Profile: Inna Kinney, Founder and CEO, Economic and Community Development Institute (ECDI)

Inna Kinney has devoted her career to helping people across Ohio launch and sustain their own businesses. Early on, she created financial literacy and business training programs at Jewish Family Services – the same organization that helped her family settle in Columbus when they immigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1974. She determined, however, that education wasn’t enough. People also need capital. That realization ultimately inspired her to found ECDI, a nonprofit focused on economic development. Since its inception in 2004, it has grown into the third-largest small business administration (SBA) microlender in the country and a U.S. Treasury-designated community development financial institution (CDFI), with six offices spanning the state. The organization has helped more than 13,000 Ohioans through its entrepreneurial programs and services, provided nearly $50 million in startup or expansion capital, and created and retained over 8,000 jobs.

Kinney sat down with IFF to share her personal journey, her perspective on leading an organization through growth, and her ideas for overcoming challenges common to CDFIs. 

IFF: You and your family immigrated to Columbus, Ohio, from the former Soviet Union in the mid-1970s. What was that experience like and how has it shaped your work at ECDI?

Kinney: We were the very first family that came from the former Soviet Union to Columbus as part of a resettlement through HIAS (Hebrew Immigration Aid Society), the organization that’s been in the news with the shooting in Pittsburgh. That was just the beginning of the first wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, which was still under Communist rule.

I was 11 years old at the time. My father had been an engineer in the Soviet Union – a professional, like most people who immigrated from Russia to the U.S. between the early ’70s and the late ’90s. But coming to the United States and finding a job in your profession is almost impossible. No one is going to recognize an engineer from the former Soviet Union. So, opportunities are slim to none. My father’s first job here was cleaning toilets at a junkyard. Our struggles were compounded by the fact that my mother was pregnant at the time. Plus, we didn’t know the language, didn’t know the culture, didn’t know the lay of the land. It was very difficult.

In the former Soviet Union, everybody worked for the state and nobody owned anything. So, my father’s dream was always to start a business. That shaped my life. Being around my parents and their friends, I saw how everybody wanted to have something of their own – to start their own business, to own their own home. And unfortunately, there was nothing out there to help these individuals. Forget about getting a loan from a bank. How do you go about that? And I thought, You know what? This is really important, not only for immigrants – whether they’re from Russia, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq, wherever – but also for American-born individuals.

IFF: How did you act on that early epiphany later in life?

Kinney: In 1988, I left my corporate job to stay at home with my two little kids and started volunteering at Jewish Family Services. I was seeing the third wave of people coming to the United States from the former Soviet Union, and the job market was still very tough for them. They had two choices: either get a low-paying job or go back to college while you’re trying to support your family.

I started learning about a third option: microenterprise. For example, you’re a dentist who immigrates here. Like my father, you can’t get the job you’re qualified for. But you can, as one of ECDI’s early clients did, open up a little shop and make prosthetic teeth and moldings.

After several years of volunteering, I was asked by Jewish Family Services to come on board as a staff member and head up a new department, which was called Business and Asset Development. My goal was to figure out how to help not only foreign-born individuals, but also American-born individuals. I worked to get a startup grant from the state of Ohio that allowed us to assist anyone on TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). At that time, states had a lot of dollars for those types of services. We helped individuals with training – how to put together a business plan for a home-based business, for example. Then I started looking into individual development accounts (IDAs), and we did refugee resettlement.

We started getting significant grants to be a lender. Soon, the department outgrew the organization, whose mission was more about social services. I also wanted to become an SBA microlender, because grant funding was not enough as capital, so Jewish Family Services and I decided that the best scenario would be for us to separate. I formed ECDI in 2004 and already had substantial funding. I was very lucky that the previous 10 years of work had allowed me to start a new organization and continue the vision of assisting entrepreneurs as a one-stop shop.

IFF: ECDI has grown tremendously since you founded it in 2004. What advice do you have for leaders who want to expand their organizations while also staying true to their roots and values?

Kinney: Do your homework. That’s my No. 1 piece of advice. We started out in Columbus, then expanded into Cleveland in 2012, then Toledo, Akron, Cincinnati, Canton. But we took the time to really research those markets before making those moves.

I’ll give you an example. Before we expanded into Cleveland, we were approached by the Cleveland Foundation, as well as a number of banks, cities, and counties. They were courting us for a year and a half. But we started by securing, in essence, an implementation grant. I spent the first 12 months in Cleveland getting to know the market and the players so that when we did go in, it would not be as a fly-by-night organization. It would be permanent.

Of course, whenever you’re going to a new market, there are always people who say, “Why are they coming in? They’re based in Columbus. What do they have that we don’t have?” I wanted to ensure that we had enough partnerships and collaborations in place so that we would be looked on not as an outsider, but as a valuable addition to the market.

I was very clear from the beginning: If we’re going to come in, we’re going to make a long-term commitment. And I expected our funders to continue supporting us over time. Because everybody says, “You have to be self-sufficient,” or “We’re only going to give you money for a certain amount of years.” But if it was possible to be self-sufficient doing this work, then banks would do it, right? There’s a lot of hand-holding we provide. We deal with nascent entrepreneurs, people on public assistance, and those who have maybe had a business for many years but cannot get funding from a bank.

IFF: What about handling growth internally, in terms of your staff – how have you approached that?

Kinney: I try to think strategically. Some of the people I needed 10 years ago are different from the staff I have now. At the same time, retention is critical to an organization’s success. Our people work very hard. They’re mission-driven, they have the passion for this work. It’s not for everybody.

So, make sure you take care of your people. I’m all about promoting from within. For example, my head of development and marketing came on board seven or eight years ago as my assistant. It’s not always about pedigrees. It’s more about passion for the work. Give those people opportunities.

IFF: What steps have you taken to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion?

Kinney: In terms of working with clients, I think it’s important to create specific products to help meet the community’s needs, instead of just offering general lending services. One example is our product for African-American contractors. We offer a 90-day line of credit with no interest but a fee, and this gives those individuals the capital they need to take on bigger jobs as a subcontractor.

It’s been very successful because we’re solving two problems. First, Columbus has a lack of minority contractors, especially African Americans. The three leading African-American contractors in Columbus are all retiring. We want to make sure there’s a legacy left behind. We’re also working to level the playing field so that it’s easier for others to build a business and succeed over time. To do that, we provide industry-specific training: how to price your projects, how to bid effectively, how to get a job done.

Another example is our women’s business centers, which we’ve opened in all of our markets. We wanted to focus on the needs of women business leaders because sometimes it’s harder for women to start a small business than men – especially women who have been on public assistance. They need a network of mentors and women around them that they can count on. We try to provide that support.

I think it’s also very important to think about diversity and inclusion within your own organization and represent the communities you serve. Sixty percent of our staff are African American, 60% are women – and that’s true for our board as well as our staff as a whole.

IFF: The IFF team is excited to be helping finance ECDI’s expansion of Columbus’ Food Fort, the food incubator you developed for truck vendors and other food entrepreneurs. How will the expansion advance your mission?

Kinney: We like to think of ECDI as a one-stop shop for financing, technical assistance and training, and facilities like commercial kitchens. At the end of the day, that’s our mission – to assist entrepreneurs through their entire journey – and this expansion will give us greater reach. The investment is critical to ECDI’s success in building a more cohesive infrastructure within the Central Ohio market for food-based businesses like caterers, entrepreneurs starting new product lines, and food trucks.

About 37% of our clients are in food-based businesses like these, and that’s not particular to ECDI – you’ll find a lot of CDFIs in our space financing food-based businesses, because it’s not something banks are really interested in doing. We have several food trucks on our premises already. They have hookups in our parking lot where their generators are getting electricity and where they can use the kitchen. We also provide them with technical assistance and access to capital.

We just started work this winter building a facility to house additional food trucks, as well as some anchor tenants. We’ll have a commercial kitchen, where we hope to also offer classes for the community. And with clients already operating out of Food Fort, maybe there’s a way to help others, like youth and people who are on public assistance, so they get the training they need to be ready for the workforce.

IFF: What do you think some of the biggest challenges are right now for community development financial institutions (CDFIs)?

Kinney: I think it goes back to funding. It’s very competitive. Organizations must be clear about their mission and impact if they want the funding to come. We’re always asking: How many jobs are we creating and retaining? What is the value of the businesses – what do they bring back to the economy? There’s always that multiplier effect.

That’s why we have a lot of support staff in the background. My department of development has marketing, grant writing, and data people. You have to invest in your infrastructure. You have to collect data. You have to make sure the data is clear, and that everyone within the organization understands how their work is impacting the end game – especially when you have multiple funding sources. I think we have over 70 sources, and we work hard to be accountable to all of them. You’ve got to be able to clearly articulate to your funders what they’re getting out of the partnership.

It’s not easy. You have a lot of bosses. You have your funders, you have your clients, you have your staff, and everyone in between. When in doubt, I remember the mission and look to our clients to know how I’m doing.

There’s one client I’m thinking of who came to the United States with no money. Her husband stayed behind and she had five kids to raise on her own. She started a home healthcare agency and put her kids through college. And now she has over 150 people working for her.

That’s what I focus on: the kind of impact we’re making on people’s lives. I’d like to think that in 30 or 50 years, somebody will say, “Because of ECDI, we have a business.” There’s nothing better than that.

Visit ECDI’s website to learn more about the work Inna and her team are doing to help Ohioans build their own businesses.

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