HarborOne Bank: A leader in financial education

HarborOne group shot

Tricia White (far left), HarborOne Bank’s Success for Small Business instructor, and Maureen Wilkinson (far right), vice president of communication and CRA officer, organize the Small Business Pitch Contest, which drew 10 contestants to pitch their business ideas.

When it comes to financial education, HarborOne Bank goes beyond the basics. It meets the needs of its community through HarborOne U courses and small business loans.

By Rebecca Lubecki

Name: HarborOne Bank
Assets: $4 billion
Location: Brockton, Mass.

What started as HarborOne Bank’s response to the mortgage crisis in 2007 and 2008 has grown into one of the country’s first centers devoted to financial education.

“Although our bank didn’t necessarily make the loans that were going bad, we found that the community was suffering from a great deal of foreclosures,” says Maureen Wilkinson, vice president of community education and Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) officer at the $4 billion-asset community bank. “We found many folks, particularly those that were immigrants and minorities, had fallen prey to some fly-by-night mortgage companies and some unscrupulous folks that took advantage of them.”

HarborOne Bank, in Brockton, Mass., operates HarborOne U, a full-service division that offers financial education, life and career management services, and small business assistance through classes, seminars and events. Wilkinson manages the two HarborOne U centers in Brockton and Mansfield, Mass.

In addition to finances and home loans, bank staff found that many in their community didn’t understand or speak English—a major barrier to financial success. So, HarborOne U launched an English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class. From there, the bank learned people were looking for guidance on becoming U.S. citizens, which led to a citizenship preparation course. Oftentimes, Wilkinson says, students will take ESOL at HarborOne U, come back for the citizenship course and then attend financial education programs.

Classroom at the U center

In addition to managing the HarborOne U centers, Maureen Wilkinson is one of its instructors.

HarborOne Bank began hosting classes in an extra space in its former headquarters in downtown Brockton, but has since expanded HarborOne U into other offices in Mansfield, Mass., and Rhode Island. Over the past 12 years, more than 16,000 people have attended at least one HarborOne U program. Almost all HarborOne U classes are free; the exception is the ESOL program, because it’s taught by an outside instructor.

Giving business owners their start

As HarborOne U began to expand, Wilkinson says the team focused on small business assistance. They created classes to help people establish a business legally in the state, so they covered topics like cash flow and tax reporting. Classes typically average about 25 students, which Wilkinson says allows friendships to form. “Sometimes they get as much out of the camaraderie that develops in the classroom with people that have similar goals,” she adds.

What sets HarborOne U apart from a traditional financial literacy program is its dedicated line of credit option for startups.

“Traditionally, banks aren’t looking at making a small business loan until somebody has been in business for two or more years,” Wilkinson says. “In this particular case, they don’t even have to have started their business.”

Someone can bring an idea to the community bank’s six-hour Success for Small Business “Boot Camp.” Developed by the community bank in 2015, the program teaches students the essentials of owning a business. “Upon completing that six hours of time with us,” she says, “we [might] grant them a line of credit of $5,000, which can become $10,000 if they handle it responsibly in the first year of having the loan.”

Wilkinson says that most attendees are looking to form a micro-business. Students who’ve enrolled in these classes have gone into business as barbers, bakers, landscapers, photographers, personal fitness experts, brewers and even private investigators.

“We’ve got a lot of people doing different things, but they just need that start,” she says. “It might be a cake mixer in the case of the baker. It might be a special kind of printer in the case of a photographer, but they need that next piece in order to grow.”

Successful student

Working as a makeup artist, Dorisa Silva knows how costs can add up. She says she’s looking to run her own business as a mobile makeup artist, so she took a small business class at HarborOne U to learn how to get it up and running. “I went to a class because I wanted to do it right and legally and know how to cover [my] expenses,” she says. “They covered all of the questions that seemed daunting and made it simple.”

The small business course covered topics that business owners may not think about until they arise, such as loans, exit strategies and budgeting for advertising. “I do feel like I’m prepared,” Silva says, “and because of the class, I’m not overwhelmed anymore.”

Since 2015, HarborOne U has awarded 28 $5,000 lines of credit, and seven have become $10,000 lines of credit. Four have additional commercials loans with the community bank.

“All the support related to small business translates to not just educating people; [it also turns] into loans for small businesses,” Wilkinson says. “Everything we do helps support the CRA goals of the bank, as well as CRA regulatory obligations. They go hand in hand.”

An important thing to note about HarborOne U is that students do not need to be customers of the bank to enroll in any of the programs. But, over time, many do become customers. “If we are consistent and continue to offer the programming whether they’re a customer or not,” Wilkinson says, “eventually, either sooner or later, people will, 30% of the time, open accounts with us.”

The success of HarborOne U can be measured in many ways, but one thing is true: Wilkinson says it’s created many “feel-good” stories over the past 12 years.

“I’m either helping people by giving them a pathway to their business and their financial goals,” she says, “or I’m giving an organization money that is going to help them positively impact other people in our community that need financial support in order to get their next best life.”

Rebecca Lubecki is associate editor of Independent Banker.