Zebras Unite
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Zebras Unite

Zebras in the Wild: Mike O’Donnell | Co-op member

With our series “Zebras in the Wild”, we are excited to take you on a journey around the world to meet founding members, chapter leads, co-op members and allies. We talk to Zebras in the wild and report back how they’re challenging the status quo, how they envision the future and how we can support them in their mission!

In this episode of Zebras in the Wild, meet Mike O’Donnell, executive director of Prairie Rose Development Corp. Mike holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Melbourne and an MBA from the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

He began his career in the United States in 1990 as the executive director of the University of Kansas Small Business Development Center and adjunct faculty in the business school before taking the helm of the certified development company in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1997.

In 2000, the opportunity arose to relocate to Colorado and join the nonprofit, mission-based lender, Colorado Lending Source, where Mike began expanding outreach and capital access to new and existing small business owners across the length and breadth of Colorado, building that organization from 3 employees in 2000 to more than 40.

In 2019, Mike received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Development Finance Agencies for his outstanding contribution to development finance.

Read how Mike envisions the capital, community and culture of the next economy:

A Zebra is…

… a business that invests in itself, the community and employees!!!! About 20% of small businesses with employees in the United States will survive at least 20 years in business. These are likely Zebras. They weren’t created with a short term exit strategy in mind. They were created to make a difference in their community and thus the world.

Informed citizens as a way to the future

The current system is the system that has almost always existed. Those with power and wealth want more power and more wealth. As a result, capital resources in the form of investments have become more important than human capital for those “at the top”. People don’t matter as much as windfall profits.

Venture capitalists chase returns ten times their original investment. The firms that they invest in don’t create sustainable, living wage jobs within communities.

Firms that venture capitalists currently invest in shine brightly for a short while before eventually imploding.

The fix? Any fix starts with education at every age and a better informed citizenry. Because larger firms will, on average, shed jobs over time, a solution to the current system starts with a focus on building stronger communities on the backs of small local businesses who are the ones who will create local sustainable living wage jobs for the people who live in those communities.

A warning to the future

My favorite quote at present is: “… truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.” [Don Quixote]

What we are experiencing today is a warning to the future although what we are experiencing today has also been experienced by numerous past civilizations at different times in history.

My own vision for the future would involve better informed and educated consumers more appropriately balancing needs and wants. It would also involve NOT supporting larger firms and NOT buying goods and services from repressive, totalitarian nations like China.

Community: The core to a strong and healthy economy

Community is critical and crucial to my vision of the future. Less dependence on larger firms and less dependence on foreign firms will allow community-based private, co-op and/or employee-owned firms to form and create sustainable living wage jobs within their communities for local residents. This will make the nation’s economy stronger and healthier, period.

Community-driven investment

Because of the over-regulation of the U.S. banking system, the current debt capital infrastructure in this county is predicated on the basis that you have to anticipate the borrower will default when making the loan. Accordingly, if a borrower applicant doesn’t have the collateral, history or an “acceptable” third party credit score, the chances of securing affordable debt financing from either a for-profit or nonprofit lender are slim.

On the equity side of the capital infrastructure fence, investors are primarily looking for big returns on whatever they invest in. And they, of course, always know best where to place their funds. They have to. It’s their or their clients’ money they are investing.

Reasonably recent technology advancements have created crowdfunding platforms, either reward-based (where a product can be pre-sold before committing to production) or equity-based (Crowd Funding legislation), to make it easier for some businesses to access capital. I’m a big fan of crowd-lending platforms like Kiva where hundreds of individually small $25 loans are made to a young and impactful small business so the business can access affordable funding denied to them by traditional for profit and nonprofit lenders..

There are more capital options available today than ever before so entrepreneurs are less constrained by traditional debt and equity sources.

I envisage more crowd-lending platforms, especially community-based crowd-lending platforms, being developed in the future, along with a greater number of employee-owned firms.

A culture of responsibility, independence and creativity

In my future utopia, the one thing I hope for is a citizenry that “takes responsibility”. Pure and simple. Citizens who aren’t dependent on the government or any other institution are free to be more creative, innovative, passionate and driven to excel in every possible way.

Historically, there has only been one short period of time where it is possible to see what a society built on the culture and values of responsibility can do. That was in ancient Athens for one generation during the fifth century BC, when the art and thought produced during this short period of time (between defending themselves against the overwhelming might of Persia and descending into self-destructive tyrannical empire building), has never been surpassed and very rarely equaled through to present times.

Mike’s contribution

Recognizing that new small businesses with employees create ALL the net new jobs in the United States each year, my focus for the last dozen years has been on helping new businesses get started through less conventional financing options. The U.S. Small Business Administration programs have become more bank-like since the previous great recession (the one in 2008–2010) and thus less available to startup businesses, especially those founded by underserved and underestimated populations.

In my previous role at Colorado Lending Source, I tested and created a character-based lending program that ignored considerations of collateral and made affordable loans on the basis of character and capacity.

Since “retiring” from that role last year, I have created a new nonprofit entity, Prairie Rose Development Corp., to continue this mission as the economy begins to settle down after shutdowns crushed so many small businesses.

I am also operating a crowd-lending Kiva Hub for Denver (launching September 2021) which I hope to quickly expand to a statewide Hub for Colorado. Kiva provides accessible, 0% first-rung-of-the-capital-ladder loans for underserved and underestimated populations launching or growing their small businesses.

The entrepreneurship crisis we are experiencing in the United States today is part of the nation’s dependence on big business at the expense of small businesses and the country’s middle class.

Whether I’m doing any of this professionally or not is a question for another day. Nonetheless, the entrepreneurship crisis we are experiencing in the United States today is part of the nation’s dependence on big business at the expense of small businesses and the country’s middle class. I will do everything I can to undo this.

What does support look like?

Everyone can support the nation and everyone else by stopping buying things made in China. That’s a great first step. And then stop supporting all the large firms that have become too big to fail and now dictate public policy (usually anti-small business) in this nation.

From my personal and very amateur perspective, since “retiring” I have been doing a little consulting (I recently assisted a large east coast foundation create of a new small business loan program for people of color) but I am more interested in getting Prairie Rose off the ground by creating a more viable character-based loan program to provide a second-rung-of-the-capital-ladder loan program to complement the incredibly amazing work I also hope to do through a statewide Colorado Kiva Hub.

Mike asks the community…

I don’t usually ask for anything, which is a bit of a handicap when it comes to running a new nonprofit. If anyone in the Zebras Unite community is interested in learning more about what I am trying to accomplish and achieve, please reach out to me. I would be happy to chat. (Oh, and stop buying things made in China or sold by big firms.)


Mara and all the others who are behind the launch of ZU are incredibly amazing, awesome and inspirational individuals. Everyone needs to meet and get to know Mara one day.

Connect with Mike

Originally published at https://socialventurers.com.



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Anika Horn

Anika Horn

Ecosystem builder for social change. Founder at www.socialventurers.com Meet me over at www.anikahorn.com for all things social enterprise!