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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Watchen Harris Bruce: Re-Imagining Baltimore

Since taking the helm as President and CEO of Baltimore Community Lending (BCL) in January 2020, Watchen Harris Bruce has focused on “Re-Imagining Baltimore,” BCL’s strategic plan to transform the organization and increase opportunities to support development in Baltimore’s underserved communities. 

   “We need to rethink who we are as an organization but also as a city,” Harris Bruce explains. “We are here because we are a community development financial institution. And what that means is, we are the lender of last resort. Meaning, if the bank can’t help you, we will have to. We will do whatever we can to help you. And if you are not ready, we have to make you ready. That’s what we do.”

   As a certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI), BCL provides affordable lending products to help low-income and disadvantaged communities, and small real estate developers and small business owners committed to developing underserved neighborhoods. To better serve those developers and business owners, BCL established Baltimore Business Lending (BBL) as a subsidiary in 2018. Under Harris Bruce’s leadership, BCL has merged with BBL, thereby creating a more straightforward process for local real estate developers and small business owners seeking help.

   According to Harris Bruce, in addition to launching a fundraising campaign, BCL’s strategic goals for the next three years include creating partnerships and engaging in an aggressive marketing campaign. Currently, BCL is hosting a 26-week, half-hour show, Fridays at 6:30 p.m., on Morgan State University’s WEAA, 88.9 FM that presents information about the organization’s products, services, and events. 

   “On the small business side,” she says, “BCL is providing comprehensive business development services to businesses that need accounting, legal, business incubation, co-working spaces… Anything a business needs to a start or expand the businesses.”

Watchen Harris Bruce, President and CEO of Baltimore Community Lending

Courtesy Photo

   “We’ve been doing this work, but it was just internal. Now, we’re going to start doing it externally, in the whole region. We are expanding outside of the city, namely the surrounding counties, but focusing on neighborhoods who need it and people who are black and brown,” she adds.

   “Another initiative we have works with Black and Latina women, to help them become real estate developers. The program is in partnership with JPMorgan Chase and is part of its Advancing Cities initiative. That’s all part of our transformation, to Re-imagine BCL and Re-imagine Baltimore.”

  Born and raised on a farm in Liberia, West Africa, Harris Bruce credits her parents’ work as missionaries, farmers, entrepreneurs, and community developers (long before she ever knew the term) as having laid the foundation for her passion to help people help themselves build viable communities. Watching them assist members of the community cultivate ideas and start businesses, planted a seed in her that blossomed into a more than 42-year career, working internationally in finance and community development. 

   According BCL’s 2020 Annual Report, in her first year as CEO, BCL “…closed more loans, provided more hours of technical assistance, and added more loan capital to our fund than ever before.” That’s quite a feat to have accomplished in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown.

   Harris Bruce says that she doesn’t think of her work as a job. It is her passion and more like a calling. 

   “On a more personal note, my passion, purpose, and calling are to serve God’s people globally by providing entrepreneurial services to people who want to start or expand their businesses to help close the generational wealth gap through growth businesses and homeownership with equity.”

   For additional information about Baltimore City Lending and its services, visit https://bclending.org/.

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