When a series of life blows knocked Tracey Amadi off-kilter, she decided it was time for new start. For more than 15 years Amadi had worked in accounting, but after the death of her husband and her own diagnosis of kidney failure, she wanted to try working for herself. When she learned her friend and coworker Janice Francisco had a talent for making all-natural body scrubs, she proposed they go into business together. In 2009 Amadi and Francisco's start-up company, Skin Arise, was born.
Of course, it takes more than one good idea to build a successful business. The biggest challenge for Skin Arise, Amadi realized, was marketing. In the world of big vendors, it was difficult to stand out and convince people to sample their product.
"In order for people to appreciate our scrubs, they have to try them," Amadi says. "A lot of people loved the scent, but nobody really wanted to take the time to try it."
Frustrated, Amadi sought knowledge and marketing tips from the Intersect Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps struggling entrepreneurs by providing coaching and small-business loans.
Based out of New Brunswick, New Jersey, near the campus of Rutgers University, the Intersect Fund is one of more than a dozen microfinance institutions (MFIs) that have sprung up in recent years on college campuses across the country. These organizations rely heavily on the support of local donors and student staff members to make a lasting difference in the lives of area small-business owners.
The Intersect Fund was founded in 2008 by Rutgers students Joe Shure and Rohan Mathew. At the time, both were working on the school newspaper, The Daily Targum, which brought them into contact with the local community. The more they learned about New Brunswick, the more troubled they became about the many people living below the poverty line only a short distance from their campus.
"When you are inside the university bubble, walking around between classes and visiting businesses that cater to the university, you get a really distorted view of what's going on," says Mathew. "[New Brunswick] seems like the picture of prosperity, but not everyone who lives there gets a chance to reap those benefits, and that didn't sit well with us."
As they learned more about the areas problems, they began to pay attention to the small businesses people were running to help make ends meet. "The role of the side business, the pocket business, that was a very important part that people who lived outside the college campuses needed to get by," Mathew says. "Handymen, street businesses, small caterers--when you are running a business, you are only dependent on yourself. You're dependent on your ability to go out and get some customers and have your sales be bigger than your expenses. That seemed like something we could have a quantifiable effect on."
After doing some research on microfinance, Mathew and Shure decided to start their own organization that would offer small loans and business training to local entrepreneurs in need of support. They sought funding from a local bank and the help of the Catholic Church, holding their first training courses for would-be entrepreneurs in the basement of nearby Sacred Heart Church.
The first class focused on business basics and drew just four people. As word spread, more classes followed at area libraries, churches, and banks. Later, grants from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development allowed the Intersect Fund to rent office space.
Since those early days the Intersect Fund has continued to grow. The organization has enrolled hundreds of people in its Entrepreneur University, an eight-week business training program that teaches potential business owners about marketing and promotion, reaching customers, pricing, and how to navigate legal and accounting issues. In addition, the fund has given out more than 110 loans totaling more than $180,000. …