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Empowering Women Entrepreneurs: How Utah’s Financial Institutions Are Breaking Barriers and Driving Economic Growth

While new women-owned U.S. businesses continue to grow — outpacing men by nearly half in recent years — they continue to face obstacles to accessing capital that hamper economic potential and reinforce systemic barriers. This is especially true for women of color entrepreneurs, who represent an expanding segment of the economy.

A recent Sorenson Impact Institute report, supported by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, examines the issue on a state level, exploring the role of financial institutions in Utah that provide capital to women and other underserved entrepreneurs. Dr. Nzinga Broussard of Sorenson Impact Institute said the report found these financial institutions are using alternative underwriting practices that allow them to make loans to younger businesses and offer smaller loan sizes compared to larger traditional banks. They also go beyond typical financial services by providing technical assistance to clients and working with them to establish relationships with traditional banks.

To explore what this looks like in practice, the Institute hosted a virtual conversation featuring representatives from financial institutions that target and serve underserved entrepreneurs: Sara Day of Utah Microloan Fund and Mary Milodragovich of MoFi. The conversation also included entrepreneur McKenzie Bauer of Thread Wallets and Female Founders Only. Broussard hosted the conversation, moderated by Danielle Wright of J.P. Morgan Private Bank. Both the report and the conversation are part of the second phase of Project DEEP, which aims to disrupt the entrepreneurial ecosystem by supporting diverse entrepreneurs.

Utah Microloan Fund and MoFi are part of a national network of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), which play a vital role in increasing access to capital for underserved business owners. Federally certified CDFIs are among the financial institutions that go beyond traditional services to provide funding, technical assistance, and training to underserved entrepreneurs.

Day said the Utah Microloan Fund provides capital and education to help entrepreneurs advance on a successful path. “We want to build relationships with our clients,” she said. “We want to provide ongoing education and resources to help them succeed in their business.”

The CDFI offers a microlending program with business financing from $5,000 to $50,000, plus personalized advising and ongoing free virtual classes. Utah Microloan Fund also launched a Banking on Women Program that includes virtual courses for women in rural areas. Day noted that 60% of Utah Microloan Fund’s loans last year went to women business owners. “We’re just trying to be along with them for the whole journey and help them succeed,” Day said.

MoFi, a nonprofit CDFI operating in six states, focuses on small business loans from $1,000 to $1.5 million. Its loans are designed for people who lack the assets, income, experience, or credit history to qualify for traditional bank financing.

“The service we try most to offer is to be a welcoming, accessible front door that anybody, any language, any background can walk through,” Milodragovich said. “But we also want you to understand what you’re signing up for because we think that is a key piece to building the success of your business.”

Wright said that traditional financial institutions like J.P. Morgan can also play a role by investing in CDFIs and contributing to regional economic impact. “I believe we have a responsibility, especially for those in banking, to address this capital access inequity in any way we can,” she said.

As a female entrepreneur on the other side of the capital relationship, Bauer said building a solid relationship with contacts at financial institutions has helped smooth the bumps of running a business. “You need someone in your corner advocating for you and cheering you on because it is overwhelming,” she said.

Financial institutions like the Utah Microloan Fund and MoFi contribute to economic growth, equity, and inclusion by removing barriers to financing for women entrepreneurs. “Investing in women and making us a priority … has huge dividends for the economy,” Bauer said. “The problems are big, but the people in Utah are as good as they come. There’s a strong spirit of entrepreneurship.”

Watch the full conversation to learn more:

Sorenson’s Virtual Convening Series features solutions-oriented discussions with members of the Institute and its community of impact leaders. Together, we take a deep dive into the most pressing issues of our time, exploring challenges, opportunities, and learnings to scale actionable solutions. Watch past convenings here.