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When a local need and tradition of volunteerism collide
In the region of Annapolis Royal, Jane Nicholson has seen many people and potential businesses hit the same wall.
Small businesses typically can’t get financing without two years of financials, but entrepreneurs struggle to get their business off the ground — or keep it afloat for two years — without any financial support. It’s a vicious cycle.
“There is a fundamental gap in the ecosystem of our country: banks don’t finance small businesses.”
— Jane Nicholson, a self described ‘philanthropreneur’ and founder and CEO of a small business financing company called AIRO.
Nicholson will be 70 on her next birthday and has generously been giving to her community since she was 16. After immigrating to Canada in 1956, her parents felt very strongly about the importance of volunteering, seeing it as a way to give back to the country that had given them a new life.
Decades of volunteerism led Nicholson to develop astute sensibilities about both people and possibilities. And unbeknownst to her, it was the perfect training ground for her current role.
“I’ve seen first hand how many initiatives and great ideas fail because there’s not enough money — and I mean, an extra $1,000 or $5,000,” she says.
Inspired by the Now or Never report that calls for significant economic growth in Nova Scotia, Nicholson found herself part of many meetings and civic engagement conversations about the change that was needed.
“I got tired of sitting around talking and I just thought: enough of this, I gotta do something.”
And do something she did. On June 1, 2016, the doors to AIRO (Annapolis Investments in Rural Opportunity) officially opened.
A simple solution with a human touch
A private company funded solely by Nicholson, AIRO has developed a very simple and successful model for stimulating rural economic development. It started with a bond that Nicholson had in her retirement portfolio.
“Through no credit of my own, I invested in something that paid out big,” she explains. “I’m in the process of liquidating it, in the amount of $1,000,000, and I decided I would adopt the micro lending idea that’s prevalent in Africa and India and apply it to trying to create economic development in the part of Nova Scotia I know well, which is Annapolis Royal and Annapolis Valley.”
AIRO provides loans between $5,000 and $15,000 to help small businesses and local projects succeed. They charge three per cent interest and loans run for 24 months.
Over that time period, Nicholson and AIRO’s Executive Director Adele MacDonald provide mentorship, encouragement and a listening ear to the person who has borrowed the money. And Nicholson says, that personal touch is a big reason why her loans work.
“[People] get the respect they deserve, they get really good advice, and they get the money they need to keep going,” Nicholson explains. “You’re not just getting a cheque and walking out the door.”
There’s a reporting component to the contract that AIRO’s clients sign, agreeing to send Nicholson and MacDonald a note every month with their loan payment, telling them how they’re doing.
“We both have experience owning small businesses and we’re very cognizant about what’s going on the county,” says Nicholson. “That’s why AIRO is only operating here. I don’t know what Pictou needs, but I do know what we need.”
In summer of 2016, AIRO confidentially interviewed 33 people from the community who ranged in age from 14 to 80. Through more than 100 hours of in-depth conversation, they explored what was working in the region, what was needed, and what a sustainable future might look like. In addition to their own instincts for people and viable business ideas (cultivated through decades of their own experience), Nicholson and MacDonald asses the business ideas that come through door through the lens of their research and community intelligence, too.
AIRO has clients in tourism and hospitality, agriculture, food and beverage, arts and culture, industrials, recreation, and more. Nicholson emphasizes that being a private company keeps them very nimble and responsive.
“We meet with people, we do our research and our own due diligence, and we take a leap of faith,” says Nicholson. “It’s very humbling work to do. We’re just amazed at the creativity, resilience, and strength of people who come through our door.”
Expanding what works
As of November 2019, AIRO has received 129 loan applications, funded 67 of them, and had seven applications pending. So far, AIRO has lent just over $500,000 and has only had one client default on their loan.
After three years of successful lending, Nicholson and MacDonald would like to see the AIRO model (or something similar) take off in other rural communities across the province.
Nicholson believes strongly that if we can’t keep our small towns alive by stimulating the economic development they need to adapt, grow and survive — we can’t possibly meet ambitious goals as a province.
“I’m not the only person in Nova Scotia with extra money,” Nicholson said. “It’s such a dead simple idea. That’s what makes people think they can’t do it.”
Proof the model is working
Laura Whitman: Insatiable appetite for plain language, curious questions, growth experiments, tiny joys, and creativity that gets made.