The Pennsylvania CDFI Network has installed Varsovia Fernandez as its very first Executive Director, to lead the network of financial institutions across the state. The acronym CDFI stands for Community Development Financial Institutions, and these organizations essentially serve like banks with a mission to invest in historically underserved communities. Of the 35 CDFIs headquartered in Pennsylvania, 18 are in the Philadelphia area, including in Philadelphia proper as well as suburbs such as Elkins Park and King of Prussia. The Pennsylvania CDFI Network currently has 17 member organizations, 11 of which are based in Philadelphia. Together, these 17 organizations serve all 67 counties across the state.
Impacto sat down with Varsovia Fernandez to talk about her new role, and how her long career of community leadership and service has led her to this moment:
Varsovia, you have been working across many sectors – from IT and financial services to nonprofit administration – for over 25 years. Give us a sense of your journey.
I always tell people I got my PhD in Latino community development from Congreso de Latinos Unidos, because that was my first nonprofit job. But prior to that, I was in corporate America, where I spent a little over 7 years in the technology industry, then an investment fund. After the internet bubble burst, I went to work for an asset-based lender. And during one meeting for the closing of an investment, I looked around the room and realized I was the only woman and the only person of color. There was so much success happening during those technology years; just before the bubble burst, there were so many new millionaires in America. But there were no Hispanics in that group, and you didn’t hear much about Latinas or women, either. I took that to heart. That night, I reflected on the situation, and decided to make phone calls to different Latino community organizations. I connected with the leadership of Congreso, and that was the beginning of being on the front lines of helping Latinos through advocacy, fundraising, and development. In the process, I was also able to leverage my for-profit expertise to help the executive management team improve their operations, because even when you’re in the nonprofit sector, you’re still running a business.
We did a lot of wonderful work at Congreso, and there was still a lot of work to do when I left to run the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. But I took that step because I saw it as another opportunity to help Latinos across the region achieve success. One of the key moments in my leadership journey was becoming aware of how successful I was compared to many other Latinas. I had been successful in my career, and it was not until I got to Congreso that I understood what it meant to be Latina in the region – that we were mostly viewed as a low-income, uneducated population. There were so many educated Latino professionals in Philadelphia, who just needed support and access to advancement opportunities. Together with a great team and a great board, the Hispanic Chamber made Latino business owners and professionals much more visible in the region. We gave Latinos a voice in economic development.
One of the things that happens when you are in a position of leadership, is companies will begin to approach you about other kinds of roles and leadership opportunities. When Customers Bank approached me, they wanted to make a difference in minority communities. They were new in the Philadelphia market, and they wanted to be more engaged. They made a commitment to helping through the CDFIs, charitable events, and other initiatives, to boost the bank’s contributions to minority communities, and to help their businesses grow through improved bankability and access to capital. Banks provide funding for technical assistance and training through their partners, to help business owners and entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. And it was a good transition for me, because Customers was a smaller bank in the market, so I had more direct access to be able to help. It was good for me and for the community.
Tell us about your new role with the Pennsylvania CDFI Network. What do you see in the statewide landscape, and what are your plans in terms of leading the coalition?
First of all, let me say that when Covid-19 hit us in the United States and Philadelphia, I immediately made a call to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and to the City’s Commerce Department, to offer my support to our local business community. After I left Customers Bank, I started my own company with the intention of helping small businesses; so, at the start of the pandemic, I automatically gravitated to the idea that I needed to help business owners navigate the crisis. I had the opportunity to work with an amazing project spearheaded by a coalition of banks that mobilized to provide support to black and brown businesses by collectively contributing to a fund. In doing that project, I found myself saying “I don’t want to let this go.” This is where my heart is; but we don’t need another nonprofit organization when so many are already doing great work.
So, joining the PA CDFI Network merges my passions for small business, my community, Philadelphia, and the Commonwealth communities. During the pandemic, the PA CDFI Network put out $249M across the state for small businesses, of which 8,258 were historically disadvantaged businesses. My heart said, that’s where I want to be, helping the people who are trying to do what I think is right. When I was at the Hispanic Chamber, we had partnered with one CDFI to help our members gain access to capital, and there are businesses in existence now that grew because of that. The PA CDFI Network has a broader reach – the entire state to work with, and disadvantaged minority communities beyond Philadelphia. We know minority businesses face manybarriers to growth.
The PA CDFI Network has operated for nearly 20 years as a volunteer organization formed by the CEOs of the member institutions. They decided to hire an Executive Director for the first time to begin to expand the network and open doors in other areas. I have learned that the work of the PA CDFI Network has been made possible by the incredible trust among its members, and now it’s time for us to build on that trust with the historically disadvantaged business owners and community members. I’m doing a listening tour across the network, to understand the needs and priorities in each region. Even within Philadelphia, the needs of one community are very different from the needs of another; the same is true of the many urban and rural areas across the state. I have a lot to learn, but we have a clear vision that we need to diversify our programming to meet small business needs. We will take the momentum of the Covid-19 period, to not only restore and rebuild, but to create a new vision for the future. I’m looking forward to the future of the Network’s work, and to following the passion that best meets the needs of our communities, so we can continue to make progress in being successful. Ultimately, it’s about leaving every city and the community better than we found it.