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Five Questions with Jeanne Cola

Jeanne Cola, executive director of LISC Rhode Island, offers a succinct primer on what LISC is doing, and will do, to help communities survive the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. "Community is an interwoven tapestry of workforce development, education, health and housing," says Cola in a Q&A with Providence Business Network. The challenge, she explains, is to shore up the capital and political will to keep all those strands, especially housing, in tact, and make them stronger.

The excerpt below was originally published on:
Five Questions With: Jeanne Cola
By Nancy Lavin, Providence Business Network

Jeanne Cola has served as executive director for the Rhode Island Local Initiatives Support Corp. since 2011. Prior to that, she worked for 25 years for Citizens Bank, including as senior vice president and director of community investment.

PBN: LISC-RI has traditionally focused on financing affordable housing and workforce-development projects. How has the organization transitioned to help small businesses struggling financially during COVID-19?

COLA: Flexibility and adaptability are two characteristics of a good business model, and LISC’s culture is to listen to the needs in the community and then look for ways to address it. That’s trained us to look for creative ways to apply technical assistance and funding we access from foundations and corporate partners to create hyperlocal solutions for hard-hit communities.

COVID-19 is just massively bigger, and will require tiered responses. Right now, the need is strongest for the small businesses, which employ close to 54% of Rhode Islanders. We have pivoted to provide direct grants to small businesses, and in many cases work with state agencies to get resources deep into the community where it is most needed. Moving quickly is critical.

PBN: Regarding participation in the Paycheck Protection Program, what specifically did LISC-RI do to help the micro and minority-owned businesses largely left out of first-round funding?

COLA: LISC found that many smaller businesses critical to the local community had a hard time accessing the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program. Businesses that didn’t have a banking relationship were left out of the process, or were sent to a hastily constructed online portal that didn’t offer any way to ask questions.

LISC, through its new national SBA [U.S. Small Business Administration] subsidiary immito, was eligible to accept applications for a $60 million pool in the second round of PPP and we approached the process differently. We reached out to targeted minority-owned businesses in underserved communities and we provided technical assistance to ensure every application was complete and ready to be approved. It made all the difference for the local business to be able to talk it over with someone. For example, one PPP applicant was a child care provider in Pawtucket who had tried to access the first round through several credit unions and finally a bigger bank, and by the time the bank’s process was established, the funds were depleted.

These are difficult times, and we’re all faced with incredible challenges, and lending a hand to help connect local partners with resources is what we do. We’re thrilled to say that one of the recipients in phase 2 included that child care provider in Pawtucket and it has meant all the difference for this business, the nine members of their staff and the 39 families it serves in the community.

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