Ron Gonen, President of EGC Real Estate Group, is the new chair of the Southern California Regional Board which advises on Accion Opportunity Fund’s regional philanthropy strategy and assists in raising funds in support of small businesses owners in the region. Here, Ron unravels the responsibilities and priorities of the board in recruiting supporters who share an unbridled enthusiasm for social justice and helping entrepreneurs not just survive, but thrive.
What drew you to Accion Opportunity Fund?
In general, we all have a responsibility to help one another and—especially today—make the world a better place. Specifically, I think philanthropy can advance the concept of “teaching someone to fish.” With the right capital and resources, entrepreneurs can continue building their businesses on their own and create jobs for others. I think it’s so important for people to have something lasting they’re invested in, that they can work towards. I know that AOF entrepreneurs are setting a great example.
How has your background in business (real estate) influenced your support of other entrepreneurs?
I run a mentor program for the UCLA Ziman Center for Real Estate, at the Anderson School for graduate students who want a mentor in real estate. One of the questions I get a lot from students is, “how do I get started in this tough business?” It’s all about leverage through financing, and you have to establish yourself before a bank will take a chance on you. In this economy, so much is driven by access to capital. We’re fortunate that we’re debating which loan to take rather than if we can get a loan at all. It’s important for any business to have that access and to be able to weather the ups and downs of business, especially while trying to survive a pandemic.
The idea that people don’t have access to capital, or only have access to predatory lending, is upsetting. It really bottlenecks their potential.
What is your vision for the Southern California Regional Board?
Accion Opportunity Fund and the previous board members have done a great job introducing AOF to Southern California: More than 50% of the AOF loans in California have been disbursed in SoCal. The board is now transitioning from mostly advising and guiding AOF on lending opportunities down here to focusing on fundraising. It’s fertile ground for philanthropy, and we need to increase the support from Southern California donors to match the benefits SoCal businesses receive from AOF. We’re turning our sights towards a more clearly-defined fundraising effort.
Now, with the number of small businesses—especially owned by women and people of color—struggling with the pandemic, we need to raise more money than ever before to keep up with that need. I think there will be many opportunities for businesses to create and keep new jobs. It’s important to not only save the existing businesses but to help new businesses grow and thrive.
What is the role of AOF in supporting small businesses during COVID?
We can connect small business owners to federal programs and provide them with working capital. A lot of AOF borrowers don’t have the experience or record-keeping that would allow them to access federal funding, such as PPP loans. AOF fills in a lot of gaps in the federal response that favored businesses with banking relationships.
What is the role of philanthropy in advancing social, racial, economic justice?
There is a huge role to play. As we look at the percentage of traditional loans going to women business owners and entrepreneurs of color, it’s embarrassingly low. We have an opportunity to address that disparity and systemic issues, and bridge cultural divides. A lack of access to fair capital and resources are limiting opportunities for people to change their quality of life. It’s not only an opportunity, but a necessity, for philanthropy to have an equalizing effect—to create a fairer playing field in business.
A big conversation for the SoCal board is not just supporting the existence of entrepreneurship, but who the entrepreneurs are and how can we create opportunities for social justice.
What’s next for the SoCal Regional Board?
I’m excited to have worked with all our previous board members, and to now work with the great group of people currently on our board. I think our job now is to add more board members who are excited about the DNA of Accion Opportunity Fund. We’re building a bigger team, and we’re excited to spread the support. It is my hope that our recruiting efforts will help introduce us to many more wonderful supporters.