Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Really Great Weekend.

In many ways, I struggle with what this blog is.  How do I combine my personal interests, like transportation and flying with my work, which is currently consulting?  More often than not, this blog also serves as my personal journal, which is weird because it’s public.  And my story isn’t very exciting or interesting, like people who are going through difficult times or working in the foreign service and looking to share their experiences.  But with all of the social media outlets that I use like Yelp, LinkedIn, Facebook and increasingly Twitter, I have found that while these provide outlets, they rarely provide a release or vent for my feelings or concerns.  I realize that this means that a reader base is hard to accumulate because this thing veers all over the place, but in a way I think that makes it more interesting. 

One of my problems is that I mean to blog much more and get behind and then the thing I wanted to talk about becomes the three things I wanted to talk about or 10 things.  Well, this past weekend I had an experience that requires blogging.  As a matter of fact, I’m typing this from 35,000 feet to a Word document just to make sure I get all of this down.

So I am a member of an online community called Milepoint.  The site was created by frequent flier guru Randy Peterson, who’s an incredibly kind man originally from Iowa.  The site allows people who belong to travel affinity programs (Starwood Preferred Guest, US Airways Dividend Miles, Hertz #1 Club Gold, etc) to talk with each other and answer questions and share ideas.  These questions can get really detailed, like what the best seat on a United 757 in the international configuration in First class.  These are people who love flying and travelling and will build up miles just so they can fly to Canada to see a friend for a weekend, because with this group, you’re friends can be all over the globe.  But this story isn’t really about Milepoint, per se.  Its about Milepoint’s relationship with Kiva. 

Maybe you don’t know about Kiva, or are vaguely aware. is a site that allows you to microlend.  This means that someone, in a country that has no financial system (Zambia) or a country where banks won’t give small loans to persons without a decent credit history (United States), cannot get money.  A typical loan on Kiva would be $700 for Marisol in Paraguay who has a food stand near a factory and wants to purchase a refrigerator to increase the types of goods that she can sell.  So I would go onto Kiva and lend her $25 (default donation) I can also see who their field partner is, which is the NGO that is providing them the money and support in country, in addition to the repayment terms of the loan.  Generally the repayment terms are 6-18 months.  And I would get my $25 back in my account in random increments like $2.75 in April and $4.50 in May. The video below is called Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Microfinance and it's pretty wild.  

Now, unlike DonorsChoose, which is another fascinating and awesome website that allows you to donate money to classrooms so they can buy supplies that aren’t covered by the budget, you are loaning the money in Kiva.  With no interest.  And the chance that the loan might default because Marisol’s food stand might be destroyed or she might have a death in her family and be unable to repay the loan.  Which means you don’t get your money back.  But most of the people I know consider their loan more of a donation anyway.  You have the option of withdrawing your Kiva funds as they are repayed, but over 90% of users choose to recycle or reinvest them in other loans. 

Various groups form Lending Teams on the Kiva website and they “compete” to see who can recruit the most members in a month or who can raise the most money.  It’s not really a competition because the act of giving is the reward, but people do like to see their team do well and get some attention.  Milepoint has a team.  An active team.  A really active team.  In the last 2 months, I’ve made about $400 in loans.  Sounds like a lot.  However in context, the Milepoint team of 650 people has raised $2.1 million dollars over 12 months.  Fastest growing team in Kiva history.  So, there was a meeting this weekend in San Francisco, where Kiva is headquartered that brought members of the Milepoint Team who could attend and Kiva Leadership and employees together.  We of course, wanted to meet these people and answer some questions we had and talk to them.  They wanted to find out who the hell we were that raised 2 million bucks in a year and wanted to talk to us.  It felt like two odd groups sizing each other up. 

Pause story…..
I think that passion is one of the most amazing things in this world.  Passion can allow people to do things for little money, sleep or food or water forever.  It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy gets slapped.  I had passion twice in my life.  I can tell, because my voice catches in the back of my throat and I start to sound like Bill Clinton asking people to picture a world…. The first was in college when I was working on this concept called the Poughkeepsie Institute that was going to bring students from Marist, Vassar, SUNY-New Paltz, Duchess Community College, the Culinary Institute of America and Bard all together.  It currently existed in a class that had students from all six schools and focused on issues in the local area.  But I envisioned a think tank, and a foundation that could bring in capital from these schools, intellectual and monetary, to help revitalize a city that had fallen on hard times.  I saw a building where students would come from all of the schools and mix with each other, which didn’t happen normally.  I also imagined a place that could help the City of Poughkeepsie with human capital in everything from investing to marketing.  A mini-consulting firm pro bono consisting of students and faculty who could help the city.  I even went so far as to meet with the Mayor, the Economic Development Director to look at spaces in the city that were vacant and that the city was interested in getting rid of for a song to get them developed.  But then, the Vassar advisor put the kibosh on the whole thing, angry that I’d struck out on my own and scared that the program was getting out of his control.  And it was…people were believing.  It was a beautiful thing.  But it didn’t last and and ended up with me yelling “Go Fuck Yourself” and storming out of the advisor’s office in tears. 

The next time I felt passion was when I had this idea about changing the way colleges raise money by being much more connected to their alumni.  I won’t go into it now, but it lost steam when people didn’t return emails or calls, and those that did basically said it wouldn’t work because the college gets decent money now without much work. 

So about 45 of us met with Kiva on Friday and Saturday.  I was already in San Francisco and so I got to tour their office and attend a happy hour.  It was over $3 cask ales at the Public House that I began to suspect this weekend was going to be different.  The people from Kiva I was talking to were just amazing people.  Many of them had left their jobs paying a lot more in the private sector.  They were fun and committed and I wondered if I lived in San Francisco, if we would hang out, even if I never worked at Kiva. 
Over the course of the 2 days, we brainstormed with them and they shared with us their visions and their concerns about growth and remaining true to their mission while expanding into new areas.  Kiva introduced the ability to microlend to the United States a few years ago, and that caused some anger among their lender base who thought that the U.S. with it’s large collection of wealth should be the last country that Kiva should launch in.  However, as the Occupy Wall Street movement has shown, that awesome amount of wealth is quite poorly distributed, no pun intended.  The manager of their US portfolio, spoke about how unlike international microfinance, the goal in this country was to get people loans to help them establish credit and a history of strong repayments and then to graduate them to the existing financial system.   She was pretty kick ass.  She got extra points for knowing about the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia. 

People are really generous on our team.  So generous in fact that Kiva has had to modify their systems to allow for greater lending.  One of our members, was tired of clicking the $25 when he really just wanted to fund all agriculture loans in Africa for $100,000.  Think about that.  Even more awesome is that as a team we concentrated our money lending over the weekend for maximum effect, dubbed a money bomb.  This bomb was devastatingly effective.  It brought in $300,000 in 48 hours.  As an international team we benefit from being able to count the days by starting in Asia and ending in Hawaii.  It’s cheating, but I don’t think anyone minds.  That $300,000 is more than any team has loaned in a month! It’s staggering to think about actually.
So here I sit, at 35,000 feet, having finished my breakfast in First Class.  (Review: Frittata A-, Potatoes: B, Sausages: C+) On the way to the airport at 5:45 AM, I had already sent emails to the Kiva founder, Matt Flannery, and the Kiva President, Premal Shah, and their Development Manager, Erin Geiger trying to keep the conversations and relationships going and to let them know that I’m all in.  I’m a relationship person and just like in work, I believe you can tell a lot from a person by who they surround themselves with. The stunning thing to me about this weekend is that before Thursday, I supported Kiva to help Marisol buy a refrigerator. And now I want to support the organization that is Kiva.  I want to help Chelsa and Betsy and Josh and Martin, and Maika and Ali and all of them.  I have no idea what this means, to be honest.  I’m not sure I would want to work for them.  I’m not even sure what I could do for them, asides from being someone in the office that everyone liked, but in that way, I might as well be a dog.  I have skills but they generally revolve around dealing with people and managing people, which Kiva seems to have under control. I’m not even sure that have any interest in keeping a connection with me that’s more personal than my relationship as a lender to their borrowers and MFIs(Micro Finance Institutions).

I just know that based on my previous signs like my voice kept catching in my throat, and crying as I type this, that I’m hooked.   But there are much, much better tears than they were 13 years ago.  I feel like the Double Rainbow guy.
So worst case, I don’t get responses from Matt, Premal or Erin.  And I end up just connecting to them through one-way methods like their blog or their Twitter handle.  I’d be okay with that, because they have given me something so magical, even for such a short time.  They have reminded me that there is nothing I can’t do.  And they have reminded me how it feels to be with like minded people.  And to bring it back to 13 years ago, I’ll need profanity again.  It feels really fucking awesome. 

P.S. I have this post topped out at 4 pages.  I’m curious if anyone got this far, and if they did, what were their thoughts on the story.  Was it too long?  Did it make sense.  This has sort of been a kind of stream of consciousness thing, so I’m not sure that it is interesting to anyone, besides me.  And even I simply needed it as a place to put my feelings into words.
P.P.S. I need to tell you about Charlie Schumacher, but that will be another post.  I gotta wrap this up.  The woman across from me is wondering why this business guy is working on a document for the last hour and has suddenly begun to cry.  Thank God I’m not brown.  They’d probably detain me.  

P.P.P.S. (Seriously, this is actually gramatically correct) Premal emailed back, thanking me for the friendship.  I got it when I landed at the Charlotte Airport.  I also got the last seat for First Class on my next flight. I'm taking all of these things as a sign that I'm on the right track. 


Anonymous said...

"I’m curious if anyone got this far, and if they did, what were their thoughts on the story."
Lovely, gcc. And it's why USAID would've been very, very lucky to have had you.
But, uh, it's 3/11/12, not 10/11/12.
David TimStuff

cam said...

Once again(in the name of full disclosure it's your Mom and Step Father) we are doing Bill Clinton voices ourselves because we are so moved by your intimate sharing. As you clearly have discovered, IT IS the journey. The destination will sort itself out by the decisions you make and not only will we be eager to follow you on your blog but in much more detail when you PHONE HOME. We could not love you or be more proud of you.

cam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks - I couldn't be there b/c am 8k miles away (sigh tough to have so many great choices) but you gave me a feel of what it was like. Thanks

Hero to the Masses said...

Hey, for those commenters, please go to this link:

You can get a free $25 to loan to someone halfway around the world and maybe get a little hooked in the process.

B said...

Wow. If there were more people like you in the world...oh, what a world it would be!

freqflyercoll said...

Hey man, great thorough post about the fantastic weekend we had! It was a blast meeting you, and I'm glad I managed to track down your blog :) You're on it, because all I've done is take down some notes about the weekend and start drafting a post!

Allyson said...

By far one of your best posts, babe. So happy you've found something that brings you so much passion. Kiva is lucky to have a member like you. Thank you for reminding all of us about finding our passion in life.