Featured Guest: Leah Fremouw
Leah Fremouw is a familiar face in the economic development community and has a rich background stemming from multiple sectors. She currently serves as Bridging Virginia’s President & CEO – a newly established community development loan fund. In this role, she partners with businesses, nonprofits, and localities in a variety of industries and growth stages to support their capital needs and movement to the next level. In 2020, she led the relaunch of the Richmond region’s small business development center (SBDC) and in 2021 helped secure $10 million from the General Assembly to establish and fund the new VA CDFI Fund. Additionally, Leah helped found and chairs the newly formed VA CDFI Coalition, a nonprofit established to be the voice for the CDFI industry in Virginia.
Prior to leading Bridging Virginia, Leah spent six years as SVP and Director of Community Innovation at Virginia Community Capital, a community development financial institution (CDFI) that provides loans and advisory services to communities in all regions of the Commonwealth. She led talent management and cultural initiatives for CarLotz, a fast-growing Richmond business, served as an organizational development consultant with the Performance Management Group at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and for three years worked in the Richmond’s public housing communities.
Leah’s commitment to her community brings her out of the office and into initiatives moving the greater region and state forward. She sits on the board of the ChamberRVA, and is a member of Virginia Tech’s Center of Economic and Community Engagement Advisory Board. Leah launched a nationally known podcast, Renegade Capital in 2021, helped lead TEDxRVA from 2012-2017, and served as Chair for Impact 100 Richmond from 2014-2016, where she supported strategies to raise large grant funds for local nonprofits. Leah earned her Bachelor and Master degrees at VCU, where she was twice recognized as an L. Douglas Wilder Graduate Scholar (2008-2010). In 2019, Leah was a recipient of the VCU Top 10 Under 10 award and was appointed by Governor Ralph Northam to the state-wide Growth and Opportunity Virginia (GO Virginia) Board. She was reappointed to the GO Virginia board in 2021 and will serve four more years.
As a marketing, public relations and corporate communications leader, Becca (only her mom calls her Rebecca) started her career in consulting and has been involved with six startups ranging from film, fashion, technology and food, with her first startup being a social enterprise importing leather fashion accessories made by single mothers in Nairobi, Kenya. Speaking across the country, she is known for leading award-winning teams and has received recognition from the Cannes Film Festival for Best Media Campaign, Hermes, MSPBJ Women in Business, and most recently, the Top Women in Communications awards. When the day is done, you’ll find Becca behind a good travel book planning her next adventure, plunking a tune on the piano or laughing with her blended family.
Bryan Toft is Sunrise Banks’ Chief Revenue Officer. In this position, Bryan oversees commercial banking/lending, treasury management, mortgage and fintech partnerships. He has been with Sunrise Banks for more than a decade. From 2014-2017, he served as president and CEO of Community Bank Owatonna.
Bryan has held a variety of roles at Sunrise Banks including credit analyst, commercial loan officer and EVP regional manager of commercial lending in Minneapolis.
Bryan received a B.S. in Computer Science from Buena Vista University and an MBA from the University of St. Thomas. He is a board member of the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, Twin Cities Metro CDC and Charter School Property, Inc.
0:00 – [MUSIC PLAYING]
0:01 – Leah Fremouw
We’re honestly trying to get our clients into the banking system. And so, if they have not been in there yet, or they were and they had some bankruptcy or need to do some credit repair, we might be their first step back into that path of more traditional capital.
0:24 – Becca Hoeft
Welcome to the NextGen Banker podcast, where we explore what’s next in banking and talk with the innovators responsible for creating positive change in the financial sector. I’m your host Becca Hoeft, and I am joined by my Sunrise colleague and friend Bryan Toft. And today I’m very excited to welcome Leah Fremouw.
0:44 – Becca Hoeft
Leah, thanks for being on the NextGen Banker podcast.
0:48 – Leah Fremouw
Thank you. I’m very excited to be here and to talk with you today. So, thanks for having me.
0:52 – Becca Hoeft
Likewise. But before we get started, just a reminder to stick around to hear our musical feature at the end of the episode. Each NextGen Banker episode showcases one new artist from somewhere around the globe representing a wide range of different genres. So be sure to check it out.
1:09 – Bryan Toft
Now let’s hear about Leah. She is the CEO of Bridging, Virginia a community development loan fund aimed at helping historically marginalized small business owners in places. Leah is also the president of the Virginia CDFI coalition and a board member at GO Virginia and ChamberRVA in her home city of Richmond, Virginia.
1:28 – Bryan Toft
So, Leah, that’s a bio that probably barely scratches the surface. So, we would love to hear about your history and economic development and financial services. And just tell us your story from the beginning. We love to hear it.
1:41 – Leah Fremouw
Sure. Sure. So how long is this podcast? We have five hours?
1:46 – Becca Hoeft
Well, three hours max, OK.
1:48 – Leah Fremouw
So, if you would have told even, I would say, 25-year-old Leah that I would be president and CEO of something that has to do with money and business and finance, I would have thought you were crazy. Because at that time, I was working at a shelter for at-risk teenagers in Morgantown, West Virginia, where I grew up.
2:07 – Leah Fremouw
At that point in time, I was a college dropout. I had moved from bartending and waiting tables into a full-time role with the annual salary of $17,500, and I thought I had hit big time.
2:22 – Leah Fremouw
And so just kind of this winding path that eventually brought me to Virginia, where I transferred to Virginia Commonwealth University with a 0.6 GPA. And I share all this. I will jump to how I ended up where I am and get there quickly, hopefully, but in that, VCU didn’t even take me as a student.
2:42 – Leah Fremouw
They were like, we’ll take your money. You can come take classes, but you’re not a student until you actually get good grades and prove yourself. And I share that because I think that connects my passion and my personal story to kind of the underdog, not knowing the strength that you have inside until you start to have success and start to move.
3:05 – Leah Fremouw
And I see a lot of that, not only in like the businesses that we work at, this inherent strength and tenacity, but also in some of the community development projects where you go into small towns and rural areas or even in a neighborhood corridor where there’s this old building that has great bones and amazing windows. And your kind of just used to seeing it being broken and shut down.
3:32 – Leah Fremouw
But there’s power there. There’s beauty there. And so that is why I’m so passionate and privileged, I think, to be in the work that I’m in in economic development and in the capital space because it’s the money that gets these projects done, that funds these businesses. And it was getting to VCU, learning some things, having success that it just kind of hit the ball rolling where I went from a college dropout to someone with a fellowship that put me into the Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority.
4:06 – Leah Fremouw
Through that fellowship that turned into a full-time gig, that then turned into the next full-time gig and connected me to other initiatives in the city of Richmond that added to my scope of experience, like TEDxRVA, which is locally organized Ted Talk events from the actual Tedx brand and everything, to leading a women’s giving circle called Impact 100, where we were raising $100,000 every grant cycle from a collective of women, all volunteer-led, to then give out that grant once a year.
4:42 – Leah Fremouw
So that all came just kind of from being open to things, trying new stuff, but getting involved in the community. From the housing and economic development side, and here I am now growing the Sloan fund to do more of that type of work.
4:55 – Becca Hoeft
Wow. And I would even say– and just knowing you, Leah, from the years that you were at Virginia Community Capital, I think innovation is a really big part of that as well. And Bridging Virginia is your latest venture. And it was really born out of the pandemic to help those who are disproportionately affected.
5:17 – Becca Hoeft
So, can you talk to Bryan and me a little bit about the impacts that you are seeing in your community and the state of Virginia that led you to this effort?
5:30 – Leah Fremouw
Yeah. So, this was not my idea. The gentleman, who’s now a really close friend and now technically my boss, Harrison Roday was someone that I got a cold call from when I was working at VCC. And you got a lot of those. I’m sure you all get them too, where you hear about opportunity zones, or tax credits, or whatever the new fancy sexy capital thing is.
5:57 – Leah Fremouw
And so, as a CDFI, as a bank, as you have capital in anywhere in your name, you get these calls where people want your investment, or money, or time. And I always take those calls, but I always give homework. Like, sure, I will tell you what I know about CDFIs and loanable funds. But go do this and come back and we’ll keep talking.
6:18 – Leah Fremouw
So, Harrison was one of those calls, where he was an investment banker by day from Richmond but living in New York. Came back because of COVID. Heard about the disparity or was learning about the disparity, especially around small businesses and especially when you looked at race and gender and then had an impact on top of that.
6:38 – Leah Fremouw
And I think, in a way, it was new to him. And he was very motivated and driven to find a solution to that. And so, the solution in 2020 was actually a loan loss reserve pool that he raised and then worked with the Virginia Credit Union to have them do the lending with the loan loss actually backing up their lending.
6:59 – Leah Fremouw
And so, through that initiative and through the Metropolitan Business League, which is now a partner Bridging Virginia, they identified the businesses that lending capital could be a good tool for in that moment. And then Virginia Credit Union actually underwrote them with Harrison and others’ investment backing up that risk.
7:22 – Leah Fremouw
So that’s where we started. I went along that journey with him and eventually became a board member of Bridging Virginia, which none of us on the board actually wanted to start a nonprofit. In fact, we were doing our best not to start another nonprofit.
7:40 – Leah Fremouw
It was like, why do we need to exist? Could Virginia Community Capital do this? Could the Metropolitan Business League as a business support organization kind of like a chamber take on a loan fund?
7:53 – Leah Fremouw
Because the gap that we are filling is 15,000 to 50. And so, what we would say, yes, it’s micro, but it’s more small dollar lending. So, anything under six figures is a significant market failure in Virginia, Richmond, and probably across the country because traditional lender or just lenders in general, even VCC, CDFIs can’t do this and keep the lights on. That’s where all the grants come in and things like that.
8:19 – Leah Fremouw
So, we, in an unfortunate way, needed to exist. And so, we launched a nonprofit with feedback from others and this community engagement piece of like, OK, yeah, you are unique in the capital market. And so got that thing rolling.
8:37 – Leah Fremouw
And it was probably, I guess it was about a year later, where money from the state through the Virginia CDFI fund actually gave Bridging Virginia more resources to hire full-time person, which was not supposed to be me at all. This was not part of my master plan. I was like, I’m a board member.
8:56 – Leah Fremouw
I am over here doing VCC stuff. And I will help the small little thing over here and get going. We’ll get the right person in place. And fast forward, here we were.
9:08 – Leah Fremouw
I think it was February of 2022. And just like different pieces, were moving around. And VCCs doing some great things. Amir Kirkwood’s the new CEO, and he’s lovely and enjoyed working with him when I could. But you get to go over and start from scratch.
9:27 – Leah Fremouw
And in a way, we’re an unregulated loan fund. So, we can do things that DCC and Sunrise can’t because we’re not regulated yet. We’re also not a CDFI yet.
9:40 – Leah Fremouw
So, there are some things like– and I’m not saying we’re ignoring credit score, but it’s just a piece of information. It’s not a decision-making tool. And because we’re small and nimble, we’re able to do things like, oh, you asked for a term loan. Well, actually, let’s do a line of credit.
10:00 – Leah Fremouw
We’re at DCC, that organization was structured. You could only get a line of credit if you had a term loan. But sometimes, the line of credit is a better tool.
10:10 – Leah Fremouw
So being able to get in there and innovate and figure out the solution is just kind of how I’m wired. All the community stuff I mentioned earlier, Tedx, Impact 100, things I’m doing now with a indoor pickleball facility, which can be a whole other podcast show, if you want to do that.
10:27 – Becca Hoeft
10:27 – Leah Fremouw
But all these from the ground up. I’m a builder by nature. And so, getting to start from scratch is very exciting.
10:37 – Leah Fremouw
And I have to manage people right now. But after managing a statewide team of nine, I just want a break.
10:46 – Becca Hoeft
Pickleball, that’s a whole other conversation.
10:48 – Leah Fremouw
My team is great.
10:49 – Becca Hoeft
We’ll have to talk offline about pickleball sometime.
10:53 – Leah Fremouw
Hey, we’ll, actually be in Kansas City in May. Maybe you can help me get me in the right side of that on the Missouri side.
11:01 – Becca Hoeft
Sure. All right, text me.
11:03 – Leah Fremouw
11:05 – Bryan Toft
It seems like your background from the story you told and some of the things you’ve done lends itself perfectly to what you’re doing at Bridging. And I was wondering how you felt about that and how you incorporate some of that into maybe how you make decisions or how you incorporate some of those life experiences into what you see in the market and where you see that gap being filled by Bridging.
11:27 – Leah Fremouw
Yeah, I think the luxury that we have at Bridging right now is that we are small, and we don’t have the infrastructure that others do that they have to support, as far as employees and costs and things. So, the things that we can do is be innovative, and we are learning.
11:48 – Leah Fremouw
And I don’t want to say changing, but we’re learning and designing as we’re going. And so, I think that approach to not only what we’re building as an organization, but to how we’re working with the businesses is going to serve us well because we’re not boxed into something that has always been this way. So, I think that’s where that’s coming through.
12:12 – Leah Fremouw
The other piece that I’m excited about, and it’s a longer path, but the innovation and the ability to lend to cannabis-based businesses as a nimble nonprofit fund with no federal connections yet. That is a gentrified industry in itself. And when it becomes legal in Virginia, there are going to be small businesses that get kicked out of the market that will need small sizes of capital to become the grower, the retailer, whatever that piece is.
12:47 – Leah Fremouw
So, things like that is where we want to be different and additive to the market. And also, I keep talking about the new things that how we’re different from, but we’re honestly trying to get our clients into the banking system. And so, if they have not been in there yet, or they were and they had some bankruptcy or need to do some credit repair, we might be their first step back into that path of more traditional capital.
13:18 – Leah Fremouw
Because that’s the market. We need to have access to that traditional system. And so, things like credit cards and business banking services, that comes with a larger organization. And so how do we get to into those types of trusted relationships? And so that’s how we’re thinking about that.
13:37 – Leah Fremouw
The other piece that I want to flag is I think this is just by my nature, but also just some of the people around Bridging Virginia is that we have this kind of MO of never being a dead end. And so, if I don’t know, I’ll get you to the person that does. And that’s our approach with our client.
13:57 – Leah Fremouw
So, if we’re not the right fit for you or your capital needs, we’re going to get you to the Atlantic Union, or the DCC, or the list, or whatever, or to the Small Business Development Center because you’re not ready for lending yet. But we don’t want to be that black hole that I think sometimes a lot of– it’s just hard, right?
14:16 – Leah Fremouw
People get the reputation for that. And that’s part of our values. And I get this Sunrise and you’re branding and everything that you all have done is as far as infiltrating all of those values into how you behave. We have that opportunity too. We want to be not a dead end, a trusted partner, and just kind of making things happen.
14:38 – Bryan Toft
Yeah, I love that. Because we believe a bank serves as a connector, and it sounds that’s exactly what Bridging is. Well, your name says it. You’re connecting whether it’s credit repair, or even if you’re not the right fit, you’re going to want to make sure that they find the right resource that they need. And that’s what we believe too.
14:54 – Bryan Toft
So, you’ve been involved in small business development center piece, and you were involved in the Small Business Resiliency Fund and raising money for that. So, all kinds of different connections and making a difference in your community for on and under-banked. And connecting them to banking is awesome.
15:12 – Bryan Toft
So, I was wondering. We have listeners across the globe and was wondering if people wanted to try to help fill the gap that you’re filling or try to get advice on how to strengthen those connections in those communities, I’m wondering what have you seen and what advice would you give people if they wanted to try to do that?
15:31 – Leah Fremouw
So, there’s a couple of things, I think, from a practitioner and even banking perspective. And I recognize that the banks have big infrastructure, and moving a product of Bank of America is not an easy task, right? But there are groups like the Virginia Bankers Association here in Virginia that have been convening and working with bankers to do more around access to capital.
15:58 – Leah Fremouw
And if you are part of something like that at your organization and the conversation shifts to, oh, we just need to know more about small business development centers as bankers. Because then we can send them there. Stop right there and look at your role as a capital provider.
16:15 – Leah Fremouw
What can you do to change your underwriting boxes? And how are you using guarantees? How are you using loan loss reserve pools? How are you asking your state and local government partners to set aside pools of their public dollars to unlock your private capital so you can do riskier lending?
16:35 – Leah Fremouw
So, think about that, especially if you’re in the banking system. Where are those letters? And it might not be your capital. It might be, like I said, it might be a town manager or a local government loan fund that as a bank and a banker you can help facilitate some of that lending.
16:53 – Leah Fremouw
As an individual, I would say know who your CDFIs are, your banks and credit unions, and put your deposits there. We need the capital to get those out into the hands of our communities, whether it’s for individuals and homeownership or small businesses and housing and all the things that make our communities great. It is where you do business.
17:14 – Leah Fremouw
And most of us in this space– some of us are big national CDFIs, but most of us have a really strong local connection, even if it’s city or regional. They should know your neighborhoods, and you would be investing in your local businesses.
17:29 – Leah Fremouw
Even if they are a big national CDFI, they probably are deploying money in a place-based way. And you could be proud of that relationship.
17:40 – Becca Hoeft
You know, Leah, one quick thing, because we do have listeners all over the globe. Can you define CDFI and what it is?
17:48 – Leah Fremouw
I guess. How much time do we have now? So CDFI, community development financial institution, is an organization that has lending and finance as its core business model but has gone through a process with the federal government to access resources that allows CDFIs to deploy lending and services into underinvested, underserved markets.
18:18 – Leah Fremouw
It can be a rural community. It can be based on demographics. And so, in a way, it is a financial institution that is designed to serve its community in a very intentional, federally mandated way.
18:34 – Becca Hoeft
And Sunrise is a CDFI bank. And there’s about 100 CDFIs in the US.
18:42 – Becca Hoeft
There’s actually 1,200 CDFIs.
18:45 – Becca Hoeft
And that’s the next leading point is that the rest of the CDFIs are nonprofits. So, most of them are nonprofit CDFIs. So just a little clarity for our friends in Europe and Asia and South America, so they know what this is, so thank you.
19:02 – Becca Hoeft
I did want to– oh, go ahead I see you’re going to–
19:04 – Leah Fremouw
Yeah, sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt there about your point about for-profit bank CDFIs and then the others. Compare that to– so there’s 1,200 CDFIs in the United States. There’s 3,000 banks that are not CDFIs. Well, maybe some of them are. But only hundreds of them are.
19:25 – Leah Fremouw
But compare that to the banking industry, and that number has gone down because of mergers and acquisitions. So how do we get more banks and CDFIs into our markets? I think that contrast is also telling.
19:39 – Becca Hoeft
Right. Because whether you’re a nonprofit CDFI or a bank for-profit CDFIs, the work that’s being done is important. And it’s making a significant difference in these low- to moderate-income areas and the people who live in those areas as well.
19:57 – Becca Hoeft
I want to shift gears a little bit because podcasting is not new to you, Leah. We were just talking about it. You started Renegade Capital sometime during the pandemic. And it’s really a podcast that works hand in hand with what you’re doing at Bridging.
20:15 – Becca Hoeft
I want to hear more about how you came up with this idea, the name Renegade Capital. And then I want to hear about your favorite episode.
20:25 – Leah Fremouw
Oh, my goodness. So personally, I was missing the creative outlet. So, my involvement in the TEDxRVA initiative was around speaker curation, selection, and we would do these conferences in an eight-hour theater event where you’re creating a story arc and plugging speakers into different stories and kind of, this person has high energy. This one’s going to make you cry. That was a really fun space for me to do outside of my day job. And so, I was missing that type of outlet, generally speaking.
21:04 – Leah Fremouw
And then I was also just sick of spinning the PR spin. And there is a lot of the things that I was involved in as a practitioner in the community space and the CDFI space that if I did it through my organization, it would have been no fun.
21:26 – Leah Fremouw
I mean, not that it wouldn’t have been a good show, but just myself, Andrea, and Ebony, we all wanted this kind of space to just have the conversations we wanted to have without approval and just be real about what is working and what isn’t. And I think the guests that we have had and will continue to have had appreciated that space to just to be bluntly honest about– like Robert James, we were talking about the investment of our corporate partners and banks after George Floyd’s murder and how prevalent that was.
22:03 – Leah Fremouw
And everybody was excited. And the money was just flowing. And the PR around these investments was everywhere, and we’re all good partners and we care about racial equity. And then two years later, did they mean it?
22:17 – Leah Fremouw
And so, some of us have perspectives on that. And so, Robert was very honest about his experience with some of his partners. And so that type of space to call things out as we see them and ideally leave the audience with something that they can go and do. Or if it’s folks like us, where we’re embedded in the field, how are we taking that and then building off of it in our own work?
22:41 – Leah Fremouw
And favorite episode, I can’t do that. I don’t know. I mean, Kahdijiha Tribble with her perspective on the cannabis industry was fascinating. Clearly, I’ve learned a lot when I take that into the work I’m doing.
22:55 – Leah Fremouw
We got to sit down with State Senator Jennifer McClellan who’s now running for Congress. Will be, I think, the first Black woman to win– when she wins, will be the first Black woman to serve and represent Virginia in that space at the federal level.
23:12 – Leah Fremouw
It’s hard to pick just one. Robert James is amazing. You know him.
23:16 – Becca Hoeft
Yeah, yeah. And you’re on Spotify, Amazon, Apple, all the usual suspects.
23:23 – Leah Fremouw
Yeah, absolutely. I think all of those. Google, Overcast. You should be able to find it.
23:31 – Leah Fremouw
We are working on season 3 right now. We’re actually just getting started on the planning. Probably we’ll have a slant towards going to energy and investing in clean energy and that space. Again, still kind of getting to the meat of the season right now.
23:47 – Becca Hoeft
23:48 – Bryan Toft
So, Leah we have one last question for you, and it’s a question we ask all our guests. What do you think the NextGen Banker looks like?
23:58 – Leah Fremouw
Hopefully, it’s similar to what I described earlier with someone that’s in the industry that can see beyond what they’re told to do and understand the system that they’re in but understand it enough to kind of break open the pieces that aren’t working for everyone. And so, I think folks that are moving into this field have a passion for or want to get more involved in the community aspect of what we do.
24:27 – Leah Fremouw
I think it means innovation, curiosity, and just a willingness to be wrong and figure it out and be told no and figure out another way around it. So those types of qualities is what the industry needs, along with the skill set and the smarts behind the making the financing and the capital work.
24:53 – Leah Fremouw
Because again, there are smarter people than me creating spreadsheets for how we’re forecasting our operations, right? So, the skill sets are still needed. But it’s often just that there’s kind of, I guess, just innate and inherent qualities or behaviors that you want to drive towards.
25:13 – Bryan Toft
It’s been such a pleasure having you on today, Leah. Thank you for joining us.
25:17 – Becca Hoeft
Yes, thank you, Leah.
25:20 – Leah Fremouw
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
25:21 – Bryan Toft
Thanks for listening to the NextGen Banker podcast. We’ll see you next time.
25:27 – Becca Hoeft
For this episode’s musical feature, we’re showcasing Half Measure. Half Measure is a musical project funded by multi-instrumentalist, producer, and singer songwriter Stephen Keech. Half Measure debut EP, “Somebody Like You” was released in early 2020 by Sound Stripe Productions. Here is “Story” by Half Measure.
25:48 – [MUSIC PLAYING – HALF MEASURE, “STORY”]
26:18 – Becca Hoeft
That was “Story” by Half Measure. You can find more of Half Measure’s music on Spotify. If you would like your music featured on the NextGen Baker podcast, email David at nextgen-banker.com with a link to your music and website. Thanks for listening to the NextGen Baker podcast. We’ll see you soon.