Whole Foods Commits $1M to Grameen America for Detroit Microlending Program

As part of Texas-based Whole Foods’ investment in Detroit, its Whole Planet Foundation has committed $1 million to the microfinance organization Grameen America to assist Detroit entrepreneurs.

Grameen America, which was founded by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus, is a domestic microfinance nonprofit assisting women in poverty and operating in New York City (its headquarters), Indianapolis, Charlotte, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Omaha. Grameen offers a holistic program, says vice president of development Veena Jayadeva, that includes first-time microloans of no more than $1,500 to start or build businesses; financial literacy training; help with opening savings accounts with partner banks; and assistance in building credit by reporting weekly loan payments to credit agencies like Experion.

Walter Robb, Whole Foods’ co-CEO, ponied up the $1 million after the intense experience of opening a Whole Foods in Detroit, which, as many news reports recounted, seemed to have a far more symbolic meaning than just a new, upscale grocery store. (To this day, roughly six weeks after opening day, Whole Foods is still so popular that it’s often impossible to find a parking space.)

“Detroit is a very special case,” Jayadeva explains. “Walter Robb spoke so passionately about bringing Whole Foods to Detroit, and how long the process took. He felt very strongly about our program expanding into Detroit. They haven’t put $1 million into any other city.”

Jayadeva says that whenever Grameen America expands to a new city, it raises $2 million in grant commitments ahead of time to make sure the operation has adequate initial funding. With Whole Planet’s support, Grameen is halfway to officially opening in Detroit. “We hope this will encourage other organizations to come to the table. Once we have [the full $2 million], it’s all systems go.”

Once Grameen America sets up shop in a new city, it sends staffers into target communities for referrals of women who might qualify for the microlending program. “A lot of it is word of mouth,” Jayadeva says. “Once women in the community see the benefits, word spreads pretty quickly.”

So far, Grameen America has given approximately 17,000 women $90 million in loans since its inception in 2008.

“Here in the U.S., there is definitely a need,” Jayadeva says, adding that the organization’s model is imported from the Grameen Bank that originated in Bangladesh. “We focus on helping women build assets, community support, and a peer-to-peer network.”

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