Microlender's college contest to boost Philly-region small business

The LendforPhilly.org contest offers a $5,000 prize to the winning college team.
The LendforPhilly.org contest offers a $5,000 prize to the winning college team.
Posted: March 11, 2014

Lend for Philly is a contest designed for college students. But the ultimate winner, its organizers say, will be small businesses.

Students in the region who take up the challenge from Lend for America, a national nonprofit microlender, will be equipped with smartphone apps and required to map small businesses around their schools. They must also ascertain two specific things from owners of those businesses: what they need the most, and how many employees they have.

The winning university team - the one that maps the most businesses by May 1 - will be awarded $5,000. That must be used to set up a campus microfinance institution (MFI) that will issue loans typically less than $5,000 and provide training services to local small businesses.

Through the effort, Newark, N.J.-based Lend for America, formed in 2009, also hopes to trigger formation of three other campus MFIs, to add to 24 nationwide. Together, they have issued $1.7 million in microloans, said executive director Vanessa Carter.

"There's more than 50 colleges and universities in the Delaware Valley region," Carter said. "We see these . . . as having a talented and motivated labor pool that is untapped." At the same time, she said, the effort will "strengthen the culture of innovation in Philadelphia."

Confirmed participants include the University of Pennsylvania and Haverford College, Carter said, noting that the contest is a first for Lend for America.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is providing $75,000 to, in part, help pay for the launch of Lend for Philly, its $5,000 prize, a boot camp in April for participants, and loan capital for the four MFIs.

Working with the nonprofit makes sense for the Knight Foundation, given its interest in finding ways for the region to attract and retain talent, said Donna Frisby-Greenwood, Knight's Philadelphia program manager.

Establishing links between college students and local businesses "helps connect these young people further to the Philadelphia community," Frisby-Greenwood said. "The more connections they make, the more likely they are to stay here post-graduation."

Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia executive director Jamie Gauthier called the initiative a mutually beneficial "smart and innovative use of resources."

"Engaging students in the underwriting of microloans will help them to gain valuable experience while simultaneously filling the capital and resource needs of our local small businesses," Gauthier said. "Additionally, the program will expose young people to entrepreneurship and raise awareness to the fact that a thriving small-business culture is vital to a thriving Philadelphia economy."


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull

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