Seventeen years ago, a young Karissa Nanetta witnessed the combustible despair of poverty as riots raged outside her home in Jakarta, Indonesia during the 1998 Asian financial crisis. Now Nanetta, a 2011 graduate of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, is working to remedy the economic disparity that fueled those terrifying nights.
“I remember one night when we slept with our shoes on,” Nanetta recalled. “My mother prepared our luggage so we could grab our things and run.
“When I look back on the riots, I realize that they were the result of enormous economic frustration. People felt that there were no opportunities to earn money – that they couldn’t even feed their children,” she said. “I came to believe that if you could provide people with opportunities to alleviate their poverty, you could prevent a lot of these kinds of explosive situations.”
Nanetta took a four-month leave of absence from her management consulting position at Ernst & Young to facilitate such opportunities in Nairobi, Kenya. She is one of five “Kiva Zip Fellows,” working with microfinance leader Kiva Microfunds to provide small-scale, no-interest loans to impoverished entrepreneurs who lack access to traditional banking systems. To date, Kiva has made approximately 1.7 million loans at an average size of about $416, with a repayment rate hovering just under 99 percent.
Current University students also play a role in the company’s success through the student lending team, KiVa. The student-led group has made 653 microfinance loans to date, totaling $20,950. Recent loan recipients include a Kyrgyzstani farmer purchasing fertilizer and seeds, a Rwandan farmer hiring more workers to harvest maize and a Brazilian group purchasing wholesale wool to work and resell.
“Seemingly small loans can completely change someone’s life,” said third-year commerce student Erin O’Reilly, president of KiVa. “Making a loan to someone in the Philippines to buy livestock can generate enough income for them to send their child to school and move the family out of poverty.”
O’Reilly also points out that microfinance is “a very powerful tool” for empowering women in developing countries, something that Nanetta has witnessed in spades. Her fellowship focuses on Kiva’s newest initiative, Kiva Zip, which creates an online platform directly connecting individual lenders and borrowers in the U.S. and Kenya. She is specifically responsible for growing a new partnership with Joyful Women, an organization of Kenyan women entrepreneurs.
The partnership is the first of its kind for Kiva Zip, and will bring in thousands of new borrowers. Nanetta has been tasked with building an effective support structure to help these new borrowers succeed, hopefully creating a blueprint for future partnerships.
“I’ve been challenged with making sure we have the appropriate channels of communication in place, that our joint operations are really coordinated, that we establish effective mechanisms for dealing with any issues that might arise and that our repayment rates stay high,” she said. “It’s a huge responsibility. It’s also a huge opportunity to transform a lot of people’s lives.”
Three months in, she is seeing transformation among entrepreneurs and in her own life.
“I’ve learned an incredible amount about business in the short time I’ve been here,” she said. “It’s everything from the critical role of flawless technology, to starting a new venture, to operations, management, entrepreneurship and, of course, finance.”
Kiva’s Kenyan borrowers have also taught Nanetta a lot about what it takes to start and run a small business, especially in an uncertain political and economic climate.
“They’re so optimistic and so hard-working – you can see how much they want to improve their families’ and their children’s lives.” They have taught her, Nanetta said, the difference between recognizing an opportunity and seizing it.
“You won’t achieve your goals by sitting down and pondering the future. You have to be willing to go out there, try something new and work really hard.”