Sima Thakkar: Reflections from a Caren S. Franzini Fellow

Sima Thakkar: Reflections from a Caren S. Franzini Fellow

In 2021, I was grateful to participate in the Caren S. Franzini Fellowship, established by the Council of Development Finance Agencies (CDFA). For six months, I worked with a cohort of fellow development finance professionals and learned from industry leaders as we worked together to further our impact in the community development finance field.

The Fellowship was an amazing ride and like 2021, filled with excitement, hope, and amped-up optimism, mixed with exhaustion and uncertainty. It gave me a chance to get to know and learn from some incredible women leaders who I’m so proud to be in community with.

One of the things I’m most grateful for from the Fellowship experience is the reminder that as women in the community development finance field, we can and should support each other. And while that might make some uncomfortable, our ability to connect, share and support each other is only limited by how we are willing to show up for each other. I am deeply grateful to the women who showed up for us as Fellows and were willing to share their wisdom, experiences, and expertise.

Here are three of my key reminders from my Fellowship experience:

1. We Are the Gatekeepers to Capital

In Sept. 2021, the U.S. Dept. of Treasury’s CDFI Fund awarded RDF with a $60 million New Markets Tax Credit allocation.

Last year brought more frequent discussions on the challenges with access to capital and reflections on the historic inequities that persist today, more often now than any other time I can remember in my community development career. As we researched and engaged in these conversations for our Fellowship project, it became clearer to me that as development finance professionals we need to acknowledge our role as the gatekeepers to capital.

I enjoy working at RDF, a national CDFI, to help bring access to capital to underserved and overlooked communities across the country. As a support corporation for UnidosUS, RDF was created over 20 years ago to help grass roots organizations access capital to respond to their communities’ needs.

As the gatekeepers to capital, it’s on us and our partners to continue to examine the reasons behind capital inequities, analyze our own practices that contribute to capital barriers, and continue to advocate for resources to address these inequities.

2. Engage & Listen to the Communities We Serve

“The communities we serve should be leading and guiding the work,” shared Seema Agnani, Executive Director of National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD), an observation we included in our research project.

Catherine Kes, RDF’s Director of Specialty Finance, visits with the Tennessee Justice Center Team in Nashville to discuss a New Markets Tax Credit project.

While many in the community development finance field may agree to this statement in principle, I’m not sure we have examined where this exists in practice, and more importantly shows up in the programs and services we offer.

This statement really hit home for me. How we engage and listen to communities seems to be a litmus test that determines if our initiatives are successful and sustainable. It’s a lesson I continue to relearn and rethink because too often those who we aim to serve are left out of the decision-making process and the rooms where we try to create solutions.

This requires much thought and deliberation to unpack all of the implications of this, a conversation that should include nontraditional partners to the community development finance space. These groups include membership organizations like UnidosUS and National CAPACD, who represent the voices of hundreds of grass roots and locally based organizations across the country that need access to affordable and flexible capital. We should figure out how we can invite these organizations to our conversations on access to capital but also create ways for them to lead and guide the work.

3. Reinvigorated Focus & Gratitude

I ended the Fellowship, and 2021 to be honest, tired and a little worn out but also with a renewed sense of excitement and enthusiasm for the impact I’m working towards. I am grateful to be part of the CDFI industry that I love, and I have reinvigorated focus on my purpose and the passion that drives it.

This experience would not have been possible without the tremendous legacy Caren S. Franzini left and the opportunity the CDFA team created in her honor. I’m grateful to the entire CDFA team, especially Katie Kramer for her leadership, as well as my fellow Fellows Elizabeth Limbrick, Michelle Barnett, and Ashley Jones. I also wanted to thank my boss Catherine Kes and the senior leadership at RDF, whose ongoing support through the Fellowship was critical.

Read a previous blog to hear Sima’s thoughts on joining the third class of Franzini Fellows.