Alexes Haggins grew up working shifts at her father’s floral shop in Washington D.C. Bernard Haggins taught his daughter how to piece together blossoms, stems, buds and leaves to create stunning arrangements. For more than 40 years, Flowers by Alexes – Haggins eventually named the operation after his daughter – supplied churches and funeral homes, among others, and became a mainstay of the community.
But in 2004, her father died, and Haggins, who was 21 at the time, quickly ran out of money and help to keep the shop on Upshur Street running. She closed its doors.
That’s where the story might have ended. But the shop is having a rebirth, thanks to the community: a group of students at nearby Georgetown University, the wholesalers who remember her dad, and a nudge Haggins got from her partner in a real estate brokerage, Ebonnese Thompson of Thompson Premier Haggins Group – who noticed how much Haggins still loves flowers.
Haggins found a retail space on Upshur and had a soft launch over the holiday thanks to money she was able to crowdfund and borrow, in part from Georgetown University-based Hilltop Microfinance Initiative. The pandemic shined a spotlight on such small community loan funds, which are often sponsored by community organizations or – as in this case – a university.
With a $3,700 loan at 1% interest from the Initiative, plus an additional $4,300 from other loans and crowdfunding, Haggins is up and running, grossing, she says, $4,000 a month. She thinks of her dad, she told the DC Women’s Business Center.
“He’s paying it forward because some growers and wholesalers that are still living in the industry remember my dad and are really excited to continue to work with me now.”
The Initiative has been funding entrepreneurs in the DC-area since 2008, and has had a big impact on students’ lives, too. Many university entrepreneurship and business programs expanded their outreach to surrounding communities during the pandemic, including the University of Chicago and Emory University in Atlanta.
Loans of as Little as $500
The Georgetown University program offers financial coaching to about 100 clients each year. It’s lending initiative offers micro-loans of $500 to $10,000, said Tess Pagagni, a student who serves as the fund’s director of marketing. The more than $100,000 fund is backed by groups including Capital One and other private, local investors, she said. It has dispersed 13 loans over its life, for more than $58,000. Only one loan has defaulted, Pagagni said by email; the fund sustains itself with repayments and by fundraising each year.
About 40 students who run the fund work with businesses to distribute the loans, which recently changed its annual interest rate to 1% from 6%. The loans are approved by a group of university alumni who previously worked at the fund. The initiative also offers six-module financial coaching workshops through community partners.
Papagni, a junior studying economics, Spanish and business administration, got involved with the fund when she was a freshman. She joined because of the fund’s social impact focus – a quality that was lacking from many other finance clubs and organizations at the school.
She’s always been attracted to helping her community; she’s been a volunteer with the Special Olympics events and Best Buddies, a program that builds companionship for people with intellectual disabilities. She entered college as a government major, but switched to economics after she decided she wouldn’t be fulfilled working in politics.
But when she first made the switch, she thought she was losing impact in her future career. “When I started looking at more business stuff, it was a little bit frustrating for me,” she said. “I felt like I was losing some of my ability to have a social impact when I was looking at my different career options outside of government.”
A Change of Career
That’s a big reason she joined Hilltop, she said. It’s opened her eyes to the kind of impact funding can have on small business owners and the impact business can have in a community. Now she’s considering a career focused in micro-finance.
“We’re giving out these big loans and it does more than I’ve been able to do in the past working directly with people,” she said.
After opening her storefront this year, Haggins plans to expand events, too. The loan is going toward equipment and marketing. She currently has one intern who helps her with arrangements and day-to-day operations as she Haggins still works in her real estate firm. She plans to share the art of flower-arranging with her community. Already, she’s hosted a floral arrangement class for nearby apartment building The Shaw.
“When the weather breaks, I’ll be doing a lot for the community,” she said. “I look forward to that.”