Providence Business News: Jeanne Cola leads LISC’s Impact on Rhode Island Communities

Cola using banking experience, skills to fuel LISC’s early-stage impact

DEEPLY ENGAGED: Jeanne Cola uses her experience and the skills she learned working at Citizens Bank for 25 years in her current role as executive director of LISC Rhode Island, an organization that helps get affordable housing and other projects off the ground within the state’s most distressed neighborhoods. / PBN PHOTO/­MICHAEL SALERNO
DEEPLY ENGAGED: Jeanne Cola uses her experience and the skills she learned working at Citizens Bank for 25 years in her current role as executive director of LISC Rhode Island, an organization that helps get affordable housing and other projects off the ground within the state’s most distressed neighborhoods. / PBN PHOTO/­MICHAEL SALERNO

Career changers are common in today’s workforce. Those switching industries bring broad perspectives and fresh skill sets to new fields but can make the modern-day corporate ladder look more like a winding road at times.

But Jeanne Cola is lucky enough to have found her lifelong career at her very first job, at Citizens Bank. She started work there as a student, was exposed to all areas of banking through training and stayed for 25 years, learning how to create mortgage products for clients with low incomes along the way.

“I only left as the opportunity with LISC [Rhode Island Local Initiatives Support Corp.] would allow me more influence,” said Cola, who has been executive director of the organization, which helps get affordable housing and other projects off the ground within the state’s most distressed neighborhoods, for six years. “It was about moving into corporate banking, only from a community perspective. I could be deeply engaged in change for residents and create opportunities to make their lives better.”

A community-development financial institution, LISC opened its Rhode Island office in 1991. Its goal is to build healthy neighborhoods by linking local leaders and organizations with resources to improve the quality of life. With a national corporation behind it, Rhode Island LISC is able to open up access to resources residents wouldn’t otherwise have – including public and private funding in the form of loans, grants and equity investments – for local projects.

“Those first dollars that come in allow millions to flow in after,” said Cola. “That is what really influences that change. That’s where, in my opinion, you see the real influence of LISC due to its impact in the early stages, with early investments. But we have to operate in a fiscally responsible way to have more dollars to lend out.”

Beautiful Beginnings Child Care Center in Providence, which serves households with low incomes, is an LISC project. Cola’s group first assisted in making the space appropriate for child care with its Child Care Facilities Fund, adding in grant money, a loan to refinance the state-licensed facility’s mortgage at a lower rate, assisted in a renovation for program expansion and refinancing with more favorable terms. According to its website, LISC has invested more than $850,000 at Beautiful Beginnings, which serves more than 100 children and their families with Early Head Start and other learning initiatives.

“Our goal is to provide what they need where a bank might not be able to,” said Cola. “So, we can be a catalytic influence.”

Problem-solving is a big part of Cola’s role at LISC, along with her team. She is tasked with finding creative solutions. Sometimes this means careful consideration of an end user’s individual situation and adopting a different approach than originally planned. But due to LISC’s unique business model, she always has the flexibility needed to make those decisions on a case-by-case basis.

“If there is a project that will advance the LISC mission, then Jeanne will move mountains to get it done,” said Joseph Silva, senior vice president of commercial lending at Pawtucket Credit Union and chair of the LISC Local Advisory Committee.

Finding those new ways to accomplish things was a skill Cola had practiced regularly in banking. But in areas of relationship-building and fundraising, the nonprofit world took a bit of adjustment on her part.

She had strong external community relationships from her former position, connections that were honed for more than two decades. Those collaborations continued when she came to LISC, but forging new, internal relationships within LISC took time, she said. Reporting to and getting to know members of the LISC Local Advisory Committee and how they all worked together was more uncharted territory. Then, when it came to fundraising, she had to learn fast. “A funder relationship is different. Now [at LISC], I was the funder.” But Cola saw the investment in relationships and advisory-committee collaborations not as challenges, but as opportunities to grow as a leader.

Central Falls Neighborhood Health Station is one of LISC’s latest collaborations.

Blackstone Valley Community Health Care is building a $14.5 million, 47,000-square-foot health center that will create more than 80 permanent jobs and serve up to 84 percent of Central Falls residents. LISC, recognizing the value in the center reducing health disparities, is financing $12.56 million via its Healthy Futures Fund, which offers better terms and rates than traditional financing.

Cola will continue to help every community in Rhode Island have choices in opportunities, actively searching out partners to make that happen, supporting nonprofits and their leaders who are on the front lines. She noted that the state needs 3,400 new housing units annually over the next 10 years, according to Rhode Island Housing Authority, to remedy the housing crisis here. She wants folks to know that transformations take time, and that LISC sees its work not as stand-alone transactions, but as vibrant transformations.

“I love my job,” said Cola. “I don’t know if you can tell.”

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