Shirley Nellon used Grameen Bank for a microloan for her business, Grandma’s Homemade Puff Corn in Fresno. She makes her treats out of the Pro Culinary Kitchen in Downtown Fresno. Photos by Frank Lopez
Written by Frank Lopez
What started as a small microfinance organization in Bangladesh in the 1970s focusing on services for the rural poor has since expanded to more than 2,500 branches worldwide.
But it still has the same goal of helping those traditionally without ready access to capital.
Grameen America opened up an office in Fresno in September 2019 in partnership with Bank of the West.
Located in the Downtown Business Hub Building at 1444 Fulton St., the Fresno office is Grameen America’s sixth location in California and its 23rd location in the U.S.
Grameen America focuses on providing low-income women microloans to help establish or expand their businesses.
“There are a lot of women here that don’t have the status to be able to ask for loans from a traditional bank,” said Lucy Mendez, branch manager of the Fresno location.
The Fresno branch was licensed in November 2019, which is when it gave the first loan disbursements. It is working with 20 business groups, each with five people, and has already loaned more than $130,000 to the groups.
A woman applying for a loan must find another four partners to start the process. The partners do not need to be business people, but people that will be involved in the business.
Mendez said that a lot of the groups she is currently working with are food-related startups. She is getting interest from at least two new groups a week.
The office has a goal to serve 500 women its first year, disbursing $727,000 in microloans to low-income female entrepreneurs, according to a Grameen America news release.
Shirley Nellon went through Grameen America for her own business, Grandma’s Homemade Puff Corn.
Nellon makes her grandmother’s gourmet puff corn recipes at the Pro Culinary Kitchen in Downtown Fresno.
Born and raised in Fresno, Nellon graduated with a degree in criminology and psychology from Fresno State in 1982. She later went on to San Joaquin College of Law for a few years until she ran out of money and decided to open a food truck in 2016.
“I didn’t even know how to cook. I saw a thing on Facebook about being a food vendor, and thought, ‘I could do this,’” Nellon said. “A lot of breweries around here liked me because I was a one-person operation, and they decided to give me some of the smaller jobs.”
Nellon said that the first starting loans from Grameen helped her buy product, pay the fees for The Fresno Home and Garden Show and pay for her retail and manufacturing license to be able to sell to stores.
“They really helped me get my business off the ground financially because I didn’t have the little bit of extra cash, and it really helped to complete the first stages,” Nellon said.
Nellon said there are not a lot of African-American women business owners, but she is starting to see more and wants to see that keep growing. She also said that working with Grameen has helped build her credit, which is giving her more finance options for her business.
Nellon has plans to refurbish a Model-T truck to use as a mobile advertising unit for Grandma’s Homemade Puff Corn, and hopes to one day open up a brick and mortar shop where she can make and sell the product.
The puffs can be found at Tower Blend in the Tower District, and she is looking to get the product into bigger stores.
To give back to the community, Nellon employs children with autism to help with the labeling and packaging, giving them a sense of responsibility, but also a chance for employment.
“People look at my table and are surprised that it’s from an African American woman,” Shirley said. “I love what I’m doing. If you have a dream and believe in what you’re doing, It can become a reality. In my book, it’s a reality.”