Expanding Financial Opportunity to All: Kiva CEO Chris Tsakalakis Discusses the Pioneering Lending Platform’s Evolving Focus
In April of last year, Chris Tsakalakis was named CEO of the San Francisco-based microlending nonprofit Kiva. He came to the organization after successful leadership stints at Vivino, the world’s largest online wine marketplace, and StubHub, the world’s largest online ticket marketplace. Prior to leading these organizations, he had a varied career that included over a decade as an eBay Marketplaces executive, and 6+ years at the strategy consulting firm Bain & Company.
We caught up with Tsakalakis roughly one year into his tenure at Kiva, to discuss his vision and priorities for the organization, the lessons he’s learned in his time at the helm, and his thoughts on the challenges and opportunities facing Kiva and the broader microfinance sector in the coming years.
NextBillion: Why did you initially join Kiva?
Chris Tsakalakis: Two reasons: purpose and people. In terms of purpose, I know it may sound cliche, but I joined Kiva because of our mission and the real impact we have in communities by expanding financial access. Put more simply, after spending years leading technology platforms selling tickets and wine, I wanted the next chapter of my career to be more personally meaningful to me. I wanted to be involved in an organization that was improving people’s lives, and that’s what Kiva does. In terms of people, I wanted to work with a group of people who I respected and could learn from, and I found that in Kiva’s board and employees. Kiva allowed me to apply my experience in consumer technology to a purpose – and with people I care about.
NB: What has surprised you most since joining? What early lessons have you learned?
CT: I was surprised that the challenges of a nonprofit like Kiva are very similar to the ones I’ve encountered at my previous roles at for-profit companies. Setting clear goals, having the right people on the team and getting everyone to work together for a common purpose are just as relevant at Kiva as they are anywhere else I’ve worked. The other pleasant surprise I found was that the number one thing that Kivans like about Kiva is our mission and culture. People come to Kiva because they believe in our mission, and that creates a positive and collaborative culture. It’s just a clear lesson that dedication to an inspiring mission helps create a positive culture even when things aren’t going perfectly.
NB: One year into your role at Kiva, what are some of the key challenges you’ve faced – both as an organization, and personally as a leader – and how have you responded to them?
CT: Focus is a key challenge for both Kiva and myself. When you have a mission as broad as expanding financial access to the underserved, there are many directions you can go. But trying to do too many things means you don’t do any of them well. So I have tried to use the last year to double down on our core marketplace business, and look for ways to grow the amount of lenders and lender dollars we attract. Personally, focus has meant being more clear about what I want to do and, most importantly, in what sequence. There are so many opportunities to improve and grow Kiva, but I have to be clear on what is the first priority and focus on that before I get to the next priority.
NB: What are your top priorities as CEO, and have these changed at all as you’ve become more familiar with Kiva’s particular mission and approach?
CT: My top priority is increasing Kiva’s positive impact in the world. How exactly to do that will change as we grow, but right now, the main focus is increasing our loan volume or the amount of loans we fund every year through both Kiva Marketplace and Kiva Capital. As I’ve become more familiar with Kiva, I am realizing that loan volume (measured in U.S. dollars) is probably not the best way to measure our impact – it’s just a rough proxy. To make up for that, we are focusing on the improvement in financial health of Kiva borrowers before and after they receive their Kiva loans. Ultimately, improvement in financial health is the metric we will use to measure our impact. All of this is important because organizations get good at achieving the things they value and measure the most. As we change our focus to financial health, we will get even better at improving that for the financially underserved people we serve.
NB: As a pioneer in the industry, Kiva has played a significant role in raising awareness of microfinance among the general public, even as perceptions of the industry have shifted in the years since the organization was founded. Has Kiva changed the way it conducts or publicizes its work, in response to these changing perceptions?
CT: As with all industries, microfinance is not a homogeneous field. Without a person-centered and ethical framing, it can be used to inflict predatory practices in communities, similar to those seen in nearly every corner of the financial industry. At Kiva, we ensure our work within microfinance is bounded by policies and practices that center and protect borrowers. When evaluating new partners, we are diligent about the criteria we set, which includes requirements for serving vulnerable populations, prioritizing high social impact practices, and centering client affordability. While this has been our approach since our founding in 2005, we have worked over the years to document and share our practices more broadly so that others might benefit.
We’re also shifting our impact assessment away from loan volume in dollars to the financial health of the borrower, as another way to continue evolving our microfinance practices and assessment.
Some of our lenders are very interested in and committed to microfinance as a practice, which is what led them to Kiva. Kiva allows them to participate in microfinance through a mission-driven, nonprofit approach. There is also a whole legion of current and potential lenders who do not know or understand microfinance. What they do know is that there are nearly 2 billion people in the world who could use financial help, and they are eager to find a tangible way to do that. These people don’t necessarily care that, with Kiva, you are making a loan and not a donation. They just want to help improve someone’s life. That means we are evolving how we talk about Kiva, shifting from being a platform to fund “loans that change lives” to a broader concept of opening financial opportunity to all. We think this broader idea will attract both those specifically interested in microfinance and those interested in just helping their fellow human beings.
NB: Can you tell us more about Kiva’s efforts to branch out and experiment with additional financial inclusion approaches, like Kiva Capital, that may go beyond its traditional microfinance model?
CT: We launched Kiva Capital in 2020 as a way to scale the impact of our global crowdfunded loan efforts – but in a different way. Instead of taking small amounts of money from a large number of individuals as we do in our Marketplace business, Kiva Capital takes large amounts of money from a few institutions and high net-worth individuals. Both Marketplace and Capital leverage Kiva’s global network of microfinance institutions, social enterprises and small and growing businesses. Individuals and foundations that are able to make larger investments may contribute to one of our innovative funds, such as our Refugee Investment Fund, or their loans may finance an entire business or community initiative. Both Kiva Capital and Kiva Marketplace (our crowdfunding platform) contribute to impact investing, no matter the amount.
Beyond Kiva Capital, we are also making great strides in our Strategic Partnerships efforts. Corporations and other organizations interested in expanding their corporate social responsibility initiatives partner with us to engage their employees or customers through lending on Kiva. Not only do these partnerships have mutual benefits for both Kiva and our corporate partners, but they enable us to fund more loans, and introduce new audiences to impact investing.
NB: You’ve hired several new Kivans at the Executive Leadership Team level over the past few months. What differences have you noted between seeking talent in the for-profit world versus the nonprofit sector, and do you have any advice for leaders seeking talent in the (nearly) post-COVID environment of remote and hybrid teams?
CT: I have learned that it takes a lot of effort to hire great talent, as there is plenty of competition among employers. I’ve also learned that, while a more inclusive process involving the peers and direct reports of the person being hired takes more time, it is worth the extra effort. Inclusive processes lead to hiring someone who not only has a very good understanding of the organization, but is also well-understood by the organization and its teams on day one.
The main difference between hiring in the nonprofit versus the for-profit world is that the candidate’s connection to the mission of the organization is much more important for nonprofits. Unlike the for-profit companies where I’ve worked, Kiva doesn’t have stock options or huge salaries to offer. What we do offer is the chance to improve people’s lives – and if candidates are not excited about that, we will not be able to hire them.
Lastly, my advice is that while hiring people remotely greatly opens up the pool of candidates you can attract and hire to your organization, leaders need to do a lot of work to create great remote or hybrid working environments. Being completely in-person was one thing. Being completely remote is another. A hybrid of in-person and remote has its own unique challenges, and we are starting to address those. One approach is our plan to get all Kivans together in person for a few days in July so everyone can connect in real life.
NB: You’re focusing on a major goal to grow Kiva’s marketplace five-fold by 2025, with an overall benchmark to make Kiva a household name by that time. What are the key factors or initiatives you’ve identified contributing to this growth? And what are the core challenges you are facing in the initial stages of this effort?
CT: The main thing that will drive our growth is increasing the number of lenders actively lending on kiva.org. The more lenders we have, the more loans are funded and the more financially underserved people we reach. If we have more loan dollars coming in, we can find individuals who need those dollars, as there is plenty of need. So our main initiatives revolve around bringing in new lenders through better marketing, an improved product experience and partnership outreach to companies like eBay and Visa, who fund loans through employee and customer engagement campaigns.
The core challenge we face is changing how we operate. Kiva has been around since 2005 and has operated at, more or less, the same level of annual loan volume for the last 8+ years. This means we are used to doing things in certain ways and at a certain pace. But those ways and that pace won’t drive five-fold growth, so in order to execute on the initiatives we have laid out, we are also investing in finding new ways of working – including implementing better tools, gathering more data, and using both to drive an agile mindset across the organization.
NB: Reflecting back on this past year of leading in the nonprofit space, what advice do you have for leaders interested in transitioning from corporate or tech spaces to purpose-driven NGOs and nonprofit organizations?
CT: Just like for-profit companies, all nonprofits are not the same. So my first piece of advice is to look for nonprofits where your skills would be most valuable. I am leveraging my 26 years of e-commerce and consumer internet marketplace experience at Kiva. That experience would not be relevant at a lot of other nonprofit organizations. My second piece of advice is to find a nonprofit that has a mission you are passionate about. The financial upside at a nonprofit is limited, so you need to look for one that gives you a huge mental upside.
Note: Kiva is a NextBillion partner.
James Militzer is the managing editor of NextBillion.
Photo courtesy of Kiva.