Just as most Ukrainians in the US are looking for ways to help Ukraine, I too have been brainstorming ideas. Because I work in finance and my sphere of influence and experience is in this sector, I believe it is in this arena, where I can add the most value.
For the last several years, I have worked with an American micro-finance organization called Kiva. Kiva has created an on-line platform where ordinary people like you and me can make small business loans to individuals or groups of individuals in developing countries. The smallest loan amount is $25 and lenders make these loans interest free. This is obviously not an investment, but more of a charity. To date individuals have collectively lent over half a billion dollars in loans, through Kiva. The default rate is less than 3%.
A few months ago, I reached out to Kiva and told them that I wanted to work more closely with their field partners in Ukraine – both promoting more loans to individuals and marketing Kiva to Ukrainians in the United States. Separately and simultaneously, my company had announced a partnership with Kiva wherein they would give each US employee US$25, in order to get them started with their first loan – a US$250K commitment.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect because I knew that I would have more power and greater influence, if I could reach out to Kiva through my company. So, this is what I did. My company put me in touch with Kiva who then put me in touch with their field partners in Ukraine, Hope International. I then reached out to Hope and set up a meeting. Additionally, I connected with the COO of my company’s office in Kiev, as I thought it would be beneficial to have someone locally, who could assist with this initiative.
This morning I arrived at our offices in Kiev and the COO of the office agreed to join me for the meeting with Hope. So he arranged a chauffeured car to take us Hope’s office, which were on the outskirts of Kiev. The building that houses Hope’s office is a rundown Soviet style apartment building draped with drying clothes hanging from closelines; it was a setting that seemed more fitting for a drug deal than a business meeting.
We circled around for bit before finding the building which I’m sure I would have found, had I been by myself. In hindsight, I’m not sure that I would have pulled off the meeting by myself – between the language, which was a mix of Ukrainian and Russian and the mere fact that I have never conducted business in Ukraine.
The meeting with Hope was constructive. I learned about their lending process and they seemed open to many of the ideas that we had around expanding their scope. But ultimately, I walked away disappointed. During the meeting I had discovered that Hope charges their borrowers between 35-40%; profiting from money which they are getting from Kiva for free. This won’t really help those who really need it. It was a realization of my worst fear.