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Opportunity International CEO Chris Crane discussed the challenges and rewards of nonprofit microfinance May 17 at the Donald P. Jacobs Center.

Opportunity knocks

Microfinance leader reveals face of poverty; tells Kellogg students they can change the world with their talents

By Aubrey Henretty

5/17/2006 - Chris Crane is not in the business of charity. His organization doesn't give anything away, yet it has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

“You can make a gift of food to somebody,” said Crane, “and that's great for the day or so it lasts. But it's temporary.”

Crane is the chief executive officer of Opportunity International, a nonprofit micro-lender devoted to improving the lives of impoverished entrepreneurs the world over with small loans and basic business training.

As the Kellogg School's first-ever Beacon Capital Partners Civic Leader in Residence, Crane visited the school's Evanston campus May 17 and 18 to discuss the challenges and rewards of nonprofit management with Kellogg School students, faculty and staff. In addition to Crane's speaking engagement at the Donald P. Jacobs Center, events included a series of coffee chats with students. Crane's address focused on the transformative power of microfinance — a power, Crane emphasized, needed most and harnessed best by the world's most impoverished entrepreneurs: women.

“If you were to put a face on poverty, it would be a woman's face,” he said.

Eighty-six percent of Opportunity International loans go to women in dire situations, said Crane. In much of the world, he pointed out, women are last in line to acquire scarce jobs, earn less than men when they do find work and remain the primary caregivers of children. With all of these burdens — and the added stress of securing adequate food and water for their families — even very smart, strong and capable poor women find their energy and confidence sapped, said Crane.

“When women first come into our groups [in Malawi], they won't look you in the eyes,” he noted, going on to say that his organization helps them take control of their lives and find their confidence. During a recent visit to a group of Malawian women on their third loan with Opportunity International, Crane said he witnessed one such surge in confidence first hand. Toward the end of the session, a woman in the group rose and began to speak, never taking her eyes off Crane's. The translator began to look uncomfortable, which prompted Crane to ask him what the woman was saying. Sheepishly, the translator replied that she had discerned that Crane had something to do with the decision-making process and was asking him for more loan money and lower interest rates.

Crane grinned. “That's success!”

Crane said the successes that come from wiping out poverty extend far beyond the individual entrepreneurs. Aside from the 7.5 lives lifted out of poverty by each Opportunity loan (an average figure), Crane suggested that the whole world reaps the benefits as huge social problems — hunger, disease, even terrorism — loosen their grip on populations.

“Poverty is the breeding ground for desperation, and desperation is the breeding ground for terrorism,” Crane said. “You bring [the very poor] into the financial system, they're providing for their families. They forget all about terrorism.”

Crane also had some important advice for the students assembled to see him.

“You are the privileged few,” he said. “I want to urge you to take your skills and apply them to a cause greater than your own personal interest.”

It was a message Crane repeated at the following afternoon's first coffee chat. With the incredible skills, education, technology and resources at the fingertips of today's bright business school graduate, he said, just one person can change millions of lives for the better.

“And maybe it'll be one of you,” Crane added, beaming as the group dispersed. “Or all of you.”

The Beacon Capital Partners Fellowship Program was established this year through a generous donation from Mr. and Mrs. Alan Leventhal and the dedication of students and staff in the Social Enterprise at Kellogg program.