Ask the person who teaches the class, University of San Diego’s Professor of Economics Stephen Conroy, PhD, and his answer goes deep. Much deeper.
“This is more than business, this is business with a conscience … business with a heart,” he said.
Microfinance, in a nutshell, is about giving small loans to low-income individuals, mostly women, who lack access to traditional financial resources. These short-term loans, typically a few hundred dollars, help them establish small businesses for everything from clothing, artwork and tamales to soda pop-tops that turn into stunningly beautiful belts and purses. The desired outcome is that the loans – and the repayment –provides micro-entrepreneurs with an understanding of business finance as well as improving their lives and their families’ lives.
There are for-profit and nonprofit methods of micro financing, but understanding a decades-old concept that gained more attention when Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize in 2006, has long-term value.
“I want our students to have the analytical tools to be successful in business, but I also want them to open their hearts to the plight of the poor and situations that many people, billions of people around the globe, face every day,” Conroy said.
The USD class has only been offered in summer 2008 and 2010, and will be available in 2012. The class discusses microfinance and wealth creation from theoretical and practical views. It offers a global perspective by connecting with students from Mexico’s Technológico de Monterrey (TdM) campus in Guadalajara. The 2010 syllabus included readings, discussions, on-site visits to microfinance institutions and guest speakers such as Chris Crane, a member of USD’s School of Business Administration Board of Advisors, and Elena Cruz from La Maestra, who brought along micro-entrepreneurs to share their stories and show the positive impact of these loans.
“When we meet them, I’m often struck by the dire circumstances they began with and the success they’ve had,” Conroy said. “Microfinance is a classic example of giving someone a hand up, not a handout.”
The TdM link is a critical component. In 2008, USD students were in a classroom and 16 TdM students were present via video conferencing. The groups met in person later that summer when Conroy took his students to Guadalajara to visit organizations that gave financial services to low-income individuals. In 2010, TdM students spent a weekend in San Diego and the two groups were together in Guadalajara.
“Our students learn about Mexican culture, learn how business is done in a foreign country, learn about financial institutions in Mexico and see how they’ve overlooked the poor. That way, our students get to see how microfinance can be vehicle to provide for the poor,” Conroy said.
Danica Oliver ’10 (MBA) was interested in microfinance after reading an article and it inspired her to take the class in 2008.
“Microfinance makes you look at the world differently. I was very excited when I saw that USD offered a class,” she said. “Dr. Conroy exposed us to a lot more through the guest speakers and by working with the students in Mexico. Incorporating it into my MBA was very powerful.”
Conroy got interested in microfinance as a grad student at the University of Southern California. Shortly after he came to USD, Via International’s Elisa Sabatini gave an on-campus presentation. The university partnered with ACCION International’s San Diego chapter on a training program in 2007 and business professors taught ACCION loan clients about web design and Quickbooks accounting software.
Microfinance at USD has grown in popularity through the graduate class and undergraduate microeconomics classes taught by Conroy, who takes students to Tijuana. A student-run Microfinance Club exists and Conroy co-authored a paper with inaugural club president Ken Downey ’10. The San Diego Microfinance Alliance’s annual Microfinance Summit takes place at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice.
There’s also a San Diego Microenterprise Project, bringing USD’s Center for Community Service-Learning and School of Business Administration together with the San Diego Microfinance Alliance, La Maestra, ACCESS and Via International. The coalition provided loans to 20 women for $250 each — 10 received loans in 2009, 10 more in 2010 — and in turn, USD students have access to the micro-entrepreneurs and get to see microfinance in action. This unique partnership demonstrates USD’s ability to be a role model for microfinance education.
“Some have a microfinance club, some are involved in microfinance but it’s abroad, usually Africa, East or South Asia. We’re the only university I’m aware of that has a micro-lending program here, at home, in San Diego. I’d like us to show other universities what we do because I see there being a lot of interest.”
— Ryan T. Blystone