Chris Cain

I originally met Chris Cain through our work at Startup Champions Network. At the time, Chris ran the Staunton Creative Community Fund before switching over to take the charge at the newly created Staunton Innovation Hub in Virginia. In May 2019, Chris took the role of Chief Experience Officer at Alternatives Federal Credit Union in Ithaca, New York, to work more closely aligned with her mission of democratizing the way money flows into communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems. With her tattoos and unapologetically fierce approach to supporting small businesses, Chris is unlike any banker you’ve ever met! From business planning to securing small business loans and figuring out solutions to the hardships of local entrepreneurs, Chris stands shoulder to shoulder with “itty bitty businesses makes our neighborhoods amazing places to live.” Strap in friends, today we’re diving deep into the role of local banks as part of entrepreneurial ecosystems!

A love of place

“I want my local coffee shop to thrive, not only because it’s a great place for me to go but I care about the people who work there. I want them to live good lives and to be financially stable. That’s what our small businesses are capable of. As someone who cares deeply about local businesses and their vital role within their community, I think of most local entrepreneurs as friends. I want those friends to be a part of something bigger than themselves. 

I want to help create that unique culture that makes our neighborhoods work. 

As an ecosystem builder, I see my role as connecting people. I just happen to work in a financial institution so of course, I want to connect small business owners to financial counselors and educators. My goal is to help make more entrepreneurs financially and fiscally whole: Whenever they start their company, I want them to get all the help they need to make a go of it. When their business goes well, I want them to be in a position to hire good people and create a great culture and environment, maybe even solve problems within that community.  And when things go South – and they go South for every business owner at some point – I want to make sure they’re well equipped to weather any storm. That’s what’s been keeping me up at night during the pandemic. We need to be focusing on keeping our small businesses whole and help them survive.”

The essence of a good ecosystem builder is that they love their community and figure out a way to be important to that community that loves them back. It makes everything worthwhile.

Banking as a vehicle for entrepreneurial ecosystems

“Our traditional banking system leaves people out who are vulnerable and poor. Banks don’t lend to startups, especially not to the ones who need small amounts of capital. We call those microloans. It takes just as much time and effort to get a $5,000 loan out the door than it is for $100,000 so most traditional banks don’t bother with microloans. 

You can actually treat people with integrity and respect, and be their banker. 

But I know that you can do amazing things for small business owners if you combine capital,  education and support. Alternatives Federal Credit Union (AFCU) really changed the way I look at money as a vehicle for entrepreneurial ecosystems. You can actually treat people with integrity and respect, and be their banker. This is the embodiment of what it means to be a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI).

For example, over 40% of their staff are certified to do credit counseling. So if you have a bright idea for a business, you have access to a counselor to put your business plan together. As a first-time entrepreneur, you also have access to marketing professionals and attorneys. AFCU even has a solutions department to manage collections. So whenever it does get nutty for you, and for every small business that happens at some point, you have already built a good relationship with someone who knows your business. Once you get that loan and things aren’t going so great, you have another part of your banking team to help you navigate these rocky times. 

Many CDFIs have an entire entrepreneur ecosystem right under their roof.

A great example of this is the student credit union, think of it as a next level piggy bank for every student. I remember, 15 years ago, I was collecting deposits at an elementary school. This little boy came up to me and said, “If I gave you my two dollars for ice cream, because I can go without today, then by Christmas I can buy the video game I want! And if I give up my ice cream two days a week, I’ll get it twice as fast, correct?” If a third grader can get it, a grown-up can get it.

But we often forget that financial literacy is not something we’re born with, it’s something someone has to teach us.As a CDFI, we  even offer free tax services. Not only does it save people in our community a lot of money by not having to pay for this service, it’s also a way for so many low-income households to claim their earned income tax credits. Most people don’t even know that they’re eligible but the truth is, earned income tax credit is one of the biggest anti-poverty tools ever created. AFCU helps people tap into their earned income tax credit and thereby puts millions of dollars back into the community.”

The hard part of ecosystem building 

“The hardest part for ecosystem building is finding like-minded people. The ecosystem building language is still relatively new; even though I’ve been doing ecosystem building for the longest time, I didn’t even know that was a thing for the first few years. It wasn’t until I met Larkin at Startup Champions Network (SCN) that I had the language to talk about what I do – and why I do it – and to identify other ecosystem builders. It may sound like there are a lot of us out there but still, you can often be the only one in your community. I am the only SCN member in the state of New York. That means I spend a lot of time explaining why I care so damn much about our local entrepreneurs and trying to get people on board with my initiatives. So while I’m trying to build a thriving community for our local small businesses I’m also the only educating all other stakeholders on what it means to be a true ecosystem builder. 

The US is a big big diverse country with a lot of need for the work that we’re doing. We need support. 

And doing all this alone can be hard and frustrating at times. When you’re constantly blazing a trail, you need support. You need your peers, you need advice and encouragement and we need more funders who see the values of all this extracurricular work of building a collaborative culture within our communities so that they can rally around their local small businesses.”

How can we support you?

First: Educate yourself about CDFIs. Banking with a civil rights agenda is magical in the best ways.

Second: Invite us to the table. Get to know the CDFIs in your community and talk about collaboration. Identify the barriers entrepreneurs have that keep them from getting the access to capital, education and support they need…….and eliminate those barriers….together.  

Chris’ approach to entrepreneurial ecosystem building has been featured on Startup Champions Network and Ecosystem Builder Hub. Don’t miss it!

Chris Cain

Ithaca, New York, US

Unapologetic advocate for small business. Ecosystem builder. Coffee lover, dreamer and schemer.