Rashidah Billups

By V.S. Santoni

NASHVILLE, TN — Now in its third year of operation, Open Access, a 501(c)3 focused on increasing representation, equity, and inclusion in community development finance, is actively engaged in growing its sponsorships and fellowships and Nashville is one of the prime sites where it is seeking to expand interest.

Gina Nisbeth, formerly a director at Citi  but now the director of her own firm, and Jeff Monge, managing partner of Monge Capital, founded Open Access in 2020. Since the pandemic’s start, Open Access has sought a highly qualified group of outstanding professionals and four-year college students to enroll in their training program. Rashidah Billups, herself a 2022 Open Access alumnus and now its first-executive director, said that out of 200 plus applications, only a few dozen are chosen, specifically between 20 to 24.  Billups said the fellowship sponsor chooses the applicants, and in her case, New Jersey Community Capital selected her for fellowship. There Billups managed a team of associates, ensuring they regularly reported on their projects’ statuses to the federal government. She even developed the technology needed to continue the projects after she finished her fellowship. 

When asked what the greatest barrier is to growing diversity in the community development finance sector, Billups simply said the market was niche, largely legacy industry making it difficult to access.  Even then, the specificity of the market makes it difficult to penetrate, she said. One must first have a sponsor who can vouch for their experience in the community development finance industry, and they must also have a mentor who can show them the ups, downs, and tricks of the trade. Open Access seeks to make this market more accessible to underrepresented groups, such as African-Americans and Latinos, who would otherwise have a difficult time establishing a place in the industry, Billups said. 

She said Tennessee provides a great opportunity for professionals and students who are interested in the community development finance industry, but the first step to diversifying the industry is spreading the word. “When folks hear about Open Access,” said Billups, “they can relate it to a sponsor that may be in their area and that opens a door, an opportunity. From there, it grows like wildfire.”

If you’d like more information about the Open Access program, you can visit their website at open-access.us.