Don't Forget the Green Collar Entrepreneurs

The key to supporting green collar entrepreneurs is to combine Van Jones' green job training model with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus' model for microfinance.
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Van Jones and others have so successfully argued for green collar jobs--defined by Green for All as a job that does something for the planet, pays family wages and provides opportunities for upward mobility--that the term has become ubiquitous among politicians, environmentalists and social activists. This should come as no surprise, particularly in the current economic climate: after all, who can argue against creating more jobs for American families, jobs that also enhance our infrastructure, national security and environment? In fact, President-elect Obama recently announced a plan to create 2.5 million jobs over the next two years, and many of those will certainly be green collar.

But lost in all the talk of green collar jobs is the fact that there is a significant portion of the target population--low-income, people of color, the unemployed and underemployed--who want to be green collar entrepreneurs. For example, roughly 25% of the people that graduate from a green job training program in my hometown of Providence, Rhode Island want to start their own business. According to Mark Kravatz, who runs the program, the enthusiasm among these entrepreneurs is inspiring; they see how green can be good for them, their family and their community, and they want to get in on the game. So what's the problem? Simply put, they have little to no options for accessing the capital they would need to make their idea a reality.

In fact, the target population for green jobs tends to be so cut off from the mainstream financial system that it would never even occur to them to consider getting a loan from a bank to start a business. What's more, given the current credit crisis, even established businesses and people with good credit are unable to get loans. Yet just as green collar jobs are essential to the creation of a just, equitable, inclusive and vibrant economy, I believe that green collar entrepreneurs have an essential role to play in finding market-based solutions to fostering better communities and a better environment.

The key to supporting green collar entrepreneurs is to combine Van Jones' green job training model with Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus' model for microfinance. In other words, what these entrepreneurs need is green job/entrepreneurship training, combined with access to affordable capital with flexible credit and collateral requirements. Yunus' Grameen Bank in Bangladesh has a 30 year track record of showing that the poor are credit worthy (they have a re-payment rate well over 98%), and that small, affordable loans can go a long way toward ending the cycle of poverty. While micro finance looks slightly different in the U.S.--the loans are larger, the requirements slightly stricter--the concept is fundamentally the same.

The benefits of green microfinance are numerous. For starters, with each loan re-payment borrowers will be able to build their credit history. In addition, a well-run program would connect clients with bank accounts and other essential financial services and products, thereby plugging them into the power of the American financial system. The green collar entrepreneur would perhaps start with a $500 to $5,000 loan--enough to buy a toolkit or contractors insurance, for instance--and then move up to a larger amount for the second loan cycle, and an even larger amount for the third cycle. As a result, the green collar micro-business will eventually become a green collar small business, and a fraction of those will go on to become medium and even large green businesses. Lastly, these businesses will help revitalize urban America, bringing additional jobs and investments to the places that need it most.

In short, supporting these entrepreneurs provides benefits on several levels, from the individual to society as a whole. So as green job training programs become increasingly prevalent in the coming years, I hope to see them accompanied by loan funds that provide entrepreneurial graduates the capital and additional support they need to succeed. The true power of the green collar movement lies in enabling all Americans to establish and benefit from a green economy, and failing to support green collar entrepreneurs would undercut that potential.

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