Last night’s Empowering Women Through Microfinance event, sparked provocative discussion, with some touches of fire.
Some questions debated: Could the male majority panel of speakers and men CEOs of microfinance organizations sufficiently represent the plight of impoverished women, who do 66% of the world’s work for 11% of the world’s income? Should short-term, numbers-based research be used to reflect what women gain by having access to financial services?
The questions remained unresolved, but those in attendance listening to talk of financial services for the world’s poorest, iPhones on silent and car keys on hand, did gain much food for thought.
Jessica Jackley, co-founder of Kiva.org, a finalist for TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in 2009, energetic, fast-talking and refreshingly starry-eyed, shared her personal tale. “The most powerful thing we can give each other is our stories,” she started. Wrought with guilt for having more than those in other countries, Jackley traveled to Haiti as a high school volunteer and felt the strangeness of attending her high school prom days after her return.
As a young adult Jackley listened to a lecture by Muhammad Yunus, an influential proponent of microfinance, and her perceptions changed. Inspired by Yunus’ depiction of the impoverished as smart, strong equals with hope and unwavering drive rather than as the suffering, sad and weak, Jackley journeyed to East Africa with driving forces different from those that lead her to Haiti.
While there, Jackley and her friend, Matt Flannery, took photos of a handful of aspiring entrepreneurs. Jackley and Flannery returned to the U.S. with hopes of connecting these new peers, these business men and women, not needy victims of poverty, with capital to further their businesses.
Jackley and Flannery took the “put it out there and just try ” approach, which Jackley encourages and developed a website with first donations from friends and Grandma. Since then Kiva.org has served more than 430,000 people with more than $120 million in funding and has become the world’s first peer-to-peer microlending websites. It is globally recognized and was named one of the top ideas of 2006 by New York Times Magazine.
Jackley credits Kiva.org’s success to connecting impoverished entrepreneurs with lenders, as equals. “The point was connection . . . but we had to connect in a particular way.”
Bhalchandar Vishwanath, founder and CEO of UnitedProsperity.org, shared dialogue that he had with women who had used microfinancing for more than five years. “They look you straight in the eye. I ask them, ‘what do you do?’ And they say, ‘business’.”
Bhagwan Chowdry, Professor of Finance and Faculty Director at UCLA Anderson School of Management spoke about his campaign to provide every born child with $100 for savings, basic health, disaster relief and other needed expenses and as an incentive to record births and provide immunizations. Dean Karlan, Professor of Economics at Yale University and President of Innovations for Poverty Action, shared research about microfinance credit and savings.
Jon Yasuda, Vice President of Western Region for Opportunity International discussed the far-reaching efforts of Opportunity International, serving 85% women, to provide financial services that include financial training and insurance for crops, livestock and funerals. Eric Weaver, Founder and CEO of Opportunity Fund discussed microfinancing on the local level, noting that of his microsavers 72% are women and 40% are single parents.
The rates of payback are at more than 85% and according to Vishwanath, cases show 400% or more profit above what was borrowed.
“There are a lot of problems in the world that we know how to solve. Somewhere along the way we’ve been told problems are totally overwhelming or don’t matter or that people we are trying to help aren’t capable.” Jackley stated
Jackley’s belief in the strength of others has revolutionized the microfinance industry.