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Federal credit unions offer support to those left behind by big banks

Big banks give out thousands of small-business loans averaging hundreds of thousands of dollars a piece — but some small businesses don't have access.
Federal credit unions offer support to those left behind by big banks
Posted at 2:06 PM, Mar 22, 2024

This is a story of David and Goliath, but not how you might expect.

In this story, who's David and who's Goliath depends on who's looking. What's at stake is a chance to lift up those often overlooked — even in the goliath of a city known as New York.

In some ways, Andrea Pitter is Goliath. She's not a villain to be defeated — but on her block in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where neighborhood stores sit shoulder to shoulder, Pitter's store covers 12,000 square feet.

"For people who live in the community, I'm absolutely Goliath," Pitter said, "but I feel like, when it comes to the industry as a whole, I'm definitely David."

Pitter runs Pantora Bridal. She designs wedding dresses, employs a dozen people, and symbolizes community success. But even in this context, this Goliath is still David. She's a David who's taken out multiple loans in 10 years. And she received them from another David, nearby in the borough.

Samira Rajan runs Brooklyn Coop, a cooperative federal credit union that provides banking services in communities where services are largely unavailable. 

"These are immigrant neighborhoods," Rajan said. "These are largely minority neighborhoods, and they're neighborhoods which are neglected, marginalized, ignored by most mainstream financial institutions."

In the world of small business loans, Brooklyn Coop is a David. The biggest banks every year give out thousands of small-business loans averaging hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. Last year Brooklyn Coop approved 11 loans, averaging $24,000 each. But for their communities, cooperative federal credit unions are very much Goliaths, because those smaller loans can set up long-term wealth. 

"They approved me for $4,000, which was just enough to make me feel seen," Pitter said. "I remember what my first experience was like applying for a credit card. I felt terrible just applying for a credit card with a $125 limit. So imagine going into an establishment asking for several thousands of dollars. I never felt welcomed in those spaces."

Pitter's first store was 400 square feet in Crown Heights. Several locations and one decade later, she's been profiled by The Knot, won Season 2 of Amazon's "Making the Cut" and has become, in her industry, a trailblazing David.

"People aren't used to necessarily seeing a face that looks like mine," Pitter said. "They're not necessarily seeing celebrations that feels like ours." 

These are the kinds of businesses often supported by cooperative federal credit unions.

"We end up being like in the top five in business loans in Kings County (where Brooklyn is located), if you go by volume," Rajan said. "The members of the credit unions are the Davids. And the Goliath is, like, America."

Goliaths and Davids come in different sizes. Sometimes they coexist in the same business, in the same person. Brooklyn Coop is a David of a Goliath, and Pantora Bridal is a Goliath of a David. Both say they represent the Davids — of Brooklyn and beyond — finding a bit of Goliath for their financial future.

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