Inside USD

Microfinance Combines Business, Social Good

Friday, April 30, 2010

Microfinance-photoEmmy Award-winning actress Yeardley Smith began her appearance Wednesday on the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice Theatre stage with a signature, but lighthearted, moment.

“Welcome, everybody, to the San Diego Microfinance Alliance Summit. Woo-hoo!” said Smith, who delivered the line in her famous character voice of animated Lisa Simpson of TV’s “The Simpsons” fame, a role she’s had since 1987.

The audience cheered, appropriately. Thirty minutes later, however, there was equal appreciation for Smith when she wasn’t in character mode. It was here that she gave a firsthand account of her trips, through the Grameen Foundation, to Haiti before and after the devastating January earthquake when she explained why her passion for microfinancing increased.

Microfinance is a method for sound financial services for poor and low-income entrepreneurs who cannot qualify for traditional bank loans. The idea of microcredit, championed by 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunas, has evolved and continues to inspire people worldwide to provide a “hand up, not a handout.”

At USD, microfinancing has been on the School of Business Administration’s radar for years. Stephen Conroy, associate professor of economics, teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in applied microeconomics. He gets students involved in microfinance projects both in and outside the classroom. “It’s coming into its own, growing fast on campus and in multiple sectors of the university.”

Wednesday’s summit at USD showcased the potential and actual growth at the local, national and international level. There was an international microfinance panel of experts and documentary film showing work done by the San Diego Microfinance Alliance, including a partnership between USD’s Community Service-Learning associate director Chris Nayve and La Maestra’s Elena Cruz. Attendees enjoyed exotic lunch choices and shopped in an international marketplace featuring local and independently owned businesses who receive assistance from a local microfinance organization. Five different breakout microfinance panel sessions were also held and the day ended with a networking mixer.

One breakout session featured students from USD, UC San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University. Ken Downey, president of the year-old USD Microfinance Club, moderated the session. Downey, graduating in May with a degree in economics, said being part of this year’s summit was exciting, especially because last year’s event gave him the inspiration to start an on-campus club.

“There were practioners from all over, there were academics, and it was a great place to network,” he said. “When I looked at all the faculty and resources that were here, I said, ‘it’s time for USD students to put a face on microfinance.”

The club has made strides. It has 15-20 active members and another 70-80 students on an interested e-mail list. Club members have bonded with Point Loma Nazarene’s microfinance students, attended special events and, earlier this semester, held a $2-a-day challenge. Club members experienced a small taste of how more than a billion people live around the world. They solicited donations from students and raised nearly $300. The money went to Norma, a single mother of three, to help expand her tamale business. Julia Norgaard ‘12, who also participated in the student breakout session, is the 2010-11 club president. Her presence gives the club continuity.

Downey credits his business classes, Community Service-Learning and his fellow club members for nurturing his interest. Downey even went with Conroy to give a presentation at the Academy of Economics and Finance.“The university’s resources have been absolutely key to really doing what Yunas calls, ‘social business.’”

“I’m impressed with the Microfinance Club,” Conroy said. “The students’ input and their initiative has been great. Part of the inspiration for the club’s existence came from those who attended last year’s summit so that is some of the fruit from having (the summit).”

Asked what he expects in the wake of this year’s summit? “I don’t know what’s on the horizon,” he said, “but it’ll sure be fun to see what happens.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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