Fortuitous pairing has been life-transforming

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The concept of microfinance – small loans to the entrepreneurial poor – is not a new one on US business school campuses. Indeed, as they expand their globally minded curricula, many business schools have devoted more time and money, and sometimes even entire courses, to the subject.

Other schools have gone a step further: the UCLA Anderson School of Management in California helps young female entrepreneurs in Kenya transform their poverty-stricken lives by starting homegrown businesses.

It all started this year when Judy Olian, the dean of Anderson, was at the Fortune Magazine/State Department International Women Leaders conference. There she met Pauline Mwangi, who trains emerging entrepreneurs in Nairobi. Ms Mwangi was creating a pilot programme, “Young Women in Enterprise”, for Technoserve, the non-profit international development organisation. The aim of the programme, funded in part by the Nike Foundation, was to equip young women from low-income areas of Nairobi with business and life skills to start small businesses.

Prof Olian happened to be assigned as Ms Mwangi’s mentor at the conference – a fortuitous pairing. “It was an interesting and easy fit for us,” she says. The Anderson school has a long history of working with students on microfinance-oriented projects, according to Prof Olian.

“Her work struck a particular chord with me because it was about helping young women. Many of the young women she works with live in the slums of Nairobi. They have no running water, no sewerage and no electricity. They have some basic education but they subsist on less than $1 a day. The issue is: how do you lift them out of the cycle of poverty?

“Her work is about educating girls on how to do business, how to keep records and how to sustain a successful enterprise,” she says.
“We are talking about tiny, tiny businesses, but they could change the lives of these women.”

Ms Mwangi spent a week at Anderson attending classes and seminars on best business practices and skills related to organisation and management. She also met professors who specialise in microfinance and worked with students who were interested in entrepreneurship in the developing world. “Learning how they think about microfinance and the developing world helped me think about how I could expand my programme back in Kenya,” Ms Mwangi says.

“The most important lesson for me, though, was the realisation that Judy, my mentor, and the other women I met were so much like me. They face the kind of challenges I face. I saw that they do their best with the opportunities they get and that they stayed focused on their goals, not giving up. And I thought, ’I can do that’. “

Her time at Anderson also helped hone her ideas for the pilot programme in Nairobi, she says. In particular, it gave her the confidence and motivation to try new approaches.

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Source: Financial Times (link opens in a new window)