Neelu Panth finds common challenges among communities and entrepreneurs across the globe
Neelu Panth, Community Development Advisor, St. Louis Fed
“My father always had a small business going, and if one didn’t work, he would try something else,” explains Neelu Panth, who grew up in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her upbringing taught her much about the challenges entrepreneurs face. Especially those working in poor areas, where even small gains can make a great difference to a family’s financial security. Years later—and 8,000 miles from her childhood home—she applies her early experience to her work as a senior community affairs specialist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
‘Educators are also community developers’
Neelu moved to the United States with her husband in the early 2000s and began her professional career as an educator. As part of her job, she shared the cultures and traditions of her native Nepal with students from St. Louis Public Schools. Though the students’ urban neighborhoods were across the globe from where she grew up, she found that the two worlds were not as different as she had expected. In both areas, she noticed, families experienced severe economic challenges. And in both areas, the needs for community development were great.
No matter where students live, or what their families’ situations are, Neelu realized that “educators are also community developers,” she said. “They are constantly working with families and agencies to bring programs to their schools.” Still, Neelu felt discouraged by the fact that teachers could do very little from a systems perspective, and she wanted to do more.
That drive to do more led her to the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis. The broad applicability of a master’s degree in social work appealed to Neelu because she knew she wanted to use her education in a nontraditional way.
“The work they were doing at the Brown School inspired me—the program there was broad, with a strong international development and a domestic economic development curriculum,” Neelu said.
“We needed a regional strategy to strengthen our community development work, rather than everyone working in our own siloed spaces.”
Building an impactful career in community development, one role at a time
After graduating, Neelu took her first role in community development at Urban Strategies, Inc., a nationwide nonprofit organization with a mission to create healthy neighborhoods that help residents grow socially and financially. In her role, Neelu engaged with communities like Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities in the nation. Her work included engaging with residents and community/political leaders to develop a human capital plan, an essential piece of economic and physical development for any city.
Frequent travel away from her husband and children led Neelu back to her home base of St. Louis, where she began a position as director of research, social, and economic development at the Center for the Acceleration of African-American Business (CAAAB). Neelu developed an entrepreneurship training and micro loan program for individuals receiving financial aid from the state and focused on small businesses owned by African Americans. The program provided classes and coaching to promote “entrepreneurship as a tool to build wealth,” Neelu said.
When the program was adopted by Better Family Life, Inc. (BFL), a local nonprofit that supports families in the St. Louis area, Neelu followed. As BFL’s development director and entrepreneurship specialist, Neelu honed her development skills and established a fund development office. The result? More than $1 million dollars in funding raised through building strategic partnerships and sharing BFL’s vision. Neelu played a key role in establishing institutional partnerships between BFL and the Brown School of Social Work that brought cross-organization programming and classes to the community.
Expanding her impact through the Fed’s Investment Connection program
As her success with the nonprofit grew, Neelu set her sights on effecting change more broadly. In 2018, she learned of an opportunity with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’s Investment Connection program.
The role required skills in relationship building, program development, and funding coordination. The program supported community development well beyond St. Louis, covering communities across the St. Louis Fed’s region covering portions of Missouri and six neighboring states. Neelu was hooked.
The Investment Connection work was a great fit for Neelu’s passion and skills. The program pairs banks looking to earn Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) credit with organizations looking to fund community development projects. Through Investment Connection, Neelu helped build a bridge between community development organizations in need of capital and the banks and funders with the capacity to help. The Investment Connection team received the 2018 President’s Award from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, a rare honor for someone in their first year at the Fed.
The entrepreneur’s daughter keeps innovating
She hasn’t slowed down since then. Neelu has continued to introduce new programming at the St. Louis Fed, most recently with the June 2021 launch of the Community Development Funders Forum (CDFF). “We had just started a similar program in the Mississippi Delta, and we decided to pilot a version of the model in St. Louis,” Neelu said. “We didn’t have access to the same funders, but St. Louis has a large funding community and altruistic community.”
CDFF has close to 20 members from the business community who are working together to attract more funding for community development in the St. Louis area.
“We needed a regional strategy to strengthen our community development work, rather than everyone working in our own siloed spaces,” Neelu said. “The CDFF provides a platform for information sharing and learning from a diverse group of organizations, discussing how we can leverage incoming funding to meet our communities’ needs.”
A passion for making a difference
Neelu’s path to a career of serving others through community development work began when she was a child in Nepal, watching her father overcome challenges in supporting his family. She was also involved in a serious accident that has made her very conscious of the value of second chances. Whether surrounded by mountains in Kathmandu or blocks of apartment buildings in St. Louis, her experiences have shaped the career she’s chosen.
“I often hear people say to me, ‘You have such a spark, you are so passionate about things.’ But I’ve seen the ups and downs in my life and my father’s life, and that keeps me motivated and passionate,” Neelu shared.
“I want to make any kind of difference that I can.”