Next in our series of interviews with our Fulcrum Fellows, we spoke to Rudy Espinoza, Executive Director at the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network (LURN) in Los Angeles. Rudy is all-in on meeting the needs of LA’s estimated 50,000 street vendors. Many of these entrepreneurs need both low-income capital and technical assistance, and Rudy is using his Fulcrum Fellowship to explore what it would take to expand the capacity of LURN’s own loan fund and influence the underwriting criteria of other institutions to help meet their financing needs. A talented photographer and resident chronicler of his cohort, Rudy’s interview digs into his challenge and what he’s learning through the Fellowship.
Tell us a little bit about your background, and how you ended up in your role at LURN.
Growing up, I wanted my career to be about making money. In school I studied business and urban planning, which opened my eyes to issues that were more important than making money which resulted in a desire to support the responsible development of low-income communities. After school I worked at a consulting company that assisted banks who wanted to invest in low income neighborhoods. My job was to help institutions understand what’s happening in the community, and how they could use their resources to support existing community needs. I was a sort of a “middle man” trying to connect entities from different sectors.
During this time, I made friends with a group of people who wanted to create a vehicle to experiment with new ways of approaching community development. We started with doing research on the economic conditions of low-income neighborhoods (how street vendors were responding to the economic recession of 2008), hosting parties with guest speakers around themes in community development —this work organically evolved into LURN. From 2008 to 2013, I used to call LURN my “book club.” After doing work with banks, working at a national foundation, and then at a micro-lender in South LA, I realized that my favorite meeting of the month was going to my LURN board meeting. In 2013, I left my job and became LURN’s first Executive Director with the charge of helping to formalize LURN’s ideas into tangible advocacy initiatives and economic development programs.
What challenge have you chosen to focus on in your Fulcrum Fellowship?
The challenge I am taking on is two-fold. First, I want to explore how to grow a loan fund to support bottom-of-the-pyramid entrepreneurs (street vendors, working class people). In LA, there are thousands who don’t have access to responsible capital. The idea is to work to expand LURN’s current micro-loan fund to meet the needs of a growing population of very low-income entrepreneurs. In LA, for example, there are an estimated 50,000 street vendors. Many of these entrepreneurs need both low-interest capital and technical assistance. Our hope is that if we give them that, they’ll be able to grow their business and create jobs within their community. For us, this work is rooted in the recognition that income inequality is leaving Black and Brown entrepreneurs further and further behind. Part of this is due to the fact that they have disproportionately less assets to start new businesses.
The second part of my challenge is to explore how we can rethink capitalism and how it works for our communities. As a child, I was fascinated by the question of why my family didn’t have what others did, even though they were very hard working. The center of that still today is capitalism and expanding income inequality. How do we move as a country into thinking differently about how our economy works? This likely requires a new narrative and cultural change.
What are you learning about what it’s going to take to move your challenge?
I’m learning about myself and how my skills and resources can help establish attainable goals that can have a meaningful impact. At our first Fulcrum Fellowship seminar in D.C., I came in describing my challenge as how LURN can provide loans to 50,000 street vendors. Will Lambe, another fellow in our cohort, pushed me to put a number on this goal: how much capital would we need to meet this pent-up demand? Is this that number attainable? Is that the right goal? That made me think more about our approach and what might need to change to get to the scale we really care about. What I’m thinking about now is not just the expansion of the loan pool, but how we could influence the industry to adjust their underwriting to meet the needs of our community. We don’t have to be the only lender, we can work with others and raise awareness on how their underwriting practices may or may not be shutting people out. I now see it in large part as a political campaign: what do we need to do to influence the financial industry to get capital into the hands of the entrepreneurs that are so important to our communities.
What have been the most valuable aspects of the Fulcrum Fellowship to you so far?
I don’t like trainings usually and when I’ve been approached in the past to participate in trainings or leadership development seminars, I’ve often chosen to opt out (“I don’t have time!”). So, I applied to the Fulcrum Fellowship hesitantly. My LURN board member, Chris Goett, really encouraged me to consider the fellowship and I am so glad he did. The biggest surprise is that I didn’t realize the fellowship was going to be about me. I understand now that in order to lead change, we need to understand ourselves. We are all unique and being in a cohort highlights everyone’s skills. Because of all the introspection we’ve done, I’m realizing my gifts. I have been able to think about how I can use these gifts to get to where we need to go. The biggest takeaway is thinking about yourself first, identifying your skills, and how one can use those skills to make change in a big way.
I enjoy that for as much as fellowship is about us as individuals and moving our challenge, it’s also about supporting the other members of the group. We are invested in each other’s work and want to contribute to each other’s successes. Probably the biggest thing that the Fulcrum Fellowship has given me is the possibility of thinking about something bigger than only what we’re working on in our cities. Saying, “why not?” is important. “Let’s create some visionary initiatives and make them happen.” “What would actually, realistically stop us from doing that?” That’s what special about being in this Fulcrum Fellow community—it allows us to push each other to think bigger and do things in ways we haven’t done before.
What most excites you looking ahead to the rest of the year?
At LURN, 2018 has two major fronts: advocacy and economic development. We’re expanding our loan fund—we want to grow it and get better. I want to step into policy more deeply and expand beyond street vending. Also, I have the personal intention to take better care of myself—I need to travel, relax, and think about me more than I did in 2017.
What is your media diet?
I’m just finishing up Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power. It’s interesting to learn a little bit about him as a struggling writer during his career. A lot of entrepreneurs struggle with the same things he did…trying to get published, and land the next client. My regular media diet includes waking up, making coffee, and immediately reading the New York Times. I don’t read the news throughout the day, but I make a point of reading that and the Los Angeles Times in the morning. I also look at Instagram every day—it’s a way to connect visually with people in my network. I like taking photos and Instagram lets me see what’s happening in the city. You can find me @rudyespi on Instagram.