In Conversation with Marla S. Hamilton

Marla Hamilton, director of client engagement at the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) has talked to a lot of struggling local business owners. “It’s like when you hear horror stories of people who win the lottery” she told us, “then five years later, they’re broke. It’s never the money that solves the problem, it’s education.” PIDC has learned this lesson well over the past few decades, having created many partnerships to help small businesses, such as a working relationship with the African American Chamber of Commerce and a small business program with Goldman Sachs.

“We don’t grow in isolation, we grow in community!”

Between these partnerships and working closely with clients, Marla noticed a pattern of clients who needed to improve their credit scores. “Most small business owners are not usually thinking about credit, just contracts and capital” she says, “but to transition out of a startup mindset, you have to look to improve the credit score.” With this in mind, Marla discovered Clarifi, and started recommending our services to clients in need.

“After a while, I reached out to Clarifi to let them know that PIDC was referring clients to them, and I wanted to make sure things were running smoothly” Marla explained, at which point she met with our staff and learned about our Boot Camp program. The program brings together three different interventions to empower our clients: working with one of our certified credit counselors, workshops tailored to the cohort’s needs, and clients being partnered with a financial coach to help create and adhere to the client’s personal goals.

“I’ve found it’s been hard to find real, impactful programming regarding financial education” Marla said, “you can find dozens of webinars and conferences, and business owners have tried these, often to little effect. Clarifi’s Boot Camp program sounded so intentional and focused that I wanted to try it.” She returned to her office and drafted a proposal for a formal partnership between Clarifi and PIDC, creating a Boot Camp specifically aimed at entrepreneurs. “I reached out to companies we had already been working with” she explains, “and in some instances, I made completing this new program a requirement for those receiving a loan from us.”

The pilot program commenced in October 2018, Marla noted that “most clients already had homes and mortgages, but again, they had low credit scores. Some were embarrassed about this, but putting all these people in the same boat helped acknowledge the barriers and challenges they were all facing, and they’d be able to face them together with their cohort.”

The pilot was a success, “the coaches were outstanding”, Marla said. She acknowledged the road bumps of having participants make and keep their appointments, since some trouble arose due to the holiday season, but was impressed with the overall results. She found bringing back the participants in June to receive feedback was crucial to strengthening the program. With the combination of meeting with their financial coach and Clarifi’s counselors, many clients started savings, improved their budgeting and their credit scores. Additionally, participants wished for more PIDC involvement, as well as check-in periods to see what was working and what was not. Marla found the feedback extremely helpful while building the program for the next cohort of clients.

As PIDC and Clarifi’s relationship has evolved over the past two years, Marla couldn’t be more pleased, “we love this partnership”, she says. A new cohort of clients have just entered the program in the past month, and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is a chief concern for all participants: “We want to offer this Boot Camp as a lifeline to businesses trying to figure out their next steps in uncharted territory. One of the strengths of this program is the opportunity to be in a group, and gather best practices, tips and definitions. Then the participants work with their coach to implement and articulate some of the things they’d like to do, and they have someone keep them accountable.”

“This year is critical,” she continues, “we are in the midst of an unknown economy. We have businesses that are more sophisticated, as well as more seasoned entrepreneurs, this year than in the past. No matter where a business is in their growth trajectory, one always needs someone to bounce ideas off of and be held accountable, an objective view is extremely critical during this time. This environment puts a level of intentionality on everything the participants do more than ever before. We have the blueprint now, and we want to keep making it better and better.”

Looking forward, Marla reflects on the impact the program has for its participants and beyond: “the program is like a means to an end, with the end being a solid, stable business that employs people that can have stable wages, careers, and invest in their futures. There’s a much broader and deeper end game to these Boot Camps, if we only think about the individual, we’ve missed the point. We also want to think about growing and expanding the program. There will always be clients who need basic financial education help, but what about those who have already been through the program? A continuous relationship is so important to sustained success.”

Marla wrapped up our conversation full of pride for the program and Clarifi and PIDC’s relationship: “as long as the clients know that we’re listening, we will just keep evolving. We don’t grow in isolation, we grow in community!”