Michaela Walsh on Founding the World’s First Women’s Microfinance Network

We are honoured and delighted to publish this guest piece from the Founder of Women's World Banking, the world's first women's microfinance network, which has a portfolio $7 billion, savings of $3.5 billion and serves 26 million clients, 80% of whom are women.

Published as part of this month's theme of Finance. 

MIchaela Walsh is an activist, scholar, mentor, educator, and author. She has been a pioneer female manager for Merrill Lynch, the first female partner at Boettcher & Co, and the founding president of Women’s World Banking. She taught at Manhattanville College, served on the Boards of several institutions, and was chairperson of the 59th United Nations DPI/NGO Conference in 2006. She has received numerous awards, including an honor in 2012 from Women’s Funding Network for changing the face of philanthropy. 

On the publication of her book, Founding a Movement: Women’s World Banking 1975-1990, which tells an extraordinary story of a grass roots movement that changed countless women's lives, The NextWomen asked Michaela to reflect on the changing times and the book

As I look back at the genesis of Women’s World Banking, at the 1975 first global UN Conference for Women, I realize that what we eventually accomplished sounds a great deal like the mission statement of The NextWomen—to advise, inspire & connect a global and local community of ambitious entrepreneurial women specifically on their business needs.  We had no idea that was what we were undertaking!

At that meeting in Mexico City I was very much a student and a learner.  My background was finance; I knew nothing about international development. I attended the conference as a representative of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, where since 1972 I had been helping to identify appropriate technologies and new values about community that were spreading among the younger generation. In preparation for the meeting I began to learn more, and as I met extraordinary women – from new cultures speaking new languages and in colorful clothing—we all talked about how to improve the lives of women and families. I knew that women were often the breadwinners, but I did not realize how often they had to deal with voracious moneylenders, that in many cultures they could not own property, or that even in the United States it was tough for a woman to get a bank loan without a man to co-sign.  Today all this seems impossible – but that was what we faced.

Talking and sharing stories and learning together, we began to form a broad agreement that bringing women into the formal financial markets was a goal that was deeply worthwhile.   We did not know how to do it, but we knew what a difference it would make.  A small group of women, some from the United Nations, some from academia, some entrepreneurs, served as a working group to pursue the idea.   Making small loans was not our first objective – we thought about loan guarantees and other options.   

What kept us going was the problem itself – and the large number of people, mostly men, who told us we were crazy and the goal was impossible.

Bill Dietel, my colleague at Rockefeller Brothers Fund, found a way for me to go forward with this new idea.  I learned during the interviews for my book that at least one man at RBF responded differently.  When he heard I was talking about starting a project to help women gain access to financial services and credit and give them control of their money, he thought, “If there was a problem, men would know about it, and men would fix it.”  He then told me in looking back that he understood he sounded like a dinosaur.

Organizing something new takes time. Our small group kept meeting, testing new ideas, and expanding our circle.  By 1980 Women’s World Banking was incorporated in The Netherlands.  After our first global meeting in Amsterdam with women from more than 40 countries, we defined the initial agenda and were well underway. We sought and took advice everywhere we could find it.  Affiliates developed in many countries, with each affiliate evolving as local conditions and customs determined.  We never set out to create a bank or an institution—we set out to solve a problem.   We insisted that local groups seeking affiliation define their own objectives and be responsible for their choices.  We developed training as we saw need.  We always learned the most from each other, and the international meetings were crucial to keeping us linked and strong.  No Queen Bees and no US experts.

We were interested in leadership, not celebrity.  People with skills to share and who were willing to admit that they had much to learn about the countries where we were working.

Today people have access to communication and exchange through technology that we never imagined possible.  This is a wonderful advance.  But I am convinced that one of the reasons WWB worked so well was its basis in trust and personal relationships.  We knew each other, we learned from each other, and we respected each other.

Currently, WWB in New York serves as an umbrella organization to a network of 39 financial organizations from 27 countries that provide small loans, from $100 and up, to borrowers to start their businesses.

With a portfolio of $7 billion and $3.5 billion in savings, 26 million clients are served by the WWB network, 80% of whom are women.

I continue to believe that finding women entrepreneurs and encouraging them in whatever way they need is the key ingredient in moving women forward.  Women improve their communities as they gain assets, and as they have more control over their economic situation they bring more influence into the community.  As women move into markets and create ever-more sophisticated business approaches, they build the local economy and contribute to a worldwide shift in the economic downturn. We still work toward our dreams.

My views were reinforced as I undertook, almost five years ago, to interview the WWB founders.  I wanted to capture that time and how we worked, connect with dear friends, as well as preserve the stories of so many people who worked so hard toward fulfilling the dream of women owning their own production—and reproduction.   

As I talked and listened and read and remembered, I realized that this story needed to be told out loud and in print, not just archived. 

This is why I wrote Founding a Movement. It is my hope that as a new generation of entrepreneurs and international developers go to work, our lessons will be their guide.

More information at Michaelawalsh.com

FOUNDING A MOVEMENT: Women’s World Banking 1975-1990

Michaela Walsh, with Shamina de Gonzaga and Lilia C. Clemente

Cosimo Books, September 2012

Available at online bookstores around the world

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