TBQ’s Natasha Guzman speaks with Jessica Jackley, co-founder and former chief marketing officer for crowdfunding site Kiva, about entrepreneurship, female empowerment and the role of education in social change.
TBQ: On your website you describe yourself as a “social entrepreneur.” How do you define that role?
JJ: I like to keep my definition pretty simple — simple enough for anybody to understand. I think being an entrepreneur is really about two main things: It’s about the way you see the world, and the actions that you take. I think entrepreneurs see a world where there are more opportunities for positive change than there are challenges or roadblocks. They’re optimists, they’re innovators, they’re creative. The way they take action to not just solve a problem, but to solve it in a way that could turn into something much bigger, that can not just fix it in the moment, but can address something on a broader scale. Social entrepreneurs really try to consider how what they’re creating can touch the most lives possible in the deepest way. So not just for paying customers, for example, but for society.
TBQ: What kind of jobs did you have before moving into entrepreneurship?
JJ: I have a long history of regular jobs. The business experiences that I had before business school were, for example, working as a waitress and as an art instructor. I had a paper route when I was twelve; I had been babysitting, lifeguarding. I had all those starter jobs. But when I graduated college I didn’t have much of a plan. I knew I wanted to participate in poverty alleviation and I had big dreams, big goals; I really wanted to help people. And in my, I admit, somewhat naive way of viewing the world, I thought, “I’ve got to work for a nonprofit because those are the good guys, they’re helping people.” So I was not at all interested in entrepreneurship or business or anything like that when I graduated college, I just was interested in nonprofit work.
I didn’t have a plan, so I moved to California on a whim to follow a boy, very much to my parent’s dismay, as I graduated with philosophy and poetry degrees. My first job when I got there was as a temporary administrative assistant at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. And thank God I landed there because I also landed at the Center for Social Innovation at the GSB, which is this place where everyday people are thinking about how to solve social problems using business skills and business thinking. I mean it was kind of perfect; it obviously shaped me a ton. I stayed there for three years and then my job evolved and I ended up planning events and being a program manager for the Public Management Program, which is a part of the Center for Social Innovation.
TBQ: Was Kiva your first entrepreneurial project?
JJ: Yes, it was, and in fact I’d started it as a side project before I began business school. We started in the spring of ’05 before I began business school in the fall of ’05, and again, everything sort of helped shape each other. [Kiva] shaped my business school experience, and business school shaped how Kiva was formed and how it grew up.
TBQ: Kiva has had a particularly strong presence in countries where women are excluded from the business sector, and often from society in general. Has seeing the impact of your work on women in particular made an impression on you?
JJ: I don’t think I was that sensitive to all the ways in which women are, really pretty aggressively, shut out from traditional financial systems, and also in more subtle ways, shut out from other sectors and industries. My experience with Kiva really opened my eyes to that because I had to learn what microfinance was and what it was about and who it was designed for. Of course it was designed for people who couldn’t get access to financial resources and products elsewhere, and those were women, those are women. As I started to understand that more and more through my work with Kiva, I began to see the ways in which women are not really given the same privileges and accesses as men in other industries.
TBQ: Because of this experience, are you often asked to speak publicly about female empowerment?
JJ: Yes, absolutely. I think that, universally, people want this to change: They want to see women being equally represented and having an equal voice in all areas of life and business. But people don’t know exactly what that looks like. They’re hungry for systemic change, they’re hungry for the big answers to these big questions, and I think it’s important that we keep searching for them. There are also little things that each one of us can do every day to encourage the women that we actually know in our lives to pursue paths that they’re passionate about. It’s trending right now to talk about how we need more women developers, more women who code; There are a lot of really great ways for women or anybody to learn how to code for free. So if you know someone who you think would be great at that, or maybe even yourself, your words of encouragement can be incredibly important catalysts. A lot of women are intimidated by entrepreneurship or the entrepreneurial path. But I think if they just jumped on it and tried to pursue these dreams, they would find it so addicting, so wonderful. It’s just a matter of taking the scary steps towards it.
TBQ: Did you ever feel intimidated by this path?
JJ: No, the thing is I didn’t. For better or for worse, I wasn’t sensitive to the way that a lot of women feel intimidated, and to the reality of the situation. I honestly was a little bit oblivious to it for a while. I didn’t know any statistics or ratios of women entrepreneurs versus men entrepreneurs outside of the developing world. I think it took me a while to really see reality. I want to be both aware as a woman myself about these statistics, and certainly do everything that I can be doing in my work and in my life to change that ratio of women to men in tech, in entrepreneurship, in venture capital, in whatever else it is, but I also think it was a little of a blessing in disguise to be somewhat naive about it at first. I mean even becoming an entrepreneur was a little bit of an accidental experience; Matt [Flannery, co-founder and CEO of Kiva,] and I had this idea for Kiva and we actually asked a lot organizations if they would like to let us join their team to try our idea. Nobody would let us so we just decided to do it on our own. But it wasn’t like we both set out to go be entrepreneurs—that certainly hadn’t been the way that I’d been thinking about it.
TBQ: In the course of your career so far, have you experienced any hostility or discrimination because of your gender?
JJ: I definitely have felt that because I’m a woman, I was viewed differently in a way that was negative. I have felt that I haven’t been given enough credit, particularly because the first thing I did, Kiva, was a nonprofit. It’s a successful nonprofit, but it’s a nonprofit—we’re helping people. I’ve been sitting across the table—if we’re really honest—from men who I have felt don’t give me as much credit as an entrepreneur because I’m a woman. I felt sometimes that they may as well have just patted me on the head and said, “What a nice girl. What nice, cute project that you did.” I assume that most people have good intentions—that’s just the way that I see the world, the way I see people—but I do think that even with those good intentions our own biases prohibit us from seeing what’s really in front of us.
Now, I’ve also had the unique experience of being out raising money [while] eight months pregnant with twins, so there was a lot of me to look at, there was a lot of me sitting across the table. I actually have a lot of respect for any of the people—men and women—who, during that time as I was raising money for a startup with twins in my belly, asked me how I was going to balance it. I get that; I think that it’s a fine question to ask. But I think the issue is: Had my husband been sitting across the table, you wouldn’t have been able to tell that we were about to have twins, and so he probably wouldn’t have been asked [that question]. And even if he had mentioned it, I don’t think he would’ve been asked it in the same way. So I think there’s definite bias that exists. I think a lot of those individuals, not all but a lot, still have the best intentions. If you just meet people where they are and try to bring them a little closer to the reality that exists, as opposed to letting them stay in the position of ignorance where they might be sitting, that’s the way to tackle that. I’m a real believer in one-on-one, relationship-based social change.
TBQ: What, if any, insights about crowdfunding did you gain while launching and running ProFounder [a crowdfunding platform for small businesses that shut down in 2012]?
JJ: I think crowdfunding platforms are unlocking capital for so many entrepreneurs and so many projects all over the world. I think the communities in which everybody pitches in a few bucks here and there to make it happen often aren’t tapped enough to help with things above and beyond finances. There’s a lot of expertise and enthusiasm in the hearts of the people who want to join in. The sites that can best mobilize individuals to be ambassadors, to be future customers, or whatever else it is, are going to really get the most value out of those partnerships.
One thing that we sort of translated from our lessons from ProFounder into [a partnership with crowdfunding social network] GOOD was GOOD Maker. Basically, there, people declare the context for social change. Instead of saying, “I want to go write this book or create this project on Kickstarter and then people fund it,” somebody can say, “I have a thousand dollars and I will give it to the person who comes up with the best plan to build a community garden in this park.” Then people compete with plans and ideas to do that, and the person who wins gets the funding. So it’s a really interesting way to review some of what we’re learning around crowdfunding and being able to rally a bunch of different people to get something done. Instead of crowdfunding, it’s crowd-idea-sourcing.
TBQ: From what you described earlier, much of your formation as an entrepreneur happened in the university context. You’ve also taught at universities and given commencement speeches. What do you think is, or should be, the role of educational institutions in social change or social entrepreneurship?
JJ: Really great innovation happens when people bring together two different ideas, two different points of data that might come from very seemingly unrelated places. If the community they bring together is diverse, in terms of student body and faculty, universities will continue to be breeding grounds for innovation. I think that’s the best thing they can do: not just provide knowledge and information, but also make sure that there is a diverse mix of people on their campus working together frequently. A lot of the solutions to the social problems that I care most about are multi-sector solutions. You can’t just snap your fingers and fix one thing in a community. Supposing it’s poverty, you can’t just address the water issue, just address education, or just address health issues, and make everything go away. I think we’re going to need partnerships among different sectors.
Natasha Guzman is a freelance writer and Associate Editor at The Brooklyn Quarterly. She graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA in Writing and primarily focuses on creating fiction.