Terri-Nichelle Bradley launched her educational toy company Brown Toy Box in 2017 with a mission to celebrate Black children and disrupt generational poverty. The company, which offers STEM and STEAM-themed toys, started out as a subscription box, but she recently expanded it into a full-scale toy brand and landed in a major retailer.
“We’re trying to expose kids to careers that they would have probably never considered or didn’t know about,” Bradley says. “We’ve centered our work in play and play-based learning.”
To broaden her company and mission’s reach, she began pitching her products to big-box retailers, and last year, Bradley landed a deal with Target. She says she originally thought the retailer wanted products for stores in the Atlanta area, where she’s based, but soon learned Target wanted her line in stores across its full chain.
“They don’t pay you until you deliver, so you have to produce all of these toys at mass,” Bradley says. To get the capital needed to fill the order, she turned to Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE), a CDFI based in Atlanta.
Bradley secured about $700,000 in loans from ACE and $200,000 from other sources — and, Brown Toy Box products landed on Target store shelves and website right before the 2021 holiday season.
CDFIs are essential for women- and Black-owned businesses like hers, Bradley says. Black entrepreneurs are more likely to be denied bank loans and struggle to obtain the capital that they need to start or expand their businesses, according to a Brookings Institution report.
“We’re over-mentored and underfunded,” she says. “You’ve got to find an advocate that’s already got the keys and access to the room to let you into the room. Had ACE and some of our other capital partners not stepped up, we would have been one of those businesses that had this great opportunity that we couldn’t have met — not for lack of having a good product or our work, but because no one would take a chance on us and we couldn’t get capital.”
ACE, which was founded in 1997 and serves 68 counties in Georgia, primarily works with businesses owned by women, minorities, and individuals from low-income communities. In 2021, the organization made more than $37 million in loans, and 94% of those loans went to underserved entrepreneurs.
ACE recently announced a continued partnership with other Atlanta-based CDFIs and the closing of a $100 million commitment from JPMorgan Chase for the Entrepreneurs of Color Loan Fund, which is an impact investment fund working with CDFIs to expand capital to minority-led businesses.
The fund enables ACE to share risk and take on more risk within its portfolio by better serving small business owners who lack collateral and making larger loans, says Eric Swilling, ACE’s director of lending.
“The Entrepreneur of Color Fund is cash-flow heavy for those loans up to $500,000,” he says. “So, that just opens opportunity for those small business owners, minority-owned borrowers, whose cash flow is where it needs to be, but they’re just light in assets.”
The fund also allows for loans of up to about $5 million, and ACE typically capped its loans at about $1 million, Swilling adds.
ACE also offers business advisory services, or one-on-one coaching and mentoring, to borrowers to help them “skill build” their businesses, Swilling says, “It’s anything that the borrower needs in the sense of, ‘Hey, I’m looking to retire within the next 5 to 10 years, can you help me figure out what I need to do to sell my company?’ ‘Or, I have these new contracts. I need help in scaling the business through acquiring more government contracts.’”
The technical assistance helps businesses improve their operations and grow stronger, which ensures their success and minimizes risk for the CDFI, he explains.
Bradley embraced ACE’s accounting and operational strategy technical assistance, she says. And, while raising capital is challenging, she adds that CDFIs offer much more flexibility and advocate for small business owners.
“The barrier to entry is a lot lower,” she says. “CDFIs are great partners. ACE was a game-changer for my business. It changed the trajectory of Brown Toy Box.”
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.