Jefferson Award Winner Manages Oakland Branch of Grameen BankBy Allen Martin

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) Starting a small business is hard enough. If you’re low income, a woman, and a minority, it might seem impossible. But this week’s Jefferson Award winner is helping such women achieve their goals everyday.

Maria Flores saw her dream come true 12 years ago when she opened Roccab’s Cafe & Deli in San Leandro.

“I working in the coffee shop for many years and I just start to dream, my husband and me, to have our own coffee shop,” Flores recalled.

Flores used her savings to get the business going. But three years ago, she needed more financial help. Without much credit history, it was tough.

“We tried to have a loan but it was difficult because the interest is high and they asked for many things,” she explained.

Then Flores discovered the non-profit Grameen America and its ultra-low interest loans.

Branch manager Sonya Fierst helped her get started, not only with money, but with a community-based support system she says is key to Grameen’s success.

“In order to get a loan with us, you form a group of five women, and each person in that group has their own business and receives their own loan,” Fierst explained. “The group together is accountable for each other, so it’s a social collateral, social support model.”

Founded in 1983 in Bangladesh, Grameen specializes in microfinancing: low-interest loans of $500 to $5000 to low-income minority women who want to start their own businesses. The Oakland branch opened in 2012 and Fierst became manager three years later. She says clients include women who run flower shops, ice cream stands, food trucks, zumba studios, and day care centers. The Oakland branch now has nearly 3,000 current members, as they’re called, and Fierst and her staff have helped the branch reach a 100% loan repayment rate last quarter.

Fierst says working with the members is what motivates her.

“I love getting to hear their stories and see their resilience and dedication and their discipline. It has taught me so much.”

So for helping minority women in the Bay Area get access to low-interest loans to start and grow their businesses, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Sonya Fierst.