• Grace Burkhart

Meet the innovative COO of Missouri-based CDFI, Justine PETERSEN.


To get started, what is one of your favorite things to do at this time of year in your city?


Sheri: One of our family’s traditions is to go to Our Lady of the Snow - it's a shrine in Belleville, Illinois. They host a light show called Way of Lights. We usually go out to dinner there and then drive through the lights. When the girls were younger, there were activities inside for younger kids, like a puppet show, and there's always Christmas trees and wreaths inside as well as outside. It's beautiful.


What brought you to Justine PETERSEN?


Sheri: I’m the Chief Operating Officer at Justine PETERSEN, and I came to Justine PETERSEN in 1998. I was in the master's social work program at the Brown School at Washington University and stumbled on Justine PETERSEN as a new organization that had just been founded. One of the professors at the Brown School, Dr. Michael Sherraden, was working with the board, trying to get the organization going. It was a good fit with my master's program to start interning there. It morphed into a full-time position as a counselor. Initially, I ran an individual development account program for a while and I have grown throughout the years with the company - now I'm the chief operating officer.


What are some of the things that have kept you here all these years?


Sheri: Social and economic development is my passion, and Justine PETERSEN is really a great organization to do that in. There's also a culture of being able to design and implement programs in very flexible ways. So, for the most part, any program idea that I could raise funds to start or to grow, I had the opportunity to do that at Justine PETERSEN. I really like to do lots of different things and there's always an opportunity on a day to day basis to do different things.


You also started another organization; Great Rivers Community Capital. Can you talk about that and what that is?


Sheri: Yes, Great Rivers Community Capital is a Treasury Certified CDFI. We formed Great Rivers in 1999, but didn't capitalize or start using it until early 2000. We received a core award in 2000 from the CDFI Fund, which helped us get going. We were able to attract additional capital and start to grow that in 2002. We've always had two lending institutions; Great Rivers Community Capital as a CDFI, and then Justine PETERSEN as a non-profit does all our government lending (SBA and USDA). Just this past year, Justine PETERSEN also became a certified CDFI.


What are a few things that make Justine Peterson unique, and specifically your team - the people that run the ship day today?


Sheri: Our secret sauce is being lending led - saying yes to just about everyone. We really don't say no, we like to say yes and we link our loans with our counseling. By starting with a loan, we're locking down that relationship with the borrower. The loan provides the opportunity for the borrower to listen more to the counseling. People respond well to just education, but I think a lot of our clients respond better to having the product or the tool along with the education.

We find that with our client population, step-up lending is another part of our ethos. We start with a small loan, but then after six months of on time payments, there's that incentive. If you're working with your client so that you can step up into a next level loan, that really keeps the client engaged as they're growing their business and as we're growing their loan size with them.


What is something that you feel your team does well?


Sheri: We pride ourselves on problem solving, not just with a loan - all the time. Sometimes it's connecting with our network to help figure out a problem, whether it's a micro problem like focusing on a household budget, or a larger problem that needs to be solved. These can be tackled by connecting with an accountant or attorney. We've even brought together teams of students to work with some of our business owners to think through a marketing strategy or a new opportunity to see if that's the direction of business wants to go. We try to problem solve both on an individual level, but then also on a larger level as well.


Is there a specific project along those lines that's been interesting over the past few months that you're proud of or that has been particularly interesting?


Sheri: One of our clients has a barbecue business and did very well during the pandemic because they converted to carry out where people could go all day long. This business had the opportunity to move their product into a new section of the grocery store, within a larger chain grocery store that wanted to cater to small local businesses. We did connect a team of students with that business to explore the opportunity. From the surface level, it seemed like a no brainer that the business put the product in the grocery store where people would have easy access and buy it. But then when the students helped the business owner think through all the steps of keeping the food hot to get it to the grocery store, and the grocery store’s rules about how long it can sit on the shelf and all that goes into complying with those rules… The business owner didn't end up taking the offer up. He usually sells out of the barbecue, so it didn't make sense to take the food to a grocery store that might not sell. It's kind of an interesting analysis of whether or not this was the best thing for the business to do.


That’s interesting; even if the business owner doesn't end up getting what they think they wanted coming in, they still had a learning experience and grew the business in the way that was appropriate for them at that time.


Sheri: Right, we don’t want them spending a lot of money and time trying to make something work that didn't actually make sense for the longer term of the business.


Thinking back over the past 12 months, and specifically with the pandemic in mind, were there any assumptions about the year in terms of your organization or your team that that worked out and that you were pleasantly surprised by?


Sheri: Well, you and I talked previously about Lenderfit being a huge decision for us this past year. Our team had looked at a number of different systems and decided that they wanted to move forward with Lenderfit. I was kind of hesitant just because of the thought of it being a huge lift to convert to a new software. It was really a pleasant surprise with how easy it was to convert our team and how quickly we got up and running and everybody onboarded. We had initially mapped out a much slower onboarding of our staff to the system, thinking that one team would pilot it through at the end of the year. But now here we are in early December, and everyone is onboarded and we're using just Lenderfit for compliance, so the team doesn’t have to go back and forth between our old folders on the server. They can just look in Lenderfit. It has been a really easy conversion and we were really pleasantly surprised about how there was not as much disruption as we anticipated.


We appreciate that shout out!


Sheri: We also had initially wanted to hold off on doing PPP a second time in 2021. We had done a lot of work in 2020 and it was really taxing on our staff at all levels, from origination to actually servicing the loans and trying to navigate the forgiveness. It had taken a toll on us. We had partnered with another group and found our borrowers weren't getting their applications pushed through, probably because they need a little bit more hand-holding than other groups are willing to do. Because of that we did jump back into originating PPP loans. By now the SBA has the forgiveness piece lined up and we did submit a few loans for the guarantee - which I was very concerned that would be more along the lines of requesting the guaranty on a 7a loan, which is kind of hard - but it hasn't been. It's been really easy. So I'm glad that we did it and it's all working out well.


We’ve heard from plenty of teams about frustrations because of the pandemic and the work from home environment. In the in the spirit of keeping it real, have there been things like that your team has experienced?


Sheri: Yeah, the work from home thing has been challenging, especially last year when it was new and we had several of our employees struggled with either sickness or family member’s health. One individual had five deaths in his family, and it's just really hard to maintain that full time effort when people around you are sick or dying. We have struggled with that over the last year. We have parents of small children - for example, one employee has five boys under 10 that they are trying to juggle while doing their work. It's a hard situation.


We're trying to get everyone back in the office. We have been a fully vaccinated office. We do have a couple of employees that are working remotely because they're not vaccinated, which can be a challenge of employees needing to work from home but not being able to really engage in the team if they aren't at the office. Communication is always a struggle when you're not in the room and things are happening, which ends up with not everybody on the same page. So that's something we continue to struggle with. It will work easier when everyone is able to come back to the office.


What is something your team has learned that you would want to pass on to another community financing organization or CDFI?


Sheri: I would say not being hesitant to lend. When folks become new microlenders, they might only be originating a few loans a year; not being afraid of loaning just a few hundred dollars and controlling risk by controlling the loan size. Also knowing that there will be ebbs and flows on payments. A lot of our clients are new to credit, and so they're maybe not in the habit of making on time payments that are reported to the credit bureaus. You just need to push through it and make sure that your clients are learning along with the process. And we love the step up model because it allows the relationship to grow with the loan amount.


Are a majority of your clients using that step up model?


Sheri: Yes, almost all of our clients will come in and first get a loan under $5000 and then be able to step it up; at least our typical clients come in at that level.


Traditional lenders, whether it's banks or just non-community focused lenders, seem to have risk ratings in place that are not based on anything that is a proven risk - things like demographics, income level, zip code. We’ve heard so many groups say things like “we lend to those assumed as the riskiest people, and really we don't see very many defaults or late payments”. I’m curious if that's been your experience as well, if that resonates at all.


Sheri: We only lend to people that don't have access to bank financing. There's typically a reason for it and that's usually credit, either they don't have experience managing credit or they've not managed it well. So there is that to consider and we do find that if they haven't paid someone else back, the chances of them making their payments flawlessly with us is not as high. But it is definitely something that can be coached through, making the on-time payments. We find a lot of our borrowers do have experience making payments. They're just not making payments that are reported to the credit bureaus. So they might have a thin credit file, but they do have experience paying utilities and rent, those things that aren't reported to the credit bureaus, so they've not gotten credit for them.


Is there anything in the coming year that you're looking forward to?


Sheri: Our staff has really grown considerably over the past year. We entered 2021 with 36 employees and now we're going into the next year with forty-eight. As a company, we're really looking forward to having the new staff grow and see where they lead us, and see how that helps our loan volume and helps us to be able to serve additional people. The push right now is to provide training and see what the new staff is able to do.


To wrap this up, are there podcasts, books, newsletters, other resources that you find particularly helpful or interesting? And again, it can be industry specific or just personal interests.


Sheri: Industry specific, I would really recommend the OFN listserv (https://ofn.org/subscribe). They send out a daily email for the that has a bunch of great conversations, links to webinars. I would really recommend it to anybody in the industry. There's also a new mailing list called Reimagine Main Street (https://www.reimaginemainstreet.org/). I find the information that they send out to be really helpful, with invitations to listening sessions that they facilitate, book lists and article lists that can provide really good background information.

To hear more from Sheri & other industry leaders, check out our conversations recorded live here.