Unlocking capital and new opportunities for women entrepreneurs through radical trust-based lending.

JUST is disrupting US microfinance to make trust-based lending the gold standard in financing women entrepreneurs in low-income communities.

Photo of Steve

Written by


  • I am not an employee of BNY Mellon, or an immediate family member of a BNY Mellon employee
  • I am over 18 years of age
  • My organization is incorporated as a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid organization, or I have a partner that is incorporated and could accept funds on my behalf
  • I have already piloted my initiative and have some initial evidence of impact
  • My organization is headquartered and creating impact in the United States


  • Man

Where are you making a difference?

1000 Rio Grande Street Austin, Texas 78701

Focus Areas (required)

  • Business & Social Enterprise

Date Started

February 1, 2016

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Growth (have moved past the very first activities; working towards the next level of expansion)


  • $250k - $500k

Website or social media URL(s) (optional)


Twitter URL


Facebook URL


LinkedIn URL


1.Founding Story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this to succeed.

Our CEO, Steve Wanta, led Whole Plant Foundation’s work in microfinance for 10 years and saw the results of trust-based lending flourish across the world, except in the US. During this time, he witnessed the huge potential of women to uplift themselves and their communities out of poverty. He deeply felt that the microfinance sector could do better in expanding trust-based lending to reach more low-income women and provide custom solutions to specific needs. Eventually, he realized that he could not achieve this vision with Whole Planet. In 2016, Steve set out to turn vision into reality. He co-founded JUST to redefine and expand the concept of lending based on trust to make capital more accessible for underserved women entrepreneurs.

2. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Just $1 out of $23 in small business loans go to women-owned businesses that desperately need capital. This problem persists because -Traditional banks and microlenders enforce rigid loan requirements and repayment terms. -Unhealthy peer pressure in traditional lending groups leaves no room for coaching towards financial skills. With 11.3 million women entrepreneurs in the US, women’s financial success is a force for economic development.

3. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

:We provide women entrepreneurs with $500 to $5,000 loans, which they invest in their businesses to grow their income and savings. Before JUST, over 60% of our clients had zero access to capital. :We help women build healthy financial habits, such as planning expenses, setting financial goals, keeping a savings fund. Client leaders called JUST Entrepreneur Trust Agents (JETA) coach their peers towards financial resilience. Women receive further support from lending circles, where they make meaningful connections and co-create a culture of trust and belongingness. Beyond directly addressing financial needs, we take a systems-level approach to solving the persistent problem of capital access, specifically: :We take client referrals from nonprofits lenders that are unable to serve the small-dollar capital needs of women - complementing other solutions in the microfinance value chain. :We connect successful program graduates to bigger organizations that can provide larger amounts of capital, fueling the next stage of business growth. :JUST serves as a thought-leader in the sector and inspires other similar organizations to replicate trust-based lending across the US.

4. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of how your solution is working to solve the problem.

Before JUST, Isabelle was struggling to launch her small business of buying and selling handbags. On top of working and supporting three kids, she was going through a divorce. When Isabelle joined JUST through a referral from a friend, she improved her approach to managing her business and achieved the following: -$900 savings in just one month of working with JUST; -Learned to become more structured and strategic in building her inventory based on the amount of her savings; -Learned to set goals in selling her products and establishing a cash reserve for her business; -Saved $8,000 in 11 months to secure a down payment for a home trailer, eliminating high monthly rent expenses; -Became a JETA and is now inspiring and coaching other women entrepreneurs to take control of their finances and achieve success.

5a. Too many people in the U.S. have unmet needs for financial products and services. How is your work reaching a population(s) that is currently underserved? If it is not reaching an underserved population yet, how might it in the near future?

To get a clear grasp of unmet needs, we conducted pre-pilot focus group discussions and casual social gatherings with Hispanic entrepreneurs. Efforts led to a program that draws an underserved market - 98% of our clients are low-income and 69% are extremely low-income. Today, we’re reaching more entrepreneurs through a trust-based referral system, where JETAs invite other women whom they trust to pay back loans on time. In the near future we plan to serve other minority women entrepreneurs.

5b. Please specify if the population you are reaching is underserved due to any of the following characteristics:

  • ability
  • immigration status
  • work status
  • race/ethnicity
  • gender
  • socio-economic class

6. Marketplace: Who else is addressing the same problem? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

Other organizations (Grameen America, ACCION, and LiftFund) have similar products and services, but our execution is unique: :Trust-based lending begins with JETAs. 100% of loan applications recommended by JETAs are approved and over 99% of clients pay back loans on time. :Led by JETAs, we organize lending circles around the needs of our clients, eliminating undue peer pressure and nudging towards healthy financial habits. :We don't obsess over repayment rates. We focus on building resilience so that women can adapt to financial shocks long after they’ve moved on from our program.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

Currently, JUST has 275 active clients and has provided over $1 million in loans with a 99% repayment rate. Through SMART savings goals, 85% of our clients report that they are able to at least maintain or increase their savings. In addition, a common trend among clients is that within the first 24 months of entering the program, they increase their savings by an average of 224% - not a deliberate target but a welcome result. Beyond the numbers, JUST is making a positive difference in the lives of women entrepreneurs. For instance, aside from increasing her savings, Isabelle is learning how to make informed financial decisions. She is building her assets and looking for promising investment opportunities to improve her long-term financial situation. Her business is thriving and she no longer needs to worry as much about providing for her children and pursuing her passion.

8a. Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling your impact?

:Collaborating with other nonprofits in the system: We partner with organizations providing value-adding products and services. An example is our collaboration with LiftFund in Dallas for successful JUST entrepreneurs who need bigger capital. :Growing our community of client leaders: JETAs are the drivers of our growth. As we expand, we empower more JETAs to take on leadership roles. :Integrating technology: We use technology to reinforce our trust-based lending model. By automating aspects of our program, we make the loan application less burdensome and achieve higher organizational ef

8b. If applicable, which of the following scaling strategies have you launched?

  • Organizational Growth
  • Franchising, Licensing, Accreditation
  • Trainings, Consultation

9. Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

JUST earns revenue through a modest annual loan interest rate of 15%. We also earn income from referring clients to our partners’ products and services. We expect earned income to cover 100% of program costs by 2021 upon: :Reaching 5,000 women entrepreneurs in Austin and Dallas :Growing a healthy loan portfolio :Introducing new products and services (e.g. business permit support) Grants and investments will support our growth to new geographies and development of new ways to serve clients.

10. Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?

Our team members have immense experience supporting entrepreneurs and social enterprises. They are Steve Wanta (CEO, Co-Founder), Bill Wood, (Co-Founder, serial investor), Andy White (Co-Founder, lawyer), Haydee Moreno (FinTech Professional), Ivonne Salinas (Community Director), and Erika Ortiz (User Researcher). We aim to recruit new staff to aid our expansion. Our founding team will move to new roles focused on mentoring new recruits and inspiring other microfinance professionals to join.

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 1 - Which of the following categories do you identify with? (optional)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French)

Help Us Support Diversity! Part 2 - Do you identify as part of any of the following underrepresented communities? (optional)

  • No, I do not identify with an underrepresented community

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Recommended by others

Program Design Clarity

Women undergo initial training before receiving their first loan. Led by JETAs and the Community Director, the two-hour training tackles program rules, goal setting framework (SMART goals), and the importance of growth mindset. After receiving a loan, women join a lending circle. With this support and accountability mechanism, women conduct 1-2 hour weekly meetings across 3-6 months to reach their financial goals and support each other. It is during this phase that entrepreneurs make meaningful connections with their peers and closely work with JETAs who act as coaches and mentors.

Approach to financial wellbeing: does your project focus on creating financial wellbeing through innovating on any of the following?

  • credit
  • education / literacy
  • entrepreneurship
  • loans
  • saving

Innovation type: Please select which of the following types of innovation best characterize your work

  • Process innovation (execution of a new or considerably improved production or delivery method)

Partnerships in detail: tell us about your partnerships that enhance your approach.

Space– Local space providers (e.g. health clinics) help facilitate training, loan disbursements, and exposure of our clients to other professionals from varying industries. Benefit– English language trainers, immigrant legal services, and summer camp organizers that provide business and family support to women entrepreneurs. Referral– Plans are underway to begin a pilot with charter schools in Dallas to tap into their parent community and identify women interested in working with JUST.

If you won the Unlocking ₵hange Challenge, how would you invest the prize money of $50,000?

We will invest in improving our JETA client-leader model – our main innovation. By empowering clients to become JETAs, women take an active role in increasing financial well-being for entire communities. This investment will increase program capacity and allow us to sustainably serve more clients.

Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions has the project received?

JUST was recently awarded a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) certification. Beyond new funding opportunities, this award is a validation of the work we’re doing to serve low-income women. In addition, earlier in 2018, we successfully applied to United Way of Metropolitan Dallas’s Ground Floor, an impact accelerator for promising social ventures.

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Overall, would you champion this entry as a excellent example to move forward to the next phase of the challenge and become a semifinalist?

Yes, absolutely! - 66.7%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

2. Is this entry INNOVATIVE?

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Yes/maybe - 66.7%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

3. Is this entry IMPACTFUL on financial wellbeing?

Yes, absolutely! - 66.7%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 0%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

4. Is this entry SUSTAINABLE?

Yes, absolutely! - 33.3%

Yes/maybe - 33.3%

Maybe - 33.3%

Maybe/no - 0%

No - 0%

5. What are some of the HIGHLIGHTS of strengths of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 100%

Clarity of Model - 100%

Clarity of Writing - 50%

Idea Originality - 50%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 50%

Impact measurement - 0%

Impact Potential - 50%

Financial Sustainability - 50%

Team - 50%

Partnerships - 0%

Potential to scale - 50%

6. What are some of the areas for IMPROVEMENT of this entry?

Connection to underserved community - 0%

Clarity of Model - 50%

Clarity of Writing - 0%

Idea Originality - 50%

Understanding of the marketplace or sector - 50%

Impact measurement - 100%

Impact Potential - 0%

Financial Sustainability - 50%

Team - 50%

Partnerships - 100%

Potential to scale - 100%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Kristina Lersbuasin

I applaud you on focusing your efforts towards women-owned businesses. It's a sector that is under-represented. Keep up the good work!

Photo of Steve

Thank you for acknowledging our work!

Photo of Mohammed Faisal

I like the idea, just weary about the outcome based on the effects of micro-loans in the international communities. i would say arm the people you serve with financial literacy so they understand what it means to leverage loans.

Photo of Steve

Mohammed Faisal Thanks for the feedback. The impact (good and bad) from global microfinance is, in fact, the basis for our experience design. Our first employee was a client of Compartamos, Mexico's largest MFIs. We agree that financial education can be an important component but like credit, it is not a silver bullet. The timing for introducing credit and financial literacy is an extremely important part of creating a relationship based on trust. By leading with access to a small loan, we are able to start from a place of shared fate. At JUST, we believe entrepreneurs that are opting into our program are uniquely equipped to solve their own problems when given access to the right resources. We also believe people need other resources and more information. For example, we have developed a group financial coaching program that we deliver through a mix of digital and in-person curriculum. You can see more here - www.vimeo.com/hellojust.

Photo of Aastha

Great initiative! Do you envision this solving the microfinance program? In the international context, microfinance was not sustainable and it was hard to trust the borrowers as the repayment rates were decreasing. How would JUST fit in an international community? or, would it?

Photo of Steve

Aastha thank you for your feedback. For ten years, I conducted due diligence and oversaw funding for 100s of microfinance programs around the world. The lessons, both good and bad, of global microfinance are the basis for the JUST model. In the United States, our financial system has been designed to exclude people through credit scores, collateral, as well as other barriers. Global microfinance shows a way to leverage social capital. Generally speaking, it became fixated on the transaction of credit, not the transformation of people. JUST has designed a model to address these limitations while acknowledging the powerful elements of trust-based lending. Our higher purpose, helping people to live with less stress and more joy, has been our north star and helped us evolve our work beyond the transaction of credit. We will be happy to share the lessons, good and bad, of our work with the global microfinance community. Yet, we believe the most appropriate approach comes from the communities that are faced with the challenges that need to be solved.

Photo of David Rixter

I believe the model has the opportunity to scale. In your efforts to scale, please ensure communities of color are engaged at all levels including outreach to further impact access to credit for minorities. A key marketing strategy is word of mouth e.g., trust begets trust, etc. I wish you much success!

Photo of Steve

Trust begets trust - you couldn't have said it any better, David. Your belief in our potential is empowering. It all starts with trust and the belief that people can do great work when given the right opportunities. We share your passion to serve more minorities and our hope is that we continuously grow to bring the model to communities that need it the most.

Photo of Lynn

Very impressed this idea and its execution. Particularly impressed by stress on allowing clients to reach stability and less on loan repayment. This model could be replicated many places.

Photo of Steve

Hey Lynn, thanks for pointing that out - emphasis on stability over repayment. It's really at the heart of what we do and we want to show others that this approach can definitely be replicated!