Varsovia Fernandez: Constantly delivering for Philly’s diverse businesses
Varsovia Fernandez is one of the 2022 AL DÍA Women of Merit honorees, in the public service category.
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For a long time, Varsovia Fernandez has been very passionate about being a representative for groups and individuals who are not in the room.
Throughout her extensive career as an executive leader across multiple industries, that passion has only been confirmed.
Whether it was in banking, computer software technology, venture funding, or the nonprofit sectors, she has been a powerful voice for Latinas, and people of color in the community due to that commonality.
“I wanted to help Latinos because everywhere I went, I was the only woman and person of color in just about every conference room,” said Fernandez in an interview with AL DÍA.
She later continued, “In the process, I have just made it a point to be in the places where we haven’t been before. And that has led me to do service, and to promote diversity and push participation in places where people of color are not generally meeting.”
Leading Philly’s Diverse Businesses
One particular area Fernandez saw a lack of Latino representation was in mainstream business.
This realization eventually led Fernandez to becoming the President & CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which she led for over nine years.
“Probably one of the most exciting times in my life was my tenure at the Chamber,” she noted.
Fernandez highlighted how underutilized the Chamber, and underrepresented Latino businesses in the region were at the time. In addition, she saw how infrequently the media would highlight a successful Latino, often opting to report more on the social issues impacting the Latino community.
During her tenure, Fernandez set forth on a mission to enhance the visibility of Latino success in the region, particularly within the business community.
“We basically created a place for these businesses to network, to lead, and to be recognized,” said Fernandez.
Her leadership led to a rebranding of the Chamber, in which the region saw a dramatic increase in Latino-owned businesses, more Latinos on the path to executive leadership, and more opportunities for Latinos to train and support each other.
The PA CDFI Network’s First Leader
After leaving the Chamber, Fernandez returned to banking before being named the executive director of the Pennsylvania Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Network in September 2021.
When noting how negatively impacted small businesses, and particularly Black- and Latinx-owned, have been due to the pandemic, she credited the work of her team.
“This group really pulled their knowledge and the camaraderie that they have built through the years as a collective together to advocate for small businesses,” she said.
Since the pandemic began, the Network has distributed over $249 million in grants to more than 14,000 small businesses across the Commonwealth.
January 2022 saw the announcement of the newly-created $100 million Philadelphia Growth, Resiliency, Independence, Tenacity (GRIT) Fund, another avenue to support diverse businesses in the region.
Fernandez said that over the next five-years, $80 million will go toward capital through loans for diverse businesses, and the remaining $20 million will go toward charitable means for CDFIs, such as technical assistance and capacity building.
“For many years, Philadelphia’s CDFIs have operated under capacity,” said Fernandez, noting a lack of staff and inadequate services as a result of a lack of funds.
“The GRIT Fund is actually providing resources that allow them to assess their operational needs and to actually use some of those dollars to hire staff, to build technology… and whatever it is that they need to provide better services,” she continued.
Her work leading the Network ties perfectly to her passion of representing Latinos and people of color.
“This job is fantastic for that because the wealth gap in our communities is unbelievable,” said Fernandez, adding that CDFIs have a critical role in closing that gap and helping diverse business owners get the adequate help they need to succeed.