Profile: Accion Chicago’s Jonathan Brereton talks about his CDFI’s focus, history, and future

This month we sit down with Jonathan Brereton, CEO of Accion Chicago, another community development financial institution and the largest microlender in the area. Brereton has been in his position since 2004.

Tell me about your work at Accion Chicago and what you’re focused on right now.
Accion works with thousands of entrepreneurs each year, some who are thriving and some who are just at the idea stage. We believe that by empowering these entrepreneurs, through the provision of capital and coaching, we are facilitating community economic change. The small businesses that we support are little community development engines themselves. We provide loans that start at $500 to help someone build a credit history and go up to $100,000. Our clients might need $1,500 for a new refrigerator for their food business or a new lawn mower to make their snow removal business a year-round venture. Or, they might need $75,000 to complete buildout so they can double the square footage of their salon.

As for my current focus, we have grown steadily over the last decade and growth brings challenges. Good challenges, but challenges nonetheless. Just like our clients who experience huge and rapid growth, we’ve had to shift from working very entrepreneurially as we’d done for a decade to being deliberate at documenting and institutionalizing processes and procedures. The energy and resources spent on such things will pay big dividends in the coming years.

What are some accomplishments you’re most proud of?
We have built a strong operation here over the last decade. We focused on execution at the outset before shifting focus to scaling our work. There is a lot more to do to reach the number of entrepreneurs that we want to serve, but we have come a long way. The organization has been very fortunate to attract strong partners and people who have gone down these same roads before us so that we can learn from them.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing CDFIs?
I believe that the biggest issue facing small business CDFIs is the emergence of predatory lending practices in the small business space. Predatory practices that had traditionally been found primarily on the consumer side are now putting small businesses and jobs at great risk. There are many parallels to the housing crisis, and similarly how small business CDFIs respond is going to be pivotal. Mission drift is a real risk. If CDFIs are tempted into recklessly trying to compete with these products, we are likely to lose our way and not be around to be part of the solution. In moments like this, it can be difficult to have complete clarity on who we are as organizations and what our role is. We need to be a champion for successful and affordable products that help businesses and the economy grow.

Tell me about Accion’s relationship with IFF.
At the highest level, we proudly support each other’s efforts as fellow Chicago CDFIs. On an operational level, Accion has worked with IFF over the years primarily as a referral partner. We both operate in the same neighborhoods, but provide different types of financing to different types of businesses. Over the last year or so, we have been working closely with IFF and the Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago on an exciting project that we hope to announce in the coming months. This project is a true intersection of our varied expertise and we think it will have a very large impact on community entrepreneurship. We are also fortunate to have Joe Neri on our board and have learned a great deal from him.

How else are you involved with the community?
I’m on a variety of boards and committees, most of which are focused on entrepreneurship and community development in some capacity.

What do you like to do in your down time?
I spend a lot of my nonworking time playing with my two daughters (3 years old and 3 months old) and trying to keep up with my wife. At the end of the day, when the chaos subsides, I read a lot, especially historical biographies. Like a lot of others, I’m reading about Alexander Hamilton at the moment.

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