Talent is universal. Opportunity is not.
Microfinance, a concept institutionalized in 1976 by Bangladeshi economist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Muhammad Yunus, continues to create waves in the international development world, helping to provide low-income individuals access to capital and finance–resources that would be otherwise impossible for them to obtain. The overarching idea behind microfinance–you need a dollar to catch a dollar–has fueled finance and economics professionals all over the world to help the economically disadvantaged by bridging the gap between talent and opportunity, particularly in the developing world.
Meet American microfinance entrepreneur Shyam K. Iyer, the creator and founder of SKI Charities, an organization that empowers women in remote, forgotten parts of the world by providing small loans to low-income women to help them start or further develop their own businesses, while stimulating the local economy and creating positive role models for girls in that community. He’s working to build local groups of female entrepreneurs and scholars to unlock their communities’ potential and foster a more hopeful tomorrow, acting on the premise that talent should be given every opportunity to blossom, no matter where on earth.
Read on to learn about Shyam and his new microfinance venture and to see how he fused his passions for travel, finance, and social good.
1) To start off with, can you define the idea of microfinance without the jargon?
Simply put, it’s providing small loans to low-income clients without the strict requirements of mainstream banks.
2) Tell me a little bit about your background and SKI Charities. How did you get started with this? What was your inspiration for SKI Charities? Where is SKI active? What are your future plans for SKI?
I started SKI Charities in 2010, with the encouragement of friends who told me about the potential and need in their home country, Zimbabwe. This was also at a time when the reputation of finance was quite low, though I always understood finance could create social value and help people become independent, if deployed in a constructive way. I have always been inspired by people taking control of their destinies, rather than waiting for someone else to hand it to them. Entrepreneurs fit this idea and so do many people in the most emerging locations that lack formal structures and jobs that often dull one’s sense of creativity.
SKI Charities is currently active in Zimbabwe and Chile. We do microfinance (SKImfi) in both locations as well as scholarships (SKIpgo) in Zimbabwe. We plan to extend our scholarships to Chile soon. I have also just returned from Myanmar, where I completed preliminary (but promising) research on expanding these same initatives there. A third initiative in these same geographies will be local arts promotion, supporting local artists and helping them bring their work to broader audiences via our networks in the West.
3) Can you guide us through the process, start to finish? From how you find your clients to how the money is delivered. Do you partner with local organizations?
We handle every step thanks to our strong local team. Our project manager receives references of candidates from our local network of trusted contacts. She then chooses and loans the funds ($100-500/woman in groups of 4-6) to those whom she feels will deliver on their plans and commitment. With one month (renewable) for the beneficiaries to use their loan, our manager and field officer visit them frequently to make sure they are staying the course. At the end of the month the funds are repaid, with nominal interest to keep the beneficiaries motivated and feeling part of a mainstream banking transaction (rather than aid).
4) How do you sustain a livelihood from it or is this something you do on the side?
I manage an investment fund that is for-profit and focused on supporting entrepreneurs (on a larger scale) in the same markets as SKI Charities.
5) Do you have a particular success story that pops out at you?
There’s really too many to tell. Women putting their kids back in school, putting themselves back in school, hiring other women, getting better healthcare, some are just eating better, and you can really see the difference. Take a look at our Facebook and Twitter pages for more stories and to stay up-to-date with the latest accounts.
6) What advice would you give someone entering the field of microfinance?
Go to locations where no one else is going and aim to make a unique impact. Hire the right local people and treat them as partners and allow them to tailor the organization to their culture. You will soon find that astounding talent abounds and that the sky is the limit.