Why Kiva’s Co-founder Struggled to Find Her Great Idea

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Kiva co-founder Jessica Jackley always knew she wanted to serve people, and thought she wanted to work in a nonprofit someday. But finding her great idea took a little time, and lot of reflection and research. “It took me a while to figure out how to focus, and where to concentrate my energy,” she says. “A few years out of college I started to want to be a social entrepreneur, but still didn’t know what that meant exactly.


What did being a social entrepreneur look like? What would I do as a social entrepreneur, exactly? I had no idea. The motivation, values, and energy were all there, but the specific context was missing.” Without a specific idea to implement, she felt lost. “I felt like someone who wanted to be an author but had no idea what the book should be about, or someone who dreamt of going to the Olympics but hadn’t chosen a sport,” she says.

She spent time digging to find a specific mission, which led her to sit in a lecture to hear Dr. Muhammad Yunus speak. “This, more than anything else, led me to make a choice. I wanted to focus on microfinance,” she says. Once she made this decision, she quit her job at Stanford to join Village Enterprise Fund (VEF), a San Mateo-based nonprofit doing micro-enterprise development and training in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania.

She moved to East Africa to begin her project with VEF, through which she met more than 100 entrepreneurs whose stories inspired the creation of Kiva. “Only then did creating Kiva become my specific mission, and making that happen in the world didn’t necessarily feel like it was entrepreneurship per se, it just felt like building something real,” she says. “In fact, I actually forgot about my desire to be a social entrepreneur because I was too focused on that one specific experiment. Only later was I able to look back at it and see what the path we’d taken to build Kiva was an entrepreneurial one. From there, truly seeing myself as an entrepreneur has become very natural, and defines the path I see for myself.”

Jackley got the idea for Kiva in 2004, and officially launched it as a non-profit in 2005. It allows individuals to lend as little as $25 to support entrepreneurs and projects around the world. Since its launch Kiva has processed over $237 million in loans from over 618,000 lenders, with a 98.83% repayment rate.

Jackley is currently Founder and CEO of ProFounder, a platform providing new ways for small business entrepreneurs in the U.S. to access start-up capital through crowdfunding and community involvement. The idea was influenced by her experience with Kiva, but really came to be during conversations with her co-founder Dana Mauriello. They met at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, both MBA students (she holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business with Certificates in Global Management and Public Management). “We saw fellow classmates all around us starting incredible ventures, but felt frustrated by how difficult it was for them to raise money – more specifically, to raise money from their classmates,” she says. “Why was it so hard for just anyone to invest a few hundred dollars in a start-up they love? Discovering the answers to this question, and expanding the question to include other types of companies and small businesses, led us to identify the main problems we wanted to solve, which led us to do more deliberate research.” The most important aspect of their research was listening to stories from entrepreneurs who tried getting investments from friends and family, but found the process confusing, costly, and complicated. “We created a platform and tools to change this,” Jackley says.

Since Kiva was and still is such a big success, Jackley says she felt a healthy sort of pressure when she started the business. “I think any entrepreneur who has started something before sets certain goals for themselves,” she says. “But I at least knew enough to realize that any venture would bring a unique set of experiences, and that no matter what happened with venture number two, it’d be a different journey – not necessarily better or worse, just different.” But Jackley says she also learned a lot building Kiva that she was then able to apply to ProFounder. “I learned that an entrepreneur’s story is a very powerful thing,” she says. “There is a focus on dignity, strength, empowerment, and possibility. Hearing entrepreneurs’ stories helps remind us that we all have the power to change our own lives – and other’s lives – for the better.” She says one of the biggest challenges so far has been navigating the legal complexity inherent in allowing unaccredited, unsophisticated individuals to invest. But she says it’s also allowed them to design a legal compliance engine that helps entrepreneurs understand and navigate some important exemptions in the United States.

Jackley’s advice for entrepreneurs is simple, and has been echoed by many founders before her: just start. “While it’s important to learn, to listen, to ask good questions, and to do all you can to understand the context of the problems you want to solve in the world, at a certain point, you just need to start taking steps forward,” she says. “Start pursuing what resonates with you. Follow it as best you can, wherever it leads. It’s OK if you don’t know what the next ten steps are going to be, or how things will scale, or have all possible scenarios mapped out. It’s enough to take one step in the direction of your interest. Sometimes you can only find the second step after you’ve taken the first one.” She also says it’s importnat to find the right partner. “Find someone who complements you, challenges you, and can help you see blind spots,” she says. “Find someone who will always give you completely honest feedback – and make sure you can (and want to) take that feedback to heart so you can really grow. Find someone who is, at her core, an optimist. Being an entrepreneur always brings huge ups and downs, and it’s much easier to stay resilient and have perspective if you can be on that journey together with the right partner.”

 

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