Wilson Lester, 36, Business Benefactor
As the COVID-19 pandemic sent a shudder through small business owners and gig workers across Greensboro and the world, Wilson Lester knew just what they were going through.
He, too, had been self-employed when the last recession forced him to chart a new course.
This time, the executive director of the community development financial institution Piedmont Business Capital positioned to swiftly erect a safety net for those workers and business owners, in the form of a no-interest loan program. So far this year, they’ve loaned more money than they did in all of 2019.
It’s just one of the ways Lester uses his personal experience to boost local entrepreneurs and, in turn, grow financial stability and economic opportunities for the community. Wilson grew up a “corporate brat,” living all over the country as his parents pursued top corporate jobs. His dad worked in supply chain and logistics. His mom was an accountant.
“My parents were part of a generation of the first African Americans that went into corporate America. In some cases, they were the only African Americans in the company, at a minimum in what would be considered a professional position. This was an era where they may have been the only ones at a national organization. That is the water they navigated. And they were successful at it,” Wilson says. “It took a lot of work for them to get to that point. Their work ethic instilled in me that to do what you want to do, sometimes you do what you have to do.”
They landed in Greensboro when his mother, Dr. Wanda Lester, got a professor position at NC A&T.
Wilson went to Ragsdale High School and then became a serial entrepreneur.
“I failed as an entrepreneur before I succeeded. I didn’t make wise decisions, my relationship management was poor, and I discounted my personal potential. A lot of it I could charge to being adolescent. More of it, I can charge to lack of seeking guidance, wanting to be independent, and wanting to prove myself against all the odds, which a lot of entrepreneurs do,” he says.
He landed in Atlanta, where he worked with high-end automotive dealerships and manufacturers providing product placement, marketing consulting, and special events. “Amid the great recession, what I was doing dried up. I was looking for another opportunity. I got the chance to work for a federally-funded program that assisted students that were trying to figure out how they could stay in school,” Wilson says.
That opportunity – a program at NC A&T working with first-generation college students – brought him back to Greensboro. He worked full time and studied for a degree in business at Greensboro College. Later he would get a master’s in corporate management and strategy at Michigan State University.
The job taught him how to secure and manage federal capital and that he was skilled at handling lots of details in a fast-paced environment. His academics revealed to him the science behind what he’d been doing his entire career, including the early days as an entrepreneur.
“I had a different relationship with my education because I was paying for it,” he says. “I had to get everything that I could out of it.”
He moved on to manage Triangle-area program, Veterans Upward Bound, that helped veterans take advantage of their benefits. It included helping them start businesses.
He found it rewarding but missed working in Greensboro and being full-time in the business community. “I missed business. I knew I did not want to start a business as much as I wanted to work with businesses.”
In 2016, he moved to his current role at what was then called Greensboro Community Development Fund. The organization is a community development financial institution (CDFI), an organization that works with federal funds and private dollars to provide funding to distressed communities. It was designed to provide access to capital for women and minority entrepreneurs.
“We lend to people who cannot be financed by traditional lenders,” Wilson says. Today Piedmont Business Capital still had the same focus, but a broader footprint, Wilson says.
He partnered with other CDFIs to learn all he could about best practices. Under his leadership, the organization expanded from sub $500,000 in total assets to be $2 million operations with loans of $1.3 million.
Piedmont Business Capital also helps train entrepreneurs with things like one-on-one coaching and technical assistance for participating in Small Business Administration, Historically Underutilized Businesses, and Minority and Women Business Enterprises programs.
One of Wilson’s favorite success stories is that of Willie and Stacy Simms, owners Gillespie Grill, who won a contract from the City to operate at the public golf course. “They have taken advantage of every technical resource we offer and have taken advantage of small-dollar loans to infuse into their business so that they can continue to grow so that they can continue to offer a quality product that is consistent and ensure their consumer has the same experience every time they dine at the Gillespie Grill,” Wilson says. “They used the business bookkeeping courses. They used credit coaching. They’ve used the social media and marketing program.”
All those programs are offered for free to any entrepreneur.
“All businesses grow by having some financial relationship at a bank or some other institution. What we want to do is educate people on how to utilize capital to expand and grow their business,” Wilson says.
The COVID-19 pandemic offered the organization a chance to help even more local businesses and gig workers businesses were closed as part of the statewide stay-at-home order implemented in March.
They created a small business continuity fund to provide small loans – between $2,500 to $10,000 – at zero percent interest for up to 60 months. The program is designed to keep businesses afloat while they aren’t bringing in the same revenue as before the pandemic.
Piedmont Business Capital designed the program to have a low threshold for participation and provide a quick turnaround for vetting, to try to help as many people as quickly as possible. They tailored requirements so that the gig worker, who may not have detailed documentation on their businesses as a corporate entity, might, can also get help.
“We’ve helped barbers, beauticians, yoga studios, nail salons, mechanic shops, photography companies, restaurants, retail businesses, event spaces. I would say that this fund has touched every race, gender, and industry-owned in the City of Greensboro,” he says.
A grant from the United Way of Greater Greensboro will cover all interest costs on $400,000 in loans. This grant allows the organization to provide zero percent loans. The City of Greensboro has provided $400,000 for the fund.
“People right now are not concerned with making a profit. They are concerned about survival. We wanted to offer a loan that will help with carrying costs,” Wilson says. “This is not a time when people are looking to take on debt. We wanted to make it an easy decision to pursue capital through us.”