Kiva CEO on the importance of equitable financial access
We recently had the pleasure of speaking with the CEO of Kiva, Chris Tsakalakis, to learn more about his role and where he sees Kiva evolving. Here he shares his views on the importance of microfinance during the global pandemic and explains why their partnership models work so well.
Kiva is an international nonprofit, founded in 2005 in San Francisco, with a mission to expand financial access to help underserved communities thrive.
VN: Tell us about yourself and how you came to be the CEO of Kiva?
CT: After leaving Vivino at the end of 2019, I spent time looking inwards. I wanted to find something more meaningful, and by August of 2020, I wrote down a short list of aspirations:
- I want to make a positive impact on the world.
- I want to be a positive role model for my sons.
- That’s why I want my next role to be with an organization focused on improving people’s lives.
A month later, I had the opportunity to join the Kiva board. I quickly said yes because of Kiva's mission, and its incredible CEO and Board of Directors. I started talking to Kiva's board chair, and really liked what I heard. The conversation turned toward the CEO role because my predecessor Neville wanted to move on. It took me a month of thought and conversation with my wife before I went back to the goals I stated in August and realized Kiva would be a perfect fit.
VN: Tell us about Kiva. You are such a remarkable non-profit – with your 15-year history as a crowdfunding platform and your use of technology and finance to help underserved communities thrive. What is Kiva and how does it work?
CT: Well, I’m just a few weeks into my tenure as a Kivan. I still have a lot to learn, however I’m enjoying diving in with my incredible colleagues and learning more about the company’s evolution.
Kiva uses technology and the support of lenders and partners like Visa Foundation to expand financial access for all. With Kiva, a single mother can get the funds she needs to start her own business, and a bank in a rural village can finance emergency repairs for its residents. We do this by raising funds from individual lenders and institutions and using our technology to measure impact, try new things and create secure digital identities.
It is probably worth mentioning that since 2005, 2 million lenders on our pioneering crowdlending platform Kiva.org have provided $1.5 billion to support nearly 4 million entrepreneurs, farmers, students and refugees, in over 90 countries.1 Our asset management subsidiary Kiva Capital is now taking this crowdlending one step further with commercial investment through thematic funds, such as our Gender Equity Fund, the California Rebuilding Fund and our recently announced Kiva Refugee Investment Fund.
With Kiva Labs we’re evolving the funding we raise for our online borrowers by working with local microfinance institutions to tailor loans to the needs of local women, small holder farmers, and SMEs. This innovation and adaptation to local needs extends to Kiva Protocol where we are partnering with governments and other NGOs to digitize the last mile of finance and create safe and secure digital wallets.
So lots going on, but I am really excited by both the opportunity facing us, but also by the team I’m working with.
VN: Your focus is the 1.7B adults globally who do not have access to basic financial services2 – getting to cash, building credit history, procuring a loan for their business. Why do you focus on this group in particular and what impact does that have on the communities where they live?
CT: Kiva works to expand access for those who have been shut out of the modern, globalized financial system. These are individuals in poverty, rural areas, areas of weak or non-existent financial systems, or who are otherwise marginalized and often can’t access funding from traditional banks. With Kiva loans, these micro-entrepreneurs are able to purchase income-generating assets to improve their lives and invest in their communities.
Women and refugees are two marginalized groups where we see Kiva amplifying investment. In March, with partners like Visa Foundation, we mobilized nearly 50,000 participating lenders for an International Women’s Day campaign, Invest in Her, Uplift the World. The Kiva community, this movement of partners and lenders, raised $4.8M in loans to 20,000 women in 58 countries. Over our 15 year history, more than 80%3 of Kiva loans have gone to women; that’s $1.2B to over 3,000,000 women.
In the lead up to World Refugee Day next month, I’m additionally struck by the unique and important impact Kiva is having on the lives of refugees. 80 million people are currently displaced worldwide.4 In 2016, Kiva piloted using Kiva’s flexible capital to increase lending to refugees. With $20 million lent to displaced populations in five years, Kiva has demonstrated that refugees are repaying loans at rates similar to or higher than non-refugees.5 This success created the pathway to launch the Kiva Invest in Refugees Fund to further scale investment in refugee communities.
VN: Can you share a story about a borrower that has stood out to you in the Central Europe, Middle East and Africa market?
CT: Yes, sure, I’ll share one particular story that that struck me. One of Kiva’s investment directors, Rachel Lewis, shared with me the story of Alice, a Congolese refugee in Rwanda who fled the Congo with $200 and managed to build a wholesale business selling rice and maize. She originally received a loan of $10,000 and six months of hands-on business training. Today, she has three stores, and with her last loan of $40,000 was able to expand her growing business and employees. Alice is just one of many examples of women quietly lifting up her community.
VN: Tell us about your partnership model, why are partnerships like the one with Visa Foundation so important to advancing your mission?
CT: Collaboration and support from strategic partners like Visa Foundation enables us to fund more borrowers, to invest in new technology, and support financial innovation around the world. Our partnership models range from accelerator grants to secondments of engineers and technical staff. I’ve been thrilled in particular about partnerships like the Visa Foundation where we are able to garner support from employees to amplify the impact of our programs.
The grant from Visa Foundation most recently enabled 17,100 Visa employees to support 21,000 small and micro businesses across 36 countries, both accelerating loans funded on kiva.org and building awareness of the difference global Visa employees can make in others’ lives. The campaign generated 82% global participation, and 93% participation in CEMEA.
VN: What has been the impact of your partnership with Visa and Visa Foundation since it started in early 2020?
CT: The Visa Foundation has granted $1,400,000 to Kiva to support the growth of underserved small and micro businesses (SMBs) around the globe. In April 2020, Visa Foundation unrestricted a portion of its funding, giving Kiva the flexibility to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and accelerate our impact. Because repaid loans get “recycled” and used to fund new borrowers, the program has enabled $1,543,400 in loans in total supporting 38,000 small businesses over the first two years of the five-year partnership. 84.5% of the borrowers supported are women, which is great to see. We have also seen a number of employees be inspired to put in their own money for additional borrowers and to share their Kiva experiences with others.
VN: What’s your next big step – in terms of where you see Kiva evolving?
CT: I look forward to continuing to work with partners like Visa to realize Kiva’s vision of a world where all people hold the power to improve their lives. Kiva is at an inflection point in its more than 15-year history and has an opportunity to massively scale online lending and commercial capital and digital infrastructure to meet the needs of underserved communities. With more than 25 years of experience developing and leading beloved technology businesses, I’ve found an exciting opportunity at Kiva to align my own passions and expertise and lead Kiva through this next phase of evolution.
1 Kiva Global: https://kiva.global/kiva-capital/
3 Kiva Gender Dashboard: https://kiva.global/gender-focus/gender-dashboard/
4 UN Refugee Agency: https://www.unhcr.org/uk/figures-at-a-glance.html
5 Kiva Refugee Dashboard: https://kiva.global/refugee-focus/refugee-dashboard/
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