Kickstart microloan recipients converse after signing their contracts.
Kickstart microloan recipients converse after signing their loan agreements.From left are Ralph Lewis of Lifeline Transport Service; Ezrena Morton of Ecoscapes by Morton and Morton; Nathan Wong of Alternative Concrete Solutions; Nea Talbot of Full Belly Farm; and Alexandra Durante of EC Soap Co. (Photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

Nea Talbot, owner of Full Belly Farm, which focuses on organic produce and traditional Virgin Islands agricultural techniques, said her journey to receiving a Kickstart BVI small business microloan was a lesson in persistence.

“I had been to two banks before to try to push my business forward,” she said, explaining that she was turned down because she didn’t fit the bank’s criteria for a loan recipient.

“So when I found [the microloan programme], I thought it’s worth a try. My thing was, I was doing it anyway. It may take me a long, long time, but I was still doing it.”

Last week, Ms. Talbot, alongside four other VI entrepreneurs, achieved her goal sooner than she expected.

The five — who received Unite BVI microloans between $2,000 and $10,000 — signed agreements during a June 6 cocktail reception at the VP Bank building in Road Town.

The programme, financed by Unite BVI, is an offshoot of the programme launched at the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship, but with a particular focus on businesses that have suffered setbacks since Hurricane Irma.

According to Kim Takeuchi, operations manager at Unite BVI, the loans were designed for entrepreneurs with no other access to financing.

The recipients, who were selected from among some 80 initial applications, range from farmers and landscapers to the VI’s only private ambulance service.

They were chosen in part because Unite BVI decided that their vision aligned with the ideals of Virgin mogul Sir Richard Branson, owner of Necker Island and founder of Unite BVI.

“Richard has a wonderful way of saying that the brands that exist for tomorrow are those that go beyond just profit,” Ms. Takeuchi said. “They have a purpose.”

Sharing ideas

Alexandra Durante, owner of EC Soap Co, manufacturer of organic, locally made products, said she was inspired to apply due to positive things she’d heard about the programme from previous recipients, and that she is looking forward to being part of a community of entrepreneurs facing similar struggles in a tough post-hurricane landscape.

“I don’t want to be the only lone fish … that gets eaten first,” she said. “There are a lot of people here now, and who were here before, doing big things and I want to be a part of that as well.”

Nathan Wong, owner of Alternative Concrete Solutions, said he’s been swamped with work since the hurricane, and that he plans to use some of the funds for rehabilitating play areas at schools and daycares around the territory.

“Even before the hurricane… a lot of play areas weren’t the safest for children,” he said. “Now it’s needed more than ever, with all the schools that have been shut down.”

Ralph Lewis, founder of Lifeline Transport Service, a private ambulance company that is geared toward patients with chronic health conditions,said his business has always struggled to differentiate itself from the government-owned ambulances.

But since Irma, “it’s been almost an impossible task given the damage to the one ambulance that we have,” he said.

Now, thanks to the microloan, he added, “the sky is the limit and we do not intend to stop anytime soon.”

More loans

According to Ms. Takeuchi, the inaugural group is just for starters. There are more rounds of microloans to come, and she encourages others to apply in the future.

“As the entrepreneurs pay back into the pool,then we can continue to circulate that money back out again,” she said.

In order to qualify, the businesses have to have no other access to financing, help rebuild the territory and create jobs, and be a force for good. She said for the next round, the focus will be on environmental issues. Finding someone with a plan to clean up sargassum, she said, “would be a wonderful opportunity.”

“We would love to finance that,” she added.

The operations manager described the programme as “a particularly fun arm [for Unite BVI] because it allows us to exponentially have a force for good in so many different aspects. … Entrepreneurs are not just dreamers: They’re doers.”