Johanna Alonso//October 29, 2021
//October 29, 2021
A longtime consultant and entrepreneur in the Baltimore region, Will Holmes has helped businesses in the area with nearly every issue they could face, from creating business plans to coaching CEOs to prepare to acquire capital. But he had never been the one providing companies with capital.
That’s going to change next year, when Holmes, currently the chairman of the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce, launches BELL, a Community Development Financial Institution dedicated to supporting minority-owned, women-owned and rural small businesses in Maryland.
BELL, which stands for Baltimore Economic Leadership League, will be up and running in February or March 2022, Holmes said, after his term as chairman comes to an end this December. The CDFI will ideally begin distributing loans in the summer of 2022.
A CDFI is a lender certified through the U.S. Treasury Department that offers lower interest rates than commercial banks, as well as financial training and resources. Holmes was inspired to launch after a friend and mentor suggested it to him as something he could do to impact the Maryland business community.
The conversation occurred several years ago, but, for a long time Holmes was too busy with other projects to pursue it.
“But it just kept speaking to me,” he said. “And he was right. It really gave me a different way to help people that I think was really effective and I think it will ripple for generations, how it will affect people’s lives.”
CDFIs traditionally target businesses owned by women, people of color and anyone that might have trouble getting loans from commercial banks, such as those without strong credit or whose businesses are not old enough. Investing in these companies can create a long-term ripple effect, building wealth for the business owners and creating jobs for members of their communities, Holmes said.
Along with those businesses, BELL will also seek to help rural businesses, Holmes said. When researching existing CDFIs in the state, he noticed that the majority of them are located along the Interstate 95 corridor between Washington and Baltimore, with few serving rural parts of the state in Western, Eastern and Southern Maryland.
“There weren’t as many CDFIs, which means that people there would have a harder time getting access to capital,” he said. “There’s a need in the market. We want to fill it. We want to reach out to our business owners out there … and be able to offer them the same kinds of resources.”
Holmes anticipates his experience as the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce’s chairman will help him with this endeavor, as he plans for BELL to incorporate some elements of a chamber of commerce. The organization will have members who contribute to one of BELL’s funds, and will also hold events to raise money.
“(We’ll) use that money to lend out, use that money to offset defaults, use that money to offset administrative costs, which will in turn make our interest rates lower for all our loans,” he said. “So, I think that that’s definitely going to set us apart.”
Because he has run a number of entrepreneurship programs, such as the Baltimore Means Business program at Morgan State University, Holmes also already has a tried-and-true curriculum he can use to provide trainings and resources to BELL’s clients.
Holmes is contributing his own money to get the project off the ground, having already spent around $20,000 on early-stage expenses, like the company’s website. He’s planning to spend about $50,000 in total on the project between now and its launch, reinvesting money brought in from his consulting business.
Spending his own money is “scary,” Holmes said, but he hopes it will make it clear to BELL’s potential clients that he’s dedicated to supporting Maryland businesses and that he knows what it’s like to be an entrepreneur and take risks.
“I know what it’s like to put up my own money — I’m putting up my own money for this,” he said.
Other CDFIs “went out and got funding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s the way you’re probably supposed to do it. The way I’m doing it is probably crazy. But this is how serious I am about it.”