Evening the Score

Women get a better shot at loan approval

By Robin D. Schatz

Every woman knows she is more than mere numbers can convey--but how do you explain on a loan application form for your business that the reason your credit history is so "thin" is that everything was in your ex-husband's name? Or that your income plunged because you quit work to care for a child? Or that even though your business is brand-new, you've got plenty of experience in your field?

In most cases, you can't. The average lender will nix or approve your business loan based in large part on a computerized tally known as a credit score. According to a 2000 report by the Consumer Bankers Assn., 92% of major small-business lenders surveyed are already using credit scoring. The system analyzes how good a credit risk you are based on such factors as your income, how long you've been in business, and whether you've ever filed for bankruptcy.

The numbers certainly didn't add up for Maria Morrissey, owner of the Celtic Clotheshorse in Austin, Tex., when she sought a loan for her kiltmaking business. First, the lenders said she hadn't been in business long enough. Later, they told her she was "overextended" because of her credit-card debt. The bankers were unimpressed by her growing business, says Morrissey, who is booked through yearend with orders for her $600 kilts. Recalls Morrissey: "I said, `Look, it works. Look at what I put in the bank. Don't you care?' And they said, `No, we just look at your credit score."'

Nell Merlino, CEO of microlender Count Me In for Women's Economic Independence, says such stories are common. "That credit scoring application, whether you're looking for $2,000 or $25,000 or $200,000, doesn't take into account the totality of who we are."

While Morrissey looked like a bad risk to the banks, Count Me In saw fit to lend her $4,000. Was a loan officer moved to tears by the hard-luck story of this single mom, who had overcome illness and previous bankruptcy? Actually, no. A computer approved Morrissey's loan based on her credit score.

Yup, you heard right. Rather than throw out a system that has made small-business lending cheaper and more efficient, Count Me In has given this banker's tool a mighty tweak. With backing from American Express Co. (AXP ) and advice from Fair, Isaac & Co., whose credit scoring system is used by nine of the top ten small-biz lenders, Merlino's group devised its own scoring model, which poses some novel questions. For example, conventional scoring hurts new entrepreneurs--who include a growing number of women and minorities--by requiring at least three years in business. "We don't ask how long you've been in business," says Merlino. "We ask how long have you been making your product or delivering your service. As a lender, you get a much more realistic picture that the applicant knows how to do what they say they do and can pay you back."

For Nancy Dreier in Sutton, Mass., her work experience made up for her thin credit history and landed her a $2,000 loan for her dog-grooming business. "It feels good to have someone who believes in you," she says. Count Me In also asks if the woman has a business plan and if there are other entrepreneurs in the family who have helped her--two factors that worked in Morrissey's favor.

This all sounds so humane--and so unbankerly--that the question naturally arises: Is it good business? That's hard to say. The organization has made 125 loans since August and needs 2,000 transactions to analyze which questions predict a borrower's success. It may turn out that Count Me In's scoring system is just a noble experiment, but at least there are 125 grateful women who now know the numbers aren't always stacked against them.

Schatz, an editor at Small Biz, can be reached at robin_schatz@businessweek.com

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