Jessica Jackley: Stories of Poverty and Entrepreneurship

The cofounder of a microlending outfit says entrepreneurs need to “wake up each day and say, ‘Now what?’”

May 07, 2013

| by Erika Brown Ekiel


Jessica Jackley is a cofounder of Kiva, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that allows people to lend small amounts of money to borrowers throughout the world. Since it was founded in October 2005, Kiva has initiated loans to more than a million people, including a seamstress in Paraguay, a cobbler in Kenya, and a cattle farmer in Tajikistan. Jackley, who received her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2007, also started and ran ProFounder, which helped U.S.-based startups access capital through crowd funding. She is currently a venture partner at Collaborative Fund, a venture firm based in Brooklyn, N.Y., that invests in technology companies that enable collaborative consumption.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind Kiva?

Kiva reframes stories of poverty into stories of entrepreneurship.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’m not sure where it came from, but I give this advice to myself on a regular basis as a way to recalibrate: Find your voice. This means expressing something about you and what you believe. It is the first step toward doing valuable action in the world.

At the heart of Kiva was the realization that a lot of the ways I had previously encountered poverty were through stories that were one-sided or incorrect. I have gained a lot of wisdom from unexpected individuals. I remember sitting in Stanford GSB Professor George Foster’s class when he was lecturing about leverage. It dawned on me that I first learned that idea years earlier in Africa. A goat herder explained to me that he wanted more time to fatten up his goats before bringing them to market. The risk was that the goats might get sick while he waited, but they would be worth more if he allowed them time to grow bigger.

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

In the very early days of Kiva, we worked with a gentleman who ended up defrauding the organization and stealing. Some people might have learned not to trust people. For me, the lesson was in looking deeper into what makes people do the things they do. I thought, “Oh, this is what happens to people when they get jaded.” There was more money flowing through his hands each day than he had ever seen in his life.

Another valuable lesson came later on when I made the decision to leave the organization. So much of my life was built into this dream. I wanted to see if I could do something valuable a second time, maybe even a third or fourth. It was a sobering and beautiful realization to think there were other people who could care for and nurture the organization. The decision to leave also helped me to put work in its right place. It had become so much of my identity.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great organization?

Start! I meet so many individuals who have great plans, but they take way too long to do anything about them. Just put something out there. It will be imperfect. The real work is in figuring out how to make it better. Wake up each day and say, “Now what?”

What inspires you, and how do you come up with your best ideas?

Every real insight I’ve had has come from being a good listener. I need to have time for quiet reflection to digest it and consider how it affects me, to figure out my voice and how I can contribute to that story.

What is your greatest achievement?

My husband and my kids are the great gifts in my life. I feel so proud and thankful. I do not ever want to regret how I have been a steward of these gifts.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

I have made mistakes, but I don’t feel I need to look at life and say, “That was a failure” or “That was a success.” I don’t believe in using that language. We are all doing our best.

What values are important to you in business?

Focus. Transparency. Co-creation and collaboration. Creativity. I used to be skeptical of innovation for innovation’s sake. I now understand there are ways of living your life that could be more creative, more generative. Experiment!

What impact would you like to have on the world?

I would like to think that the things I build help people find their voices. I also hope the things I create help people to have more empathy for others.

What was your first paying job?

My first job after college was as a temp at Stanford GSB. I arrived in California one afternoon with two suitcases. The next day, I walked around the Stanford campus with my resume in hand. The job I landed was in the business school. I was disappointed, because I was a philosophy student and had never studied business. I ended up staying a few years.

One night, I stayed late to hear Muhammad Yunus speak. It opened my eyes to how to solve social problems in a different way.

How do you achieve balance in your life?

You have to know what you value. Then be smart about working for those things. I value flexibility and time with my family. I also value the ability to pay my mortgage. Our time is blended and blurry. My husband is a professor and a writer. We don’t have weekends. On a Wednesday morning, we can decide to shift things and have weekend brunch.

There are seasons to all this. This is a wonderful season. We have little kids at home. We have tried to design our life and work so that we get paid in the currencies that are important to us.

What is the best business book you have read?

Oddly, parenting books help me understand adults in a new way. A parenting book I really like is Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids, which offers good advice about how to have empathy for what your child is going through, as well as how to deal with people.

What businessperson do you most admire?

I admire the very underprivileged entrepreneurs I’ve met all around the world who make amazing things happen in their own lives. One gentleman, Patrick in northern Uganda, has a very sad story, of course: He needed to survive and literally rolled up his sleeves and dug his hands into the dirt and made that dirt into clay. He borrowed enough money to buy matches and build a kiln so he can make bricks. Now he has a handful of employees.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?

The proliferation of mobile technology. You can be in the middle of nowhere, but your cellphone works. I have met individuals who have never left their village but have a cellphone, and they use it to access money and information and connect to other people.

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