Jessica Jackley: Tapping Into the Inner Entrepreneur

A new book offers a candid look at the startup life.

January 07, 2016

| by Theodore Kinni

A Sotheby's employee views 'Whispering Wall II' by Burhan Dogancay | Reuters/Toby Melville

Reuters/Toby Melville

Patrick lost everything in the brutal, decades-long civil war in northern Uganda. After his village was attacked, he fled south with his younger brother, ending up near Uganda’s border with Kenya. One morning, destitute and wondering whether he would eat that day, Patrick realized that the solution to his predicament lay beneath him. He could make bricks from the clay-laced soil and sell them.

When Jessica Jackley met the brick maker in 2004, his business was thriving. He had hired several employees and was living in a new brick home of his own. Patrick is one of the many boot-strapping entrepreneurs whose stories the Stanford Graduate School of Business alumna tells in her new book, Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration from Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most with the Least.

Jackley says Patrick is one of the people in East Africa who inspired her to tap into her inner entrepreneur. In 2005, she cofounded Kiva, a pioneering nonprofit that enabled individuals to lend small amounts of money — as little as $25 — directly to people who needed a few hundred dollars to start or grow their own businesses around the world. In the decade since, Kiva has facilitated more than $775 million in microloans by more than 1.3 million lenders to almost 1.8 million borrowers in 83 countries.

The more elite of a community that you’re in, the more resources on hand, the more you start to hold yourself to standards that are too high.
Jessica Jackley

Jackley left Kiva and, in 2009, cofounded a for-profit venture, ProFounder, a low-cost, securities-based crowd-funding site for small businesses. The company shut down after three years, when it became clear that it faced insurmountable obstacles in the legal landscape, Jackley said. Currently, she is working on her third new venture — a social media business, which she says is in stealth mode prior to an anticipated launch in July 2016.

In the following edited interview, Jackley, who received her MBA from Stanford GSB in 2007, talks about her book and the entrepreneurial journey that it charts.

You clearly have a lifelong desire to help people in need. How did you come to focus on entrepreneurship as a means of realizing that desire?

I was dissatisfied with the mechanisms in traditional philanthropy that seemed to turn my desire to help others into a transaction between haves and have-nots as opposed to a relationship between people. Then, in my first job out of college, as a temp at the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford, I heard Dr. Muhammad Yunus speak about microfinance. It was funny, because even though I was in this very entrepreneurial place, maybe the entrepreneurial capital of the world, I was slow to understand how entrepreneurship could solve social problems. After that, it really clicked when I went to East Africa and met entrepreneurs whose lives had been changed by microlending. I understood that the people who I so longed to help could themselves be entrepreneurs.

Aren’t entrepreneurs a small subset of people, with a select set of skills?

Harvard professor Howard Stevenson said that entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources. I think that living entrepreneurially, thinking entrepreneurially, using the best qualities of entrepreneurship is something that is available to all of us. It’s not exactly mind over matter, it’s more like the decision to move forward, despite what you might lack.

You started Kiva with $3,500, which you loaned to seven East African entrepreneurs. What did starting in such a small way teach you?

Had I been through business school already, I probably would have thought that we couldn’t start Kiva at all. I hope it’s old-school thinking, but there’s this idea that you need a very polished business plan, with projections that reach five, ten years out — that it’s not even worth doing something unless it’s a billion-dollar opportunity. Ridiculous.

The more elite of a community that you’re in, the more resources on hand, the more you start to hold yourself to standards that are too high — especially in the beginning. Entrepreneurship is never about what we have. It’s about what we do.

Clay Water Brick is written as a series of lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs. One of them is rooted in the discovery that one of Kiva’s valued field partners was stealing loan money. What did you learn from that?

One of the biggest lessons was to let people in, to not get embarrassed and wall them out and try to fix the problem behind closed doors. For us, that meant not just our board, not just our advisors, but our lenders, our whole community. Letting everyone in not only showed them that we were being transparent, but it also got us lots of ideas and suggestions to help us get out of trouble. It was really pretty magical to watch how people gave us a lot of grace.

It was a lesson for me in terms of personal struggles, too. I learned that you shouldn’t put on a strong face and go through life not asking for help and not being genuine about what you’re experiencing. That’s a recipe for a very unhappy life.

Did that come into play when you faced the decision to close down ProFounder, too?

The book would have been done a lot sooner had I really come to terms with, and understood, that chapter in my life earlier. It would have been possible to keep ProFounder going, but I don’t think it would have been the responsible thing to do.

Entrepreneurs are supposed to go hard at all costs — just keep plowing forward and leave the disasters in their wake. But having been through a divorce, I felt like, “OK, I know what disaster is like, and I know who bears the brunt of that.” I wanted to make sure I was always, at all costs, protecting my wellness and my family.

In the book’s acknowledgements, you thank MBA Admissions Director Derrick Bolton for rejecting your first application to Stanford GSB. Why are you thankful for that?

One, that was the year that Kiva was born. I don’t know if Kiva would have happened on some other timeline, but I highly doubt it because I would have been sitting in classrooms instead of tromping around Uganda.

Two is more personal. I’d been a staffer at the business school for three years, and although it hurt not to get in, when I did get in the next year, I felt like I really earned it.

Three, it taught me this amazing lesson about the importance of holding things with an open hand and knowing where I want to go, regardless of the things I can’t control. A lot of people look at a milestone, like getting into business school, and think that they can’t make the next step in their lives without it. I learned that I was still the same person — I still had the same dreams and still went forward to the same destination.

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