05/15/2012 05:37 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2012

Why We Learn, Why We Work

May is the season of graduations and commencements, and education is top-of-mind. But this season of promise is somewhat tempered by cold economic realities. The economic recovery is moving; however, is more sluggish than originally predicted. New jobs are being created but are not as abundant as hoped. And this gives me a little dry feeling in the back of my throat for all of those new graduates who are so filled with aspirations for the future.

We have to ask ourselves: Why do we want what we want? This "why" is at the center of how I've built my business. In my case, the "why" is clear: I'm a skin therapist because I love connecting with people and improving their lives. That is the "why"; the vehicle of skin care is the "what" and the "how."

Why do so many parents want their kids to go to college? An academic degree brings prestige and increases the chances for one's professional success. In America today, parents begin mapping out the educational trajectory of their offspring while the latter are still in diapers. The "right" daycare center in Los Angeles or Manhattan may have a waiting list of a year or more. Then, on to private school and prep school, with an artfully choreographed regimen of after-school activities sculpted to soften the hearts of the admissions departments of the Ivy Leagues, or whatever university is targeted as the ideal.

All good, but the truth is that an academic education, meaning a four-, six- or plus-year university degree, is by no means the only way to go and might not be right for everyone. And while I love the idea of the rigor, competition and accomplishment, I have to question if it's the right path for the majority of young people right now, prestige-factor notwithstanding. Even if the soul of a young person drives her or him to be a doctor, lawyer or professor, there may not be a laurelled corner office or lucrative private practice waiting.

Part of it is pure snob-appeal. People who go to trade-school and work with their hands are often treated as if they are part of an underclass. I know because I am one. "If you are not smart enough for anything else, go to beauty school" -- funny, wrong, but often said (or at least thought!).

I was raised by a no-nonsense, young-widowed British mother who insisted that I, along with my three sisters, learn to "do" something so that we could support ourselves and never be dependent upon a man for bread and butter or bed and board. By "do" something, she meant it literally; she herself was a nurse. It's not that my mother discouraged academic learning or credentials. She just made it clear that whatever we chose, it had to be a real asset in the real world. And put food on the table.

I read recently in the New York Times that two of the "occupations expected to have the most growth," home health aides and dental hygienists, have traditionally been filled by women. Is there any shame in this? It's honest work, and it's much-needed work. And, even more to the point, it's compassionate, service-oriented work.

Graduation time makes those of us who are parents really contemplate what we want for our children, and why we want it. What did my mother want most for me? Prestige? No. She wanted me to be strong, free, independent, and happy. Being productive was the first and defining priority. Should it not still be?

Of course I am happy for the daughters and sons of my friends who are launched into high-profile careers in prestigious professions. I am impressed by all it takes to get there. But I am equally impressed by the women entrepreneurs of joinFITE, the global, nonprofit initiative powered by Kiva, which my company founded in January 2011 to provide microloans to women who want to increase their prosperity. I think of recent recipients Timotea in Peru, who raises cattle; the Sumber Kelapa crafts cooperative in Indonesia, whose members create gift items from wood and coconut shells; and Manuela del Carmen in Nicaragua, beaming from behind the rough-hewn counter of her produce stand, who started her fruit and vegetable business with just a single pallet of lemons. These women are doers. Are they "dreamers"? Only in the sense that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King had a dream. I would call them visionaries with a plan.

The women funded by joinFITE are women who work with their hands, for the most part. They create crafts, textiles and small objects for sale. They gather eggs, gently wash them, and bring them to market each day to sell. They feed chickens. They embroider. They plant and pick soybeans and sweet potatoes. They hand-paint signs, and the sides of trucks and buses with commercial messages. They braid hair. They give manicures. They prepare and serve food. They run seams on refurbished industrial sewing machines purchased with their microloan money. They cut clothing patterns, and baste by hand late into the night, by the flare of a single bulb or kerosene lamp.

Why do they do it? To expand their businesses. To purchase raw materials and supplies. To purchase a few more rabbits, or chickens, or ducks, or goats that will increase their net worth. They do it to put food on the table. To purchase mosquito nets under which their children will sleep each night. They do it to afford medicine for themselves, for their families. To keep a roof over their heads. Are these educated women? Often they are not, in the Western sense. Because joinFITE extends microloans to women all over the world, there are some exceptions. Some have college degrees. Many do not. Some may not be entirely comfortable in their literacy, and I say this only as a fact.

In every case, too, there is a larger "why" as to the reason they do it. Why they are willing to work so hard, why they sit up night after night, counting and re-counting, planning, worrying? Most of them do it because they are mothers, and because they want something more for their children. They want their children to go to school and to be educated -- perhaps even to be educated somewhere far from their traditional villages.

For all the reasons "why" these women do it, one truth remains. The "how" does not have to be found in a traditional four-year college program, but rather can be fulfilled via a trade skill that gives purpose, meaning, and most of all, economic empowerment.

Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of the New York Times best-seller Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, assert that in order for the world economy to right itself, the world's women need to become economically solvent, viable and independent. This assertion includes and, in fact, specifically focuses upon the millions of women living in nearly Stone Age-poverty in the so-called developing world.

Need more answers to the question "Why?" Consider what Nelson Mandela said: "Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings."

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