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Thane Kreiner

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From There to Here: Social Enterprise and Reverse Innovation

Posted: 07/25/2012 4:43 pm

As its many supporters well know, the Grameen Bank's name bespeaks its Bangladeshi roots; Gram is a Bengali word meaning "rural" or "village," and ever since its founding in 1983 by the Bangladeshi banker, economist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus, the non-profit microfinance organization, an early pioneer of so-called "solidarity lending," has served the country's rural poor out of its headquarters in Dhaka. Lauded for lifting millions out of poverty, the Grameen Bank is one of the great successes of development, and its model of micro-lending has been replicated in dozens of countries around the world.

One of those countries is the United States.

In fact, Grameen itself began doing business in the U.S. in early 2008, when it opened the first outpost of Grameen America in Queens, New York. It now operates a total of seven branches -- in Indianapolis, Omaha and San Francisco, and three others in New York, including one in Manhattan. Indeed, just miles away from Wall Street, where billions of dollars change hands every day, a Bangladeshi social venture is providing the poor with access to credit free of the fraudulent terms they're typically forced to live with. And it has plans to expand.

That growth is proof that the Grameen Bank's brand of group lending -- which relies on peer pressure rather than collateral to ensure that debts are repaid -- can work in America. But just as important is what it says about social enterprises across the board: while they typically target underserved communities in places very different from America -- places with no access to electricity, much less credit -- their work can teach us a great deal about solving the problems we face at home.

After all, Grameen isn't the only social venture to successfully transition from the developing world to the developed. There's also the non-profit Kiva.org, which allows microfinance institutions from around the globe to post profiles of qualified local entrepreneurs on its site and invites would-be lenders to browse and fund those individuals over the Internet. Inspired by the Grameen Bank, Kiva's creators built one of the world's most successful social enterprises -- and one we're proud to have worked with through the GSBI -- by catering exclusively to entrepreneurs in the developing world.

Then, in 2009, after lending more than $150 million in 53 countries, Kiva partnered with the Opportunity Fund and Acción USA to provide its services in America, where the economic downturn had created new demand for affordable loans. Despite initial skepticism that the model would work, new user sign-up went up dramatically in the days after Kiva's launch, and all loans solicited as part of that launch were completely funded within 18 days. Now, through its new Kiva City program, the organization aims to spur job growth in some of the country's most anemic local economies. Co-sponsored by Visa, Inc., Kiva City extends access to microloans in U.S. cities where microfinance institutions aren't operating at scale, providing small businesses with a rare source of capital -- and city officials across the country are getting on board.

If Kiva and Grameen are making the case for microloans in America, Samasource is doing the same for so-called "microwork." That's the term founder Leila Janah coined in 2008 to describe her non-profit's novel approach to fighting poverty -- one that provides unskilled, albeit capable, workers in underserved communities with small tasks that pay a living wage and can be performed online.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Samasource secures contracts to execute large data entry or digitization projects from leading U.S. tech companies like Google and LinkedIn. It then moves those projects to its proprietary online platform, the SamaHub, where the work is broken down and distributed to service partners in six different countries -- Haiti, India, Kenya, Pakistan, South Africa, and Uganda. To date, the award-winning social enterprise has created more than 2,000 jobs and paid out more than $1 million in wages.

Now, like Kiva and Grameen, Samasource has turned its attention to the U.S. -- specifically the Bay Area, where it plans to pilot its first domestic program, SamaUSA, later this year with support from the California Endowment. If that effort proves effective in helping marginalized women in two low-income communities boost their incomes through online work, they'll seek funding to scale it up.

For all their success overseas, social enterprises like Samasource, Kiva and Grameen are up against a far different challenge in the U.S., and it may be years before they make a dent in the nation's poverty rate, which continues to climb. Still, as we search for paths out of the economic crisis, we would do well to remember that across much of the developing world, financial hardship is a constant -- and that fact is the driving force behind the kinds of innovations that could one day help us fix what's broken in our own backyard.

 

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