January 27, 2011 | 1:00 PM
(Left: Mr. Shah with Center Manager)
The Grameen America team recently took a trip to Jackson Heights, Queens with members of Fast Company Magazine, who will run a story on domestic microfinance and social business featuring Grameen America later this year. The purpose of the trip was to see Grameen America’s inaugural branch, meet our field staff and to sit in on a center meeting, where borrowers discuss their businesses and settle their weekly repayments.
In the hopes of bringing our online followers a little closer to field we wanted to give you a
preview of the branch experience. While much has been written on the potential impact of microfinance, this was a unique opportunity to talk to the borrowers to see the success of our program in action. We hope this will give you a little insight to the daily workings of the field as a preview for the upcoming feature.
Shah Newaz, CEO of Operations, is a former student of Professor Yunus and worked closely with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh for over 30 years. Even as a veteran in microfinance, he had to overcome many obstacles in order to kick the program off and lead it to its recent successes. After being cheated by rogue lenders in the past, potential entrepreneurs in Jackson Heights must have doubted the trust-based system of Grameen America, which does not require collateral, guarantors or credit. With hard work and a great deal of patience, Mr. Shah gained the trust of the community which today accounts for more than half our entire program with 2,500 program members to date.
Center meetings, which Shah often oversees, are composed of three to four groups of five women and take place once a week per center. To make this demanding schedule possible, a dedicated team of center managers must each meet with up to five centers per day, with a select few meetings starting as early as 5:30am to accommodate members work schedule.
On this particular day, Mr. Shah arranged for us to attend a center meeting in the heart of Jackson Heights, hosted at the house of a Grameen America member who works as a seamstress. This particular member is one of the most dedicated, as she is already on her fourth loan. The center was comprised of 15 borrowers who had brought their children with them to the meeting. We had initially worried about being a distraction to the group, as we numbered eight additional people including Mr. Shah and the Center Manger. Our worries soon subsided as the center members couldn’t have been nicer, welcoming us into the home.
The group sat in a circle and conversed openly with each other in Spanish. The smiles and laughter shared between the members were clear signs that they were all glad to be with each other. One by one, the borrowers would go up and hand the center manager a small weekly deposit of loan money along with at least $2 towards a savings account. Each member was eager to have a few minutes to talk to the center manager and seemed genuinely excited to have fulfilled her weekly goal. One member in the back of the room proudly shouted that she was ready for a new loan.
This particular center turned out to be a perfect example of how Grameen America’s loans have made business opportunities possible for the first time. When asked how many of the women had a job before their loans with Grameen America, only three responded that they previously had another source of income. Our hostess, a seamstress, was a great example of how even single mothers can have the opportunity to have an income while staying at home with their family.
After the meeting, a borrower named Marisella invited us to her house a few blocks away to show us some of the items she sells. She lives with her 16-year-old daughter in a small two-bedroom apartment. It was clear that Marisella was equal part dedicated mother as entrepreneur. She was beaming as she told us about her daughter’s success in school, which was evident by a number of academic awards on the wall. This was certainly thrilling for us to see such success on both sides of the family. When the conversation changed to her business, we were surprised to find a diverse group of items she had for sale. There aren’t many stores that carry makeup in the area so she found a way to buy makeup from Mary Kay and sell it to her friends. She also has her mother sends her little folk art animals from Mexico and sells them at a stand near the busiest section of Jackson Heights. There is a big Mexican community in the area and for many her pieces are more than just trinkets, they are reminders of home.
If there was one word to sum up the experience at the center meeting and Marisella’s house, it was community. The way that the members provide services and goods for each other and look forward to interacting every week showed that Grameen America’s services have extended beyond basic capital. The program has grown to facilitate relationships in the community between emerging entrepreneurs, which might have otherwise been driven apart by poverty.