Micro-lending site Kiva provides dignity, opportunity to disadvantaged

By Colleen Dulle

WASHINGTON (CNS) -– Julie Hanna, a two-time refugee and five-time entrepreneur, took to the stage at the United State of Women Summit June 14 to share how her company is bringing dignity and opportunity to talented but disadvantaged people.

A loan of $100 helped Cynthia in Ghana to stock up on beads and stones for jewelry she makes and sells. (Kiva photo/Juan Barbed)

A $100 loan helped Cynthia in Ghana to buy beads for jewelry she makes and sells. (Kiva photo/Juan Barbed)

Hanna, executive chair of the board at micro-lending giant Kiva.org, knows from experience that, as she says, “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”

She told the audience of 5,000 women at the White House summit how she recalled seeing her parents looked upon with pity here after the family fled first from Black September — the Jordanian civil war — and then from the Lebanese civil war.

“The expression I saw on my parents’ face,” she said, “was their dignity being chipped away.” She realized the society they’d entered didn’t understand the difference between broken circumstances and broken people, but she began to dream of a world that would.

“I dreamt of a world that knows pity is the dear enemy of compassion. I dreamt of a world that regards dignity as an unalienable human right. I dreamt of a world that understands that talent is universal but opportunity is not,” Hanna said.

She went on to take advantage of every opportunity she had to channel her talent. She was one of the first girls to play Little League baseball in Alabama after Title IX passed and graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in computer science before moving to Silicon Valley and working for five successful startups including Healtheon, which became WebMD.

Hanna then went to Kiva, which pioneered what’s now known as “crowdfunding” 11 years ago. Its first borrower was a mother of five who took out a $500 loan to start a business without diverting funds from her children’s education.

Egyptian-born Hanna has seen the site transform communities around the world by empowering women in business. Of the entrepreneurs Kiva lenders have funded, 75 percent or 1.5 million are women.

Hanna sat down with Catholic News Service after her talk to reflect on this point.

She said she wanted her speech to convey that “investing in women and women entrepreneurs is the fastest way to transform a society, and that it takes very little money to do that.”

She cited examples of women who began sending their children to school thanks to Kiva loans, and those who have gone from being homeless to starting craft businesses that employ other women and create jobs.

“It’s so empowering and dignity-building for these women, and often times they’re in situations where they’ve been abused, they’ve been discriminated against, they haven’t had access to money, and all of a sudden, they come under their own power and their communities completely shift,” Hanna said.

“They’re so strong and powerful and become a force to be reckoned with, and they become role models for the children and lift up everyone around them.”

Teresa Goines honored in 2009 with community leadership award by FBI's San Francisco division. (Photo/Old School Cafe)

Teresa Goines is honored in 2009 with community leadership award by FBI’s San Francisco division. (Photo/Old Skool Cafe)

One example that has stayed with her through the years, she said, was that of Teresa Goines, who was a corrections officer in San Francisco who saw the same gang-involved teens and young adults come through prison over and over. She knew that jobs could change the course of their lives, so after some time in prayer, she started Old Skool Cafe, a jazz-themed dinner club that employs former gang members as cooks, waiters, and performers, among other jobs.

The cafe program graduates 25 students per year who go on to full-time education or employment.

It, like similar programs at Cafe Reconcile in New Orleans or the Jesuit-run Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, has transformed the employees’ community and provided an avenue out of gang life.

The transformative service Kiva provides makes it a natural partner for religious organizations.

“Faith-based organizations are actually a real fabric of Kiva’s lending community, a massive fabric, and they’ve been some of the longest-standing and earliest lenders,” Hanna said, detailing how Kiva is partnering with church-run organizations in the U.S. to identify borrowers and vouch for them.

“Matter of fact, the number one and number two lending teams on Kiva — we have lending teams that can lend together — are the atheists and the Christians, and they compete with one another,” Hanna laughed.

The Christians have fallen behind, with $24.5 million to the atheist group’s $26.7 million.

The friendly competition between the two and the other groups on Kiva (which even the Christian group outpaces by a $12 million margin) contribute to Hanna’s dream of restoring dignity to those whose circumstances have taken it.

“One dream can transform a million realities,” Hanna said. “It’s the only thing that ever has, and that’s the most hopeful truth I know.”

Make that 2 million borrowers’ realities — and counting.

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