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Interview: Entrepreneur Jessica Jackley On Her Journey To End Global Poverty

Jessica Jackley and twin boys, author of Clay Water Brick/Photo: Jessica Jackley

Jessica Jackley and her twin boys

By Toni Piccinini/Sept. 6, 2015
Photos provided by Jessica Jackley (@jessicajackley)

I met Jessica Jackley, the author of Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration from Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most with the Least at Book Passage—known as the Bay Area’s Liveliest Bookstore—in the café before her book talk and signing. I told her I’d be the lady with the adult beverage. She responded she’d be lady with the stroller and mom in tow.

I had seen her Ted Talk, Jessica Jackley: Poverty, money–and love,  and was enchanted with her passion, her poise and her take on our perception of poverty and giving.

“Choose not to focus on the lack, the hurt, the poverty, or the brokenness that we all know exists. Choose to see potential and possibility.” Jessica Jackley 

With her baby beside her, Jessica generously offered to chat with me about Kiva, the revolutionary microlending institution she founded with her former husband, and pretty much anything else I wanted to ask her…  

EYE: Tell us something about how Kiva, the world’s first person-to-person (p2p) micro-lending website, got started. I understand that Kiva has facilitated over $700 million dollars in loans among individuals in 216 countries.  That is amazing!

Clay Water Brick book written by Jessica Jackley

JESSICA: Growing up I wanted to help people less fortunate than me. I looked to nonprofits for guidance and ways to do that. Often I was told to just give my money through my charity directly and keep going on with the rest of my life. That was fine, but it wasn’t very gratifying.

A lot of the stories I heard from nonprofits made me feel very frustrated and very sad and distanced from these individuals that I so longed to serve. It also made it sound like the world was divided into two categories: the people who give and the people who get.

Essentially, that translates to the idea that there are people who have something to offer and then there are people who don’t. That’s simply not true.

EYE: Was there an “aha” moment when you realized that giving could be framed in a more personal way without a feeling of divide between two groups?

JESSICA: Yes! (smiling) Drum roll! It was what I learned about microfinance and entrepreneurship at a Stanford lecture given by Dr. Muhammad Yunus. It would be three years later that he and his Gramenn Bank would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work pioneering microfinance, but that night was a game and life changer for me.

EYE: How did this lecture change your life?

JESSICA: At the time I was working in my first job out of college as an administrative assistant at  The Stanford Business School Center for Social Innovation. Listening to Yunus speak, I felt genuinely inspired, not devastated. This turned my understanding of poverty on its head.

So I quit my job and moved to East Africa to work for a nonprofit. With this new job I wanted to hear new stories, not the same old stories I had heard of poverty but stories of success and potential and the empowerment of entrepreneurship. I heard those stories in Africa.

I was primed, I think, to see this as an opportunity in microfinance and that was the trend happening at the time.

Jessica’s TED Talk: Poverty, money–and love

Kiva was born out of a desire to share those new stories of potential, strength and empowerment and to create a way for our friends and family to experience these new stories of entrepreneurship.

“I wanted to give them a way to respond differently, too–for the first time, not with a donation but with a loan.”

EYE: On the Kiva website, there’s “choose a borrower” page with a photo of the hopeful entrepreneur. The women’s stories are particularly compelling. Do women get more loans than men?

JESSICA: Microfinance is an institution, a banking institution, just like any other bank. But these banks for the poor are often created to serve the unbanked, usually women. Women get shut out of these institutions.

This happens in many cultures; they get shut out of collateral because they don’t own land. If they don’t have the collateral, they can’t get the loan to buy land or anything else.

EYE: Is there an advantage to giving loans to women? How are they performing?

JESSICA: As it turns out, women are the better borrowers because they do things like reinvesting profits from their business in their families, repaying the loan faster at better rates.

Women end up being prioritized and lenders know this so you do see a real draw to fund women on the Kiva site. The majority of borrowers are women and it self-perpetuates. But, I would never be restrictive about which borrowers to fund because I think they are all worthy.

Jessica Jackley, athor CLAY WATER BRICK in Africa/Photo Courtesy Jessica Jackley

Jessica spreading the entrepreneurial spirit

EYE: Let’s say someone simply gives someone $25 which translates to a couple of chickens and that changes her life. Do you think the outcome is different when a gift is given versus a loan?

JESSICA: When a person uses a loan as opposed to a grant or gift, they feel ownership.  The loan allows them to have that autonomy and say, “Look, I did this myself. I was able to build something, pay it back, and now it’s mine.”

It yields a different sense of pride; it’s more sustainable. It’s a good thing! I will say for the record there are individuals for whom a loan is not the best fit. But a loan is the next step after a donation that helps them start the process of getting them on the first rung of the economic ladder.

EYE: Have you been involved with other types of microfinance?

JESSICA: The organization I worked for a few years ago, Village Enterprise, is a great example of how small grants can work and they’re great there. They do these small grants, not loans.

“Nothing’s a silver bullet and there are tools that work differently and better at different times in a person’s life. Usually the whole suite of microfinance services, microsavings and insurance work beautifully together.”

EYE: So, on a personal note, you’re a dynamo. You’ve written a book. You’re giving important talks and you’re a mother of three very young children. What everyone wants to know is how do you do it?

JESSICA: Well, (Jessica gestures to her mother who is now rocking the stroller in response to a small whimper), you’re looking at one of the key reasons, seriously. There are two main reasons I don’t go insane. First, I have an amazing support system including my husband and my mom who has spent the whole summer with us.

Jessica Jackley and family, author CLAY WATER BRICK/Photo Courtesy Jessica Jackley

Jessica and her family

My kids are surrounded by a people who love them, and, by the way, I am present a lot! I work from home; it’s really a gift to be able to do that.  Most importantly, I have an amazing partner. (Jessica is married to author Reza Aslan.)

And, second, I think that women have a quality of being everything. At times it gets a little out of control; it gets to be too much. We don’t want to say no to things. I am not afraid to say no to stuff. I am super excited when I say no to stuff.

“I think prioritizing is important. It sounds cliché but I don’t want to talk about having it all. I mean, it’s not my goal.”

EYE: Can a woman have it all?

JESSICA: My goal is to have what I want to have and to do well with those things, and it’s fewer and fewer during this early season of life with my little people.

I heard this example once at the Harvard Kennedy School in some executive class. It was so awesome. This person took out a MacBook Air and said, “Look at this computer here. It’s great at the following—it’s light, it’s got whatever. And you know what? It sucks at these things—it doesn’t have a disc drive, it doesn’t have this, etc.”

He talked about how this computer was designed with harsh prioritization, and what it would be and what it couldn’t be. And I thought, you know what, I’ll be a MacBook Air. I want to be great at some stuff and I’m totally okay at being terrible at some other things, too.

Jessica Jackley, author CLAY WATER BRICK with husband Reza/Photo Courtesy Jessica Jackley

Jessica and her husband, Reza Aslan

EYE: What advice would you give to a young woman just out of college who wants to do some good?

JESSICA: I would say, just start experimenting. Start dabbling. There are so many ways to do micro-volunteering. There are so many ways to say “Look, every other Saturday this is what I am committed to. I am going to dig in and learn and make my own little project of volunteering.”

Jessica Jackley, author CLAY WATER BRICK/ Photo Courtesy Jessica Jackley

EYE: You are an amazing example of how to take an idea to tangible results. How can other passionate women get started with theirs?

JESSICA: Just shoot from the hip. Go after something you love and everything will be great. Just start.

“There was a time I was obsessed with what was right for me, but I think sometimes it’s great that we don’t know.”

In my early twenties, I felt like I needed to be a perfectionist in my work. I thought really hard about all the steps in my career and all my goals. I needed to get it right.

EYE: How did you figure out how to take action?

JESSICA: I cared very much about what the right thing that I could do would be, not just about what would have the greatest social impact. In my home and church communities growing up, it was very introspective, very prayerful, and in a great way.

But it made me feel paralyzed by not knowing how I would maximize my precious time on this earth. Sometimes I saw that kind of spirit lead to lack of action and the idea that I needed to do the very right thing for me.

“What I’ve learned is this: just start doing stuff and it will work out. You learn as you go.”

EYE: What do you hope readers will take with them from Clay Water Brick?

JESSICA: I hope readers will become inspired to support an entrepreneur that they know or support one on Kiva or other platforms. Or, better yet, I hope they take the first few steps in their own entrepreneurial journey.

EYE: What’s next for you?

JESSICA: In terms of what’s next…(she laughs). I’m focused on my three young kiddos right now, but I have some ideas and plans that I’ll probably activate in the New Year. Stay tuned!

EYE: Thank you so much, Jessica. You have given me and our readers a lot to think about.

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