Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Million Dollar Birthday Bonanza for Bob!

While some are intimidated by a challenge, others become inspired. Take Kiva lending team, “Friends of Bob Harris,” for example, who have taken on the challenge of raising $1 million in loans by October in honor of Bob’s birthday! This group of passionate and enthusiastic individuals demonstrate the power of team work and encouragement. What gives this team so much drive? I had to find out for myself! I spoke with the team-captain, Bob Harris, to gain an insight on the team and Bob himself.

Would you mind sharing a little of your background?

Bob: Usually people answer that with a thumbnail of their resumé, but mine isn't all that relevant here. I've had lot of careers, mostly fun and creative, but I think what matters more to this project are some perceptions that were hard-wired when I was little. My grandparents were all Appalachian farmers and coal miners, and my own mom and dad busted their tails as a warehouse worker and a dimestore clerk respectively. So I was raised in an environment where hard work was just presumed as the thing that kinda keeps everybody alive. It's an assumption that wasn't even questioned in my childhood — and which seems to be shared by the majority of humanity. I think that's the main reason I felt an intuitive click of recognition that Kiva and the stories of so many clients would be something I'd feel connected to and want to be part of.

What inspired you to start this lending team and did you have any idea it would catch on so quickly?

Bob: Actually, I didn't start the team. A great guy named Aaron, whom I'd never met but who was a fan of my books, joined Kiva in May of 2009 and made his first loan, then suggested I should start a team. I figured I'd get around to eventually, but I sort of back-burnered the idea. So Aaron went ahead and started it himself, then sent me a note good-naturedly informing me I was going to have friends and supporters on this book project whether I liked it or not!

Eventually I agreed to let him designate me as team captain, but Aaron gets the credit for starting it, not me.

I had not the slightest clue “Friends of Bob Harris” (FoBH) would be more than a few people. But it became clear right away that the message board was becoming a really fun place to hang out, and about a year ago things started to snowball. I've just tried to keep things positive ever since, and, well... wow.

Tell us a bit about "Bob's Million-Dollar Birthday Bonanza" and how that idea came to be?

Bob: The goal was suggested about six weeks ago by FoBH member Jennifer, aka my friend Jenn Pozner, an author and media activist in New York. Jenn and I were both at the 2008 Momentum conference in San Francisco, which is where I first heard Premal do a presentation about Kiva.

Premal's talk reached my ears just as I was starting a pretty incredible freelance job writing luxury travel reviews for a major magazine's website, a gig that evolved into an around-the-world trip where I got paid to stay in and write about phenomenally swank hotels on four continents. Unfortunately, in the developing world many of these are constructed and serviced by some of the world's poorest people. The contrast is so stark in a few places that I have no idea how business travelers manage to look away, although I guess most do. I just couldn't. So I wanted to invest and share my windfall in a way that would (a) be ongoing and accountable, (b) address poverty at the root from the bottom up in the countries where a lot of the migrant laborers came from, and (c) be scalable and repeatable if successful. Premal's talk had never really left me, and Kiva was a perfect fit.

Since Jenn was present when I first heard Premal talk, in a real sense, she was sort of the first member of FoBH. And I guess in late June, Jenn looks at the calendar, does a little math, and sees a neat and reachable goal in time for my birthday on Oct 15th. (I turn 48, a number which can't possibly be in base ten, but there it is.) She shares it with the team, everybody says "whee!" because that's always the vibe at FoBH, and I hereby give Jenn a big hug and bigger thanks for the thought.

Honestly, though — and taking nothing away from Jenn's kindness here, nor how grateful and flattered I am at the general enthusiasm for my birthday — the team is so generous that I think the million-dollar mark would fall soon in any case.

You have done a tremendous amount of traveling to meet borrowers across the globe, what is one of your most memorable stories from meeting a Kiva borrower?

Bob: It's hard to choose! I'll just go with a recent one, a woman named Jinifer in a town called Compostela near Cebu in the Philippines.

Jinifer's home-front convenience store is near a quarry where men start work as early as 5 am. To sell them a hot breakfast, she's up at 3 am (3 am!) every day. Of course, lots of other people in town start work a little later, so she continues to cook breakfast for hours and hours. By the time the breakfast cycle is done, lunch is on the horizon. Then snacks, dinner, beers for the men after work, the whole bit... all the way until 10 pm.

That's a 17-hour day. She does this seven days a week. Every. Damn. Day.

And this is in the Philippines, mind you, where it's already hot and muggy a lot of the time. I can't imagine how warm it sometimes must feel around 1pm, when it's a sticky 90 degrees out, and you've been working near a hot stove for ten hours already. Fortunately, Jinifer's mom is around to help, so Jinifer often gets some time to nap in the afternoon. But that's this sweet woman's life. Imagine.

And all of this is just so she and her husband (who also works his butt off) can hope to give their adorable son a better life. Which, in case you don't have the Philippine peso exchange rates on the tip of your tongue, is currently an average income from the store of about four bucks a day.

How I will ever, ever, ever feel overworked again, I do not know.

The happy ending: Jinifer's business is so successful that's she's not only expanding, she's starting a delivery service, which means she and her husband are hiring young men from the village. So if you lent $25 to Jinifer — nearly a tenth of her entire loan, btw, which was only $350, or about three months of income — you didn't just help her, you also helped create jobs for others.

So that's one story. Multiply by half a million, and that's Kiva.

What do you think the future holds for this amazing lending team? Any other big goals we should know about?

Bob: You're very kind. And thanks for saying "this," not "your." I'm just sort of a head cheerleader — if FoBH were the USC football team, I'm the dork on the sidelines with the giant plastic Trojan head. FoBH isn't "my" team — it's nearly 600 cool people who just want to support my book project and each other and share the massive sense of love and connection you can sometimes catch yourself feeling on this website. They really are amazing, aren't they?

As to goals, the team doesn't seem to be about that, really. It's more about constant playful humor and mutual support. If it gets hot outside, for example, somebody suggests lending to ice cream vendors to feel cooler, somebody else finds six of them on the site, and 20 other people dive in and finance those loans. It's so cool! There's a new idea like that almost every day, too. It's really just about sharing the addictive joy of seeing the fruits of your own labor being shared halfway around the world and then coming back to you, again and again.

For me, meanwhile, the only goal right now is trying to write a book that lives up to all this. People like Jinifer so deserve to be honored. [Expletive], people like Jinifer deserve [expletive]ing parades.

And you guys at Kiva deserve so much, too, and so do the lenders, as do so many people at MFIs who often put in hours almost as intense as Jinifer's. Meanwhile, whatever the team decides on, I'll be excited to strap on the Trojan head and cheer.

Bob meeting Jinifer and her family.
“Her son had had the thickest, wildest hair for such a tiny boy!” -Bob

Bob is currently writing, “The First International Bank of Bob,” an upcoming book about his experiences traveling across five continents, learning about microfinance and gaining a first-hand sense of how microloans are changing lives worldwide.