Lending partnership focuses on helping women 

In the wake of a recession that left small businesses reeling, California first lady Maria Shriver announced a new partnership of microlending that will help lift struggling entrepreneurs out of the ashes. 

Shriver joined local entrepreneurs and business leaders Thursday to promote the growing push for microlending. Her program — WE Invest, a microlending organization that helps California female entrepreneurs — is now collaborating with San Francisco’s Kiva group, the world’s first person-to-person microlending website.

The partnership is meant to pool money and resources to help women across the nation who need financial backing for their businesses.

“We grew this partnership at a perfect moment in this state’s history because at no time do people need the loans more than right now,” Shriver said at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts events. “I’m a big believer that this will go to all 50 states.”

Building these small yet powerful financial programs and connecting local dollars with local ideas will create a more stable business community, Shriver said. She then announced the WE Invest expansion project, which will seek to grow the program through a $300,000 commitment toward microlending nationwide.

Likewise, Kiva, located in the Mission district, has funded 60 entrepreneurs in the Bay Area, amounting to $350,000, said group President Premal Shah. Every $1 invested translates into $2 of economic impact, meaning more jobs and more wages, he said.

“The cool thing about these partnerships is that it’s a small point of hope of how everyone is more powerful than just any one person,” Shah said.

The concept of microlending is not new. In the Bay Area, microlending dates back to 1995, when the Opportunity Fund started doling out small loans to local businesses. To date, the San Jose-based organization has distributed more than $11 million in loans, said Eric Weaver, CEO and founder of the Opportunity Fund.

Now, with the economic downturn, people who would previously qualify for a bank loan are turning to microlenders like Kiva and Opportunity Fund, Weaver said.

“People that are out of work are starting businesses and banks have tightened credit criteria,” he said. “So we see people coming to us, but we are careful not to lend to people that banks will lend to.”


Helping key economic recovery

Investing in women as entrepreneurs is vital to economic recovery, according to California first lady Maria Shriver.

As women continue to split their time between balancing careers and families, it’s especially important for them to have more flexibility in their jobs. That’s why Shriver is keen on investing in supporting women business leaders through her WE Invest program, which provides microlending to women statewide.

“We live in a different world today than we did 20 years ago,” she said. “More and more people are leaving corporate America to start their own business that will allow for them to raise a child or care for an elderly parent.”

The Women’s Conference launched WE Invest in 2007 to empower female entrepreneurs in California to become more financially secure, linking them to business training, mentoring and a support network to give them the tools to start or expand their own businesses.

In June, WE Invest expanded nationally through a partnership with Kiva, the Opportunity Fund and ACCION USA. Together, they launched the first online peer-to-peer microlending program in the US. Since the launch of the Web-based microlending partnership, more than 150 entrepreneurs in 14 states across the nation have received 24,600 individual microloans totaling more than $850,000, according to Shriver.

“It’s economic empowerment,” Shriver said. “More and more women are interested in how to start their own business, and we need to do a lot to educate women better so they are not afraid of money.”

— Erin Sherbert

Cash source

$137,593,510 Total value of all loans made through Kiva

714,313 Kiva users

196 Countries represented by Kiva lenders

82 Percentage of Kiva loans that went to women entrepreneurs

Source: Kiva

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