Group photo from the NCRC Just Economy Conference.

Photo from the #JustEconomy Conference via @justeconomy on Instagram.


By Chelsea Maxwell MSW, Senior Research Associate, AEO

When economic fairness is more pressing than ever, working together and taking collective action are crucial. Recently, the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO) participated in the national Just Economy Conference, hosted by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC). This conference convened over 1,200 community, bank, business, foundation, and policy leaders from across the country, all committed to fostering equitable economic growth and well-being in the United States.

AEO’s engagement at the conference identified 5 key takeaways that align with our mission to create economic opportunities for underserved entrepreneurs:

  1. Advocates for economic justice and financial inclusion are focusing more on underserved entrepreneurs and their experiences

Increasingly, underserved communities, more specifically rural and native communities, are being garnering more attention from support organizations. AEO is committed to supporting underserved communities and is invested in the future of race-conscious programs. Jessica Stago of Change Labs highlighted the readiness of native communities, like hers, to receive capital and the important role solopreneurs play in supporting those communities. Others addressed the unique infrastructure needs of rural communities, such as access to broadband internet.

  1. Experts are cautiously optimistic about a path forward for race-conscious programs and support

Conversations at the conference not only boosted rural and native voices but also addressed challenges to diversity, equity, and inclusion. A greater effort needs to be made to advance work that recognizes inequities in access and opportunity. Part of the path forward for these programs is their ability to withstand strict scrutiny. To do this, experts emphasized the importance of collecting recent data on community needs, articulating a clear scope for the program, implementing evaluation plans to assess effectiveness regularly, and adapting programs to address evolving community needs.

  1. Wholistic services and technical assistance remain key to effectively supporting underserved lenders and their diverse needs, including small business owners

AEO has long heralded technical assistance as key to effectively deploying capital to small businesses. Julia Parker of Appalachian Community Capital validated AEO’s position stating, “Technical assistance is good for business, and technical assistance is good business.”

Arlo Washington of People Trust also underscored the importance of technical assistance, sharing that the small businesses his organization serves often benefit from its time-intensive technical assistance. He also highlighted the interconnectedness of business and personal financial stability, stating, “If you’re struggling to keep your business, you might also be struggling to keep your house.”

  1. Addressing the climate crisis is a priority interwoven in our pursuit of economic justice and financial inclusion for underserved entrepreneurs.

AEO has been monitoring the impact of climate and environmental governance on small businesses, a topic that resonated throughout the conference. Discussions highlighted how technical assistance providers are helping businesses transition to a green economy by focusing on small actions like reducing energy costs. Additionally,  exciting news was released during the conference, with Appalachian Community Capital (ACC) announcing its receipt of the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. AAC shared its intent to “turn coal country into the green country,” showcasing efforts to address the climate crisis while promoting economic inclusion.

  1. The fight for community reinvestment and the financial inclusion of underserved communities continues

As an association of business service organizations supporting entrepreneurs in underserved communities, financial inclusion is a core concern of AEO. Recent events that threaten financial inclusion progress were top of mind at the event. Community thought leaders conveyed concerns about the recent lawsuit halting new rules for the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and the proposed merger of Capital One and Discover.

The CRA is particularly important to AEO which reaffirms the responsibility of regulated financial institutions to serve community needs. by encouraging financial institutions to be more financially inclusive. The new rules,  modernize the legislation to better suit the online and mobile banking era and address inequitable credit access.

The 2024 Just Economy Conference served as a powerful reminder of how strong unity, resilience, and innovation among advocates for economic justice and financial inclusion can affect positive change.   These key takeaways are not just theoretical; they are fuel for our efforts as we seek to empower underserved entrepreneurs. AEO’s work is part of a larger movement, a collective journey towards creating a more inclusive economy. We invite you to join us in this important endeavor as we continue to learn, adapt, and build together.

For more information on our research and insights, visit the AEO Research Center at and follow AEO on social media (@AEOworks).