Interview with Jessica Jackley
In the spring of 2004, Jessica boarded a plane to Kenya, about to begin a new job doing microenterprise development throughout East Africa. While she was there, Jessica formed powerful connections with entrepreneurs who had started small businesses with just a few hundred dollars, working themselves and their families out of poverty. Jessicas desire to share their stories and allow her friends and family to participate in those stories would inspire the creation of Kiva (www.kiva.org). Named as one of the Top Ideas of 2006 by the New York Times Magazine, called “revolutionary” by the BBC, and featured on Oprah, the Today Show, and much more, Kiva is the world’s first online micro-lending marketplace for the working poor. Kiva lets internet users lend as little as $25 to specific developing world entrepreneurs, providing affordable capital to help them start or expand a small business. Kiva has been one of the fastest-growing social benefit websites in history, with hundreds of thousands of people lending millions of dollars to entrepreneurs in over 50 developing countries. Jessica has worked in a variety of organizations across the public, nonprofit, and private sectors, including World Vision, Potentia Media, the International Foundation, Amazon.com, and others, and serves as an active nonprofit board member in the Bay Area and internationally. Jessica graduated from the Stanford Graduate School of Business with her MBA in 2007, including Certificates in Public Management and Global Management, and holds a BA in Philosophy and Political Science from Bucknell University. Jessica is an art lover, poet, trained yoga instructor, and mediocre (but dedicated!) surfer.
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I’m the CEO for the National Center for Women and Information Technology or NCWIT. This is one in a continuing series of interviews that we are doing with women who have started either IT companies or organizations that are based on information technology. We are very excited that we have Jessica Flannery here today from Kiva to talk to us. Also with me is Larry Nelson, from w3w3.com. Hi, Larry.
Larry Nelson: It’s really a pleasure to be here and I must say we are getting tremendous feedback from not only adults who are having their children listen to some of these interviews, but some of the employers that are looking for more women and more technical people to get into the business which is sometimes a very good step to becoming an entrepreneur.
Lucy: Also with me today is Lee Kennedy who is a Director of NCWIT and a serial entrepreneur herself. Right now, her current company is called Tricalix. Hi Lee. How are you?
Lee Kennedy: Hi Lucy. Hi Larry. It is so good to be here.
Larry: It is. We are the three L’s, right? Lucy, Lee and Larry or something.
Lucy: Or something. Welcome Jessica. We are very happy to have you with us today and the topic that we are going to talk about, I mean, you’re fabulous social entrepreneur, and I think that this whole area of micro-finance and what Kiva is doing is just fascinating. And as part of this interview, we all went and spent time on the Kiva site and just really got lost in all the wonderful stories that are our there. So welcome.
Jessica Flannery: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Lucy: Well, for our listeners, I’m sure everybody knows but it bears repeating that Kiva is the first peer to peer micro loan website. It really demonstrates how the Internet can be used to facilitate these meaningful types of connections between people who want to lend money and entrepreneurs all over the world especially in developing countries, how we can all help each other really move the economies ahead. It’s a really fascinating website. So Jessica, why don’t you just spend a minute and tell us a bit about Kiva.
Jessica: Sure. You said it very, very well and very concisely. We are the world’s first person to person micro lending website so anybody in the world can go onto the site, browse business profiles and entrepreneur profiles really I should say. Whether that person is a farmer or selling small goods in their village or a seamstress or a restaurant owner, there are all different kinds of small business. And you can lend as little as $25 to that entrepreneur and over time you get updates on that business and then you get paid back.
Lucy: Well, and Kiva is a fairly young organization. I read someplace that you started a bit of a hobby website and it just exploded.
Jessica: Yeah. It’s been a very, very busy last four years. Four years ago, I learned about micro-finance and decided that’s what I want to do. I quit another job and I went to East Africa for a few months to see it up close and personal. While I was there it was impossible not to be deeply moved by the stories of success of people that I was meeting. People who had used often just a $100 to change their lives and lifted their families out of poverty. So, I became really excited about these stories and wanted to share them with my own friends and family. And as I did that, my husband Matt and I kept asking not just “Oh, this is great. Micro-finance works, but wow, how do we, and our friends and family, how do we enable people to lend money directly to these individuals we’re meeting?” So, it started out with a very specific way, very specific context with individuals who we had met face to face in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda who we wanted to help. We wanted to participate in their amazing stories, and we wanted to see them get to the next level. So what we did was basically Matt came to visit me during his time in East Africa, and then he went back home, built our website. We emailed our friends and family and said “Hey, we have seven businesses in Uganda that we’d like to lend a total of $3,000 to. Do you want to pitch in?” Then overnight that money came in and we sent that along to Uganda. We had a six month kind of beta round with these seven entrepreneurs in Uganda. After the six months they had repaid, we took the word beta off of our website and that launched us. And that was just in October of ’05, so not even quite three years ago. Our first year was $500,000 a month, the second year was $13.5 million more, and today we’re just around $45 million, and we haven’t even finished our third year. So it’s grown very rapidly.
Lucy: And you have an incredible payback on the loans, incredible payback percent.
Jessica: Yeah, it’s in a high 90 percentage. That’s representative of a micro finance alone, not just our site.
Lucy: But wow, that’s just and incredible history and such a good cause as well. One of the things that I noticed there was a Soft-tech video on YouTube that I watched that I thought was very interesting. Where you mentioned that you all created the tool that Kiva uses really to match lenders and entrepreneurs without really knowing how the world would use it to your previous story. This gets us to our first question which is around technology, and I thought you would have a really interesting spin on this. You know, how in general do you see technology helping missions like those of Kiva? Slightly different than potentially a four-profit business but you have incredibly interesting uses of technology. So what do you see in the future?
Jessica: Kiva does a lot of different things, but our mission is to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty. The real key there is to connect people. The money transfer is very interesting, and technology obviously helps that happened, but what really we care about is this connectivity. Loans happen to be a great tool for poverty alleviation as well as connectivity. I mean, if you lend me something and I have it and I’m fully giving it back to you, you’re going to pay a little bit more attention usually, than if you just donate something and I tell you how that’s going forever and ever. That back and forth communication is obviously free or a lot less expensive. It’s quick. It’s real time. You can see on the other side of the planet how this person is waiting right now today for that $200 that’s going to allow them to start their business. So there are all these elements, but then technology makes it faster, more efficient, less expensive and just overall easier to have that human connection happen. Very specifically while I said the money is not the point, it’s a great tool for a lot of things. For example, we’ve had a lot of help from great technology leaders out there that we’ve been able to leverage. So PayPal, we’re the first non-profit to have PayPal generously agree to provide free payment transactions. So we have literally zero variable costs for sending these little bits of money back and forth all around the planet every day.
Lucy: Well, one thing too, I’m a technologist so I’ll get off this question in just a minute. I know Larry and Lee are looking at me like “Let’s move off the technology.” But I do have one more thing to observe here, because this is a different kind of interview than we’ve done. There is a whole growing area called ICT for D which is Information and Communication Technology for Developing World and one of the things that I have read that you either have done or will do is you make an offline browser so that people can conserve power on their computer, sort of a low energy kind of browser so they don’t have to be always plugged in. That’s an example of the type of technology around ICT for D that you have to start thinking about the climates and the situation and the resources that people have all around the world.
Jessica: It’s been very, very interesting for us to see, even how sometimes we’ll have really wonderful generous lenders say, “Hey, I also want to donate financially or otherwise.” And let’s say they send a great batch of brand new video cameras for us to send out to the field. Well, sometimes actually a lower tech solution is better, because of the technology that’s available in the field. So maybe we don’t need the highest quality photos, the highest res photos, maybe a lower tech solution is better. That’s been interesting to watch, just figuring out really what’s the best and what’s the most appropriate tools to get the job done.
Lee: That’s exactly right.
Lucy: So, we normally ask what it is that you love about being an entrepreneur, but since you’re working with entrepreneurs it would be great to hear about the stories from the entrepreneurs out of Kiva, as well as what it is that love about this whole environment and the entrepreneurship.
Jessica: OK. This is a really good question. What I found is the idea of being an entrepreneur, I think that’s really attractive to a lot of people. I think there are some, I don’t want to put value judgments on it, good or bad, better or worse, but I think sometimes it has to do with freedom or this idea of being your own boss, or something like that. For me, my introduction to business and my entrepreneurship at all was in Africa seeing people who were gold hunters, or subsistence farmers, or fishermen, or people who were basically entrepreneurship to them was doing what they needed to do every day to survive. It was definitely not an option. They had to do the next thing, figure out the next step to get closer and closer to their goal to find food, and they could survive that day. It was very hand-to-mouth sort of entrepreneurship. It wasn’t what we usually think of in Silicon Valley as entrepreneurship being super innovated perhaps or anything like that, but in context it was as innovative as anything else in Silicon Valley would have been, and as much entrepreneurship as anything else that you would see in other places of the world. For me, it’s funny. I guess yet that it’s true, when you look back at what we’ve done in Kiva the last four years, great! We have been social entrepreneurs, but we didn’t go out thinking, I definitely thought over the years, over the last few years, “Oh, social entrepreneurship. How great! I want to do something like that.” Then what happened is you have to get specific. You have to start with something specific. So, we started to do Kiva, a very, very specific mission of Kiva, and then retroactively we’re like, “Oh, yeah. I guess that’s what we’re doing. It’s pretty entrepreneurial, isn’t it?” It came down to, “We have this mission, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do everyday to make it happen. We’re going to be scrappy if we need to. We’re going to iterate. We’re going to put things out there that maybe aren’t even perfect. We’re going to keep moving, and everyday say, ‘What can we do next to meet our goals?'” That’s what it felt like to me to be entrepreneurial. I think it’s really been informed by the people that originally inspired us in the first place, and these micro-entrepreneurs all over the world.
Lucy: You know what? That’s just what entrepreneurs do. Everyday they’re looking around, trying to figure out what they can do better. Do you have a story or two that you can share with some of the entrepreneurs that have taken loans and been successful, and then paid the loans off?
Jessica: Sure. I mean there are so, so many. It’s actually one of the hardest questions I get, because really I mean every one of them is amazing. If you want an amazing success story, I can tell you for example there was a woman that really was one of the very first people I ever met in East Africa. She did such amazing stuff. She had started one business, like a charcoal selling business. She had gotten them $800. For that initial business, she did like the equivalent of what a multi-national corporation would do, like all the principals were there. She started the one business, and then she diversified. Then she expanded, not from her local market, she went to markets in other trading centers and other villages. She extended beyond her geographic region. She started five other small businesses of all different types. I mean really things that you really wouldn’t think would be related. What she did was she got practice, and then she got very good at seeing market needs and seeing opportunities. So, she had the capitol after time, and she was able to say, “Huh.” I think of a very small caring business that you could start with $200 or $300. I think that’s what made it. So she did that, and she did the next thing, and the next thing. She just blew me away, because you knew that had she just been dealing in another environment with bigger numbers, she would be the head of a huge multi-national corporation that was doing all sorts of different things really well. So, people like that just always blow me away. I would say truly, it sounds like a bit of a cheesy answer, but the real truth is any story that you read on the Kiva site, there’s something to learn, there’s something to appreciate, and there’s something good. I think say, “Hey! Good job there, ” to the entrepreneurs for doing it, because each person is taking a risk even just in accepting a loan, and putting themselves out there and saying, “I’m going to try. I’m going to try to do things differently. I’m going to try and make my life better, and life for my family better.” Just taking advantage of that opportunity is something I think should really be applauded, and in and of itself is really a triumph and a great thing, a great thing to see happen. So, that’s the hardest question to answer, because all of the entrepreneurs that you can see, I truly find inspirational in something.
Lucy: Well, thank you for sharing that. That really is inspirational.
Lee: Well, the other thing, and I’m sure somebody has already tumbled to this, there’s a business book in this. When you said that she was making all the right entrepreneurial business moves, there’s got to be a lot of nuggets of wisdom in there.
Larry: You had mentioned offline Jessica, that you are involved with Ashoka?
Jessica: Well, yes. I mean, I have found a lot of inspiration in Ashoka over the years, and sort of been introducing the idea of social entrepreneurship through Ashoka. Additionally, he has been honored with the Ashoka Fellowship very recently. We’re really excited to be part of that community.
Larry: Congratulations! Let me get on with another question here. Who has been either a role model or a mentor in your career, in your life?
Jessica: Oh, my goodness! Now, that’s the hardest question. I feel like I have been so blessed and so surrounded by encouragers. I mean, can I say like my top five?
Jessica: My parents first and foremost have always given me… Actually, it was really funny. I watched the Emmys last night. I actually don’t have a television, but I was with and brother and sister-in-law in L.A., and we were watching the Emmys a little bit. She was saying something funny. She was like, “Thanks to my mom and dad for giving me confidence, that was to the portion that was my looks and ability.” It was like “that’s what my parents said.” My parents first and foremost made it without question an obvious thing, that I could do anything I wanted to in the world. So, that was kind of the foundational piece in a very supportive family. There’s been a few others. When I heard Dr. Hamadias speak, his story spoke to me like no others had at that point. That’s what propelled me to quit my job and go off and try to figure out micro-finance for myself, and try to do something like what he did, like walk around meet people, listen to their needs, and help. So, he gave me a huge inspiration. Then I guess, the other person I’ll mention is Brian Reynolds actually gave me that opportunity to go. He is the Founder and Executive Director of a really great organization called “Village Enterprise Fund.” They give $100 grants to entrepreneurs for business creation. They really start people on the very first string of the economic ladder. These are actually folks who are doing such risky things like their systems filing that “If it doesn’t rain, everything is lost.” Really, really small businesses, who their commissioners wouldn’t take a loan probably because they would be not in the right position to do so. Their organization is amazing. I basically met with Brian right around the time I decided I was going to figure out a way to work in micro-finance. He really gave me that opportunity. He listened to me, kind of met me where I was and said, “Hey.” Even though I had no skills that I could really name. I had studied philosophy and poetry undergrad. I had done event planning, and administrative things in my job. I really didn’t have a lot to go on to say “look, this is why you should hire me, and let me go do micro-finance,” but he gave me that chance. On that trip. out to East Africa with Village Enterprise Fund, that’s what changed my life, and that’s where we had the ideas for Kiva. So, I am absolutely grateful for him, among many, many other in my life over the last decade. There’s a lot of people.
Lee: Well, that’s the good thing about entrepreneurship as well that there are lots of other good people around to encourage you, and to offer wisdom. One piece of wisdom that we’ve been getting lots of interesting answers too on this particular interview series is the toughest thing you’ve ever had to do. So, we’re curious. What is the toughest thing so far, that you’ve had to do in your career?
Jessica: That is a really good question. I would say without a doubt that it has been…really tough to… you know when you do something that you care about so much, and also something that is like with the social mission I think, it becomes your baby. It becomes like your…I don’t know there all these analogies, your right arm, you just feel so attached. It has been a challenge I think to do the work life balance thing in any way because you just feel so driven, so consumed by it, and you want to spend all your waking hours on it, but that can be unhealthy and actually lead to burn out and that sort of thing. So finding the right balance has been probably the biggest challenge and also being removed enough to make objective decisions. You know, it’s always a challenge when you are so in love with the work that you get to do.
Lee: So speaking of personal and professional balance what do you do to bring balance with all the entrepreneurs you’re trying to help, and the changes on the website, how do you manage that?
Jessica: Well, I think it’s just about kind of knowing what your priorities are and knowing what your boundaries are of what you can control and what you can’t and then just working away. I think it is just a daily reminding and daily recalibration saying, “OK, here is what we are about. Here’s what we can do. Here’s what we can’t do and let’s just keep moving forward.” I think another trick too is just checking yourself often to make sure you are not making decisions others fear or panic in any way. We haven’t really… we’re an interesting state where we haven’t had a competitors per se really, and we don’t even think that way. But if we were forced to look at other kind of collaborative organizations out there as competitors, even if we saw them as such, I think it would be the wrong move to be driven to make any sort of decisions, or move to out of the place of fear. Just like it is in life, just kind of knowing who you are, and what you’re about, knowing who you’re not and just doing that, like the trying to respond to what else is out there or what someone else is doing. I think staying true and pure to your own mission is what it is about. It will make you stay sane.
Larry: You have actually kind of covered part of the question I was going to ask you and that is, you’ve done so many things Jessica and you work with all kinds of people around the world but if you were right now sitting down in front of a young potential entrepreneur, what advice would you give them? Jessica: OK, I have the privilege of getting to do this quite a bit. This is the number one thing I would say, two things. Follow whatever you are really passionate about. It can be something that doesn’t make a lot of sense like what do you do when we were passionate about the stories, how do you follow that? We loved them, we celebrated them, we read them ourselves, we laughed, we cried, we just got into those stories and then by sharing those stories, the thing that we are passionate about with the people that we were passionate about, our friends and family, that led to some really great stuff. So just follow as best you can, the stuff that you are passionate about would be number one. Two, if you’re going to do something and start something and you really believe that’s kind of what you were meant to do next, I would say don’t be afraid to start small. In fact, that is really the only way to begin. I just finished my MBA at Stanford. I can’t say enough good things about that place and that community. It was amazing. Additionally, it’s a place where it is easy to think big very quickly and say “let’s go change the world in these huge huge ways and let’s have…” you know you don’t want to start something unless it’s scalable and unless it is going to touch three million people in its first two years or whatever. Easy to say think big or go home and what’s your plan for scalability? You need to know that right now. I would say to a budding entrepreneur, don’t be afraid, to be very, very specific about what you want to do, and how you want to begin. You should definitely think long term, too. But goodness, it’s not a bad thing to start small, and in fact I really really believe that is kind of the way you have to do it and just do a little plug. There’s a wonderful man who I would consider a mentor and certainly someone I have looked up to and learned a lot from. His name is Paul Polak, and he wrote a book called “Out of Poverty.” He really talks a lot about being in contact like designing whatever you are designing, particularly if it’s a program, or a service, or a product to serve the poor, go be with the people that you want to serve. Go get to know them as individuals and design things for individuals not this group of statistic of statistics or the masses. Go meet real people, design for them, start with the, serve them, and then see how you can grow things. That would be my recommendation, don’t be afraid to start small and be really passionate about what you are doing because that’s the way good things happen.
Lucy: Dare I say that that I am old and wizened woman but you know your advice about starting small and don’t be afraid to do that, it feels a lot like something I’ve come to view as being true. You just often don’t know what the next turn is going to be. You have to live it a while, and see how things change and mature, and then be opportunistic about which way things are going to go because you often don’t see the end.
Jessica: Oh, yes and you can’t.
Lucy: You can’t.
Jessica: You actually probably sometimes cannot see the next step. It is totally impossible until you make the first one.
Lucy: That’s fine and that’s actually part of the fun, isn’t it?
Larry: It is part of the fun. It’s also by the way a big part of the book that I’m just finishing.
Lucy: Oh, you had to plug your book.
Larry: “Master and change,” yes.
Lucy: You had to plug your book.
Larry: Oh well.
Lucy: Well so I think we have a book here. So I have to ask you though, is there such a big about entrepreneurism and Kiva about teaching the basic elements of entrepreneurship?
Jessica: No, not yet, but I think there are about 20 books we can write with them, different angles, different experiences, Web 2.0, the power of connecting people, what have we learned about business from the entrepreneurs out there? There’s a lot of potential.
Lucy: Oh, absolutely. I look forward to it.
Jessica: Yeah, me too.
Lucy: You’ve already really achieved a lot. It’s quite inspirational to talk to you and kiva is just such a great organization. What’s next for you? We just talked about how sometimes you can’t see around the corner, do you have any long term vision that you want to share with our listeners about what’s next?
Jessica: No, I don’t, but I will say that something that’s been crazy is just this feeling that… I mean this is like my life dream. You read my favorite business school. I would say it was from three years ago. I would say it was basically someday maybe maybe I will get to be a part of something like this. I feel like the luckiest person in the world and to think that there could be other things in the future just blows my mind. I feel overwhelmed even thinking about it but overall in the most positive way because I already feel like this is my life. If my life ended tomorrow, I would be very a really thankful, happy person because I feel like I’ve gotten to see my dream kind of come true. Everything else is icing on the cake. What I am trying to do is to stay open to possibility, and learn, and read, and talk to people, and stay open to observing what is going on out there. I am thankful for kiva, and I am thankful for whatever the future hold, but yeah I’ll let you know when I know.
Larry: All right.
Lucy: That has to be the most inspirational thing I have ever heard. I mean just to hear the passion in your voice and the excitement, it gives me goose bumps. I’m happy for you. I hope other people benefit from all the work that you are doing.
Jessica: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. I appreciate it. I just feel very very lucky.
Larry: Wow, Jessica I want to thank you for joining us today. This was marvelous plus.
Jessica: Thank you.
Man 1: By the way you listeners out there, would you pass this interview along to others who you think would be interested. We will make sure that we have a website link to kiva. Say your website.
Jessica: It’s www.kiva.org.
Larry: Sounds wonderful. This has just been great here we are with the National Center for Women and Information Technology. You are doing some great stuff by bringing these messages out for people who are doing wonderful things. Thanks.
Lucy: Well thanks and listeners can find these interviews at www.ncwit.org and at w3w3.com.
Larry: You bet.
Lucy: So thank you very much.
Larry: Thank you. Transcription by CastingWords