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Small Good News: Maria Shriver Says, Show Me The Money

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If we have learned anything this year, it is the first rule of Ponziconomics: If an investment sounds too good to be true, it undoubtedly is.

Except for this one, which requires much less upfront cash and promises much more at the back end, as long as you define wealth in a less literal fashion than Bernie Madoff's victims did.

So take out your wallet, visit www.womensconference.org or www.kiva.org/team/maria on your computer, and help someone get to work.

California's First Lady, Maria Shriver is collaborating with the Kiva organization to take the global economic concept of micro-lending and shrink it to fit within our shores It's a very big smaller idea, when you think about it. Yes, there will always be a need for a micro-loan from St. Louis, say, to set up a goat farmer halfway around the globe. But how about the $25 loan from Seattle that helps out a local baker, or enables a woman to expand her small existing pet-supply business, if she can just get her hands on some seed money?

The project was launched just days ago under the umbrella of California's annual Women's Conference, a yes-we-can event if ever there were one, created years before taking care of business became the political mantra of a Presidential campaign. For one event-packed night and the following day each October, thousands of women and friends of women descend on the Long Beach, California Convention Center to promote women-centric programs and products. Oprah's been there, for heaven's sake: How much more information do you need to know that something important's going on?

But there's no need to wait for October to get involved: You can make a loan right this minute. "Until now, Kiva has been using microfinance to empower entrepreneurs in the developing world," explains Women's Conference executive director Erin Mulcahy Stein. "With our new program people can make loans as small as $25 that will have a huge impact on the lives of women and their families here at home."

As we're all understandably skittish about investing at the moment, the site presents a reassuring load of information about each loan candidate, including their business history, their specific goals for the loan they've requested, and the level of risk involved, given the amount they want and their repayment record.

Think of it: For the price of, say, five or six jumbo gourmet coffee drinks, for the price of cooking at home once or twice instead of buying take-out, you can own a sliver of a small business. You can own a slice of the recovery - and we're not talking damaged goods, like your equity in any of a number of automakers or banks, but a new little shoot of a business that is going to change a woman's life, the lives of her family members, and, over the long haul, her community.

If your sense of humor has survived the downturn intact, just imagine what we could do with some real working capital. I'd like to see the guy from AIG who's rumored to be getting a $10 million severance package have to divvy up that package into 400,000 $25 loans. Or what if the credit-card companies that are trying to jack up interest rates and fees had to take that extra money and put it into micro-lending? What? You don't see that happening in our lifetime? Well, then: Those of us with fewer zeroes in assets but a functioning conscience will just have to be role models.

You can visit www.karenstabiner.com or contact Karen Stabiner at guestbook@karenstabiner.com.