Matt Flannery’s Epiphany to start Kiva.org + How He Made It Happen

kiva-logoWe seem separated by distance, culture, language, religion, etc., but the fact is our fates around the world are really intertwined and the things we value are similar. If everyone just knew that, we could bridge our perceived separateness,and the world would be a very different place.”
~Matt Flannery

I conducted this interview with Matt Flannery a couple of years ago and was “saving” it for my next book, but what the hell – I’m not one known for my patience (though I’m learning!) and this interview is just too good to have on ice. I don’t want to wait anymore for anything that is in the “one day…” vein, you know?

This not waiting for “one day…” is somewhat a recent epiphany for me. Within the last couple of months, there have been several people that I know of who woke up one morning and maybe did or didn’t tell their loved ones “goodbye” or “love you” when they ran out the door for the daily grind – there was no indicator that the day was special or different in any way, and, for whatever reason, that was their last time to see their loved ones, their last chance to share anything, their last day here.

Not that sharing this interview is something ultra-important like telling your loved ones you love them or good-bye. But I do want to share with you everything I collect and know regarding epiphanies and this project. That’s my commitment and job, I want to leave nothing unsaid or unshared in my repertoire if I can help it.

A little background on my experience with Kiva: It started in 2007 when a friend told me about it, and I have been a Kiva lender ever since.  I’m still not sure exactly what cattle draddling is but I was so impressed by an entrepreneur in Azerbaijan that I lent him money to start his business. I’ve lent to people in Mexico, Samoa and many places around the globe.  I find it’s empowering for me — and probably for the borrower, too, because in loaning to them, we’re saying, “You can do it, we believe in you and here’s a loan we know you can pay back.”  Lenders don’t make a profit or any interest. I especially enjoy learning about other people’s experiences; you can correspond with the people you loan to and with other lenders and join groups. The site is a pure inspiration to me about how big the world is — yet at the same time, very small, and how connected we are.

So here you go. An amazing interview with Matt Flannery the Co-Founder and CEO of Kiva.org, an organization I love and have been involved with for years and if you didn’t know about Kiva yet, maybe you’ll find it rewarding to get involved too.

Matt Flannery’s Greatest Epiphany in Life as told to Elise Ballard

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Matt Flannery is the Co-Founder and CEO of Kiva.org, a non-profit organization that is the world’s first online micro-lending platform connecting private individuals willing to loan money to borrowers with small businesses in developing countries. Flannery is a Draper Richards Fellow, Skoll Awardee and Ashoka Fellow and graduated with a BS in Symbolic Systems and a Masters in Philosophy from Stanford University. He was a computer programmer at TiVo, Inc. before starting Kiva at the age of 28.  He resides in San Francisco where Kiva is also based. www.kiva.org 

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I think of all the events that have happened in my life, the most life changing one is the story of Kiva.  It’s a long story, but I’ll try to give the short version.  Basically when we started Kiva, I was recently out of school and married to my former wife. Jessica’s life dream was to work and serve the poor in Africa.  I wanted to start my own business and make my mark so I was programming computers in Silicon Valley at TiVo.  I was going through a quarter life identity crisis. I didn’t disagree with what I was doing, but it just wasn’t captivating or awe-inspiring.  I just couldn’t picture my life continuing forever this way. I had grown up in a religious family that was outwardly focused and philanthropic.  We did mission trips, sponsored children, and talking about issues like AIDS and international development was a big part of my childhood. I always wanted to make my mark in the world in a significant way somehow and was really struggling because I didn’t feel like what I was doing was significant.

So we decided to take some time off and go work in Africa as volunteers.  We were working at a non-profit microfinance institution there that our friend ran, measuring the impact of microfinance loans on small entrepreneurs. Jessica could take off more time than I could, so I was only there a month but she stayed longer. From that period of time and process of being connected together in Africa, meeting all these entrepreneurs, and then trying to stay connected from afar, the pieces came together that would make Kiva happen.

It was February 2004, and I was walking around in the streets of The Mission District in San Francisco one night after having a couple of beers and hearing music with some friends.  I was lonely and missed Jessica – we’d only been married a few months.  So I called her and she was waking up.  While we were talking, I just suddenly got amazed at how connected we were.  She was sending pictures, SMS messages, and emails and we were talking every day, even though she was in a place where I could hear roosters and cattle in the background — it was really remote. It really made me think about how small the world is becoming.  With technology, now we can be connected to even the bleakest, most remote places.  It made me think when we hung up, “We should broadcast this as content. We could get blog entries from an African village, and we could allow people to make a loan to these people themselves.”

I’d grown to realize, thanks to Jess and to spending time in Africa, that we have so much in common with people across the world — even those that live in the most remote and difficult parts of the world.  It was just by life’s lottery that I was born here and they were born into poverty there.  We seem separated by distance, culture, language, religion, et cetera, but the fact is our fates are really intertwined and the things we value are similar. If everyone just knew that, we could bridge our perceived separateness, and the world would be a very different place.  The exciting thing is now we have the Internet and technology to actually start building those bridges. These were the realizations that instigated Kiva.

My friends laugh at me because I have a million ideas all the time.  Big ideas.  Since I was having this identity crisis and wasn’t thrilled with my job, I was writing down one business idea every day in this notebook, and some of them were good.  Sometimes I would think them through, write business plans and send them to my friends, asking what they thought. I did this dozens of times.  Kiva.org was just one.  We launched a year later.

My thought was, “I used to sponsor children.  Why can’t I sponsor a business?” So I started looking on the Internet for a way to do that, and didn’t see any organizations that could help.  I started researching the concept, wondering, “There are all these businesses that need loans in Africa.  I just met these guys that were doing goat herding, and they need more goats. Why couldn’t we figure out a way to loan to them?”

After a year of trying to figure out how it might work and why it might not, the Kiva website was up and running.  Originally, we took loans to give to people in Uganda.  For about the first two years, it was just our side project.  We never took it quite seriously.  It was more like a blog — our little hobbyist website. I was working at TiVo.  Jess went to business school.  And Pastor Moses, our partner in Uganda, ran his church.  So it was really just a hobby.

But then we started getting huge Internet traffic thanks to referrals, and it became overwhelming. It took us really by surprise.  I had to quit my job to maintain the website because hundreds of thousands of dollars were coming through my personal bank account – we didn’t even have a separate account for it, much less a non-profit set up. So I had to quit my job and create a strategy and team to meet the demand, and make it a sustainable venture.  By the third year, it took off exponentially.

It’s been over eight years now since we launched.  Today, Kiva has 60+ people on staff, has processed over $500 million in loans, works in 73 countries, and has over one million registered users as well as borrowers around the world.  We are meeting with people all over the world about different micro-loan programs because many of us really believe it is the future.

When you make a loan to someone, it’s more of an egalitarian transaction than a straight up donation.  There’s a sense of believing in somebody else and of being equals. It’s a dignified interaction.  Also, when you provide a lot of information about the borrowers and show people where their money is going, it creates trust.  It leaves people feeling very empowered, and what ends up happening is the lenders keep doing it, because they can see where their money goes and see that it’s working.  One of the greatest things I think about Kiva, though, is that we’re contributing to awareness-building.  We’re getting the cause of international development and microfinance out there in the mainstream, and giving people a really easy way to interact and get involved with it.  We can’t believe how the dream of bringing people together like this and using the Internet to promote our common values and closeness is coming true and working.

I would say that has been a huge realization for me as well.  I have been absolutely blown away by the spirit and generosity of people all over the world.  People are really, really giving.  Going in, I actually was quite jaded about the reaction I thought we’d get. I thought Kiva would be a really small thing. It was a work of love, and I didn’t think a lot of lenders would respond.  I thought people were more greedy, fearful and apathetic.  But getting emails from around the world, and seeing thousands of people donate money in small, large and every kind of amount, my assessment of human nature has drastically changed. I just didn’t expect that to happen. Thousands of people are donating and volunteering and helping.  I feel a lot more positive not only about my life, but about people everywhere and the goodness we are all capable of.

Besides this, I feel there is now a direction to my life.  There is a meaning behind it.  I’m on a path, and it’s the right one — even though it’s not always an easy one, to say the least. I definitely wouldn’t say that it’s brought me constant happiness.  But I think I have something better that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I describe it as a “connectedness” that I’ve never had before – to myself and to others.  I don’t really worry about my future as much as I used to.  I got through my little identity crisis because I started doing something that I loved and time began flying by.  I don’t really need some big success to happen or to make a lot of money, and I don’t think about things like security or retiring safely.  All that worry about being secure went away because I enjoy my daily work. The concept of work and play started mingling together, and I don’t feel like I really have a “job” any more.

I feel really lucky we were able to stumble onto this idea.  I could never have dreamed that I would feel this supported, helped and loved by people all over the world.

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