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Interview: Julie Hanna, Executive Chair of the Board of Kiva

by | Mar 31, 2017 |

Women entrepreneurs in different parts of the world face challenges as diverse as the countries they live in. Refugees face some of the most daunting challenges, but with the right support, they have also been responsible for some of the most life-changing innovations the world has seen.

Julie Hanna visited Salt Lake City to give the keynote speech at the Women Tech Council’s 9th Annual Women Tech Awards. Julie is a tech pioneer, entrepreneur, and investor who has served as a founding executive of five Silicon Valley tech companies. She was also previously a refugee who fled war in Jordan to come to the U.S. in the 1970s. In 2015, President Obama asked Julie to serve as a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, and she currently serves as the Executive Chair of the Board at Kiva, the micro-lending platform that revolutionized crowdfunding when it was launched in 2005.

We sat down with Julie for a wide-ranging interview to discuss women in tech, social entrepreneurship, and how entrepreneurs can help support refugees around the world. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Chrisella: Julie Hanna, thank you so much for being with us here today. It’s great to have you here in Utah.

Julie: Thank you, it’s wonderful to be here.

Chrisella: Is this your first time in Utah?

Julie: No, I’m a regular. I’m a big fan of Salt Lake City and the state overall.

Chrisella: Oh, that’s wonderful! Well, we’re glad to have you here today and especially to talk to you here at the Women Tech Council’s Annual Awards. You’re going to be giving the keynote this afternoon, but what do you think can be done to help support more women entering into science and tech fields generally?

Julie: Two things. One of the most powerful things to bring about change, actually, is what’s happening here today, which is amplifying relatable role models. As President Obama says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” I think that really ignites the imagination when you look at someone and say, “Wow, look at their journey. That could be me – look at what they’ve done and what they’ve created.” It just creates a world of possibility. It can ignite the imagination, ignite passion.

The second thing is that as we start to realize that the way that science and technology – computer science, in particular – has been packaged and presented, it just didn’t connect and resonate with what young women or girls might find interesting, that might connect with their worlds. There have been some interesting findings that when it is packaged and presented in ways that say instead of just, “Okay, you’re going to program with this funny language”, but “Here’s what you can do with that language, here are the kinds of products you can build, the kinds of companies you can create, the kind of future that you can build”, then there’s this connection that gets made. Like, “Oh, this is a powerful tool that allows me to express myself in the world!” What’s interesting about that is the interest goes dramatically up, so I think we have a long way to go in terms of understanding ways of packaging and presenting STEM that will appeal to diverse audiences.

Chrisella: You’re from San Francisco. Do you see any lessons from the Women Tech Council that could be implemented in the Bay Area?

Julie: Yeah, actually I do, and I think one of the things I was struck by with the Women Tech Council is the scale that it’s reached – I think it’s over 1000 members. One of the things that I think is becoming apparent to all of us – and certainly in Silicon Valley as we look at how you get more cognitive diversity, more gender diversity, more ethnic diversity into the ecosystem – is that there is a unique experience that women have in the technology industry. Giving voice to that – giving them a place to convene and talk about it – helps not only women, but it helps the entire industry to understand what is serving to invite people in and what is excluding them. It helps us all evolve to create just a more inviting, inclusive, and humane environment and industry.

Chrisella: In 2015, President Obama named you a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship. What is the purpose of the program and what role did the President ask you to play in this?

Julie: So, this post was created out of President Obama’s insight that entrepreneurship is such a foundational part of the U.S. It’s really the foundation of our economy, going back to the founding of the country. It’s quite unique and it’s the lifeblood of the economy. So his insight was if we can export our model of entrepreneurship – what allows us to survive and thrive and succeed with it – to other parts of the world and even parts of the U.S where they can benefit economically. That could be, potentially, one of our greatest exports and that may be the one thing that the U.S is universally admired for around the world. My role is part advocacy, part policy advisor. Some of the fun things I get to do is accompany President Obama and Secretary of Commerce Pritzker, who’s the Chair of the Presidential Ambassadors, and meet with entrepreneurs all over the world, advise them, ignite their passion, give them access to resources. One of the things I focus on is enabling access to capital and then also meeting with heads of business and heads of government to look at how to create ecosystems that will allow entrepreneurship to thrive.

Chrisella: So it’s a very globally focused program.

Julie: It is. Very global, but also in the U.S. One of the things I began doing a number of years ago was thinking about how to use my background as an entrepreneur and a technologist in Silicon Valley, and the advantage that that came with that, and say, “How do I help export the knowledge I’ve acquired to other parts of the country and other parts of the world to give entrepreneurs everywhere the same kind of advantage?” So this role has really been a wonderful platform and extension of that.

Chrisella: So you joined the Board of Kiva, the online micro-lending program in 2009 and today you serve as the Executive Chair of the Board. What is the role of a platform like Kiva in the world today? They’ve been around for a little over a decade, am I right?

Julie: That’s right. We just had our ten-year anniversary. If you think about what Kiva did, Kiva invented what we now know as crowdfunding. It was the first peer to peer lending site with this idea of allowing people to crowd lend small amounts of money to reach underserved, microentrepreneurs all over the world, and today, it’s the world’s largest crowd lending marketplace for entrepreneurs. That simple innovation has scaled to a level that we never – I think anyone anticipated. Today, ten years later, Kiva’s facilitated almost a billion dollars in loans and reached over two million entrepreneurs across 80 something countries and lenders literally from every corner of the world, 190 countries and what’s remarkable about it is that the repayment rate has held at 97%.

So the fact that something like that has scaled to that level is quite a testament to democratization, because if you think about what Kiva’s done is democratized access to capital. I’ve come to think of it as the world’s bank, for and by the people, that has radically decentralized and connected people all over the globe. More importantly than the fact that Kiva works and works at scale, it’s given way to a massive industry of peer-to-peer and online lending and crowdfunding. I think there are over 2000 companies and marketplaces today that have unleashed tens of billions of dollars, so that in itself is really sort of flipping our conventional wisdom about lending and banking altogether.

Chrisella: You mentioned the 97% success rate. What is it about the system that makes Kiva so successful in getting those loans repaid?

Julie: Well, there are a number of factors. One is that 75% of Kiva’s borrowers are women. One of the things that Dr. Muhammad Yunus found when he first made the world aware of microfinance and microlending is that when you lend to women, they are a very good credit risk. They’re very responsible, they put it to work, they reinvest 90% of their income into their families and their communities. So, one of the things that Dr. Yunus and now Kiva’s really helped the world to understand is that the fastest way to transform a society is by investing in women.

The other big reason is, we have partnered with over 300 organizations around the world, many of them microfinance institutions but also other organizations that are bringing products and services into the developing world. We have folks from Kiva who are fellows and team members that work with the partners to qualify borrowers. One of the things that is a criteria is, “Is this going to go towards something that’s income generating?” So, essentially, towards a business, and when you filter for that, the likelihood is that there’s going to be an ability to repay.

The third thing – which has been sort of a surprising discovery – is that when people discover that these loans are coming from people that are not an institution, it does something quite magical. They say, “Wow, somebody I’ve never met, 40 people from all over the world I’ve never met, took a chance on me.” We’re reaching the most underserved people in the riskiest parts of the world – including here at home – people who have been shut out of every system, don’t have access to banks. When they realize that people are willing to take a chance on them, it deepens that commitment, that motivation, “I’m gonna repay that loan and I’m going to…” It is a person-to-person connection. The loans become a way of connecting human beings and motivation changes entirely, and that’s a very powerful part of it.

Chrisella: Yeah, that is very powerful. So, WhiteHat Magazine is a Utah benefit corporation. It’s a fairly new option for Utah businesses; I think it was just in 2014 that the law passed to allow businesses to register for this structure. Since you’re an investor and an entrepreneur and you’re involved in these sorts of things, I’d love to know what your thoughts are on this business structure for social entrepreneurs. Is it something that you think more entrepreneurs should look into, and is it something that investors are interested in?

Julie: It’s a great question. One, it’s very interesting and I think it speaks to the fact that there’s a desire to innovate in the way we think about structuring companies. Today, we have the for-profit structure and then we’ve got the non-profit structure and Kiva was one of the pioneers, actually. It’s a non-profit, but has a revenue model that allows it to be sustaining. Increasingly, there are social entrepreneurs and companies being formed that are very purpose driven to a point where the founders and the CEOs are saying, “We want to be purpose driven, we want to be profitable, we just don’t want to be profit maximizing. We believe that the choice between purpose and profit is a false one, and so what are structures that will allow us to be accountable to ourselves, to be accountable to society around mission and impact goals as well as profit goals?” I think we’re going to continue to iterate and evolve on the structures, but there’s really great work that’s happened around the world that B Corps and B Labs has done in that regard.

Chrisella: I’m going to shift a little bit now to talk about your work in addressing the global refugee crisis. You were a refugee who fled violence and war in the Middle East in the 1970s. You came to the United States, and you’ve turned those experiences into a career of empowering people through entrepreneurship in underserved communities. What space do you see today for entrepreneurs to play a part in addressing the global refugee crisis?

Julie: It’s a great question. Thank you for asking it. It is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart, and every time I see images of refugees today, I’m reminded of the running and the fleeing and the fine line that divides us. I think it’s a fine line we all walk. It’s staggering to realize that today, there are more refugees and displaced people than there were in all of World War II – over 60 million. They could form their own country, and when you think about it on that scale, you realize the amount of talent and resources that can be brought to bear in societies all over the world that are being lost. Actually, President Obama just held a roundtable [on September 20, 2016] and some of the things that emerged out of that… there’s amazing work being done by Coursera, for example, around education and one of the things that’s coming to light is that the number of children, I can’t remember but I believe it may be even half our children…

Chrisella: I think it is 50%.

Julie: …and most are not getting educated. You think about that many children not getting educated — it’s staggering to think about the implications of bringing education to refugees.
There are a lot of great initiatives around creating job placement. The biggest thing for entrepreneurs is the word “refugee” has such a stigma to it. I think it’s almost misunderstood. If you think about what it means to be a refugee, it means that someone like you or me had to flee their home to save their own lives. That’s the only difference. So, when you think about refugees in that perspective, they can be massive contributors to society. Usually, if you’re a refugee, the resourcefulness and the resilience you have to have to survive really make you create a skill set and a grit that is very powerful – and actually very entrepreneurial. So, I think if we can reframe the way we think about refugees and say, “What resources can be brought to bear in terms of education, in terms of job placements, skills building, even entrepreneurialism itself?” We can unlock a massive amount of talent there. Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.

Chrisella: So I have one last question for you today. You also serve on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Response. What does this council focus on and what are some of the ideas for solutions that have come out of it?

Julie: The Council came into being borne out of a question: when there is a humanitarian crisis, whether they’re ongoing or sudden, that captures the world’s attention, and there’s this immediate desire to support a region, how do we go about organizing to do that? If we orchestrated that more systematically, if we built infrastructure to do that, we could actually do that more efficiently, have greater impact, greater scale of impact. A big part of it was looking at it and saying, “How can technology play a role here?” Because you can have drives to say, “Let’s send blankets or clothes to Afghanistan” when actually transporting physical goods is not necessarily the most efficient way to help, because it’s guessing at what’s needed. These are moving atoms, not bits. It’s a far more complicated prospect. Often times, these parts of the world get overwhelmed with things – they know what they need, and they’re getting things they don’t need. So what we looked at is, “How can technology enable a distribution of funds so that folks on the ground can actually go and resource themselves and get access to what they need?” That was a big part of the focus of the role of technology to immobilize.

Chrisella: So empowerment rather than just aid.

Julie: Definitely empowerment rather than just aid, but the role of technology in mobilizing that.

Chrisella: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.

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