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People are Priority, Jackley Tells Students

March 2, 2010

More than the $130 million in microloans it has facilitated this year, and more than reaching 191 countries within four years of its inception, Kiva is about stories - and the individual people those detailed stories represent - Kiva Co-Founder Jessica Jackley said.

Jackley spoke about "Harnessing the Power of Perspective" during the 2010 Minter Lecture at Oklahoma Baptist University Monday, March 1, in OBU's Geiger Center.

Kiva is the world's first peer-to-peer microloan Web site. At users can make microloans directly to specific developing world entrepreneurs, who then use the money to start or grow a small business, and lift themselves out of poverty. Loans start at $25 and are processed through about 100 Micro Finance Institutions - or MFIs - contracted with Kiva. Jackley said about 10,000 MFIs exist worldwide.

Jessica Jackley, co-founder of the microlending Web site, speaks to Oklahoma Baptist University students during the 2010 Minter Lecture Monday, March 1, on the OBU campus.

Named one of the top ideas of 2006 by The New York Times Magazine, Kiva is one of the fastest-growing social benefit Web sites in history. In 2005, Jackley shared the stories of seven entrepreneurs - the working poor in Africa who needed financial support - with family and friends via the Web. In a short time, the entrepreneurs received $3,000 in loans.

Noting the possibilities of expanding the endeavor, Jackley and Matt Flannery founded, which means "unity" in Swahili. In a short time, media about the budding company exploded, with about 300 blogs writing about Kiva. The first year, Kiva raised $500,000 in loans; within the first three weeks of its second year, the company matched that amount. In four years, the totals have reached $130 million loaned to entrepreneurs in 191 countries. The company expects to have loaned more than $1 billion to the world's working poor by 2012.

The company's stated mission, "To connect people through lending to alleviate poverty," is tied to the concept that relationships are a powerful force for positive change. For Jackley, that mission started when, as a 6-year-old girl in a Sunday School class in Pittsburgh, Pa., she learned about the world's poor. She said she was terrified and fascinated by the overwhelming needs in the world, especially when her teacher said, "The poor will always be with us."

As a teenager, she began to feel shame that - as a middle-class American - she was relatively wealthy compared to the sadness and suffering she saw on the faces in images depicting the world's poor. Trying to figure out how she could help, Jackley participated in a mission trip to Haiti as a high school student. Returning to the United States the week of senior prom, she said she couldn't rationalize the amount of money spent on one night of entertainment compared to the massive needs she had just experienced.

"For a lot of my life, I didn't have a lot of answers," Jackley said. "If you have a desire to impact the world, don't worry if you don't know the details yet."

Following graduation from Bucknell University, Jackley followed Flannery to California, where she took a job at Stanford University to pay the bills. She landed in the business school, where she heard a lecture by Dr. Mohammed Yunus, a founding microfinance businessman and creator of the Grameen Bank, a non-profit organization that helps poor entrepreneurs break through poverty by starting their own businesses. She said it was a lightning-bolt moment in her life because she finally knew how she could help the people who had concerned her since her childhood.

Kiva is built on the notion of allowing people the dignity to change their own lives through the support of another person. The Kiva Web site explains what is a unique model in the world of micro-finance: A lender chooses who to lend to - whether a baker in Afghanistan, a goat herder in Uganda, a farmer in Peru, a restaurateur in Cambodia or a tailor in Iraq - and as they repay their loan, the lender receives his or her money back.

While beginning Kiva, Jackley completed her MBA degree from Stanford. She said the first year after launching Kiva was like "hanging on for dear life." She shared several lessons she has learned through the start-up with OBU students during the Minter Lecture, encouraging them to follow their own dreams.

First, she said, a company must know its mission and stick to it. She said the primary focus of Kiva was to connect people, not to amass a huge fund of money or build a big MFI network. Therefore, the company has turned down large sums offered by corporations, instead allowing people the one-on-one opportunity to connect with the individuals they support.

She also told students to stay open to the involvement of others, even though it often would be easier to control all the details in a management level or solely with staff.

"There are a number of different ways we allow people to stay involved," Jackley said. "It's a little messier, it's a little less control, but it engages more people."

For Kiva, volunteers serve as translators and man the fellows program, which offers individuals a rare opportunity to travel abroad and witness firsthand the impact and realities of microfinance, by working directly with a host MFI. Volunteers have set up a "Kivapedia" Web site; sold Kiva-logo products, donating the profits back to Kiva; created Kiva donation iPhone applications; and even adorned themselves with tattoos of the Kiva logo.

"It's scary having hundreds of peple out in the world seeing the business you're trying to do," she added. "It's hard to rely on other people, but it's worth it."

Jackley told OBU students to practice iteration, or repetition. Constantly refining, rather than trying to roll out a flawless company upon start-up, relieves the pressure of making it work perfectly the first time, she said.

She also reminded students to focus on individuals and keep relationships first. Even if it is more time-consuming, and even if it is not the most cost-efficient, she said to always keep people at the forefront of any endeavor.

"There are a lot of problems in the world, and they are really not unsolvable," she said. "Believe in one another. Believe it's possible to change."

The Minter Lectureship, underwritten by 1940 OBU graduate Lloyd G. Minter of Bartlesville, Okla., is designed to provide orientation and training for students in the history and nature of the American economic system and to help students understand and appreciate the professional community. It also promotes proper management of personal finances.

Jackley, a finalist for TIME magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2009, has worked for public, non-profit and private organizations including the Stanford Center for Social Innovation, Amazon and others. In 2009, she began work on ProFounder, a company which provides ways for small businesses in the United States to access start-up funding through community involvement. She also teaches global entrepreneurship at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.