By Lucas Lee ’21
In 1976 in the village of Jobra, Bangladeshi economics professor Muhammad Yunus provided a loan of US$27 to a group of 42 women whose poverty prevented them from accessing traditional financial services. This microloan helped the women create more sustainable business models for their bamboo furniture businesses, dramatically boosting their profitability. Once the women repaid the loan, Yunus took the same money and lent it to more female entrepreneurs to help them help themselves. After successfully providing microloans for seven years, in 1983, Yunus formally started his microfinance institution Grameen Bank, a non-profit devoted to providing microloans to the unbanked Bangladeshi poor. In 2006, Yunus and Grameen Bank were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in alleviating poverty.
Yunus’s impact and rhetoric about how “all humans are entrepreneurs” and how poverty’s “proper place is in a museum” have inspired many around the world to create micro-credit programs. High school students have even formed microfinance clubs. The clubs utilize online, crowdfunded microfinance platforms like Kiva, Zidisha, and Milaap to lend to unbanked entrepreneurs across the globe.
Julia Brand, rising Riverdale Country School senior and president of her school’s microfinance club, recognized, however, that “while it is remarkable that high schoolers can so easily provide microloans, in large part due to the way microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus initially popularized the tool, many who use the financial device do not completely understand its shortfalls and controversies.”
In order to help students who are interested in microfinance learn more about the practice’s history and impact, this past March, Brand founded the National High School Microfinance Coalition (NHSMC), a network of high school clubs that are committed to serving unbanked individuals across the globe through microfinance. Throughout the school year, the NHSMC will host monthly virtual events with leaders in the field, connect clubs to other like-minded students, and discuss microfinance best practices.
The NHSMC currently consists of approximately 80 members from microfinance and economics clubs at seven high schools across the country—Riverdale Country School, Brooklyn Technical High School, the Spence School, State College Area High School, John Burroughs School, Ransom Everglades, and Harvard-Westlake—and a Harvard-Westlake student-run initiative called Soles4Good, which brings shoes to entrepreneurs in El Salvador to help them launch their own microenterprises.
The student leaders of the clubs in the NHSMC met for the first time on June 9. The students introduced themselves and discussed questions about microfinance that they would like to see speakers at school year monthly meetings address. On June 29, the NHSMC held its second meeting, during which the students compared their club meeting routines and lending strategies.
Following this meeting, Brand opened the application for five positions that would comprise the NHSMC student board: two communications directors and three content advisors. She also announced that each school should elect a student ambassador to represent their club. On August 1, Brand reported that Simrun Kothari of Brooklyn Technical High School and Alexis Geller of Riverdale Country School would serve as the NHSMC communications directors and that Nathan Russell of Harvard-Westlake, Dev Nayak of John Burroughs School, and Ryan Bird of Riverdale Country School would serve as the content advisors.
Currently, the student board is working to recruit speakers for their fall events and professionals for the NHSMC advisory board, the standing group of microfinance leaders who will be readily available to NHSMC member clubs to answer any questions they may have about lending strategy or microfinance in general. For the advisory board so far, the NHSMC has secured Amelia Hopkins Phillips, the founder and executive director of Somo, a non-profit that forms long-term partnerships with social entrepreneurs in urban slum areas with a mission to help the entrepreneurs build sustainable businesses and to bring stability to the entrepreneur’s communities. Additionally, the student board reached out to Vikram Akula, the CEO of for-profit Vaya Microfinance, formerly known as SKS Microfinance, and organized for Akula to speak sometime this fall.
“We are recruiting speakers who have varying perspectives about microfinance,” Brand said. “It will be a great privilege for students to talk to these leaders not only because the stories that they will tell will be captivating in and of themselves, but also because the knowledge that they expound will provide high school microfinance clubs with the foundation necessary to amplify their impact on unbanked individuals around the world.”
For more information on the National High School Microfinance Coalition, check out their website nhsmc.org, their Instagram @nhsmc, or their Facebook page @nhsmc.org. If you are interested in joining the National High School Microfinance Coalition, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.