Meet Urban Beginnings Choice FCU: A CDFI expanding social mobility in Fort Wayne

Many organizations talk about social mobility, but what does it look like in practice?
Community Development Finance Institutions (also known as CDFIs) can play a powerful role in helping individuals overcome barriers to traditional banking, lending, and wealth building.
CDFIs can be banks, credit unions, loan funds, microloan funds, or venture capital providers. Across the U.S., they offer an alternative to traditional and sometimes predatory banking and lending, bringing opportunity to underserved communities.
In Fort Wayne, Brightpoint established the city’s first CDFI in 2010. Since then, Greater Fort Wayne Inc.’s Allen County Together plan has called for deploying an additional $10 million in CDFI funding by 2026 and $25 million by the end of 2031.
As efforts to support CDFIs expand, another institution has been hard at work, lending and creating trustworthy banking options for those on the city’s South East side. In 2006, the late Rev. Sylvester Hunter and about 12 charter members at Union Baptist Church at 2200 Smith St. formed a faith-based credit union, backed by the National Credit Union Association and the FDIC. It was originally geared toward membership within the church, but has since expanded to additional churches, like Joshua’s Temple (now the Temple Fort Wayne). It has plans to expand to be city-wide, too.

Urban Beginnings Choice Federal Credit Union is located inside the Urban League at 2135 S Hanna St.
In recent years, the credit union changed its name to Urban Beginnings Choice FCU and became a certified CDFI through strategic partnerships with larger institutions, including PNC Bank.
“The support we’ve provided enables Urban Beginnings to update their website, attract new members and make more loans,” says Corinna Ladd, PNC Regional President for Northern Indiana. “As a CDFI, Urban Beginnings plays a critical role in removing barriers that have historically prevented many families from accessing capital and building wealth. We welcome the opportunity to work alongside and support them through PNC’s $88 billion, four-year Community Benefits Plan (CBP). The plan, launched on Jan. 1, 2022, builds on our longstanding commitment to economic empowerment. Locally we’re seeing that plan come to life through funding support like this grant.”
So who’s leading Urban Beginnings Choice FCU, and how is the organization improving social mobility in Fort Wayne? We sat down with its Chief Executive Officer Diane Starks to find out.

Urban Beginnings Choice Federal Credit Union is a certified CDFI. Chief Executive Officer Diane Starks is part of a small team serving more than 265 members.

IFW: Tell us about yourself and how you became Chief Executive Officer of Urban Beginnings Choice FCU.
DS: I was born and raised here in Fort Wayne with deep roots in the community. My professional background is in finance and bookkeeping. I’ve worked in this field for about 19 years with several organizations, including PhoneMart, GTE Financial, Frontier, and Verizon.
In 2009, my department at Verizon was downsized, so I took the opportunity to work for myself. I helped launch a moving business and established my own decorating business called All Decoration. Additionally, I supported several local churches and organizations by assisting with their bookkeeping.
After 15 years as a business owner, the pandemic put a pause on decorating for weddings, family reunions, and the like. So, I pivoted to other forms of decorating like custom designs for masks and t-shirts.
In April 2021 I was hired as the Interim Chief Executive Officer of Union Baptist Church FCU, and a year later, the “interim” tag was removed. We also changed the organization’s name to Urban Beginnings Choice Federal Credit Union, which has the same initials (UBCFCU) as our original name. I am proud to use my background and knowledge to provide financial opportunities for the underserved and the underrepresented in the city. And after just one year on the job, I have already seen the big impact our small organization has made.

Urban Beginnings Choice Federal Credit Union is a certified CDFI. Chief Executive Officer Diane Starks is part of a small team serving more than 265 members.
IFW: Tell us a little bit about Urban Beginnings and how it evolved to where it is today.
DS: Our name, Urban Beginnings Choice FCU, really says a lot. We’re “urban” in that we’re located within an urban community we want to serve now at 2135 S Hanna St. (We have an office at the Urban League.) “Beginnings” alludes to how we believe in a new beginning for everyone in Fort Wayne, and “choice” speaks to how we want to be our client's first choice for banking in the community.
Currently, Urban Beginnings Choice FCU is still only open to church members and their families as well as church affiliates, like daycare providers, but we’re working to bring on more partners and staff, so we can expand and serve all of Fort Wayne.
In 2020, we partnered with PNC Bank and a variety of organizations in Fort Wayne to become CDFI certified. This allows our credit union to take on loans for individuals who may be high-risk, or who may not be able to get loans at other banks or credit unions. Not all of our loans are high-risk, but now, we can use our funds to back high-risk loans, and we can offer lower interest rates compared to most other credit unions.

Urban Beginnings Choice FCU has an office at the Urban League at 2135 S Hanna St. 
IFW: What services do you currently offer?
DS: We offer shared accounts or saving accounts, new and used auto loans, and financial literacy courses. We partner with multiple organizations to provide financial information and education to underserved populations or people who might not trust traditional banking and lending institutions.
Because we are a small credit union, partnering with larger institutions, like PNC, has allowed us to get grants so we can offer a wider range of products, like prepaid debit cards for our members and get access to funding. This funding helps us break some of our barriers as a small credit union, not having the assets ourselves.
Right now, we primarily provide auto and personal loans. We do secure and unsecure personal loans and new and used auto loans up to $25,000.

Urban Beginnings Choice Federal Credit Union is a certified CDFI. Chief Executive Officer Diane Starks is part of a small team serving more than 265 members.
IFW: How many people are currently on your team at Urban Beginnings Choice?
DS: Currently, we serve about 265 members, and we have a small staff of three people serving them. Carolyn Yates, a retired Fort Wayne Community Schools teacher, has been here for 10 years, and she is our teller. We’re also in the process of hiring another individual, and we’re looking to expand our employees so we’re ready for growth. We are in the process of launching our online banking platform, which should be live at the end of November. We also want to offer ATM debit cards to our clients. Having more employees will help us expand our members and products.
IFW: Tell us more about the importance of this work.
DS: When you’ve been denied for a loan, for whatever reason, it can really impact your confidence and your faith in yourself. When clients come to us and we’re able to help them get a loan and manage it, it builds their confidence back up so they can take on the next challenge. We can break down that one barrier for them.
If you’re having financial troubles, we want you to be able to come talk with us. I do one-on-one financial coaching and budgeting. We also have our financial literacy and loan committee, which we partner with PNC on.
Some of our clients have been turned down for loans at other institutions. Others have received personal auto loans other places and have been able to refinance with us and save a couple hundred dollars a month. That goes a long way.
Our rates are low and competitive. We’ve even helped individuals break the cycle of predatory payday loans, which helps to break the cycle of poverty.
If you have a small amount of collection on your credit report that’s been stopping you from getting a car or credit loan, we can give you a loan and work with you on financial literacy to get your credit score up. We want to help you get to the next level. We encourage that within both the charter churches we serve. If you have collections, and you can’t get a loan, come to us. Being a CDFI allows us to be a reasonable risktaker and break down some of the barriers individuals face at other banks or credit unions.
IFW: Auto loans play an important role in the economy, too—especially in a city lacking public transit, like Fort Wayne. Tell us more about that.
DS: Having reliable transportation helps individuals who are in the workforce who have to get back and forth to work or drop a child off at daycare. Being able to have your own vehicle to get from point A to point B is critical, and it makes an individual feel better about themselves. Even if you want to take the bus, the bus doesn’t run late, so if you’re working the second shift without a vehicle, that’s a barrier for you.
We can help with that. Some of our clients have gone to other places and couldn’t get approved for auto loans. One woman, her car was totaled at no fault of her own, so now she needs a new car, but she has issues with her credit, and she couldn’t get approved for an auto loan. She came to us, and because we are a CDFI, we got her preapproved to look for a car within her budget, and she could walk into that car dealership with confidence, knowing how much she could spend.
These are the types of success stories that are making a difference in our community.
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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.