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The Road Less Traveled

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Rachel Cook was manning the European rotation of her futures trading job late one night in 2008, when she clicked on Nicholas Kristof's New York Times column "The Women's Crusade". As she read Kristof's manifesto-to-arms on the impact women-to-women microfinance loans have in lifting destitute women from Kabul to Kolkata out of poverty, Rachel made a decision.

The next morning, the Duke University graduate began working, combining her admiration for the medium of film, her financial background, and her desire to advocate for the world's women, to make a documentary, current and working title, The Microlending Film Project. Armed with a camera and conviction, Rachel set out to tell the story of women from around the world for whom microloans had made a compelling difference.

She couldn't have picked a more timely cause. With revolutions roiling the developing world, bastions of natural resources rapidly depleting, and globalization reshaping supply and demand chains, finding undertapped channels for foreign aid is critical to stability and security in some of the world's most restive regions. From recent World Bank studies to Goldman Sachs's 10,000 Women program to Hillary Clinton's recent remarks that "when you liberate women's economic potential, you elevate the economic growth of nations and indeed regions in the world," a consensus seems to be building that when you need to do a lot with a little, the world's women might not be a bad place to turn.

For years, the projected potential of developing nations has been calculated from oil fields, pipelines, mines, and contracting sprees, based on the supposition that as a country learned how to utilize its resources, the quality of life for its population would improve. But the developing world is perhaps the best argument against trickle down economics, as a surplus of resources often results in nothing more than a destitute public indentured to warlords and thugs rolling around in fleets of Mercedes.

But these traditional channels of economic ascension focus on men. Who was the last female natural gas pipeline operator in Chechnya, oil rig operator in Oman, or futures trader profiting from it all in Mumbai? In societies where women are relegated to caretaker roles their husbands often do not financially equip them to perform, women are left without a rudimentary education or the cultural leniency to so much as leave the house, never mind open a bank account to invest what little money they have into a more sustainable future.

Enter microlending to women. Examples abound of women in the developing world receiving loans, building businesses, and employing others with their capital, along with investing in education and infrastructure for their families and communities. Rachel emphasizes both in our conversation and in the film that microlending is distinct from charity-- it is both an economist-driven macroeconomic development tool as well as a generally dependable return for investors relative to traditional loans. Repayment incentives are heightened by the communal structure of the loan--when your lenders are your neighbors, it becomes more personal, urgent, and a matter of expectation to see that you repay what you owe as you promised you would.

As Rachel delved into the writing, directing and producing of a documentary, and went on her first filming trip to Paraguay, it became clear to her that moonlighting wasn't going to result in the film she wanted. So she took a deep breath, quit her job, and moved to New York to focus on the film full time. "At the beginning it was a bit of an escapist project," Rachel told me. "But when I quit my job, the expectations changed completely."

One of her earliest challenges was establishing legitimacy for the project in order to secure funding-- a prospect rarely considered by traders at major financial firms. Rachel pounded the keyboard, reaching out to friends of friends, academics, microlenders, journalists, and referrals. The tipping point came when she began corresponding with Steve Heller, who became her Director of Photography, and has worked on more than fifty studio Hollywood films, including Terms of Endearment and Courage Under Fire. Once Mr. Heller signed on with the project, Rachel found it easier to give investors what felt like a heftier pitch. Beyond fundraising, Rachel credits the experience and dedication of her team with helping the nascent project crystalize. "It was important to build a team of people who knew what they were doing and were well aware of my greenness, and willing to be patient," she said.

Rachel had an idea of the kind of woman she wanted to profile, and found a perfect example in Paraguay through the online lending platform Kiva. Pablina Portilla is a mother of eight who had nearly been bankrupted trying to stamp out her youngest son's cancer. Running out of options, Ms. Portilla turned to a microlender, and began selling Paraguayan cakes by the side of the road. Today, her family is not only solvent, but flourishing, her son cancer-free, and her business growing at a steady rate.

Armed with footage of Ms. Portilla, Rachel was able to make an even more vivid case to investors when she returned to the United States. But the further she delved into the world of microfinance among women, the more she wanted to illuminate other aspects of the microlending process. Rachel found Anupama Joshi in India, and documented her incredible twenty years on the frontlines of lending to women in northern India near the Himalayas, serving as CEO of Sahastradhara, a financial services firm dedicated to the poor. Incredibly, Ms. Joshi trailblazed this practice while fighting her gender-based forced retirement from the Indian Armed Forces-- where she had been the first female to serve-- in the Indian courts. In Kenya, Rachel met Tebogo Mosimane, an entrepreneur capitalizing on Eastern Africa's influx of mobile banking by leasing four centers for customers to exchange texted payments for cash. These three women ended up representing a more deeply related snapshot of microlending's potential than three more similar experiences might have provided.

But as Rachel became increasingly versed in the calculus of filmmaking, she began to worry viewers would have a difficult time identifying with women whose lives were so different from their own. Through her relationship with Kiva, she learned that Kiva was looking to launch domestically, and would be using Detroit as their pilot city. Rachel decided to come along for the launch, and found Emily Thornhill, a 26-year-old aspiring fashion designer, whose line, Homeslice Clothing, is funded in part by 71-year-old gardening enthusiast Judy Halnaut, who found Ms. Thornhill on the Kiva City website. It is Rachel's hope that by adding a domestic component to her film, viewers will take away the broader possibilities of microfinance as a tool to spur innovation and job creation, and that microfinance is as directly applicable to their lives and communities as well as those far away.

In meeting her four strong women around the world, along with countless others, Rachel came to feel that her voice as a woman was an important component in guiding the film's narrative. Her time working in finance had exposed her to a codified and entrenched sexism that allowed her to empathize to a degree with the women she profiled. "Sexism manifests itself in a lot of different ways--" Rachel said. "It can be very subtle or very blatant. That concern, the fact that I'm a woman, makes me more in tune and aware with issues of sexism. That was one of the biggest motivators for launching the project."

What I find makes Rachel such an important example for her generation, is that despite not coming from a development background, nor having experience in film beyond a certificate she received along with her Economics and English degrees at Duke, she left her job in the middle of a recession to pursue a passion in an unrelated field. She describes the professional culture from her days at Duke as centered around banking and law school, and says that microfinance didn't enter her awareness as an undergraduate at all. Her postgraduate forays included time at a talent agency in Los Angeles, and study at Second City in Chicago, where she honed her improvisation skills on the stage while trading for a day job. Then along came a nine-page article late one night, and her path became clear, her life forever altered. Rachel's is an example of the most important flips of fate being found in errant moments and chance encounters, instead of on the painstakingly plotted resumes that so often feel like the only option.

This exhortation to "follow your passion" is everywhere, in diametric opposition to the five-year-plan ethos of those who are ironically most often the recipients of the advice. But what about those traders, marketing managers, lawyers, and waitresses, who haven't yet had the fortune to be profoundly and honestly moved in a particular direction? Start to wonder if they've been programmed without an empathy chip? Relegate themselves to crunching numbers and staring out the window for long stretches of time throughout their entire career? "When you're in that nebulous state where you know what you're doing isn't what you want to do, listen to your instincts," Rachel said. "Latching on to mine was my clear path forward, and I know now that it was only a matter of time before a receptive person finds herself so moved."

Passion pursued and film nearing post-production, Rachel hopes viewers will leave the theatre with concrete action points, as well as a heightened general awareness. The inclusion of Ms. Thornhill in Detroit will inform viewers that they can build a Kiva City in their own community, and that they can make a loan for as little as $25 to a host of inspiring entrepreneurs right when they get home. She also hopes the film will depict an Africa that is not often featured, in the midst of coverage of Somali pirates, brutalized protestors and crippling famine and poverty--a population embracing innovation and technology. "I was so inspired by what I saw in Kenya," she says. "Almost everyone has a mobile phone, and people stand right in the middle of markets, texting payments for tomatoes with their smartphones. The potential is enormous. I hope that when people leave having heard a different story about what's happening in Africa, they will have a more open mind towards what the developed world can learn from the developing world."

Rachel's own story and the stories of The Microlending Film Project both say encouraging things about where the currents of history are taking us. The economists and international developers and supranational governing bodies are getting behind the growing consensus on the impact of lending to women, and as this consensus snowballs, the world will begin to change-- slowly, surely. Meanwhile, women like Rachel are charting their own courses from the prescribed path, doing the women lifting up villages from Lahore to Lithuania the justice their daring and tenacity warrants. If you'd like to learn more about The Microlending Film Project, or to help, please visit http://www.microlendingfilm.com/index.html. For as Rachel can attest, you never know when the click of a mouse is about to change your life.