Mr. and Ms. Williams are grass-roots entrepreneurs in every sense of the word. And yet their landscaping business managed to flourish in a climate that, for many aspiring small businesses seeking critical loans, sometimes seems more like a desert.

Many nascent entrepreneurs need loans that are too small for major financial institutions to provide, a problem exacerbated by the lending standards that emerged after the Great Recession.

That void in the marketplace is magnified by lending realities that appear less hospitable to minority and low-income borrowers, according to a recent report by the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute. That study found that businesses in the city's minority census tracts faced a credit gap of $1.6 billion. For businesses located in mostly low-income census tracts, the corresponding credit deficit was $817 million.

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