Unsurprisingly, Michelle Corson is a car person.
“I would have a different one for every day of the week if I could,” she says. “I want a one-bedroom house and a seven-car garage.”
Corson is the founder of On the Road Lending, a nonprofit that helps put low-income people in vehicles via low-cost loans. It’s just before noon and we’re sitting on the patio of Toulouse Cafe & Bar, a French bistro on Dallas’ Knox Street. As we glance over the menu, she tells me about her background in finance and commercial real estate and how, about six years ago, she became interested in impact investing.
“That’s investing in solutions to social problems,” she explains in her calm, patient tone. “I started looking at issues I felt like we could solve that way. And transportation was this unknown—but huge—problem.”
“If we just solve the practical things first, the rest might take care of itself.”
Cars may lack the instantaneous appeal of baby animals or children, but Corson is convinced that helping people get their own cars is a practical necessity. I ask about other commute options, like DART, and she points out that the best jobs for low-income people living in Dallas could be places DART doesn’t reach. What about Uber and Lyft? Corson explains how pricey ride sharing gets when used for a twice-daily commute. What about bike share? “If you’re a single mom, you’re not riding a bike to get your kids to school,” Corson says. “It’s really difficult to do the simplest things.”
When the waiter comes over, Corson orders a daily special—chilled avocado soup with lobster relish. Our entrees come quickly, and as we dig in, she talks about some of her favorite success stories, bringing up a single mother of three who made $17,000 a year. When the woman’s son was offered a scholarship to a private school, she was elated—until she realized that, without a car, it would take him three-and-a-half hours to get there. Even then, he’d miss his first class.
“He was going to turn down this school that was going to change his life,” Corson says. “So we made her a loan on a 2-year-old car. Now her kid is going to this school and looking at where he wants to go to college. She was able to get a better job. They bought their first house. Everybody’s lives changed.”
On the Road Lending was founded in 2013, and made around 15 to 20 loans a year in the early days. Now, the company averages that many a month and has grown 185 percent in the first quarter of 2018 year-over-year. A typical qualifying car is 2 or 3 years old and under warranty. The environmental aspect is important to Corson, too: On the Road Lending often helps furnish loans that replace old, polluting cars with newer, fuel-efficient ones. And through a partnership with Toyota, she says, the company has plans to expand into Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
In her office, Corson also has the first-ever U.S.-made edition of the Toyota Corolla. The car enthusiast asked to buy one of the vehicles from a museum in Toyota’s former California headquarters. But after On the Road Lending and Toyota partnered up, Toyota told her they’d bring her one.
“It’s serial number one,” she says. “Only 14 miles on it.”
As we wrap up our lunch, I ask her how such an obvious problem—access to affordable transportation—is so easily ignored. She suggests that people tend to focus too much on the big things, such as college, when they talk about helping others improve their lives.
“We don’t think about things like, ‘How are they going to get there?’” Corson says. “If we just solve the practical things first, the rest might take care of itself.”