Did you know the average American household has about $100 in spare change lying around? That pocket change can be all it takes for a poor person to work her way out of poverty. Tracey Turner, founder and general manager of MicroPlace, is using that money to make a massive change. A "conscious capitalist," Turner has dedicated her career to developing sustainable solutions to global poverty. Her latest venture is an online brokerage and a wholly-owned subsidiary of eBay specializing in socially responsible investments that address poverty through microfinance. Essentially, she enables everyday people to make investments that earn a financial return—more than 97 percent on average—while providing loans to the world's working poor.
"If you are like most people, your nickels and quarters go unnoticed and collect dust in a jar," says Turner. "Imagine the impact you can make in the lives of hardworking poor people around the world, just by using your small change." MicoPlace recently launched the "Small change. Big change." campaign, a nationwide initiative that helps people to team up with friends and family to address global poverty by raising funds for global microfinance institutions. Below, she discusses how we can end poverty in our lifetime, the difference between charity and sustainable investing, and why she loves the sound "ka-ching!"
How did you get into this line of work?
After business school, I moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh to work for a division of the Grameen Bank, which won the Nobel Peace Prize for their pioneering work in microfinance. There is nothing more inspirational than listening to the stories of women who have raised themselves from poverty through their own hard work and a tiny loan. It is amazing what $10 or $20—the cost of lunch for us—can do to transform their lives and that of their children.
What was your "a-ha" moment?
A friend once said, "When you give a woman a hand out, you take away a piece of her dignity. When you give a woman a loan, you give her a piece of her dignity back." My "aha" was looking those women in the eyes working with them in Sudan, Bangladesh, and Kenya , and realizing that it is the power of a loan that makes them feel empowered and respected as businesswomen and as equals. That's why MicroPlace is about investing in the world's working poor, not about charitable handouts.
Who is your green hero?
The working poor who are trying to make a difference in their own small way. Take Javier, for example. He's a pig farmer in Costa Rica. Not one of those big rich pig farmers with a ranch, but just a little guy with 18 pigs, eking out a living. Javier took a micro-loan to get a biodigester that turns pig manure into energy for his house and farm. So smart! I always marvel at the ingenuity and perseverance of the people I meet in the field. It makes me realize that if someone like Javier can be that innovative and creative, maybe I can do a bit better too.
What is your ultimate green goal?
To enable a billion people—the world's working poor—to lift themselves from poverty through their own hard work and entrepreneurial spirit. How is this green? When people are on the edge of survival, they will do anything to make money. Even if that means destroying their own environmental future for dinner tonight. Do you know the biggest threat to the gorillas in Rwanda? It's not poachers, but poor people chopping down the forests to make charcoal to sell in the markets. You can't blame them when they are faced with no money and no food and two crying kids.
We can't stop this by passing laws against chopping trees. We can only stop this by addressing the root cause: That people living on the edge of survival, living on less than a dollar a day. By enabling people to have a more productive way to make money that doesn't involve destroying their environment, we can take away one of the forces destroying our planet.
What is your motivation?
At MicroPlace, we include pictures and stories of individuals who receive loans. These stories inspire me every day, and remind me of the many working poor whom I have met in my travels, for example, the Kimani family that I lived with in Kenya. Mrs. Kimani's husband left her alone to raise three children with no source of income. She took out a small loan and started a sewing business making uniforms for school children. The income was enough to achieve her ultimate dream, sending her eldest son to college in the US. During her economic empowerment, however, something else happened to Mrs. Kimani: Her self-confidence was transformed, and she became a local leader during the first multiparty democratic election in Kenyan history.
What is most important to you, ecologically speaking?
We can't have an ecologically sustainable world with more than a billion people living on less than one dollar per day. We've become complacent, comfortable, or apathetic with the idea that this is okay. It's not okay in 2008 for people to die of hunger, lack of clean drinking water, and preventable diseases. We know how to end poverty. We have the resources. People are being more conscious about what they drive, eat, and buy. We need to think similarly about our investment dollars. Sustainable investing is different from charity because you get your money back and can reinvest it again and again. There is no end to the number of people you can help escape poverty forever.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Historically, Americans have thought about doing good as "charity"—donating and volunteering. Unfortunately, charity is not sustainable. You donate once and it's gone. Plus, there just aren't enough charitable dollars to reach the billion working poor who need it. On the other hand, people have pretty solid views about what it means to do well financially: You invest in stocks or bonds and try to beat the market, even if it means day-trading oil stocks. Oil futures might line the pocketbook but they don't help the poor.
We need a fundamental shift in thinking. We must get people to realize that the sustainable solution is to marry the two, to take the best of both worlds. That's why we started MicroPlace as an online brokerage where people can make an investment that also does good. Investing dollars in the working poor—and getting that investment back with interest—means you can reinvest your money again and again. It's just like recycling. It's good for the bottle, it's good for the can, its good for the world's working poor. We are trying to get people to think of microfinance investing on MicroPlace as the Prius of their investment wallets.
What is the most rewarding part?
When I am sitting at my desk and hear "cha-ching!" Our developers recently programmed a widget so that every time someone makes an investment on MicroPlace we literally hear that noise. Whenever I hear it go off throughout the day, I know that this site—this thing that started out as a vision scribbled on a napkin—is helping to solve world poverty. In less than one year, we have enabled more than 25,000 loans that will help more than 125,000 people escape poverty. That's huge. And when I hear that "cha-ching" I know that means that yet another person can get a loan and work her way out of poverty with dignity.
I also love coming up with creative ways that people can make a difference. This month, for example, we are launching a gifting program. For just $20, people can make a microfinance investment in honor of friends and family for the holidays. The honoree receives a handcrafted artisan piggy bank, which they can use to save up for another microfinance investment.
Of the people you have worked with, who impresses you most?
Tor Gull of Oikocredit and Shari Berenbach of the Calvert Foundation, who created the first investments listed on MicroPlace. They pioneered the way for everyday Americans to open up our investment wallets and lift people from poverty in a sustainable way.
What green thing do you do everyday? I saw a bumper sticker on a bike the other day that said, "Bicycles: a quiet statement against oil wars." I love riding my bike and do it as often as life will allow. Plus, I think the greatest thing we can do to bring environmental sustainability and global security is to rid the world of dependence on oil.
What do you wish you could do?
I wish I could provide a loan to each of the 1 billion poor people who need it—today. I know...I need more patience. We are growing extremely fast here at MicroPlace—in our first year, we grew faster than any other consumer microfinance-lending site out there. I know that we will eventually raise the capital to help all people that need it. But that doesn't help the mother that has to put to bed a hungry child because she didn't have the money for dinner today. I want to help them all today. As founder of the Grameen Bank Professor Yunus says, "Let's put poverty in a museum."
What is your biggest eco-sin?
My SUV, which my XXL Greater Swiss Mountain dog, Ledley, made me get.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
3. Chocolate wouldn't be fattening.
2. Bush would never have been president.
1. Everyone in the world would have the opportunity to live up to his potential. The working poor are not poor because they are lazy or lack work ethic or smarts. They simply lack opportunity. Give them a tiny loan—a window of opportunity—and they can make magic.
What is your best green advice?
Don't drive SUVs. And invest on MicroPlace.
Change Makers is series of interviews with people famous and obscure who are creating a more sustainable world through their work. Meet more Change Makers here.