Meet Nita Shah of Micro Enterprise Services

The following interview is part of the Philanthropy Roundtable’s “Free to Give” series highlighting the impact that philanthropy can have when Americans have the right to give freely to the causes and communities they care about most. Learn more here.

“MESO is a business development and technical assistance provider, as well as a small business lender, in Portland, Oregon. We are a poverty alleviation program, supporting the unbanked and the under resourced entrepreneur.”

“We started in 2005, as the core of Portland was increasingly being gentrified – we began by serving the people and businesses that were displaced or left behind by the changing landscape of the city. Today, we’ve grown to serving seven counties in Oregon and two in southwest Washington.”

“One of the biggest challenges we see is a skill gap in navigating the business environment. We fill in those gaps with business education and provide access to capital. Sometimes it starts with credit repair and business planning.”

“Access to capital for the businesses we help is very difficult. They can’t get funding from traditional sources, like a bank, so we’re also a non-bank lender – a community development financial institution, or CDFI.”

“But access to capital is not only difficult for the entrepreneurs we help, but for CDFIs like MESO, too. At one time we had about 12 to 14 sources of funding, but for a small organization like MESO, that is very admin-heavy. We started thinking about how we can streamline this process and more effectively receive funds.”

“After we launched our impact fund in 2018, Oregon Community Foundation was really the first to come aboard and fund us with $1 million. The foundation’s Oregon Impact Fund has continued their support, as we’ve grown and expanded our initiatives, most recently with a $2 million investment to our fund.”

“It’s been a really great experience to partner with the Oregon Community Foundation. We’ve received a lot of advising and support from the foundation while still maintaining a flexibility with what we can do with the funds. Through them we’ve been able to connect with investors and foundations who want to do social good.”

“We serve between 400 and 500 clients each year. About 250 of them are in our three-year long-term program. About three months ago when we had done our last survey, not a single business had closed with the pandemic.”

“Oregon Community Foundation has been managing the philanthropy side of things. They can pool funds from investors and manage the relationships with their donors, so we can concentrate on what we do best: provide access to capital to the unbanked. We meet with some of the investors who are part of their fund to present our whole story, but don’t feel pressure to show dramatic results. It’s a slow process.”

“When serving the people that we serve, where we start out is with enhancing and improving credit from the ground up. It takes flexibility and patience for long term results.”

“Our partnership with the Oregon Community Foundation has allowed us to concentrate on our mission. As COVID-19 hit, the first phone calls we got were from the foundations. It’s a small community, in a way, here in Oregon. We were getting calls asking us ‘What are your needs right now?’ and ‘What can we do to help?’”

“Thanks to them there was financial support to help small businesses. The foundations were reaching out to their donors, to make investments and working to provide the grants. All that was passed on to us so we could pass it on to small businesses.”

“In addition, they did not expect us to do this for free and provided financial support to administer the stimulus to the small businesses. They recognized that MESO’s survival and stability was important for the small business community. We couldn’t have done it without their help.”

“It was a relief to have the funds to pass on to these struggling businesses, and to have this support from the foundations. Some municipalities also reached out to MESO to administer stimulus funds, and it has been a huge achievement and accomplishment. MESO helped place nearly 3,500 grants and approximately $20 million in a very short time. Nearly 70% are sole proprietors and micro-businesses, who would not have recovered had it not been for the stimulus.”

“When we needed to step up during the pandemic and we needed our partners to step up, they were there. We could truly see the results of our work come to life. I’m projecting we’ll be supporting around 800 people in 2021.”

– Nita Shah, executive director of Micro Enterprise Services of Oregon in Portland, Oregon

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