Entrepreneur/Author Jessica Jackley

The co-founder of the massively successful microlending site Kiva discusses the potential impact that crowdfunding can have on the world, and also shares on her new book, CLAY WATER BRICK.

Jessica Jackley is an entrepreneur and investor focused on financial inclusion, the sharing economy, and social justice. Best known as the co-founder of Kiva, the world's first peer-to-peer microlending website, Jackley is adamant about the potential for microfinancing to level the playing field in the business world, and ultimately aid in the fight against poverty. Kiva's draw is that it lets its users lend money to individual entrepreneurs, providing them affordable capital to start or expand a small business. Since its founding in October 2005, the company has facilitated over $700 million dollars in loans among individuals across 216 countries. She recently released her first book, titled CLAY WATER BRICK: Finding Inspiration from Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most with the Least.


Tavis: So pleased to welcome Jessica Jackley to this program. She is the cofounder of Kiva, the world’s first and largest peer to peer microlending site which allows internet users to lend money to individual entrepreneurs providing them affordable capital to start small businesses. Since its founding in 2005, Kiva has facilitated over $700 million dollars in loans among individuals across 216 countries.

Jessica is also the author of a fine new text. It’s called “Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration From Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most With the Least”. Jessica, good to have you on this program.

Jessica Jackley: Thank you for having me.

Tavis: I’m going to come to microlending in just a second. Tell me about the text, though.

Jackley: Sure. I wrote this book to share mostly the stories of entrepreneurs that I’ve met along the way that have really taught me something significant when I needed it most in my own entrepreneurial journey. And what I hope the book can do is to inspire people to live and work more entrepreneurially in their own lives.

Tavis: What is there then for us to learn from those who do the most with the least?

Jackley: So I think everyone feels stuck sometimes, right? And when I get to interact with and get to know entrepreneurs who have done so much with so very little, I’m reminded again and again and again that, even if you don’t have, you know, fill in the blank, the right kind of connections, enough capital, as you see it, all sorts of things, even when you don’t have those things that you might feel like you need to keep going, they find ways to keep going.

And it’s a reminder and an encouragement to me and I hope to others that there’s always a way over, around and through.

Tavis: When you used the phrase as you did a moment ago, Jessica, entrepreneurial spirit, what does that mean? How are you defining that? Unpack that for me.

Jackley: So it’s a really good question. In the book, I talk about my favorite definition of entrepreneurship. It’s a definition by Howard Stevenson who is a Harvard business school professor and he says entrepreneurship is about the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled.

So it’s about this movement forward, this action-oriented sort of way of existing in the world. And I find that to be really the core of what the entrepreneurial spirit is about, that drive, that spark. That’s what I see and that’s what I think is really at the heart of the entrepreneurial spirit.

Tavis: I recall writing a piece some years ago about capitalism. Obviously, it’s not always the most popular piece when you write a piece that sort of critiques capitalism as we know it.

One of the points I made which is kind of silly, but people kind of picked up on, I think, which is I suggested that I had nothing against capitalism. I just hate that some people get the capital and other folk get the ism, the racism, the sexism, the cronyism…

Jackley: Okay, that’s good [laugh].

Tavis: The good old boyism. So some will get the capital, some will get the ism, and that was my primary critique of what’s wrong with capitalism. I raise that only because it seems to me that, at its best–and we’ll talk about some of the criticisms of microlending–but at it’s best, it seems to me what microlending does is to allow those persons who otherwise wouldn’t have access to capital to get into the game. Has that been your sense of it?

Jackley: That’s my sense of it. You know, I think one truth that sometimes we forget is that there is enough to go around. There’s enough opportunity for everybody to have a shot and there are very frequently enough resources to go around too. I think those get stuck too in the system.

So as I’ve seen over the last decade since Kiva’s been, you know, up and running, I’ve seen that there is a desire, I think a widespread desire, and almost everybody will meet to help, to contribute, to share in this new sharing economy, the collaborative economy.

And I think to utilize technology to create more and more ways for people to provide access to resources and not just hoard them, not keep them for themselves, but to open them up to other people is going to be a really beneficial thing.

We’re seeing that in little ways now, but I think we’re just at the beginning of a really hopefully widespread movement, again, more towards access and away from ownership, which I think will free everything up and be really good for the world.

Tavis: I’ve been honored to have on this program as a guest, Muhammad Yunus, who obviously is Nobel Laureate and world-renowned for the work he did years ago at the Grameen Bank.

Jackley: Hero of mine.

Tavis: Yeah. Hero of mine as well. Give me some sense, though, of where the idea to start Kiva came from and why you thought at that time that the time was right and ripe to get something off the ground like that.

Jackley: A lot of the stories I heard–I’ll start way back there.

Tavis: Sure.

Jackley: A lot of the stories I heard growing up about poverty and about “the poor” were very much focused on only one side of the story, the side that was all about suffering and sadness, hopelessness, desperation.

And, of course, a lot of those stories were told to me by well-intentioned nonprofits and organizations that wanted me to have a very particular kind of reaction that would be to me whipping out my wallet and contributing to their, again, noble causes, their noble work.

However, I think those kinds of stories and the reaction that they caused in me and I think a lot of us, it causes this brokenness, this dissonance.

And instead of having a relationship or an interaction, a real genuine kind of connection to people that maybe we so genuinely weaving anybody who has anything to offer, the people that we want to serve, instead I felt like it created this distance.

I’d hear stories about them. They would make me feel bad and guilty, maybe even shameful about my own relative middle class American wealth, and my only option, at least as I was given by these organizations, was to give a little bit and let them go do the work.

Now when I heard Dr. Yunus speak actually a little over 10 years ago, several things happened. I learned about microfinance, you know, financial services and products for the poor, in particular, microcredit. I was blown away by the idea that a little bit of capital at the right moment in time could change someone’s life.

But also, he talked about the poor as entrepreneurs. Now this changed my paradigm. I mean, it flipped it on its head. I’d been in Silicon Valley at the time and the greatest thing you could be was an entrepreneur.

And their stories, entrepreneurial stories as I had always heard them, were the opposite of that kind of side of the story that I’d heard about poverty. They were all that potential and opportunity. So to have those two worlds collide and to start to see the poor as perhaps, you know, entrepreneurs themselves was game-changing.

I quit my job like a few weeks after I heard Dr. Yunus speak. I went to East Africa to work with a nonprofit there that was giving $100 to very poor entrepreneurs in villages to have them start or grow their businesses.

And it was the most incredible game-changing experience of my life up until that moment because I did indeed hear a different story. I heard a story potential and I wanted to be able to share that and [laugh], on top of that, because what individuals wanted and needed was not a donation.

They weren’t asking for a handout. They were asking for a loan. Myself and my cofounder, Matt, we thought, well, why don’t we provide a way for people to do that, not just donate and then have the rest happen behind the scenes?

Why don’t we create a way for people to contribute whatever they could toward the loan needs of these goat herders and seamstresses and farmers and then participate in that and have the money come back into their hands so they can do it again and again?

So that very simple sort of set of what-if questions led to the idea of Kiva. What if we could share a new story? What if we could allow people to lend instead of donate? Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Tavis: See, what’s fascinating for me, Jessica, is that that concept of Kiva has worked so remarkably well around the world. As I mentioned, 213 countries now, over $700 million loaned.

Jackley: It’s crazy, yeah.

Tavis: Crazy numbers and yet that concept when you all tried to get it off the ground here in this country under a different, you know, brand didn’t quite work so well. So if it works for seamstresses and goat herders in Africa and elsewhere around the world, what is it about us that didn’t allow that concept to work in the same way here domestically?

Jackley: Key words there, right, in the same way. I mean, I think there’s two answers to your question maybe. First of all, 10 years ago when we put this set of what-if questions out there to the world, we got a lot of negative feedback.

Because I think individuals, a lot of experts, who had a lot invested in their own way of doing things were confused, if not threatened by the idea that perhaps individuals like you and me would want to lend, not donate for a tax deduction, you know, as a financial benefit, and not invest for a financial benefit, but just to do a zero percent loan to somebody on the other side of the world and now the other side of town.

They didn’t think there was a market for that. They didn’t think that it would be a thing that people would want to do. They thought there had to be a different financial incentive for these theoretical methods. That was one kind of pushback.

But I think we are also–and, of course, we’ve proved that there is a market for it and a lot of people did want to do it–I think another point that you’re bringing up, though, is that in the U.S. we have a different culture than a lot of other places in the world and we’re very individualistic, for better and for worse.

So a lot of the principles that make microfinance work quite well in certain areas of the world, those cultural sort of norms and values don’t exist in the same way here. So it makes different methods and different strategies of microfinance work differently here.

Tavis: I love the microfinance concept for a lot of reasons, I mean, to your comment about the banking institutions in our country, the problem is that banks won’t give you money when you need it. It’s only when you don’t need it. I mean, you become rich, they throw credit at you. They throw money at you when you have money. They throw it at you. When you don’t have it, you can’t seem to get it.

Jackley: It’s a little bit ironic.

Tavis: There’s a whole other critique of the way our banking system works, but I digress on that point. Speaking of grinding axes, let me grind another ax, if I can.

Jackley: Okay, do it.

Tavis: It’s my show. I can grind my ax [laugh]. I don’t know if this is true in the microlending world, but it certainly has become something that annoys me–again, my personal ax to grind in the crowdfunding world.

I’m not going to call any names–Spike Lee–I’m not going to call any names, but there are those persons who have made–they’ve achieved a certain level of success who now use the crowdfunding model or have used it to raise money for things that they want to do. I’m not trying to demonize Spike Lee or anybody in particular.

Jackley: Sure, sure.

Tavis: What I’m suggesting is that those ideas, I think, were borne of an opportunity to give people who couldn’t get in the game a way to get in.

Jackley: It’s a shame and…

Tavis: If you got Spike Lee or some unknown person who has a script and they’re trying to get this thing off the ground, Spike’s done 25 movies and this person ain’t done a movie, and you ain’t got but $5 to give, who you going to give to?

Jackley: Well, you know what? I hope more people think that way. I hope more people think carefully about who they choose and why, not just whatever the buzz is or whoever has the nicest video or something that probably costs a lot of money to get done, right?

I think one of the best things a crowdfunding can do is level the playing field a little bit. So if that starts to get messed up and we’re back to the same old systems, that’s not a good thing.

Tavis: I guess my question, though, what I was ultimately getting to, is there anything about the way that the microlending trajectory has turned that concerns you about the future of microlending?

Jackley: I guess I’ll just say this. I mean, I think there have been a lot of NGOs, nonprofit kind of organizations, that have just blazed the trail. They have been out first. They have taken the time, raised the money and used capital that’s subsidized capital to reach people who are otherwise unreached and who have been shut out of traditional financial systems. And they’ve done all that work, paved the way, done, again, very difficult work.

Imagine, you know, I’ve worked a lot in East Africa. So in Kenya, let’s say, you have head offices in Nairobi and then branch offices in Kisumu or something and then you have field offices.

You could have a loan officer that maybe has gone from even just the field office, the most remote office, on foot or on a motorbike or something all the way out to a village once a week for years spending hours doing this just to reach people who otherwise hadn’t been reached.

If now technology is making it the case that traditional institutions, for-profit institutions, that are not mission-driven at their core don’t prioritize the betterment of those people above the priority of making a profit of their bottom line, that is a concerning thing.

That’s something that I guess the market [laugh], talking about that because it’s so general, should be aware of and we should try to protect against. I mean, it’s not fair, right?

It’s not fair for the organizations that have put blood, sweat and tears and, again, subsidized capital into reaching the unreached to suddenly maybe be kicked out because more powerful for-profit institutions that again, at the end of the day, didn’t care enough to go reach those people in the first place, had other priorities to win out. So they have that desire to overwhelm the good guys, you know.

Tavis: Well, Kiva has done great work for all these years now, over a decade, and I’m delighted to have you on this program.

Jackley: Thank you.

Tavis: Her name is Jessica Jackley. She’s the author of the new text, “Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration From Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most With the Least” with a beautiful foreword by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

Speaking of hanging out with big named people, not that it matters, but she’s also married to a brilliant guy named Reza Aslan, who I love. So, hey, Reza and to the three kids watching the show tonight.

Jackley: Hey, Reza [laugh].

Tavis: Good to have you on the program, Jessica.

Jackley: Thank you so much.

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Last modified: July 8, 2015 at 3:58 pm