While Congress was pawing through the ashes of Washington Mutual, I visited with some folks whose engagement with the economy is more constructive...

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While Congress was pawing through the ashes of Washington Mutual, I visited with some folks whose engagement with the economy is more constructive.

At an office in Rainier Valley, I met Michele Bayle and Genene Seifu, two owners of small businesses who are getting a hand from Washington CASH.

Executive Director Cheryl Sesnon said the 15-year-old nonprofit offers access to training, capital, markets and ongoing support for self-employed people. Its clients are nearly all low-income, mostly women and often from minority groups. Its mission is entrepreneurship as an antidote to poverty.

Washington CASH makes loans, but it also trains, supports and nourishes business owners. The CASH stands for Community Alliance for Self-Help.

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The number of people looking for help to start a business has surged since the recession began, people who’ve lost jobs and can’t find new ones. Washington CASH in fiscal year 2008 served 308 clients; last year it was 436, and this year it’s on track to serve 615.

And there is a constant need to help people who wouldn’t qualify for a bank loan, and people who don’t have the background or money or time to pursue an MBA.

Many clients are immigrants, like Seifu, or have had economically damaging changes in their lives, like Bayle.

Seifu came to the United States from Ethiopia and drove taxis until he decided that was not for him. In 1998 he started a limousine service, 3G’s Transportation. He wanted to improve and grow his business.

“At the grocery, I saw a flier,” he said. “It said business development, six weeks.” He signed up for business-development training, which is the entry point for clients, and attended classes on Saturdays in Kent. All of the classes are either in the evening or on Saturdays, because clients have to earn a living.

Graduates are invited to join a small group of other business people for support. They meet regularly and each group has a mentor, an established business owner who volunteers to help them. The groups have access to loans up to $5,000 and they decide who in their group will get money. Sesnon said failure is not an option because if the borrower gets behind on loan payments, no one from that group can get money until their friend catches up. Peer pressure.

Seifu joined a six-person group a year ago. He said one of the women in his group sells lotions and soaps, but was barely making it, so the group suggested she expand her inventory. “She is doing better,” Seifu said. “Now we voted for her to get another $2,000.”

The biggest benefit for him was help developing a business plan. Washington CASH connected him to Seattle University students who helped with that.

Seifu hired a Seattle University graduate student part time to manage the office. Now he wants to add two cars to the four he already owns.

Divorce left Bayle without an income. She had a small business, Wink Eyewear. Clients would call her and she’d meet them at their offices with samples of glasses frames. It just broke even.

She took a job as a waitress, started doing freelance work as an optician, and tried to make her little business profitable, but she realized she couldn’t do it without help. A friend told her about Washington CASH.

She went through the basic program and now she’s a member of the accelerator, a program that helps businesses grow. “Biweekly meetings (with a mentor) keep me accountable for the things on my list so that I don’t get overwhelmed,” she said.

Washington CASH also offers more conventional loans. Bayle got one of those and is on track to open a store at the end of April in Columbia City (4854 Rainier Ave. S.).

Washington CASH is opening retail space in Pioneer Square for businesses that aren’t ready for their own shops yet. It’s called Ventures and will open in mid-May in the Nord Building, 314 First Ave. S.

It’s more than a store, Sesnon said. It will be a retail incubator with training and classes in addition to a place to sell goods.

While bankers and traders were taking without conscience, the folks at Washington CASH have been showing that small doses of capitalism altruistically administered can give people a lift up from the economic lowlands.

“I never got this kind of community before,” Seifu said. They are friends and family, he said.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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