The Beginning of Ascent Microfinance

Our history as told by Ascent founder, Alisa Noll

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In the spring of 2017, a group of college students started a nonprofit in Columbus called Ascent Microfinance. My name is Alisa Noll, founder and current board member. I want to share our story.

The 2017 U.S. Census estimates that Columbus is the 4th fastest growing city in America. Our city received a $40 million Smart City grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2016. Start-ups are seeing record investments and the city is constantly decorated with orange construction cones. I am proud to have grown up here for the past 23 years. As a student entering my senior year at The Ohio State University, the change around me was exciting. However, I didn’t have to walk far from OSU’s campus to realize that the “bad parts of town” had not changed in decades. Between the late-1990s to the mid-2000s, the household income of families in the bottom 20% of earners dropped by 6.9% (Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). Despite overall economic improvement, inequality is increasing in my hometown. I was caught up in a world where innovation favors the rich but the poor cannot meet basic human needs. I realized passing out pizzas leftover from student events to the homeless was not fulfilling enough. I wanted to use my education to help those who needed it most.

It’s easy for students to take for granted our access to education. Education is one of the most powerful tools one can possess. At Ohio State, we have so many resources at our fingertips. I wondered what would happen if we shared some of this knowledge with those who would not otherwise receive access. After paying my way through college, I was aware of its financial barriers. The only reason I could afford to attend college was because I was taught financial wellness tactics from my parents. One may assume that others live in poverty because of poor life choices, but often the reality is that they were never taught how to be financially stable.

A victim of human trafficking in Columbus, who we will call Sarah, once told me her story. Sarah explained that her mother was extremely smart with her money. She had just enough to pay one bill each month, so she would alternate which bill she’d pay. For example, she would pay the water bill then pay for her electricity a few weeks later, just in time to avoid a late fee. This tactic did not always work, so some bills never ended up paid. Growing up in this environment, Sarah has been in debt her entire life. Sarah was a driven, smart girl who simply was not given the advice she needed. Once Sarah was equipped with a financial education, she worked her way completely out of debt. She now pays for an apartment and a car on her own. She gained a sense of autonomy. I wouldn’t be able to transform people’s lives, but I, with a good team, could give them the foundation they needed to do it themselves. As the saying goes, “give a man a fish (or in my case, pizza) and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.”

After a full semester of research and conversations in Columbus. I learned that although banks and other well-meaning services offer financial education, they do not cater to low-income clients. I studied microfinance abroad and now saw a local need for free financial education and benevolent lending for those with low-credit. Student-led nonprofits around the country, such as University of Virginia’s Community Honor Fund, Notre Dame’s Jubilee Initiative For Financial Inclusion, and Georgetown’s Hilltop Microfinance Initiative (HMFI), provided many successful business models to emulate. I also had the good fortune to meet Chris Timko, previous CEO of HMFI. He and the current HMFI CFO, Ian Straussman, were critical to our success. With the invaluable advice of many community members, a team of dedicated students and I began the process of starting Columbus’s own microfinance initiative.