Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Maggie Miller is the founder of discover hope fund, a non-profit organization providing micro loans and education to impoverished women in Peru. These loans can be as small as $150 but they enable women to feed their families, send their children to school, and improve the communities they live in. When an opportunity to travel to Peru came along in 2004 Maggie went knowing that she was looking for her next move, but not knowing what that would be. She found the answer, what would become discover hope fund, by simply asking the Peruvian women what they wanted for themselves and listening to their answers. Discover Hope funds holiday of hope benefit is taking place next Wednesday, December 8, at Mercury hall. You can get more details at Discover Hope .

I think that the work you’re doing with Discover Hope Fund is really pretty amazing stuff. Explain how the program works.

The mission statement has two program goals; one of those goals is microcredit for women who are living on less than $2 a day, and the other one is training which is access to knowledge and information for those women. So microcredit is not a new concept; I wish I would have invented it but I didn't. It's the idea of giving these small loans, or access to credit, to women (traditionally world wide) and ill talk about that in a second. To initiate or grow their small businesses. And worldwide 97% of the borrowers are women and the reason for that is women have the ultimate care for their children at the end of the day. They have the responsibility to feed them and clothe them and educate them. And women in developing world also wont traditionally have access to other means of credit. Their only access would traditionally be a loan shark that would charge them up to 50-70% a day at times. So that first goal is really giving access to credit. The loans do look like, as you said, $100$150 to initiate and grow a small business. To me that's like the fishing pole, that old saying that we all have heard many times that I love which is teach a person to fish instead of giving them a fish. So microcredit is the fishing pole, it’s a tool, it’s an amazing tool used world wide to help lift people out of the situation of poverty. But at Discover Hope we really feel that there is a part 2. And that's when you give a tool to somebody that they've never had in their hands before, that you have the ultimate responsibility to teach them to maximize the potential of that tool. If I gave you a fishing pole and you've never fished before, you've never seen this thing you would not know how to use it. So what we do is we ask the women in our microcredit program “what else do you want and need to maximize yourself as a women, as a mother as an entrepreneur”. And then the trick is to listen. To listen to what they want.

What do they want?

What they say they want has been things like literacy for themselves, health education for themselves and how to care for their families. Issues like respiratory illness and disease, gynecology, those types of issues.
But how do those types of education, how does that help them run their businesses?
So those are two of the top personal things they ask for, so still kind of going down the line of what they want. The other areas have more focus towards their business, which is business particular classes they ask for business and finance classes. Now remember literacy is also mathematical literacy. And if someone doesn't know how to compute a day’s work, that is about $5, $10, then they don't know if they've lost or gained at the end of the day. So business classes, finances classes, classes that has to do with their type of business in general, that looks like veterinary workshops on how to care for their animals, a lot of them work in agriculture and husbandry. Creating artisan works, jewelry, t-shirt stamping, weaving, crocheting. Whatever they ask for. Last year we did 72 types of artisan classes alone. So again, it’s really about listening to what they want. One last big area is culinary as well. We have a lot of women who do fresh food production on the streets. They want to learn how to add to their menu, or bake cakes for Quincineras, or whatever they need. So again the high level goals are microcredit, that access to credit, and training which is access to knowledge.

Is the training typical among other microloan organizations, because I mean, that's really an amazing piece?

I wouldn't say it’s typical. It does exist. There are some really great organizations; one of my favorites is Freedom From Hunger out of Davis California. They have a credit plus education model that I think they really well developed. There are other microcredit borrowing mechanisms that are really just about you paying into the loan or the loan money itself. At Discover Hope we kind of have the stance that that’s just really not enough. And I think some of that comes from the background of being in the field and watching microcredit in action for several years and working with different organizations and seeing that the biggest question is how paternalistic can you be about a microcredit loan. Do you give $100 and make sure they go to the store and buy the goods that they said they said they wanted to buy for their business. So I guess the trick is that if you give the credits, the education side to the credit, you've actually given them a path for how to best maximize that tool. When a woman leaves our classes and she’s learned to make a pair of earrings, and she sells it on the street for $2 ten minutes later she’s going to go buy more jewelry materials. When a woman bakes a cake in a culinary class and sells it to her neighbor for her daughter’s event, her quincinera, she’s going to go invest in more product.

Tell us about actually the loan payback rate. These are women who haven’t had access to money before and now they’re getting it.

Absolutely. Worldwide microcredit is very successful. The payback rate in the world is %97 98% success and these are entrepreneurs that don't have any collateral at all. Its not like you can go take their home from them or their car from them. Our payback rate at Discover Hope is 100% and were really proud of that. And what I think that that speaks to is the ownership and the accountability that people are willing to take on for themselves to make a sustainable change for their families. Its not just like hey give me some money and I’m going to take off with this money. Its I’m willing to pay back this money in 4-6 months which is a typical loan cycle. So they may take $150 $100 depending on the interview you've had with them and what they want to do with that money and their going to pay back over 4 to six months. Now the way that that works is in a mechanism called the village bank. It’s also known as community bank or community groups, communal banks. That is a group of 6-8 women or 6-25 women (it matters what origination your working with). Ours is 6-25 women that basically borrow together as a unit. So they have each other’s backs so to speak and this is called social collateral and this is used world wide in micro credit.

Right and another key thing, what you just said about here in the United States. Now they are trying microcredit models in the United States but one of the keys that makes it work internationally is communities are not mobile like they are in the United States. When your born in a community, unless you have kind of gotten a break, gotten an education and gotten out of our community, you’re going to remain in this community for your entire life. So, the trust, and what people think of you, and your home unit and your family unit is always in that community which makes that social collateral bond really strong. So that's another big point about it working internationally.

That is so interesting. Maggie I want to find out how you came to do this work. So you have a Bachelors degree from George Washington university, a master’s of communication from San Diego state, you graduated summa cum lade from both, and you had a full athletic scholarship for soccer. So how did you come to help poor women in Peru?

So the short answer is the still small voice, that's my short answer and I’ll tell you what that means. After my masters I started working in San Diego for an amazing non-profit and what I did there, the mission was stop children from killing children. And my job was to create peace education for kids that are from gang families. For anyone that can see me in this interview I definitely don't look like I have… You know I’m white, I have blue eyes, I grew up in the mid-west, and I didn't have trouble in my family. And so my job was how to relate to kids that were really having difficult times in their family. No matter how they looked it was just different experiences. And the thing I learned the most from these kids was ask them what they want. So they wrote this curriculum, which was eventually called Peace works, and it still exists to this day in the organization in San Diego. Shortly after that, one day in quietude of my home, I heard this internal call, and that call was go see con otros ojos.

And it was in Spanish?

It was half Spanish half English. Go see con otros ojos—go see with other eyes. And being in San Diego, which was a beautiful place to live, working for a wonderful origination, doing fine financially. I loved the beach, the people, the friendships. And hearing something that kind of shifted inside me and made me uncomfortable, lets just say I wasn't happy about it. So for the next three months, I just kept inquiring internally about that call. What does this really mean? What does this mean for me? And at the end of that kind of contemplation period, what it really meant for me was going outside the boundaries of the United States and seeing myself from another perspective. And so at that point I shared this with my coworkers and gave an 8 month notice, ended up giving away all my things I sold everything I had, gave most of it away, paid off my debts, had nothing at the end, and I mean I had my health and goodness so you know I didn't have nothing but I took off on March 4, 2004 to the mountains of Peru with about $7000 in investor money. It was an investment in the idea that I would create a project once I got there. And once I did get there, I spent about the first three months asking women, “what do you want.” and they all said the same thing they all said, “We want a hand up and not a hand out.” We don't want you to give us something that's going to go away tomorrow.
Were they happy to talk to you? I mean here you are you've described yourself; I mean blonde hair blue eyed white chick from America. Are they happy to talk to you?
Someone asked me that recently, and I think the trick is really being in their situation with them and taking interest in what they were doing and went to the places that were important to them. In the markets, in the fields…

Did you just walk up to them and say, “Hi”?

Well I think that the confidence came from them seeing that I wasn't going away. I wasn't a week visitor, I wasn't two days visiting, I wasn't a month visiting. After about 3 weeks they were like this chicks sticking around you know, lets see what she’s all about. I think it's a funny part of the story, but my real name is Madelyn. So obviously in a very catholic nation the name Madelyn is a very revered figure, Mary Madelyn. So it was kind of an open door as well. “Oh well what’s your name”, oh Magdalena “oh well wow, you must be an angel. What are you doing in town?” So it was almost a kind of a conversation starter. And just asking about their families. I just didn't immediately say what do you want. You now, what is your life like, tell me about your business tell me about your family and creating friendship and trust that way.

And so then, its one thing to hear theses stories, its thing to make that real.
Right. So at about 6 months into the project I wrote the investors and said look, what I would like to do is create a microcredit pilot project. I started studying along this time microcredit models, and what microcredit meant and how it worked and just kept in touch with these folks. And all of them said do it, go for it. So what I did was start doing the first generation of loans to women and really for the next year and a half I ran this pilot project called hope bank and hope bank was the predecessor to Discover Hope, the non-profit. Hope bank was really the experiment of how microcredit really works in the field, programmatically, what does it really look like. A lot of people hear of microcredit but how it unfolds in the field is another story. Brining the bank to the people, which is the point of microcredit, not making people come to a bank. Getting to a rural bank in the mountains of the Andes or wherever it is it's a whole operation in itself. People exchanging $20 and
50 cents.

50 cents?

Yeah well a payment sometimes can look like $1.50 or whatnot so it’s really an amazing process to watch. And I ended up stunning with FIMCA who is out of Washington DC. FIMCA is a very large non-profit and this non-profit brought me to Guatemala to study with them. And what I saw was the questions that I was seeing as a small guy, small organization, were the same with the large organization. They had the same kind of questions of how to do microcredit best. So after 2 years time of being there I knew I had to come back to the US and legitimize the structure as a non-profit. And I did that in 2006 and Discover Hope was born.
Maggie share with us some of the success stories that you've seen thanks to these microloans from Discover Hope Fund.

Okay with our interest with time I’m just going to share what my favorite success story is. We track the income the women make based on the trainings they take with us. So they’ve taken a cake training, therefore, they've started making cakes they didn't make before and they’re selling them now. you could use any product. So we track that total, we ask women to report those totals, and what that looks for us now, is nearly $10,000 plus in income for women.

You mean one woman is making $10,000?

No no 10,000 total dollars. So if you’re talking about, at this point, 175 women with active loan cycles right now. So when you’re talking about somebody that's making $2 a day, to me it's a great success to know that, on the income side, their lives are totally changing. Where one of our women, for example, made maybe $20 a month total, she’s making $20 a week right now.

She’s one of our women that came to our chocolate making class and created a chocolate business out of it. And she got really fancy about it. Like for the holidays, mothers day, fathers day, Christmas, she does coffee mugs. And through our computer class, she learned to do some electronic images on the coffee cups with messages that she got done at a local printing shop, and stuffed some with her homemade chocolates. So her business is a total success something she didn't do before.

So she has quadrupled her income! So how does that translate to her family in terms of what they could now do that they couldn't before?

Right. So, where money usually goes that you’ll traditionally see as microcredit starts boosting a family they'll do several things with it. The first thing they'll do with it is make sure that their kids get food. They'll start replacing things like instead of eating a piece of bread for breakfast and lunch, or bread for breakfast and lunch, they'll add in some protein there if they can. So it happens to work through how their kids are eating. The second area is school. It's a catholic nation where school is free, supposedly, but all kids have to go to school in a uniform and they have to get supplies and so those supplies and uniform may equate to $30 a year. And its sometimes just money that they cannot get together. They can’t get ahead that much. And so they'll put it right into that school pot right away along with the food. And the third thing is really house improvement. You’ll see, it's a poverty indicator; the first indicator of poverty is floor type. So a family with a dirt floor will often finish their floor into concrete. Or the adobe walls, they'll finish their walls with paint or concrete. So that home improvement is kind of another area you’ll see as well.

How do the husbands feel about the women being the one to provide these types of things for their families?

Right. So a lot of the women we work with are either widowed or single, or they have different fathers to their children. I think there are a lot of interesting dynamics that we don't have to talk about today, but with women being in a less powerful situation and not always choosing their mates, and when they want to mate with somebody and then having children, and having the responsibility of their children and then not always having a collaborative partner to raise those kids. So a lot of our women are in those situations. Now when they do have a family unit, and the husband or partner is involved, I think the most important thing that you can do is engage that male in a conversation. What we do is called the pre interview, before a woman ever gets money. That includes asking about her family situation, socioeconomic situation, the husband has to be involved in that interview.
So making sure it will be successful before you give the money?
Right. We do the interview with everybody to make sure what they really need and they've thought through what they really need. If they need $30 really for what they propose they don't need $100. The end goal is to do no harm. You want to help not harm. So if someone needs 30 don't give them 100. If their propensity to pay is for a $50 loan don't give them a $200 loan.

What if there was a husband that was hostile to the idea of this? Does that factor into whether or not they get the loan?

Yea. It would because you don't want to put a women into a dangerous situation without a doubt. We’ve had very little situations like this. So, you have the interview with this family. If the husband is drunk or violent or if there is an issue there we talk with the women further is this really the best thing for you to do. It seems like a dangerous situation. Sometimes they’ll get handy and they'll borrow through like a family member will take the loan under their name. The other way we really befriend the male side is we do a lot of work with community leaders and neighborhood leaders, and these leaders are all males in this culture. So when you have the trust of those leaders, information travels by what we call passé la vois (pass the voice). Its old school you know, its not texting messages like “Maggie’s a good person, meet with her.” Its people passing the information on that you’re a good person doing a good thing and you’re organization can be trusted. If that passa la vois happens and it’s positive for you, it’s usually a-ok. Now the last thing is that if you’re engaging a male in the discussion and it's a family business, and a lot of it happens in agriculture and husbandry, they’re raising animals as a family unit, they’re getting grains to sell in the market, or they’re making wood structures a lot of the stuff is happening in the family—they have a family store. And if you just have that conversation with the family it’s often seen that it could benefit the family business rather than be a detriment. It’s not a power struggle it’s meant to lift a family.

Maggie December 8 is your Holiday of Hope Benefit Gala. Tell us about it.

Okay so on December 8, this is our last event of the year. Holiday of Hope is in our third year. What it will look like is just an evening of fun. Well have some Latin jazz, some wonderful food and drink, and a silent and live auction with some wonderful things that the community has kind of contributed to our organization. And if anyone would like any more information about that they can go to our website which you said is

How much are you hoping to raise?

Our raise goal for that evening is $20,000.

What does $20,000 translate into in the way of loans?

So for us $20,000 would give us… We’d like to do at least 150 new loans next year, but were also taking care of the women that are still in our system. And so they’re in their second or third or fourth generation loans because you usually go 10 cycles with a women to get them some savings for their lives. So we have these 150 going and we want another 150 and then we want to do 375 trainings next year.
And you know longer term, maybe 3 years from now.

What are your goals for Discover Hope Fund?

So we have several high level goals. Longer term would be we have two sights waiting for us to come to them right now. One is in Peruvian Ecuadorian border, another area in Northern Andes that we have a local partner at that we need to raise the money ourselves to have these sites. So we want new sites. We’re also looking at Mexico for a site. And then another high-level goal is to package up the model of what we do a-z, how do you do the micro credit plus model anywhere in the world and to really make that an available published accessible piece for people.

So kind of like a franchise kind of thing. Like plug in and..

It won’t be us leading all those all over the world. It will be giving people the knowledge if they would like to assume that into their organization or build it themselves.

Is it a hot topic, meaning are there a lot of people looking to do this?

Oh I get probably 2-4 emails a month, hey I'm in this country, I'm working with this partner, how are you doing what you’re doing? So I think the question for us is how can we leave a legacy if were small and we’re roots and we cant go to all these places what is the legacy you can pass on and that's how you do it actually.