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Citi touts microloans in Jackson Heights

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After two years helping provide financial stability to entrepreneurs below the poverty line in America, Grameen America and Citi Microfinance celebrated Monday how far they had come at the place where they had started in the United States: Jackson Heights.

At the Citibank at 37-57 74th St. in Jackson Heights, Grameen America and Citi Microfinance announced more than 2,500 savings accounts had been opened by Grameen America borrowers at Citibanks in Queens and upper Manhattan.

Combined with Grameen America’s long-standing mission of offering income-building loans of $500 and to those in need, this initiative has helped small business owners to increase their income and assets, Shah Newaz, CEO of operations at Grameen America, said in a press release.

“We get to help everyone,” said Sandy Bhatia, manager of the Jackson Heights Citibank branch. “I think it’s a great thing, a very positive thing for the community.”

Vidar Jorgensen, president of Grameen America, said Grameen began 30 years ago in Bangladesh, but after partnering with Citi Group through its Citi Microfinance program, it opened in Jackson Heights in 2008. Since then, the program has expanded to Manhattan, Brooklyn and Omaha, Neb., and will be the subject of a documentary, “To Catch a Dollar,” in 2011.

“This was a project to see whether in America there was a need, and if we could design a project that would work through partnership,” Bob Annibale, global director of Citi Microfinance, said.

Jorgensen said Jackson Heights was chosen as the first location because of the large immigrant population. While the program is open to all who make $21,000 a year or less for a family of four, he said immigrants tend to be more drawn to becoming entrepreneurs, usually having come from countries with no welfare system and having taken a risk already by moving to another country.

“We were amazed not only by the different nationalities ... but also the diversity of businesses that they had established,” Annibale said.

Alethia Mendez, center manager for Grameen America, said loans begin at $500, but through a cycle in which loans are paid off entrepreneurs can eventually receive loans of an average of $22,000 to $23,000.

Jorgensen said all of Grameen’s customers in the United States are women, and they have a 99 percent repayment rate.

“They’re very reliable,” he said.

To supplement these loans, Citi Microfinance offers savings accounts for Grameen beneficiaries. Jorgensen said for many banks, small savings accounts can be hard to offer.

“Citi Microfinance is willing to do the work to really do it right,” he said.

Annibale said the advantage of these savings accounts is they can be opened through Grameen and have no minimum balance and a financial education is offered before they open the account.

“They’re treated as a client as soon as they come in,” Annibale said.

Mendez said that while some are skeptical when they hear of the microfinance loans at first, and sometimes shy, many who go through the program end up growing their business and confidence.

“I’ve seen people who have been very closed and quiet blossom into very bold, proactive type of people,” Mendez said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at rhenely@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 6:30 pm, October 10, 2011
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