Jessica Jackley speaks at UMass

By Melanie Muller

Melanie Muller/Collegian

Members of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts and members of the University of Massachusetts community gathered Wednesday to hear Jessica Jackley, the co-founder of Kiva.org, speak on social entrepreneurship and how her background in the humanities shaped her perspective.

Kiva is a nonprofit organization that facilitates microloans, or small loans to individuals and small businesses, of as little as $25. It is the world’s first online microlending intermediary service. Working with a microfinance institution in the field, the organization posts pictures and profiles of individuals seeking loans on its site. Visitors to Kiva’s page can then give small, no-interest loans to the specific individuals profiled. The event, which was hosted by the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, began at 5:30 p.m. and was held in the Student Union Ballroom.

Addressing the large group, the petite Jackley began with humor.

“I’ve brought crackers,” she said, and offered that anyone feeling hungry was welcome to “come up and get some” from the podium during the talk.

She then moved to the topic of the evening, “Love, Money, and Work: Social Entrepreneurship as a Career, describing the evolution of her understanding of poverty, which started from when she learned of its existence as a child in Sunday school.

On the one hand, she remembered, she was taught that she was bound to help the poor, and on the other that they would “always be with us.”

“It was very confusing,” she said, as it seemed one was being set up to fail.

As she grew older, she said, while she donated money and did volunteer work to try to help poor people, she remained confused about her reactions to her experiences and unsure if what she was doing was worthwhile. Bombarded by tales of misery, she began to tune them out a little.

Arriving at Bucknell University as a freshman undergraduate student, Jackley became determined to study things she felt passionate about and which attempted to answer the questions that worried her. She highlighted her studies in philosophy, political science and poetry.

One thing she definitely was not interested in at that point was business. At the time, she felt that the individuals in that field were not working on the problems she wanted to work on.

            Emphasizing that she did not recommend that those present try to replicate everything she did, she described how after graduating from Bucknell she moved from Pennsylvania to California without plans because she was “in love with a boy.” She quickly got a job as an administrative assistant at the Center for Social Innovation in the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Still leery of business in general, Jackley found that the Center for Social Innovation was an exciting place and attended many lectures and classes there. At one talk was Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in pioneering microfinance.

Inspired, Jackley quit her job and after three months working in Kenya with a nonprofit to see how it would work firsthand, she launched Kiva with a partner. Starting with funds partly generated by maxing out her student loans, the organization grew to process millions of dollars a year.

Jackley believes that the microfinance model at Kiva replaces the traditional power-play between benefactor and recipient with a partnership based on equality. She also described how she had seen the power of these loans help break the cycle of poverty for many individuals by allowing then to build business that were sustainable and enriched their communities.

Jackley declined to comment on future plans for the direction of the organization as she no longer directly heads Kiva.

Microfinance, she said, is a statement of belief in people’s potential to improve themselves, rather than in the inevitability of their failure. The belief and the necessity of the personal interaction involved in the Kiva process led Jackley to reject $10 million  toward funding microloans from a large corporation because it was unwilling to break up the loan into small chunks to go to each individual borrower.

Jackely took questions for about 20 minutes starting at 6:30 p.m. She discussed her start-up website ProFounder.com, a site dedicated to gathering resources for entrepreneurs. She also explained to the audience that she cries often while giving talks which led to her belief that showing emotion is not unprofessional.

 On the latter case, she said that a valued mentor told her she should not be ashamed of the propensity because it showed she was invested in her work, as he considered all true professionals must be.

After questions, Jackley met with a small group comprised primarily of Humanities and Fine Arts undergraduate students. They mingled in the Cape Cod lounge over soda, mini quiches and other refreshments.

Melanie Muller can be reached at [email protected]