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BMO Harris EMpower program offers credit, support to Black, Latinx & woman-owned businesses

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Denise Thomas. Photo supplied.

Special promotional content provided by BMO Harris Bank

Denise Thomas calls herself “a road warrior.”

A Milwaukee-based coach and consultant on effective communication, she speaks at conferences all over the country and offers mentorship for people who may not be as comfortable expressing themselves as she is.

Like many entrepreneurs, she turned a skill into a money-making venture. Working in supply chain management and later change management, at large corporations, she kept hearing how good she was at communicating in both private meetings and public settings.

“I then thought, ‘I wonder if there’s an opportunity to monetize this talent that I have, in a way that aligns with businesses’ growth objectives? And more importantly, how can I use effective communication with developing people, and really drive high performance?’” she said.

That was 2015. By 2017, she was ready to go solo and launched The Effective Communication Coach as a full-time consultancy. 

Thomas notes Black entrepreneurs face many barriers, not the least of which is simply understanding how financial systems work, because generations of Black families have been shut out from those systems. That’s why, she says, it’s critical to form relationships that help overcome that barrier.

“It’s so important to have a relationship with your bank,” she said. In her case, that’s BMO Harris. 

“Traditionally, for Black consumers, that was not part of our upbringing. Quite frankly, it wasn’t that long ago where black folks couldn’t even have accounts at a bank,” she said. “I didn’t see a lot of relationships between my parents or my elders with their bank. … I made sure that when I opened up my bank account, it wasn’t just, ‘Here’s your checkbook. Here’s your register. Here’s your account number. Go be great.’ It was, ‘Who are you? And what are some ways I could really maximize this banking experience?’ BMO is a bank that truly believes in relationships and providing services to where you literally feel like you’re a family member.”

And, she said, BMO Harris is particularly committed to supporting people of color.

“BMO is that bank that truly walks the talk,” Thomas said. “I love BMO for that, because they are looking at traditionally marginalized groups that did not have that exposure, and have that awareness, and have that knowledge. That’s one of the many reasons why I bank with BMO, and they were definitely pivotal during these first two years of the pandemic.”

Thomas relied on her relationship with BMO to access Paycheck Protection Program money when the pandemic canceled many of the conferences and events where she would normally speak and make connections.

“Small businesses need funds to just breathe. And I was one of those,” she said. “I had no clue what was going on. I had no clue in terms of how I was going to stay in business.”

But stay in business she did, thanks to that relationship with BMO.

Since then, BMO has doubled down on its commitment to Black, Latinx and woman-owned businesses, committing $300 million to fund those enterprises. The effort is one facet of the EMpower program, a $5 billion, five-year commitment to inject capital into communities of color.

Vachon Harper Young has worked in various roles at BMO for nearly 20 years, currently leading the Black, Latinx and woman-owned business initiative. She said she understands exactly what Thomas felt about relative lack of education, especially when it comes to business banking.

Vachon Harper Young. Photo supplied.

“I would say the number one barrier (for Black and Latinx-owned businesses) was the lack of access to educational tools to understand what banks look for when we are assessing whether we are going to extend credit or not,” she said. “Without that transparency, minority business owners really would come not prepared, number one; and number two, being very frustrated, never even revisiting the fact that they could actually get access to capital, but the perception was that banks didn’t lend.”

She said the BMO EMpower initiative is trying to get over that barrier by not only lending – they’re offering up to $50,000 via a business credit card or line of credit – but really working with business owners to help them prepare to use that credit to the best effect to grow their business.

She also said the program allows the bank not to say, “no,” but rather, “not yet.”

BMO partners with a number of other institutions and nonprofit organizations that provide business coaching and strategic planning, connecting small businesses with resources to get on solid footing before taking on credit.

“Partnering with those organizations is our way of saying, ‘We’re not just saying no, we’re saying you’re not ready yet, but let’s get you ready,’” Harper Young said.

Harper Young said the program has funded nearly 800 businesses in seven states with nearly $25 million already. A wide range of businesses have made use of the funding.

“We see transportation, trucking type of businesses. We see servicing businesses like hair salons, barbers, marketing, servicing type of companies that generally tend to have the tap to their line of credit, because they do the work up front and now they’re waiting to get paid,” she said. “We’re even starting to see an uptick in construction companies, small construction companies … if you think about what’s happening in the industry, they’re booming.”

Harper Young said the EMpower program has allowed BMO to target Black, Latinx and woman-owned businesses, as well as extend credit to businesses that may not normally have qualified.

“The fact that we relaxed those underwriting standards helped us to put additional dollars out in the marketplace for those that traditionally probably would not have qualified,” she said. “ We want to make sure this money gets out the door, so that’s why we do partnerships with Chambers of Commerce that have a number of members who will show up virtually to do a presentation on the program, and then the program is really launched within our local branches. So if those businesses feel like they’re ready to move forward, they can start that relationship with a banker.”

Harper Young said any business looking to start or grow should visit their nearest BMO Harris branch, ask to speak with a small business banker and say they want to take advantage of the EMpower program. She said local branch bankers are trained in the program and will be happy to help Black, Latinx and woman-owned businesses get the process started.

Thomas, for her part, has one piece of advice for someone thinking about taking the leap into entrepreneurship: “Just do it.”

“There will never be a right time. Just do it,” she said. “Just do it, and do it with people who believe in you. Banks, accountants, lawyers, insurance, healthcare providers. All those key relationships that you need, all of those entities that you rely upon as a business owner, make sure that you have good ones like BMO that truly want you to succeed. That’s the ultimate thing. BMO wants Black- and brown-owned businesses to succeed. And again, having the knowledge, as well as the money, that takes it to a whole other level, so that when I just do it, I’ve got the tools I need to do just that.”

For more information on the BMO EMpower program and its support for small businesses, visit the program’s website here or your local BMO Harris branch, which you can find here.