For Thania Hernandez, opening Mis Primeros Pasos – a bilingual child care center in Ellsworth, Maine – was the realization of a long-held dream. Hernandez is a child of immigrants and the mother of two, so she knows firsthand the importance of quality child care and maintaining cultural connections. While she was in school earning her bachelor's degree in elementary education, she worked at another bilingual child care in Maine, Rayitos de Sol. Its founder introduced her to the CEI Child Care Business Lab, a six-month cohort-based program with a curriculum that integrates small business start-up education with child care management instruction and coaching through the licensing process – tools that helped Hernandez during the process of opening her own child care business.

The idea for the CEI Child Care Business Lab emerged from a listening tour of rural Maine undertaken by staff of Coastal Enterprises (CEI). Residents reported that the lack of quality child care was affecting their ability to work full time, secure a decent livelihood and support their families.

As a community development financial institution (CDFI), CEI has deep, on-the-ground knowledge of its place and its people and is well-practiced in implementing solutions. CDFIs are intermediaries for moving capital from government and philanthropy into communities of need. These communities continue to face systemic barriers that limit their potential. Access to quality child care, finding jobs with livable wages, and securing affordable housing are increasingly difficult across the U.S., in rural and urban areas alike, and harder to reach for those on the sidelines. 

Creating Scalable Impact in Child Care Accessibility

Initial funding for the Child Care Business Lab came from a federal grant, and as the program gained momentum, more support has come from philanthropic sources. This was important to expand the program further into rural regions of the state where some of Maine’s most impoverished communities are located, as well as into communities of immigrants, like Hernandez’s, where culturally appropriate child care was needed. Because of the philanthropic support, 16 new child care businesses serving 332 children are licensed in Maine, creating 60 new jobs. Twenty-one percent of parents with children in these new child care businesses have started a new job. 

National funder Lumina Foundation realized how the Child Care Business Lab’s success was a ready-made and replicable model. It saw alignment with its mission in two ways: The Child Care Business Lab is a tool that provides skills and training to be a child care provider and it enables parents to return to school or acquire other credentials that will improve their economic mobility. Recognizing CEI as an ally, Lumina provided funding to expand the Child Care Business Lab across Maine, as well as package the Child Care Business Lab for sharing with other CDFIs and organizations across the country. Seeing that accessing financing was an additional barrier for would-be child care entrepreneurs, Lumina also provided low-cost capital through CEI for people who open or expand their child care facilities. 

The Maine Community Foundation also came forward. A key goal in its commitment to improve the quality of life for all Maine people is to give children a “Strong Start” that ensures they have “a healthy start and arrive at kindergarten developmentally prepared to succeed in school and life.” To do this, the foundation invests in initiatives that are addressing early childhood issues such as quality child care solutions. 

CEI’s Child Care Business Lab was a natural fit. Maine Community Foundation paid for refurbished computers for participants that needed them to use during class, as well as stipends for a field experience program to help participants meet all the requirements for program completion. And, as a donor-advisor, Maine Community Foundation shared this news: One donor was particularly drawn to the Child Care Business Lab, making the connection with the needs they saw in their own community, and funded a cohort of the program in their corner of the state. 

Programs like CEI’s Child Care Business Lab are solutions that cross boundaries. Through their lending and business advising in economically sidelined communities, CDFIs learn directly from the individuals in the communities that they serve what the key barriers to success are, allowing them to develop, test, and refine precise solutions. At this point, funding becomes the primary impediment to greater impact – a hurdle that can be overcome through strategic philanthropic partnerships. Philanthropic funders – high net worth individuals, donor-advised funds, and private foundations – have an opportunity to align themselves with CDFIs and help these mission-driven investors share their solutions so more people can share in the prosperity that we all deserve.