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Slow Money SLO is the loan facilitation nonprofit giving a leg up to many beloved small businesses

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Melissa Hanson, the co-founder and CEO of Kelpful—a local cooperative that sustainably farms seaweed for food and self-care—knew her products were synonymous with uniqueness. But even after relatively successful stints at farmers markets in 2020, Kelpful still needed to be profitable.

HELPING HAND Slow Money SLO Founder Jeff Wade presents a sponsorship opportunity to a farmer at the 2020 Small Farm Conference. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SLOW MONEY SLO
  • Photo Courtesy Of Slow Money SLO
  • HELPING HAND Slow Money SLO Founder Jeff Wade presents a sponsorship opportunity to a farmer at the 2020 Small Farm Conference.

"That was gonna take some capital to buy equipment, pay rent for a larger warehouse space, pay for additional staff, and marketing," Hanson said.

That's where Slow Money San Luis Obispo came in. Since 2012, the SLO chapter of the nationwide nonprofit has facilitated loans for more than 30 businesses. It helps connect small food and farm enterprises with the necessary resources and guidance when they hit a roadblock in their journey.

Though small, businesses need to demonstrate some level of keen community interest along with the potential for growth. Hanson said Slow Money told the Kelpful team they weren't ready yet in 2020. But, Jeff Wade, the founder of the SLO chapter, told them they hit the mark when they reached out again in 2021.

"Because we had a pretty good track record of sales already, we had some traction, and because we had an interesting product, he [Wade] said we were a good fit for their program," Hanson said.

Wade told New Times that community members themselves form a large part of loan funding. He said funders don't need a label to help out their favorite businesses.

"There are no requirements other than an authentic reason to support them, and a willingness to do it in a friendly and patient way. This is not about somebody charging 10 or 15 percent interest to get a big hit back on their investment. But it is somewhat risky," Wade said.

The risk factor lies in small businesses not qualifying for many loans offered by banks. Wade said that Slow Money's goal is to make them bankable, so that they have a proven success rate the next time they need small business loans. As of 2022, the SLO nonprofit had facilitated $1.75 million in loans.

"What sets us apart is the risk of a small food business is something people decide is not that important to them. They're willing to take a chance because they've met this business owner, they like them, they like their products, they have a brand that's becoming very popular. We don't do this with a startup," he said. "When we started this in 2012, SLO County was, and still is, a very accommodating region in terms of people wanting to support local."

Some other SLO-grown ventures Slow Money supported are Bread Bike, Whalebird Kombucha, Bang the Drum Brewery, and Mama Ganache. But loan facilitation isn't the only Slow Money program. It also aims to address hunger and nutrition, especially in light of SLO County having a low enrollment rate in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly known as food stamps. The nonprofit works with the local food bank in the process with a two-pronged approach.

While the food bank focuses on senior citizens and residents from minority groups, Slow Money SLO operates a farm-to-school program. It helps to ease commerce and streamline nutritious locally grown produce by helping relationships blossom between schools and farms.

"We are increasing the number of schools that buy from local farms and the number of farms that are selling to schools," he said.

Now, Wade and the Slow Money team are preparing for the local network's 10-year anniversary on June 30. Kelpful will be among a handful of food vendors/clients celebrating alongside them at the Historic Octagon Barn.

"We wouldn't be where we're at without Slow Money, for sure," Harmon said. "They're not like a venture capitalist who's going to want ownership in the company. It's non-dilutive funding, which is really gold. That kind of early-stage, low-interest funding is almost impossible to find."

Fast fact

People's Self-Help Housing broke ground on June 15 at 3750 Bullock Lane to set up an affordable housing development in San Luis Obispo. The housing project called Tiburon Place will comprise 68 apartments, an outdoor courtyard, and a children's playground. For more information, contact communications@pshhc.org or call (805) 548-2340. Δ

Reach Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal at brajagopal@newtimesslo.com.

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