Kiva at $1B

Kiva proves that when each of us takes small actions, our collective efforts can transform the world for millions of people in meaningful ways.

A few years ago, a friend of mine from business school and I were having coffee. “Can you even believe how rich everyone at Facebook is now?” she asked me. Facebook had just held its initial public offering (IPO). It was the spring of 2012. She continued, “Don’t you wish you would have just worked there after graduation?” A few of our classmates had done just that, and were happily reaping the rewards.

I thought back, not just to our business school graduation but back to my earliest days in Silicon Valley. I graduated college in Pennsylvania with a BA in philosophy and political science, and not much of a career plan. A few months later, when I moved to California, I still didn’t have any kind of strategy. I moved cross-country for the love of a boy and, perhaps equally so, for love of adventure. On my second day in California, I walked onto Stanford’s campus and handed out resumes I had printed back in PA. I got an offer for a temporary administrative position at Stanford and I took it. My job evolved, I stuck around, and almost three years passed.

One day, I stayed late after work to crash a lecture intended for MBA students. That night, in the fall of 2003, I heard Dr. Muhammed Yunus speak about pioneering modern microfinance by creating the Grameen Bank, work for which he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. In particular, he spoke about microcredit, or small loans, usually for people to start or grow tiny businesses.

Inspired by his talk, I quit my job at Stanford and begged my way into an unpaid internship with a tiny non-profit that did microenterprise development work in East Africa.

A few weeks later, I boarded a flight to Nairobi. I spent the next three months interviewing goat herders and seamstresses and farmers and vegetable sellers and fishermen and small restaurant owners who had received just $100 to start or grow their tiny businesses.

That experience told me a story about poverty I’d ever heard before: a story not of sadness and suffering — the “poverty porn” kind of stories that conjure feelings of guilt and shame — but rather stories of hope and dignity, strength and bootstrapping. These stories inspired an idea, to lend small amounts of money (just $25 at a time) to entrepreneurs at zero interest from lenders.

This idea of course became Kiva, which Matt Flannery and I started the following year. Our first round of loans was just over $3K, to a handful of entrepreneurs in Uganda. When they repaid, we did another round of loans, and then another, and another, eventually not just in Uganda but other countries too. Chelsa Bocci joined us just a few weeks in, Premal Shah a few months after that. We kept posting more loans. Our friends and family told their friends and family. And they told others. And Kiva grew. Fast.

Somehow over the first year, Kiva facilitated around $500,000 in loans. The next year it was up to about $15 million. The third year, nearly $40 million. Then $100 million.

Today, Kiva crosses the $1 Billion mark.

Back to my friend’s question at the coffee shop, about whether or not I wished I’d worked at Facebook. When I finally answered her, I said, “Actually, no. Not at all. I love what I chose.”

Kiva is not Facebook. I do not have millions of dollars. Instead, a billion dollars have been put into the hands of hardworking people who used that money to make life better for themselves and their families. Kiva is its own miracle, a bet on the goodness of humanity, a grand experiment. And it is working. It is a unicorn in its own right (albeit a non-profit one). And I feel like the richest person on earth.

My official role in Kiva ended years ago. I speak only as a founder and early team member, and as a proud supporter from a distance today. Kiva couldn’t have happened without the millions of people around the world who have risen up to take ownership of it for themselves. Movements like Kiva are built person by person, dollar by dollar. Generosity and hard work are practiced day in and day out, by myriad individuals and institutions, to keep Kiva thriving. I’m in awe of every one of them.

I’ve simply had the privilege of getting to be there at the start and getting to watch Kiva grow up since then. I feel incredibly lucky to have had this vantage point. And from this perspective, I’ve learned three important things.

First, this: Everyday, we make the world exactly what it is.

Want the world to be different? Start making it so.

There is no one else to point fingers at for the bad stuff, or take credit for the good stuff. It’s just us. When we don’t like what’s happening around us, it is our job to fix it.

The people who continue to make Kiva happen in the world are a powerful force for positive change. They have decided to make things better, every day, one loan at a time. They are my heroes.

This means you, lender. And you, volunteer translator. And you, Kiva Fellow. And especially you, Kiva team members, who dedicate your working hours to the cause. Kiva is something that would not have happened (and wouldn’t keep happening) without the dedication of every single person involved. And there have been millions of them.

May this milestone be a reminder to all of us that these things are possible. Building movements that matter isn’t something that happens by chance. It is not acceptable for any one of us to sit back and to throw our hands up, claiming the whole world is an unsolvable mystery. Kiva happened because enough amazing people decided it should.

Most of the world’s pressing problems have proven solutions. The missing piece is our collective will to enact those solutions. Take one step forward every day. Stand strong. Grab a friend to join you, and take another step together. This is how change happens.

Second, this: What we build, builds us.

Work is a practice. Work is exercise. We are shaped by our own priorities. We construct our identities through the actions we take, and the things we choose to create, day after day.

I wake up early each morning, sometimes to run, other times to practice yoga. These activities develop certain muscles. So does everything else we do. If our work involves managing risk, we will probably strengthen those “muscles” that urge us to wait or to hold back. If our work involves looking for new opportunities, we will become stronger in our abilities to see possibility, in the art of asking, “what if?”

It is no surprise that the Kiva community is full of incredible human beings who regularly tackle big problems and pursue bold solutions. They are a community of powerful, effective optimists who believe in impossible things. They listen closely to the people they aim to serve. They have become masters of empathy, constantly re-imagining new ways forward.

Doing our best work in pursuit of the noblest missions we can find, shapes us into our best selves. I feel incredibly lucky that so much of my work has been a means to practice being at my best, to strengthen my imagination muscles, my dreaming muscles, my opportunity-seeing and team-rallying and hope-spreading muscles.

Choose your work carefully. Seek to spend your waking hours practicing the kinds of things that will build you into the person you want to be.

Third, and lastly, this: The story is always just beginning.

There have been so many moments along the way when the founding Kiva team stepped back for a minute to take in the view and say, “Phew! Wow! Can you believe we made it to this point?”

And then, without fail, we would wake up the next day, and sooner than anyone could guess, another such moment came along.

I remember vividly having a celebratory dinner in October of 2006, when Kiva crossed $500,000 in loans. We were teary-eyed and simply amazed that we’d reached such a milestone after only a year.

Less than two weeks later, that amount had doubled.

Within a year, it had multiplied 20 times over.

It was more than we had dreamed. So we had to dream bigger. This is honestly the most wonderful thing I’ve learned through my relationship with Kiva: dream as big as you can. Then imagine even more.

Every day is an opportunity to begin again. Each Kiva funded entrepreneur knows this, and proves it through their stories.

Today is a big deal for Kiva. And, I know, as always, that this is just the beginning.

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