by Taylor Bryant
“Whatever you do for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” is the scripture that Jessica Jackley first heard when she was five years old that would later change her life. “It was my first lesson about the poor,” she says. “And it felt like the world’s greatest homework assignment.”
From that childhood moment, Jessica spent much of her life aiming to help the poor. “It was often television stories of sadness and devastation that I would see about poverty,” she says. “I remember digging through my couch trying to find money just to give."
Jessica shared her journey to success with nearly 400 students in the Townsend Center on the University of West Georgia’s campus at the Richards College of Business BB&T Lectures in Free Enterprise series.
As Jessica got older, she realized that donating to the poor was actually cutting her off from the issue of poverty. “This yearning for an interaction with the poor had become a transaction,” she says. “It was like I was kind of buying my right to go on with my day, to not hear the sad stories of the poor just by putting change in a jar so I could move on.”
By the time Jessica entered college, she knew that she still had the desire to help the poor and work for a non-profit. “I studied philosophy, political science and poetry in an attempt to find answers to those ‘big’ questions that I had, but upon graduation I found myself without a plan,” she says.
It wasn’t long after graduation before Jessica moved to California where oddly enough she landed a job at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. “I remember clearly thinking these are the bad guys and I want to be with the good guys, but I have to pay my rent,” she laughs.
However, it was that program that completely changed her professional trajectory. “It just so happened that I was not only in the business school, but I was in the research center called the Center for Social Innovation and it was this place where students, faculty and thought leaders were thinking about how to solve social problems using business skills.”
Jessica quickly used this as an opportunity to learn as much as possible. “I realized as much heart, as much passion as I had to help people, I had no idea how to get things done,” she shares. “I found myself so drawn to the ideas that they talked about.”
Yearning to learn more, Jessica one day stumbled across an email blast about a college lecture given by Nobel Peace Prize recipient Dr. Muhammad Yunus. His message inspired her so much that it created a paradigm shift on poverty. It was her first time learning about microfinancing and how it helped move people out of poverty. “He didn’t focus on how sad poor people were, but he viewed them as people who were smart, hardworking entrepreneurs.”
So moved by Dr. Yunus’ lecture, Jessica quit her job and moved to East Africa for her dream job that allowed her to speak to entrepreneurs who had received a small loan to see if it actually benefited them. The more stories she heard, the more she realized that those small loans were making a huge difference in the lives of its recipients.
“All of this data galvanized what I expected to find, which were these stories of hope and triumph, not just challenge and suffering,” says Jessica. “I met people who were happy and proud of what they were working on, people who were in the middle of great business ventures…. and this changed the way I felt.”
From this experience, KIVA, the world’s first peer-to-peer microlending website, was born. Allowing internet users to lend as little as $25 to individual entrepreneurs, KIVA provides affordable capital to help them start or expand a small business. Within its first year, KIVA facilitated $500 thousand in loans.
Today, KIVA has facilitated nearly $400 million in loans among individuals across 216 countries.
“I do believe that this interest free loan of $25 has built a new relationship between lender/donor and borrower/beneficiary, instead of that weird relationship that I experienced way too many times,” she says. “When you lend someone $25 you are saying to them ‘I believe in you,’ so I believe that this loan connotes that partnership.”
Jessica concluded her lecture encouraging students to erase the language of success and failure from their vocabulary. “Everyday be willing to embrace starting over again and again,” she says. “The stories I’ve heard aren’t just of poverty, but they are stories of potential in every single person on this planet. I know now that I don’t get to respond by just throwing my change in the jar and walking away, but I get to participate and be a change maker.”
The program ended with a question and answer session with Jessica. The lecture was followed by a Friday morning BB&T sponsored breakfast, also keynoted by Jessica, where she shared her story with community leaders and entrepreneurs.