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AARP Purpose Prize Fellow Donna Gambrell Skip to content

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Donna Gambrell

CEO of Appalachian Community Capital

En español | When I was 60, I started working with Appalachian Community Capital (ACC), a tax-exempt entity that raises money and makes low-cost loans to community development lenders, who in turn give loans to small businesses in Appalachia, a very underserved and under resourced area of our country. Since 2015, ACC has raised almost $20 million in equity, grants and debt capital, which has been used to finance more than 50 small businesses and create or retain more than 1,000 jobs in the region. 

The problem I’m trying to solve

What I want to do is look for solutions to help people gain economic self-sufficiency. We do it through small business financing — folks who grow and own their own businesses, including minority- and women-owned businesses — to support the community. The Appalachian region encompasses 420 counties in 13 states. The economy was once highly dependent on mining, forestry, agriculture and heavy industry, and it has become more diversified. But some communities are still struggling economically. It has become a region of economic contrasts. Access to capital and credit is one of the major factors limiting business creation, expansion and growth in the region.

It’s a challenging job helping people understand why this is so important but it’s the most satisfying thing to get that money and turn around and help a community. Across this country, there are so many communities that are struggling and striving. You don’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps — you need people within and outside your community to help lift you up.

The moment that sparked my passion for this

There were a couple of moments. When I was a teenager, Sen. Bobby Kennedy was one of my heroes, and I vividly remember his tour of the Appalachian region, which highlighted the economic disparities there and the value and promise of all people, regardless of their economic status. I believe as much as I did then that one person can make a difference. For 20 years, I worked at the FDIC [the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation], and while I was there, at age 51, I went to live and work in Louisiana for two years after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Those were communities that were struggling before the hurricane, so the question became: How do we rebuild the community to make them even stronger? I saw that it was the strength and vision of the community that really made the difference. My assignment there was the first time I had boots on the ground for an extended period; I was inspired by people who worked at Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and ordinary people who were making extraordinary differences in people’s lives. That was a life-changing experience for me. 

How my life has shaped this pursuit

I’m one of six kids in my family. My father was in the Air Force, and we come from very humble beginnings, mostly laborers and domestic workers. When I was a teenager, I met a woman who was a teacher and activist who worked part-time on an Indian reservation. She lit this sense in me that I have a responsibility to support the community, including people who look like me as well as those who don’t. She helped me look at a bigger part of the world and how I could make a difference. As a Black woman coming from an urban environment, I readily understood that there were similarities between my own life situation and others in Appalachia who might not look like me but might come from similar economic backgrounds.

Advice to those who want to make a difference

Your work never stops. You can make a difference in all sorts of ways. Make sure you find what you love doing because if you do that, you can do it until you’re no longer here. You can take your mission to the very end.

Why my approach is unique

Because ACC is a regional intermediary lending organization, we rely on some very strong partners who are innovative. We have 17 members who are CDFIs and we raise funds for them — I beat every bush and talk to everybody I encounter, including people at banks, foundations, corporations and individuals inside and outside Appalachia. The CDFIs often provide lower-interest rates and more flexible terms to make a loan work and to be affordable to business owners in the community. It’s a fascinating model for how you can do financing in an untraditional way with great flexibility.

What’s next for Appalachian Community Capital

I think the sky’s the limit in what we can do. I’d love to see ACC quadruple in growth in the next five to 10 years and offer different types of lending. We’re focused on small businesses for now but we could grow to a larger scale. The need is so great and the region is so large. I have found my life’s work.

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