Amidst rising rapidly through the ranks of the business world after college, Steve Wanta “hit his quarter-life crisis, hard.” Wanta left his well-paying job, joined the Peace Corps, and set off across the globe on what would become a multi-decade endeavor to tackle world poverty head on.
First in Guatemala with the Peace Corps, and then throughout 60 different countries as the Global Program Director for Whole Foods’ Whole Planet Foundation, Wanta gained extensive experience utilizing microcredit—lending small loans at low interest rates—to aid large numbers of aspiring entrepreneurs in developing economies. And in 2016, he turned his attention to Texas.
Wanta identified the unique barriers the US financial system posed toward aspiring low-income individuals, where a low credit score alone is enough to derail many would-be entrepreneurs. Wanta believes that the Texas spirit is inherently an entrepreneurial one. That independence, resourcefulness, and seizing the opportunity come naturally to Texans. A problem arises, however, when the environment doesn’t allow that spirit to emerge and flourish. So, he co-founded JUST to fix it.
JUST seeks to empower the most excluded Texans first, focusing on female minority entrepreneurs. In addition to providing small loans (max $750 initially) and a basic financial planning framework, JUST organizes peer support groups where the entrepreneurs can work through their business challenges together and hold each other accountable in attaining their goals. According to Wanta, “social capital unlocks financial capital.”
Wanta shares that a great number of clients in his program become emotional the first time they’re approved for a loan, some even to tears. But by their second approval, none of them are crying. They’ve shifted their outlook. They’re too busy moving forward and upward, all across the state.
- In what ways does Texas influence you, your career, or your story?
Texas is influencing our organization and me personally more every day. Similar to the local-minded focus of H-E-B, we plan to expand our new model of microfinance exclusively across the state, keeping the needs and identity of Texans at the forefront. JUST is committed to investing in underserved entrepreneurs from El Paso to Texarkana to create a more prosperous and resilient Texas.
- How does an “independent spirit” play a role in your success?
I’m a new dad. I now understand that we all are born dependent. Much like the spirit of Texas, my goal for our daughter is her independence. But as the founder of JUST, I realize that real freedom we seek is in the interdependence of true partnership. To transform how we invest in the potential of low-income communities we must invite everyone to be a part of the solution.
- If you had an “Independent Spirit” motto what would that be?
That’s easy. “Less stress. More joy.”
- What is your advice to young Texans who may look up to you?
Keep an open mind. We can learn from everyone. When in doubt, have a bias toward action because experience is our greatest teacher.