided $10 million in small-business loans to more than 750 WNC businesses and helped create more than 3,500 jobs.
Tim Richards was lucky enough to move to Asheville from upstate New York in 1982. He worked in community and economic development at Land of Sky Regional Council and Western Carolina University and is currently the senior program officer at The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. He served on the Bele Chere board of directors 1986-2000, and was chair of Mountain Microenterprise Fund 1991-2001. Tim lives in Fairview with wife Mary Anne and several rescued canine companions.