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Elaine Edgcomb

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Will College Students Really Step Up in U.S. Microfinance?

Posted: 05/18/2012 12:48 pm

I admit it, I was doubtful at first -- college students providing quality training and financing services to under-served small businesses surrounding their campus communities? And, yes, I had my biases partly because the so-called "Millennial" generation has been given a bad rap about its work ethic -- would this be just another short-lived interest that fades away until students find a more interesting line of work? That was until I visited and began engaging with some of these groups -- and boy, was I pleasantly surprised.

Groups led by students from Yale, Rutgers, Brown and UNC Chapel Hill were quickly learning the ropes, and providing some innovative services and financial products. The Intersect Fund in New Brunswick, New Jersey, for example, has used its tech savvy to enable loan officers to process microloan applications at corner stores and farmers markets, using iPads and iPhones with a custom-built online loan application. Community Empowerment Fund has a legion of over 70 students working in teams to case manage formerly homeless individuals and get them into mainstream savings products. Yale's Elmseed Enterprise Fund has been around over 10 years, and has created a sustainable program where every year, committed students service local New Haven business with financing and individual consulting. And, Capital Good Fund in Providence, Rhode Island has introduced an innovative financial coaching model to help build client creditworthiness.

FIELD at the Aspen Institute is now putting this idea of engaging college students to the test of scale -- are these initiatives replicable at other campuses, and can others demonstrate the same quality the early programs have? To that end, we're funding the internship component of Lend for America, a program that will place extraordinary young leaders interested in microfinance with these experienced campus organizations. Six university students, selected among hundreds for the internship, will spend an intensive summer working hands-on with student-based microfinance organizations, as well as have the opportunity to learn from one of the most successful microlenders in the country, Justine PETERSEN in St. Louis. They'll then be expected to launch their own programs on their local university campuses with the help of the Campus Microfinance Alliance, a growing association of student-powered efforts.

The U.S. microenterprise field is over 25 years old now, and there are hundreds of organizations that will be looking at leadership transition over the coming years. What's the best way to engage the best and the brightest of the Millennials to step up? We're hoping that Lend for America and the Campus Microfinance Alliance can do for this field what Teach for America has done for education -- offering opportunities and encouragement for more of the next generation to pursue social purpose as their career choice.

 
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