No-Interest Dough : Baker Among Women Helped by Fund

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alberta Craven is famous in her neighborhood for the sweet potato pies she turns out by the dozen each day at her 27th Street Bakery, just south of downtown.

But fame was no match for the Los Angeles riots. When the fires stopped burning last May, Craven had lost half of her commercial customers--and an estimated $50,000 in sales.

Now, though, armed with a $10,000 loan from a new fund dedicated to women entrepreneurs whose small businesses were hurt by the riots, Craven said Tuesday that she plans to buy a commercial oven.

That will allow her to go after new markets for her wares--which taste like pumpkin pie with an attitude.

"This will enhance our business," said Craven, who also sells a line of cakes. "This is very important."

Such opportunity is exactly what stock brokerage owner Muriel Siebert decided to provide after she first drove through the riot-damaged areas a few months ago. From commissions generated by the New York-based discount brokerage that bears her name, Siebert on Tuesday handed out the first $90,000 in no-interest loans from the Los Angeles Women's Entrepreneurial Fund.

The fund, which Siebert hopes to build to $1 million, represents a fresh source of money for the tiny businesses that were decimated by the riots--companies that already had a difficult time getting loans from conventional sources.

"We're going to try to start something where we hope other people will follow, where money will go into the community," Siebert said at a news conference in front of Craven's bakery. Siebert hopes to make another $60,000 in loans in the next few weeks.

Eleven women business owners--from swap meet vendors to a beauty salon owner to a Hmong needlework artist--received loans Tuesday ranging from $1,000 to $15,000. The repayment schedule will be flexible, and the women will be given a 2% discount at the end of the loan term for prompt payment, Siebert said.

The fund, which is administered without charge by the California Community Foundation, opted to make loans rather than grants to allow borrowers to establish a credit record. With a track record, the businesses may be able to obtain other loans, Siebert said.

"It's hard for a bank to make a $2,000 loan . . . and yet there is a great demand for these micro-loans," said Siebert, who next week will mark her 25th anniversary of becoming the first woman to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. "Most of these loans fall through the cracks."

Siebert is well known--some would say notorious--for her unique way with philanthropy.

The Siebert Entrepreneurial Philanthropy Program has given more than $1 million to various charities across the country during the last two years by earmarking 50% of the commissions on certain securities offerings underwritten by her firm.

While critics have lauded the good intentions of the program, they also point out that SEPP is a nifty gimmick for generating new business.

Siebert said that the Los Angeles program is separate from SEPP and that she is taking no cut from the commissions that flow to it.

"When I saw this (riot damage), I said, 'I don't want to make a damn cent off this,' " Siebert said in an interview. She hopes to attract other sources of capital for the fund, Siebert added.

The fund's diverse advisory panel submitted more than 50 candidates for the initial loans. The loan recipients all had to be in business before the riots and to have suffered some damage from them.

Follow-up will be provided by Rebuild L.A., which will work with the women to find other sources of help for business development and expansion as well as to introduce them to new customers, said Katie Walker, a member of the nonprofit revitalization group's staff.

Craven said her bakery is a true family enterprise.

She co-owns the 56-year-old business with her son, Gregory Spann. Her husband, cousin and children handle deliveries. A customer joked that Craven's daughter, Jeanette Bolden--a 1984 Olympic gold medalist in track--handles collections because debtors can't outrun her.

At Tuesday's news conference, Mayor Tom Bradley reminisced about his days as a police officer at the nearby Newton Street station, when he would sneak away to sample the sweets peddled by Craven's father, Harry L. Patterson.

"I've watched this place struggle through the years and they have hung on," Bradley said. "This is a wonderful Christmas gift from Muriel Siebert."

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