As the first executive director of the Pennsylvania CDFI Network, Varsovia Fernandez is excited about deepening the organization’s collaboration efforts and helping small businesses thrive post-pandemic.
The network, which is a coalition of 17 Pennsylvania-based CDFIs, has been a volunteer organization since it was created in 1997, as the Pennsylvania Microenterprise Coalition to support CDFIs, small businesses and microenterprises in promoting economic development among low- to moderate-income communities. Following the need and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on small businesses, the PA CDFI Network decided to name its first executive director to help the organization expand.
Fernandez’s appointment last fall comes after the network partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to distribute $249 million in grants to more than 14,500 small businesses affected by COVID-19.
Based in the Philadelphia area, Fernandez brings civic and business expertise to the network and has helped organizations achieve business outcomes and expand their roles and contributions to their communities. She also serves as a trustee on the governing boards of Montgomery County Community College, Rosemont College and The Philadelphia Award. She’s a director of the Philadelphia Public Health Management Corporation and a member of the Comcast National Joint Diversity Council.
She spoke with us recently about the momentum of the pandemic relief program and what’s next for the network.
What are you most excited about in your new role?
I felt the job was written for me—the history of the network, the momentum and the thought of what happens next. They have all this momentum. They distributed all this money. They helped all these businesses. What happens after the pandemic and the pandemic dollars? Everyone worked so hard to make this happen and to get the network to where it is today and we have to have this organization operate under all market conditions, not just when there’s an emergency. To me, that is so exciting. It’s very exciting to know that I’m going to be part of such a wonderful effort that is really going to improve our local economies in Pennsylvania.
What are your goals as you lead the organization?
My immediate goal has been to develop a systems view to better understand the ecosystem, the motivations, and the priorities of our key stakeholders. So, the first thing I’ve been doing is going on a listening tour of our membership. And in doing this, my hope is that it will help me better understand the role that we play in achieving the goals for the common agenda. And from there, I’ll have my marching orders. We have to develop infrastructure, operational systems, programming and all that good stuff that the organization needs to build a platform to deliver this common agenda.
What can CDFIs in Pennsylvania accomplish as a collective that they can’t accomplish individually?
There’s power in numbers. The CDFI Network is one voice in advocating for change. Another benefit is that [members] learn so much from the best practices in services because they operate differently. For example, we have a CDFI that is very rural in western Pennsylvania, which services agricultural and rural populations for the most part. It’s not just servicing cities like Pittsburgh, Scranton, Philadelphia and Allentown. We also have Lancaster County, which is very agricultural and rural. So, there were lots of lessons learned, and most importantly, the recognition to continue building on that capacity. CDFIs are like small lending banks, and they cannot lend money if they don’t have any reserves to reduce the risk in those loans. Historically, they have not received lots of funds for that, and the same thing for operations.
State-wide CDFI collectives remain somewhat rare. What advice do you have for other states for creating similar collectives?
Collaboration. Our responsibility is about the performance of the ecosystem for CDFIs and our main goal is to, as a network, strengthen that collective outcome. It’s not an individual effort. It’s a collective effort for strength. Historically, communities of color have been excluded from enjoying these economic benefits. The CDFI ecosystem is what really can help those low- to moderate-income communities, but we have to collaborate to do that. It cannot just be one organization. It needs to involve the CDFIs, the community-based organizations, the government and the foundations that form an ecosystem that helps us build those economies. We can only achieve that through collaboration.
This story is part of our series, CDFI Futures, which explores the community development finance industry through the lenses of equity, public policy and inclusive community development. The series is generously supported by Partners for the Common Good. Sign up for PCG’s CapNexus newsletter at capnexus.org.
Erica Sweeney is a freelance journalist based in Little Rock, AR. She covers health, wellness, business and many other topics. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Good Housekeeping, HuffPost, Parade, Money, Insider and more.