Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Summer 2003Kellogg School of Management
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  Beth Houle '95
Beth Houle '95

Alumni Profile: Beth Houle '95

A hand out of poverty
Beth Houle '95 and the Women's Opportunity Fund help women around the globe gain self-sufficiency

For Kellogg School alum Beth Houle '95, the yardstick for measuring success isn't just giving someone a hand up and out of poverty, but enabling that person to lift someone else up with them.

"When a really poor person is in a position to offer charity or hope to someone else, that is one of the greatest signs of our success," says Houle, director of the Women's Opportunity Fund, and vice president, marketing strategy, for Opportunity International, its parent organization. The nonprofit organization makes microloans, primarily to women, in 25 developing countries including Uganda, Colombia, Russia and the Philippines.

Take, for example, Catherine Kamuli of Kampala, Uganda, one of Houle's favorite success stories. Kamuli used a microloan to build a poultry business from 150 chickens to more than 2,000.

Kamuli sells the chickens and their eggs and even markets the chicken manure as a fertilizer, all of which has resulted in a growing savings account.

But most importantly, says Houle, Kamuli has encouraged more than 20 other women to start their own businesses, has been able to feed her children well and to send them to school, and is now caring for four children who were orphaned after their parents died of AIDS.

"Our work offers people a way out — not a handout based on lending and strong financial services," Houle says. "In the process, women become leaders, they become self-sufficient and they make systemic changes in their communities."

Aspiring female entrepreneurs in the United States sometimes battle discrimination, a lack of access to capital and other barriers to success. Houle says roadblocks are even more numerous for women in developing countries, who often are prohibited from owning property and therefore have no collateral.

Opportunity International grants small loans of between $25 and $100 to women who organize in groups of 15 to 40 entrepreneurs, co-guaranteeing each other's loans. Women use the loans to establish informal businesses such as food preparation, sewing or weaving, repaying the money to the Trust Bank group, where it is then used to make loans to other women entrepreneurs.

The organization boasts a 98 percent repayment rate a number most commercial banks can't even begin to approach.

Houle, who began her career at Salomon Brothers after completing her undergraduate studies, soon felt pulled toward a career that would combine solid business principles with social good. In the early 1990s, she searched for an MBA program where she could learn the fundamentals of accounting, marketing and finance while focusing on the nonprofit sector.

The Kellogg School was her answer.

"At the time, not many people were talking about things like nonprofit entrepreneurship or applying venture capitalism to social programs," she says, adding that the Kellogg School was one of a few obvious exceptions. "Now you see so much more melding of the private and not-for-profit sectors. You see many more applications of business principles to social programs. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there weren't many examples of this and it wasn't articulated as well."

Her five years with the organization has marked her longest period of employment with any single organization, a testament to the fact that she's landed in a dynamic field, she says. Her current role is leading the organization's Women's Fund, developing and focusing its brand, and identifying key marketing opportunities in the United States.

The past few years have been a time of record growth for the organization, which served 400,000 clients in 2002, but is predicting the need to serve 2 million by 2010.

Key private supporters tend to be entrepreneurs or others with strong finance backgrounds, who understand the impact a loan can have.

Says Houle, "They realize that for a poor person, a $100 loan and some training might be the one thing that gives them a chance."

On the Internet: Women's Opportunity Fund

— Kari Richardson

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University