Her goal: end poverty, one loan at a time

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Jessica Jackley Flannery was working on a little more than four hours of sleep as she quietly moved her luggage out of the room she shared with four girlfriends in Wilmington, N.C.

She had spent the previous two days campaigning for Barack Obama and after a post-election celebration the night before, was off to the airport headed to New York -- and trying to be quiet as she was being interviewed over her cell phone.

Ms. Flannery, 31, is a 1996 graduate of North Allegheny High School who grew up in Franklin Park. She's used to the travel since she founded an innovative Web site called Kiva.org with her husband Matt. It's the world's first person-to-person micro lending site.

By logging on to Kiva, participants can loan as little as $25 to a third world entrepreneur in an effort to alleviate poverty. The terms of the loan vary, usually nine to 12 months, and just about every loan is paid back within that time.

The Web site is a hit and it's changed her life into something she calls, "a beautiful adventure, more than ever before."

"I get to interact with so many incredible human beings who are doing great things and who are connecting with each other," she said.

The genesis of Kiva dates back to her high school days. She did some traveling and was learning about conditions around the world. As a senior she took a trip to Haiti for a week of service with Orchard Hill Church and it had a powerful impact on her.

"Realizing how ridiculously privileged I was compared to most of the world, I felt like I wouldn't know how to be a human being on the planet if I didn't play attention to the lives of all the other people. The vast majority have such a drastically different set of opportunities laid out before them."

A few years later she started working for World Vision, a Christian-based humanitarian organization, where she learned the ins and outs of nonprofit organizations and relief operations. She also participated in Semester at Sea, where she travelled to South Africa and Kenya.

When she heard Mohammed Unis, winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace prize, talk about microfinance, she found her calling. Dr. Unis is also founder of the Grameen Bank, which specializes in small loans for poor entrepreneurs.

She researched microfinance, learning everything she could about the topic, then headed to East Africa to determine the needs of people there, trying to understand what was working and what wasn't when it came to relief through grants and loans. That's where Kiva -- which means "unity" in Swahili -- was born.

The couple spammed their e-mail wedding list with requests for loans when Kiva was in the beta stage in 2005. They raised $3,000 that went to seven people in Uganda.

When the site went live in October of that year, they distributed a half-million dollars in loans. The second year it was $14 million. Last year they loaned $50 million.

Kiva partners with nearly 100 micro-lenders around the world. The financial partners must meet rigid guidelines to assure that they have the best interest of their underprivileged clients in mind. Many of the lenders are nonprofits or are subsidized because of the nature of their work.

These micro-lenders find the entrepreneurs in other countries, take a picture and send a story to Kiva and it's posted on the Web site. Anyone who logs on can look through the profiles and find someone to help.

But this is not a donation. It's a loan and with a payback rate of nearly 100 percent. It's something that is meant to give someone less fortunate a leg up and an opportunity to thrive.

The micro-lender acts as a bank for the poor and charges low interest rates to the entrepreneurs, and also does other banking business.

When users come to Kiva to offer loans, they are repaid without interest. People use this site for philanthropic purposes -- they're not in it to make a profit.

Among those users of Kiva is Team Pittsburgh, led by Amy Carpenter, a staff attorney for Neighborhood Legal Services Association which provides legal services for low income individuals.

Working with Kiva was the perfect fit for the 41-year-old Pittsburgh resident. She partnered with a coworker and they started loaning $25 dollars a month each after seeing a story about Kiva on television.

"To be able to enable someone with such a little amount of money was what really inspired me," Mrs. Carpenter said.

They've helped 24 different entrepreneurs around the world since April. As the loans are repaid, she rolls over the money into new loans, but says the real payback is in what's accomplished by being part of the Web site. "I can make a difference. I can help somebody get out of poverty and become self sufficient and ensure their kids are going to get three squares a day or be able to go to school."

One of the things that makes Kiva successful, according to Ms. Flannery, is that it's so specific.

"When I was interviewing entrepreneurs [in Africa] I became deeply moved by these stories of success. It feels overwhelming to look at the world and say 'There are so many problems; what do you do?' However when you look at one person and you hear their story, the barrier for someone to get involved is so low."

Word spread over the Internet about Kiva. Three-hundred different blogs alerted people to the site just as it launched, along with mainstream media that has discovered Ms. Flannery and the company.

Kiva is a nonprofit organization, has 40 employees and hundreds of volunteers that provide support for the company.

Ms. Flannery's goal is basic, to alleviate poverty by helping people through lending.

"Yes, Kiva moves lots of money back and forth. More importantly, it makes people truly believe they have the power to reach out and connect with another human being in a really meaningful way," she said. "I love seeing people believe in each other, expect more from each other and believe in the possibility for change for themselves and other people."

Ms. Flannery will be in town to speak Dec. 16 at The Knowledge Point Academy at the Regional Learning Alliance in Cranberry. The event, called The Entrepreneurial Spirit, will run from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. People can register for all or portions of the program, with fees ranging from $35 to $70. Twenty percent of the registration fee will be donated to Kiva. The Callidus Group and Carlow University are sponsors.

For information contact Judy Dahlbeck at KPA@theRLA.org or call 724-741-1036.

For more information and to learn how to participate in Kiva, log onto www.kiva.org.


Doug Oster can be reached at doster@post-gazette.com or 724-772-9177.


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