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How Kiva Co-Founder and Mom Jessica Jackley Changed the Way We Combat Poverty

Photograph by Rob Hart / Clinton Global Initiative

Jessica Jackley, co-founder of micro-lending site Kiva, says that she was always curious and kind of dumbfounded about poverty.

While she was eager to help, the author and mother of three admits to feeling frustrated about how exactly she could do that.

"I felt like the world told me the poor will always be with us," she tells Mom.me. "I heard messages that also told me, 'Yeah, good luck with that, but the problem is never going away.'"

Still, Jackley wanted to do something—not simply donate and move on. After graduating from Bucknell, she took a job at Stanford University that introduced her to business and entrepreneurship. She then moved to East Africa for an internship that connected her with entrepreneurs who were receiving small grants. Small—as in, $100.

"I got to hear their side of the story for the first time up close and personal in a way that has no agenda, no pitch at the end, no 1-800 number to call or sob story with it," Jackley says. "I just heard people’s real stories."

She eventually found a way to marry altruism with technology and business by forming Kiva, a micro-lending site that has loaned close to $1 billion to individuals around the world, some of whom are single parents in, say, Kenya looking to borrow $300 to help buy a supply of rice to sell to clients.

While Jackley is no longer an active partner at Kiva, she earned her MBA at Stanford and is the social entrepreneur in residence at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. She's also married to religious scholar Reza Aslan, who also has traveled the world talking to people of different backgrounds and, in his case, faiths. His series "Believer" airs Sundays on CNN.

Together, the interfaith family (she's Christian, he's Muslim) are raising their three young sons to be curious and knowledgeable about world religions and to explore life outside of their L.A. home.

How did you and your co-founder launch Kiva?

Kiva started as this set of "what if" questions. What if we (my co-founder and I) tell a new story? Not just the sad stuff but the entrepreneurial side. What if we let people respond differently—not just donating but by lending, because a lot of folks want a loan, not a donation. What if we did this all online in a pretty tech-savvy way? What if I left my cell phone and my digital camera in this village with no electricity and see what happens? Like, maybe one of the guys can get to the internet café and charge everything up and check in every once in a while. What would that look like?

We did a pilot round of loans with seven entrepreneurs that needed $3,000, and over the next six months they were paid. I also started my MBA at Stanford. That first beta round of loans was $3,000, and it worked. We launched for real October 2005. The first year of loans was $500,000. The next $15 million. The next $40 (million) and then up to $100 (million). Kiva is closing in on a billion dollars in the next few months, if not weeks. So, it’s grown significantly over the course of its existence. It remains a platform where anybody with an internet connection and a credit card or Paypal account can lend $25 or more to somebody in need of a loan, somebody who wants to build something for themselves, whether it is just a few hundred dollars and they’re a goat herder in Uganda or whether it’s a few thousand and they’re a food truck owner here in the US and all over.

Describe the moment you first felt successful.

You know, I grew up in such a supportive home with such loving, amazing parents—such an awesome family. I kid you not: I never didn’t feel successful. I kind of always felt like life is good, and even when I was quitting my job with a few thousand bucks to my name, living in huts in the middle of East Africa, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, I felt like every day there was something to celebrate.

I feel if I’m living according to the values, and if I’m living committed to the things I believe in, I feel like—especially with entrepreneurship—you'd go crazy if you put a lot of weight on if today is successful or not. You’ve got to play the long game because it’s so crazy-making. It changes so much day to day. There’s so much you don’t control.

As a successful female entrepreneur, what are some ways that you want to teach your sons about girl power?

They’re at a pretty beautiful age right now. Of course, they understand there’s a difference between boys and girls. They don’t have any of the biases yet, not that I can see. We have as many girl playdates as we have boy playdates. I think they have as many, if not more, female role models than male role models, and they know that mama’s the one that gets things fixed. Something will break, and Reza will be like, "Can I fix that?" And they’re like, "No, Mama fixes that."

Just to show you where my 5-year-olds' heads are at: This year, they had a friend who started out the year as a little boy and is now identifying as a little girl. I swear to you, they didn’t blink, and they’re like, "Oh yeah, now he’s her." They just didn’t miss a beat. They’re in a really fun place, seeing gender as there are some differences in terms of anatomy and in terms of the basics, but in terms of what we can do and who we can become—strengths and everything. They’re doing pretty good right now.

Has there been anything about building Kiva or another business that surprised you or inspired you in a way that you didn’t expect?

I teach at USC, and I have a lot of wonderful students and I speak on a lot of campuses. Each year I get a lot of folks that come up to me and say, "I want to be an entrepreneur," and I think that is amazing. There’s a lot to love about the idea of entrepreneurship and carving your own path forward. I will say I really like to remind people to take a breath and focus on the thing itself they want to do in the world and then absolutely do that entrepreneurially.

But when somebody comes up to me and says they want to be an entrepreneur and I ask them, "Well, great. Who do you want to serve? What do you want to make better in the world? What do you want to change in the world? What industry are you excited about disrupting?" I’ll try to get at what their real interest is, and if they [say], "I don’t know, I just want to be an entrepreneur," I tell them it’s like saying you want to go win a gold medal in the Olympics but you haven’t chosen a sport yet.

I think focusing in on the things, the issues, the people that you’re passionate about and solving a specific problem, that’s the most important task at hand and then do that well, do that with excellence. I would like to remind people—and this has been one of the surprising things for me—that it’s really about waking up every day and doing the thing itself. It might even sound like it’s gratifying if you could just sit back and say, "I’m an entrepreneur and it doesn’t matter what that exactly means," but I think the most gratifying thing is the actual thing itself, the actual work itself. Not the idea of it.

What’s your advice for moms who are looking to start either their own business or nonprofit?

If you have the luxury of carving out exactly what kind of time you’d like to set aside to work on something, make sure that you design and aim for building something that really does fit within your boundaries. If it’ll break your heart to have to interrupt building blocks with your baby to take a phone call, and you start a venture that’s going to need you to be on demand a lot, maybe step back and reconsider that. If you think you work best during nap times and in evenings and when you can have total quiet, think about what that would mean in terms of who you can interact with during the day and what you can get done during normal office hours.

Choose something that’s going to work and that you’ll actually be able to succeed in. I think I see that as one of the biggest mistakes especially new entrepreneurs make is not understanding what fit is going to be best for them, particularly when you have other things on your plate, like all parents do.

What sacrifices have you had to make both as a mom and as an entrepreneur to keep everything in relative balance?

I don’t feel like my life is full of sacrifices. I feel like my priorities have changed, and I feel very clear about that. I feel fantastic saying no to things that would get in the way of me saying yes to the more important things. I think it just means that I feel more efficient. I don’t waste time putzing around online. I am very happily out of it a lot, in terms of pop culture. Totally happy to be the old fart in the room, not knowing what’s on the radio or whatever. Luckily, I have a husband who reads and creates a lot of news, so he gives me the play-by-play a lot. He’s my news source. I think, very practically speaking, I have a lot more focused and simple days with fewer but higher and more protected priorities.

What are you working on now?

In the next few months, I’ll get to announce it, but I’m working on an interfaith project with Reza. We think that given our own experience and the experiences of so many different friends and families that we know who are in interfaith marriages or interfaith families, there’s a great need for more information and more conversation about making it all work. We’re really excited to create some content around that soon.

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Middle photo via Shayan Asgharnia, bottom photo via The Verge

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