Women Blaze Small Biz Trails in Brooklyn

Members of the Trillion Dollar Women’s Investment Group turned out to support Nicole Sharpe (third from left) who was being honored at a domestic abuse awareness event. Sharpe used her micro loan to help start the nonprofit, which aids survivors of domestic abuse. (Photo courtesy of Alishia Goodridge)

Members of the Trillion Dollar Women’s Investment Group turned out to support Nicole Sharpe (third from left) who was being honored at a domestic abuse awareness event. Sharpe used her micro loan to help start the nonprofit, which aids survivors of domestic abuse. (Photo courtesy of Alishia Goodridge)

Every Wednesday Diana’s Event Space on Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn is full of people, but not for a party or a performance as one might expect. Instead, the people who arrive just after 7 a.m. every week are a group of women who have made an investment in themselves.

Ranging in age from 19 to 73 years old, the women run various small businesses from a natural lip care line to a mobile spa, a catering company to a clothing line. They meet for about a half hour before work to make payments on their small business loans and to continue expanding their financial management and marketing skills.

“We meet every week faithfully,” said Nicole Langlaise, who is the group’s president and co-founder. “We are here because we are committed.”

The members of the Trillion Dollar Women’s Investment Group (TDWIG) – many of them Caribbean immigrants or of Caribbean heritage – are in the vanguard of a new movement of female entrepreneurs who’re tapping into new sources of funding.

They credit their success to the lending model of microfinance, which originated in South Asia, but has recently gained popularity in communities in New York City and several cities around the country.

“We learned about it [microfinance funding and organizations] at a Bronx Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event in the summer of 2014. We were told that there was no credit check, no social security number, none of that needed. Just five women we trust to start a group and [at the time] I couldn’t understand how this could really work,” said Langlaise.

Langlaise and Alishia Goodridge – longtime friends turned business partners – decided to get further information from Grameen America, a leading microfinance organization that provides “micro” or small loans to groups of women entrepreneurs in 11 cities across the United States.

Founded in 2008, the nonprofit organization opened its first U.S. office in Jackson Heights, Queens. The original Grameen Bank was founded in 1983 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to offer microcredit to small enterprises started by women in South Asia.

Nicole Langlaise (l) and Alishia Goodridge(r), co-founders of the Trillion Dollar Women Investment Group (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

Nicole Langlaise (l) and Alishia Goodridge (r), co-founders of the Trillion Dollar Women’s Investment Group (Photo by Melissa Noel for Voices of NY)

The duo, whose day jobs are in education and financial business services – including credit restoration services and teaching financial literacy – initially only planned to obtain funding for a “business boutique” where they could meet with clients one-on-one.

But that all changed, Langlaise and Goodridge say, once they learned more about Grameen America and realized that collaborating with other women would have an even greater impact.

“We really started to think about what we could do as a group, cohesively and how that could empower so many women in our community through a microfinance model of group lending,” said Goodridge.

Microfinance offers low-income individuals and groups access to capital, credit and asset-building services. The idea is to equip these aspiring entrepreneurs, who may lack financial means or financial history, to build successful small businesses and support their families.

“We wanted to help provide some financial structure and stability to women who already had the entrepreneurial spirit,” said Langlaise.

“Plus, when you lend to a group, the way the organization [Grameen America] does, there is that kind of peer pressure, that community to keep us all accountable,” Goodridge added.

Goodridge and Langlaise say that the group’s name was chosen to demonstrate that their ambitions for the earning potential of their members are limitless.

When a group like Trillion Dollar Women’s Investment starts, each person participates in a week of financial training to learn about loans, savings and credit building. After successful completion of training, each woman opens a savings account and then receives a small business loan from Grameen America between $500 and $1,500. After the initial loan repayment the women can apply for larger loans. According to Grameen this group-lending model has a 99 percent repayment rate.

Organizations like Grameen America provide access to financial services that are otherwise scarce for low-income people, and are especially scarce for women – at all income levels.

According to a July 2014 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business & Entrepreneurship, women entrepreneurs receive $1 out of every $23 awarded in small business loans, despite representing 30 percent of all small companies. Women are not only more likely to be turned down for loans, but when they are approved, they tend to receive less favorable terms than men, according to the report.

To date, Grameen America has served close to 70,000 women and has distributed 197,820 microloans (and counting) since opening its first U.S. branch in Queens eight years ago.

“I think during the process Alishia and I realized that this was bigger than us. This meant women’s empowerment and just empowerment of people,” Langlaise said.

Group co-founder Alishia Goodridge teaches credit restoration class (Photo via TDWIG Facebook page)

Group co-founder Alishia Goodridge teaches credit restoration class (Photo via TDWIG Facebook page)

The gap that exists in access to credit and financial services for women is one reason why Grameen America lends solely to women entrepreneurs. Without that access, people get stymied in trying to establish credit and build a business.

Becky Asch, Grameen America’s director of communications & program management, said: “If you can’t get access to credit then you can’t build financial identity and you can’t get a mortgage to build assets, so it’s really a vicious cycle. What we’re trying to do is be the first buffer and give women access to first-time capital to allow them to build that financial identity.”

And giving women that access has proved to reap enormous economic rewards, notes Asch: “Study after study has shown that investing in women has a greater multiplier effect on families and communities and they are more likely to reinvest their earnings within their families and in children’s health and education.”

On average, women who come into groups like the one led by Langlaise and Goodridge with no credit can typically attain a credit score of 670, which is considered a fair credit score and is close to the current national average of 695.

This is because their regular payments toward loans are reported to the credit bureau Experian. Higher credit scores usually mean lower costs on things like cell phones and utilities as well as access to other lines of credit.

In addition, the years of experience that Langlaise and Goodridge have in financial business services means that participants of this group in particular, are able to get regular financial counseling and marketing advice.

“We continually advise our members on how best they can manage the money provided for their individual needs because we want to see people succeed,” said Goodridge. “It is important to us that the support we provide is ongoing.”

Members of the Trillion Dollar Women’s Investment Group say that the support they receive goes even further than access to capital and credit building.

“The group builds you up. All the group members work together even though we don’t do the same thing. Nobody is pulling you aside. Everybody is giving you a push,” said Starlyn English who has been a member of the group for about nine months.

“It not only helps me to be doing a business independently, but also to help others because what I do is I buy and sell bags and clothes, used and new and send them back home to Guyana,” she said. “My sister-in-law sells them there, so business is helping them down there and helping me up here.”

Langlaise and Goodridge both say they have seen a change not only in money management skills, but also in the mindset of their group members.

“I have seen the growth from women who came into it very untrusting and unsure. Also, I have seen how they think about things change for some of them when it comes to business and when it comes to accountability and working together,” said Langlaise.

“They see the support that is here and for me it’s the community of support that is more important than anything else,” said Goodridge. “Women who are entrepreneurs need to know that they have a support system and resources.”

The value of these kinds of programs was recognized in May when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the “WE Master Money: Credit” program as a part of the city’s Women Entrepreneurs (WE NYC) initiative.

The program, which will provide credit-building workshops and one-on-one counseling to 1,000 women annually over the next two years, and is said to be the first of its kind in the U.S. to address the gender gap in entrepreneurship.

The curriculum for “WE Master Money: Credit” was developed by the NYC Department of Small Business Services in partnership with Grameen America and financial education provider Ariva. And courses are already underway – a move Goodridge believes is a major step in the right direction.

“We were already doing this in our own group, but to have something sponsored by the city is great because you are getting access to more resources… This is a step toward really showing that women and business matter,” she said.

This story is the first in a three-part series on the Trillion Dollar Women’s Investment Group and how microfinance is helping fuel small businesses for women in New York City. The next installment will focus on group member Dionne Davis and how the microloan she received helped her get the natural lipstick line “Darker Shade of Ebony” started.

Melissa Noel is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Voices of NY, NBCBLK.com and Ebony Magazine. This article was written as part of the Business Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from News Corp. 

2 Comments

  1. Allison Harding says:

    Please let me know how I can contact these ladies in The trillion dollars club.I would love to be a part of this organization. Thanks

  2. Allison Harding says:

    Can I also have their email address

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