Opportunity Fund is a community of leaders. That includes our clients—both small business owners and students—our donors and board members, and our staff. Three Opportunity Fund staff members recently took on major leadership roles to help improve our state and national communities.
Gwendy Donaker Brown, Vice President of Research and Policy, has been appointed to the Board of Directors of the California Reinvestment Coalition (CRC). CRC advocates for fair and equal access to credit for all communities in California and strives to build an “inclusive and fair economy that meets the needs of communities of color and low-income communities” by ensuring that banks and corporations operate fairly and equitably.
Iosefa Alofaituli, Southern California Regional Director, has been appointed to the Affordable Housing Advisory Council (AHAC) of the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco (FHLBank). The AHAC provides guidance to the FHLBank on affordable housing and economic development issues, and helps shape its community grant and credit programs. The Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco provides low-cost funding and other services for member financial institutions to make home mortgages to people of all income levels and to provide credit that supports neighborhoods and communities. The FHLBank also funds community programs that help members create affordable housing and promote community economic development.
Alex Dang, Director of Product and Partnerships, has been selected for Opportunity Finance Network’s Opportunity Fellows Program. The Opportunity Fellows Program trains a diverse group of CDFI leaders to “lead transformational change and to address inequities in access to capital in underserved communities.” Fellows develop skills to lead change and innovation that bring opportunity for all at the organizational, community, and CDFI-industry levels, as well as to facilitate greater equity and inclusion for racially and ethnically diverse communities. Alex has also been selected as a 2017 Aspen Ideas Festival Scholar.
We talked with Gwendy, Iosefa, and Alex about being a leader within Opportunity Fund and beyond.
Tell me more about your new position. What does it entail?
Gwendy: As a Board member for the CRC, I’ll be fulfilling advisory and fiduciary responsibilities promoting the work of the California Reinvestment Coalition. The CRC is a really impactful organization that works around California on issues of financial inclusion. Some of its work is directly related to Opportunity Fund’s—like financial inclusion and fair small business lending—and some of its work is different, like affordable housing and mortgages, but connected to the communities Opportunity Fund serves. Overall, CRC is focused on reinvesting in the community. They value having issue-area experts and community-based people join the Board and are now doing more related to small business.
Iosefa: AHAC is a collection of people involved in the low to moderate income housing and investments, including small businesses. Right now it’s more focused on affordable housing, but it’s moving into more aspects of community development. I am humbled by the opportunity to be involved. I think they are looking to diversify the group with more “on the ground” and small business development perspectives, which is why they asked me to join. They are expanding their focus on community development beyond housing and strengthening support in the small business arena.
Alex: The Opportunity Fellow Program is a leadership program created by Opportunity Finance Network for CDFI leaders with a special focus on racial equity and racial justice. It brings together emerging leaders, mid-career professionals, and executives—facilitating enriching interactions and blending perspectives. The fellowship focuses on a mix of general leadership skills like communications style and team building, but also gives us tools focused on racial equity, such as how to implement policies and practices to address racial justice and equity, and how to achieve equity on your team and in your community.
How did you get involved with this and decide you wanted to take on a new leadership role?
Gwendy: I have participated in CRC events and meetings for a while now, and Opportunity Fund has been a member of the CRC for a long time. Working with the CRC for a long time as part of Opportunity Fund helped me understand its impact on a wide range of low-income people in California. I really respect the CRC as an organization and the diversity of its staff. Additionally, about six years ago, I was involved with the CRC’s Coalition Against Payday Predators campaign. There was a big movement in San Jose to restrict additional payday lenders in low-income communities and communities of color. At the time, San Jose was the largest city in the country to take on payday lending. These were issues of consumer protection that I really cared about.
Iosefa: It struck me on a personal and professional level. On a personal level, I’m interested in learning about the housing side of economic development and seeing what the AHAC is doing. On a professional level, from an Opportunity Fund standpoint, it makes sense to be part of the conversation because of the AHAC’s interest and program focus.
Alex: I’m amazingly lucky for this opportunity to develop as a leader. I’m always looking for opportunities to enhance my leadership tools and skills, so I was immediately attracted to the leadership component, and then the racial equity part really jumped out at me, since it’s where my personal values and passion are aligned. At Opportunity Fund, our staff is diverse, our borrowers are diverse, so it is easy to take that diversity for granted. I came to Opportunity Fund when this was already in place, and now I want to gain the tools and the experience to create a program that would have these outcomes.
How long have you been at Opportunity Fund for?
Gwendy: 10 years.
Iosefa: Just over 1 year.
Alex: 7 years.
How has your role at Opportunity Fund evolved?
Gwendy: Initially, I ran the savings program. To go from being managed to being a manager, someone has to take a chance on you. While I ran savings, I worked on the Coalition Against Payday Predators with the CRC and wanted to do policy work. Opportunity Fund invested in me and my idea, and I became the Director of Policy and New Initiatives. I focused on policy work that would help us grow, and for “new initiatives,” I did various organizational development projects, like leading a project to revamp Board, finding new office space in San Francisco, working on our IT systems, and helping to develop the strategic plan. Then I moved into my current role.
Iosefa: My role has evolved so that I can accommodate the local (Southern California) market. We’ve achieved great results by not having too many guard rails in developing efforts that are compatible with the area and a regional board. Like with our clients, Opportunity Fund encourages its staff to be opportunistic and entrepreneurial. As a leader in the Southern California office, I have different daily interfaces than the San Jose and San Francisco offices do, which has allowed me to learn about different sides of the organization and contributes to the growth of my role.
Alex: There were less than 40 people at Opportunity Fund when I joined, and I started off wearing a lot of different hats, working on sales and lending initiatives. As we’ve grown, I’ve been more and more focused on developing and testing new areas for lending like mobile food trucks and dry cleaners, and then bank partnerships. Three years ago I moved into a project role, building our Easy Pay system and Opportunity Fund merchant services, and for the last year and a half, I’ve been building the product team. Now I spend 75% of my time thinking about product, and the other 25% of my time working on major partnerships, like with Lending Club.
Has Opportunity Fund helped you grow as a leader? Within Opportunity Fund and beyond?
Gwendy: One of the things I love about our culture is that it is entrepreneurial, and we’re encouraged to try new things and grow as leaders. I always knew I wanted to do policy work and create programs that directly serve people. I wanted to see how things work on the ground, how to build programs and create good policy that serves people. While working at Opportunity Fund, I did the one-year Women’s Policy Institute Fellowship, organized by the Women’s Foundation of California, which is where I developed my skills in policy and figured out how to lead Opportunity Fund’s policy efforts. We play a unique role as a microfinance provider, and I have to think about policy at the state and federal levels.
Iosefa: It’s been encouraged culturally to explore opportunities for that sort of personal development, from trainings to conferences to boards. We have the support and encouragement to do that. As Opportunity Fund grows, we have more doors opened to us, in terms of interacting with leaders in economic development, government, etc., and in different spheres and areas of interest. Getting to work with different teams within Opportunity Fund, like the Policy team, also helps with leadership development.
Alex: Absolutely. I’ve never had a roadblock placed in front of me and have had the opportunity to experiment and learn. Even when I’ve worked on projects in areas where I haven’t had as much experience, I have always had the opportunity to try. It’s a unique experience to get to innovate within a growing organization. Most people don’t get that until later in their career or with a bigger organization.
Why is it important to be a leader in your community?
Gwendy: We all have certain privileges, skills, and passions, and it is an honor to put those things to the best use I can. It’s important to understand the long-term benefits in investing in everyone in our community, through education and entrepreneurship. When we take a long-term view, it pays off for everyone, not just the people who directly receive the benefits.
Iosefa: I’ve always thought of leaders as people who inspire others to lead as well. It’s our responsibility to take what we learn from others and what we’ve been able to create to make sure others have more opportunity to create thereafter. Leadership yields leadership: we work with entrepreneurs and see the work they do in their communities and greater society.
Alex: It’s important because the communities we serve don’t have access to the resources and capital needed to build assets to rise out of poverty or to change their life’s trajectory, so that the current and next generations can have healthier lives. It’s important to be a leader in these communities and help break this cycle by providing more access to wealth and education in these communities. Being a leader requires a bold vision and radical ideas, and most importantly, bringing people to these communities. Otherwise change won’t happen. With so many talented people and resources, we need more of them to address issues of poverty, inequality, job creation, and asset building.