Local First Blog

Get to know Northern Initiatives

Jun 22, 2022 9:30:00 AM / by Northern Initiatives

Know Your Lender: Northern Initiatives

Where do they work: All 83 counties in Michigan

What they are: A CDFI! Huh?

Northern Initiatives is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) that focuses on providing loans when family wealth is not an option. They provide the types of loans that banks won’t do, can’t do, or shouldn’t do. Typically this is because of low credit scores or lack of equity or collateral to meet traditional bank standards.


Their customer is one with strong growth prospects, but often has a limited track record, limited or insufficient collateral, and is cash-constrained.

Northern Initiatives is not a bank - you can't do checking or savings accounts with them - but they do consider banks as partners. All the funders and partners at the national, state, and local level have the goal to loan money to underserved populations. That often means loans are to small businesses owned by People of Color, women, and those located in rural communities, but it is also increasingly meaning people with poor credit histories.

“It’s so frustrating to have an idea, a business plan, financial projections only to have the bank turn you down for the capital,” said Elissa Sangalli, President of Northern Initiatives. “We look at more than just a credit score. We look at the person, at the passion, and at the potential for a business. Then we work closely with our customers to provide one-on-one technical assistance to help their businesses grow and thrive.”

Northern Initiatives has two commercial lenders working in the Grand Rapids and Muskegon areas, as well as one lender who works solely in Battle Creek. Venard Roberson’s territory covers Ottawa, Allegan, Van Buren, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, Branch, Hillsdale, Lenawee, Monroe, Jackson, Washtenaw, Livingston, Ingham, Eaton, and Barry counties. 

Northern Initiatives: How long have you worked in lending? 

Vernard Roberson: I started my career in 2012 after graduating from Lake Forest College. I worked as a liaison at a mortgage broker. After working there for two years, I decided to try retail banking. My career quickly exploded as I went from a call center agent to a personal banker to an assistant manager to an underwriter in less than 2.5 years. During this time, I learned a lot about retail banking, lending, and customer service. However, I always had an interest in commercial lending. I applied to Northern Initiatives and was given the opportunity to learn while distributing the Community Development Block Grant funds in southern and central Michigan. I’ve been at Northern Initiatives for 4.3 years.

NI: Why do we need CDFIs?

VR: CDFIs are needed to fill a void/hole in our economy. Too often minorities and lower/middle-class individuals are deprived of the opportunity to chase a dream such as owning a business. Even further, they are deprived of the opportunity to build the wealth and education needed to play a major role in our society and economy. This is where CDFIs have the opportunity to shine. We provide economic (dreams) opportunities to groups of people (minorities and lower/middle class) who probably wouldn’t have them if we didn’t exist.

NI: Do you have a memorable customer story?

VR: Yes, Nacho Average Tostado. She is an African American woman in the Washtenaw County area who decided to start a food trailer. This is my favorite story because of her reaction to finding out she was approved. This was my first time as a lender where I realized the impact we have on some people’s lives as she cried tears of joy.

NI: What goals are you working towards as a lender? What gets you excited about work?

VR: My goals and excitement as a lender are the same. I hope to continue to work towards increasing our impact on the minorities and lower/middle class by providing them with the opportunity to live out their dreams as an entrepreneur/business owners. 

To find out more about Northern Initiatives, visit northerninitiatives.org

Tags: Inclusive Economy, Business Resources