In the early, scruffy, idealistic days of ACE, Grace Fricks, left, sporting a 'Rosie the Riveter' sweatshirt, and co-conspirator Rosann Kent plot to make the world a better place for hard-working entrepreneurs. ... So far, so good.


'Amazing Grace':  Fricks honored as 'Influential Georgian' 


(CLEVELAND -- Special Edition Newsletter by Candice Dyer) -- At the end of every year, Georgia Trend magazine recognizes the top "100 Most Influential Georgians," a list of visionaries and power-brokers that has included Jimmy Carter, John Lewis, and Ted Turner, along with other game-changing politicos, university presidents, philanthropists, and the occasional rock star (Chuck Leavell, Zac Brown). This year, Grace Fricks, founder and CEO of Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE) joins those ranks and will be honored today in a ceremony at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta.


"It's a way to recognize people who are considered 'movers and shakers' making a measurable impact and providing forward momentum for the state and even the region," said Jerry Grillo, senior editor at the magazine, "and no one on the 100 list, in my opinion, exemplifies the idea of 'positive influence' like Grace Fricks. She has grown and guided an organization that supports small businesses at a time when larger, deeper-pocketed institutions have scurried for cover. She's one of those rays of sunshine - a true force of nature -- in a murky, downcast economy."


ACE marked several milestones in 2013, including $20 million in loans issued, and, since 2011, ACE's portfolio has grown by a whopping 266 percent, with 97 percent of ACE's clients repaying their loans as they grow their businesses in ways that foster sustainability and job creation. In fact, ACE has saved or generated almost 3,400 jobs.


Grace Fricks, right, hugs Deb Rowe, a co-owner of Shenanigans Pub, which was named  'Entrepreneur of the Year' in 2013 

Also, over the summer, Fricks attended the Clinton Global Initiative America in Chicago, where she brainstormed with U.S. leaders about economic recovery and then returned home inspired to launch a program ACE has been contemplating for awhile: Women Investing in Successful Entrepreneurs, or WISE. "WISE has as much potential as anything we've ever done at ACE," Fricks said. "Georgia is the No. 1 state for women-owned businesses, but those businesses tend to have fewer employees and less revenues, so there's capacity for real growth there."


In this spirit of celebration and fast-charging "forward momentum," Fricks reflected on ACE's modest beginnings 13 years ago, while a few staffers, board members, and supporters weighed in on the founder herself. Anyone acquainted with Fricks -- a larger-than-life personality with a whooping laugh and closet full of jewel-toned "power suits" -- knows that she turns oddly subdued when asked about herself, preferring to focus on the big-picture mission while crediting the contributions of her team and the hard work of her clients. (Her modest office in Cleveland is decorated in vibrant artwork and books rather than the numerous plaques, trophies, and certificates she has earned for her service to others, including the 2002 "Advocate of the Year" award from The Governor's Council on Developmental Disabilities.)


Before launching ACE, Fricks, who holds a bachelor's degree in social work and an MBA, was serving as CEO of Appalachian Consulting Group - a post she still holds in an organization that currently is developing, with guidance from her husband, Larry Fricks, a new work-force in mental health across the country. "We've trained more than 5,000 peer specialists in 25 states - with the goal of helping people attain recovery and self-management of mental illness," he said, adding proudly, "Not everybody knows that Grace still wears this hat in this area of job creation, too, while also leading ACE to greater and greater heights in the state of Georgia."


Her brainchild, ACE, a nonprofit community lender that now serves 68 counties, including metro Atlanta, began in 1998 with a $300 loan to help a woman launch a cleaning service, with the terms mapped out in the Fricks' rustic mountain home. Grace Fricks had noticed that many of the graduates of North Georgia Technical College possessed ingenuity, big dreams, and a dogged work ethic but struggled with start-up capital. There was only so much that family members could invest, and traditional banks were leery of lending to female entrepreneurs without male co-signers. So ACE began as Appalachian Community Enterprises.


Grace Fricks, Rosemarie Drake, Mitchelle Johnson, Pat Puckett
ACE Founding Board Member, Pat Puckett


"We went to the Appalachian Regional Commission and got a $50,000 grant for loans, and started out mostly helping women clients in very small businesses," recalls Pat Puckett, a current board member and adviser who served as Founding Board Chair for several years. "None of us really had that much experience in finance, but these loans just seemed like one of those simple, obvious, sound ideas -- a service nobody was providing at the time, and today it still fills a critical need for small businesses."


In the words of Rosann Kent, a professional storyteller, educator, and an early partner who developed the first business advisory services that have distinguished ACE from traditional lenders:


"So there we were, a social worker, a storyteller, and a secretary, setting out to change the world -- except that January in 2004 when I went full-time at ACE, we were sitting in water. Quite literally. The rains that year were especially torrential and the roof on the former moonshiners cabin where we worked, up on Little Buzzard Mountain, responded in kind. No green office, this. A decade ago, paper was still in style and now the rescued remnants were hanging on an indoor clothesline that resembled an obstacle course," said Kent, who is now the Director of Appalachian Studies Center at the University of North Georgia. The secretary eyeballed the three dogs -- dogs big enough to intimidate the bears who liked to appear just at closing time to check on the left over cat food -- stepped over, under, and around boxes containing her carefully laid plans. The storyteller smelled the old gas heaters, the kind with the sputtering, fluttering little blue flames, that she remembered from her grandmother's house and wondered, not for the first time, if they'd ever conduct business as usual. Then, the social worker gave a whoop as she found the files with the grant records dry and accounted for. "Ladies," she said, 'hold on to your hats. It's gonna be a hell of a ride.' And it was.


That "ride" grew especially bumpy when the economy tanked in 2008. "The recession changed everything," Fricks says. "We started hitting a double-digit default rate and knew we had to regroup. We decided that instead of tightening our belts as everyone else was doing, we would double-down and pump more money into the economy. We diversified by adding Georgia Green Loans, which helped keep afloat our clients struggling in low-income, underserved areas. We did fewer group seminars and more intensive, one-on-one counseling. It worked!"


While many traditional banks shuttered their doors - more than 90 closed in Georgia - ACE flourished, expanding into urban and suburban territory that required a less region-specific moniker. So Kent coined "Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs." In time, the client base has expanded in variety and scale to include Happy Belly, Georgia's leading food truck company which is revolutionizing the culinary scene in Atlanta; Hendershot's Coffee Bara trendy Athens music venue; SarahCare� of Snellvillean adult day-care facility for seniors with health issues; and Mice Direct, which has supplied the largest zoo in the Middle East with rodents for its snakes.



Terry and Dawn Hall, Happy Belly 
Food Truck

Seth Hendershot, Hendershot's Coffee Bar

Aysha Cooper with patient, SarahCare of Snellville


Kevin McGee joined the team in 2011 to expand the business advisory services and he has corralled a gung-ho collective of interns from
Kevin McGee, VP of Business Development, Metro Atlanta Region
Georgia Tech, Morehouse College, the University of Georgia, and Agnes Scott College. "I wanted to work for ACE because of its mission of entrepreneurial education, of helping people understand what it takes not only to survive in business but thrive in it, which is my passion," said McGee, Vice President of Business Development. "Grace is just so genuine and determined in her desire to help everybody, and I do mean everybody. She will innovate to find a way if it's at all possible."  
My dream, said Fricks, "is to make an impact on all poverty-stricken people across the South, but for now, we work with the individual who happens to be in front of us, asking for help."


She is also regarded as a crackerjack talent scout.


"Grace is adept at understanding the things that motivate people and also what strengths they bring to the operation," said Underwriting Officer Courtney Lynn, a three-time academic valedictorian and business school standout who started at ACE as an intern. "For example, she understands that she is more proficient on the front line seeking funding and promoting ACE than budgeting and lending. This ensures that the right people are in the right position. The ability to see our own weaknesses and to find people to complement us is what makes the whole organization run more smoothly. Plus, it's a caring culture; that's part of its appeal."


Today, ACE claims offices in Cleveland and Atlanta, bilingual Spanish services and a full-time staff of 13. "Our financial ship is tight, but our corporate culture is tailored to the individual without too many rules," Fricks said. "Philosophically I've never been wild about showy, brick-and-mortar offices. I'd rather keep rent and utility bills low and channel that money into delivering better services directly to our clients. I also love having a collaborative atmosphere that encourages work-life balance -- with dogs and children around while we work."


So you frequently will find a mellow Siberian Husky lolling on the floor, expecting - and getting - a belly rub in the Cleveland office, and toys might occupy one corner of a conference room.

Timba, the ACE office dog, says work is exhausting! 


"I was never career driven; I have always been family-driven," said Candace Thomas, Fricks' executive assistant and right-hand aide-de-camp. "When I started working one day a week for Grace, I was technically a 'stay-at-home' mom. My one day a week turned to two, then three, then four... Working for ACE gave me a sense of purpose and makes me want to contribute something to the world. I see firsthand how our clients' successes have ripple effects on their families and communities. ACE just sucks you in and doesn't let go. Why does it work? What is the secret of its success? My answer is: Grace. ACE would not be what it is without her vision, her passion."


Clara, who is now 6-yrs old, has been coming to ACE with her Mom, Candace, since she was a newborn. 


Adds Fricks, "One of the highlights of this job was seeing Candace's daughter Clara writing on my whiteboard and looking very serious in her facial expression. Somebody asked her if she was 'playing school,' and she answered very emphatically, 'No, I want to be a businesswoman.' That's what I love to hear."


"We create jobs, and we save jobs."
~ Grace Fricks, Founder/CEO of ACE Loans


Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs is a nonprofit community lender whose mission is to help entrepreneurs launch, grow, and strengthen their businesses. We assist established companies, as well as start-ups, to help them achieve sustainability.


250 E. Ponce de Leon Ave. Floor 2, Suite D, Decatur, GA 30030

3173 Hwy 129 North, Cleveland, GA 30528