Entrepreneur Leverages Character-Based Loan to Open Restaurant, Create New Jobs in Metro Detroit

Success Story
April 21, 2022

Never say never to Jamaal Muhammad. Unless you want to see him succeed.

“A high school teacher once told me I’d never go to college and, if I did, I’d fail,” recalled Jamaal, now a college graduate, a high school administrator and a thriving small business entrepreneur in Detroit, Michigan. “I’m the kind of guy who if you tell me I can’t, I double down on commitment.”

Of the 11 children in his family, Jamaal is the only one who earned a college degree and, by the way, did it in less than four years. And he’s the only one who parlayed his cooking talents learned in his mother’s kitchen into a prospering venture called Supreme Café.

His mission is to meet the needs of a community struggling in a “food desert,” where national grocery stores have deserted the area, leaving residents mostly with convenience stores and fast-food eateries to meet their daily food needs. When preparing all his menu items – including sandwiches, burgers, tacos and wraps – Jamaal uses only natural, organic ingredients with vegan options.

Since Jamaal launched Supreme Café, it’s been a mobile venture. He’s leveraged catering services, pop-up shops and online sales to make ends meet, while still finding ways to donate food to the elderly, homeless and youth.

Sweat Equity and Passion Attract Unique Funding Combo

But very soon Jamaal plans to open his first brick-and-mortar location on Detroit’s west side, thanks to a grant he won from the Detroit Economic Growth’s Corporation’s Motor City Match program and a unique “character-based” loan called “Activate Detroit” he received from CDC Small Business Finance, a mission-based lender.

Receiving such financial support at the beginning of 2022 turned out to be emotionally overwhelming for Jamaal.

“I think I cried more than ever before,” he admitted. “I was just so grateful to all the people who believed in me.”

Nimaj Driscoll, the loan officer who helped Jamaal apply for the Activate Detroit loan, was not surprised the young entrepreneur was approved for the financing.

“He was extremely committed to the process, working into the middle of the night on occasion,” said Nimaj. “It spoke loudly about his character.”

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Learn More About Activate Detroit

Activate Detroit Loan Overcomes Bias to Help Black Entrepreneurs Make Powerful Impact in Low- and Moderate-Income Communities

Indeed, character is one of the unique features of the Activate Detroit loans, developed exclusively in this pilot phase for Black small business owners in metro Detroit (Macomb, Wayne and Oakland counties). Another key attribute is to not consider a borrower’s credit score when considering them for a loan.

Instead, loan experts at CDC Small Business Finance are trained to listen to an entrepreneur’s whole story, with an ear especially attuned to sweat equity, demonstrated passion and a commitment to the business.

Working with Jamaal was a perfect example.

As a young entrepreneur he had very little in the way of liquidity as he had not yet had the opportunity to accrue significant assets or savings. He put all of his extra money into building Supreme Cafe. He also had some personal debt for things like auto and student loans that he was also working to pay off.

“On paper,” Jamaal may have been seen as too risky for a traditional lender, but the team at CDC saw his potential. They paired him with Donell Miles, a member of CDC’s Business Advisory Team, to provide free services, including working through his projections and assumptions for revenue.

“Black-owned businesses often have a unique set of challenges that most traditional financial institutions don’t want to take a chance on, or take the time to understand the cultural impact these businesses have in the community,” noted Driscoll. “We realized this left a real void in the ability for Black entrepreneurs to bring jobs and opportunities to their communities. Through Activate Detroit we are rethinking what it means to be a good candidate for a loan by really getting to know the borrower and see their potential.”

Key Features of Activate Detroit

The key features of the Activate Detroit loan are so different from any product offered by traditional lenders that most small business owners find it hard to believe. They include:

  • Credit scoring is blinded; no minimum FICO score is required
  • A heavy emphasis on small business owner character
  • No-down-payment required
  • Flexible repayment
  • Simplified, streamlined application process
  • Complimentary pre- and post-loan business advising

“In developing the Activate Detroit loan, we had to face the reality that there is racial bias – both intentional and unintentional – in traditional systems that provide access to capital,” said Ellis Carr, chief executive officer of CDC Small Business Finance. “Too often, black small business owners fall through the traditional lending cracks and are taken advantage of by predatory, high-interest lenders.”

“In developing the Activate Detroit loan, we had to face the reality that there is racial bias – both intentional and unintentional – in traditional systems that provide access to capital.”

Ellis Carr
President and CEO
CDC Small Business Finance & Capital Impact Partners

Ellis added: “We wanted to formulate an affordable tool to help black entrepreneurs make a powerful impact in low- and moderate-income communities and create new jobs.

Jamaal plans to use his Activate Detroit loan proceeds to buy equipment and initial inventory for his permanent Supreme Café home. He has his eyes on a convection oven, ventilation hood system, two fryers, gas griddle, fryer rack, sandwich prep station, and signage. And of course, he’ll use some of the money to pay his seven employees, a team he hopes to grow to 30 or 40 in a few months.

“At the end of the day, I love putting smiles on people’s faces with my food,” said Jamaal. “I hope my success will have a domino effect and contribute to a safer, more peaceful community.”


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