Microfinance in America: An Update

October 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Epicurean_Grameen America: Small Loans, Big Impact

Image Source: Grameen America

by Katherine Danesi

Four years ago, I wrote a post, “Microfinance in the United States – A Brilliant Idea Whose Time Has Finally Come?“, based on my fervent belief that if microlending initiatives could work in third-world countries, there was no reason they could not be adapted to work here.

In the intervening years, the microloan programs mentioned in the post have expanded and multiplied, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been lent giving tens of thousands of borrowers the opportunity to earn a living.  And there have been detractors who argue that the results cannot be accurately measured and are not what they seem.  Maybe, but maybe not.

Today, The New York Times published a piece by reporter Shaila Dewan titled  “Microcredit for Americans.”  She shared her article via Twitter (@sheiladewan) with the tweet: “How the U.S. is embracing a third-world approach to poverty.”

While there are a number of reputable and successful microlenders in the United States, her article focuses on Grameen America, launched in 2008 by Bangladesh-based Grameen Bank, whose founder, Muhammed Yunus, conceived of microloans as a way to help lift his country’s citizens out of poverty.  Mr. Yunus’s belief being that a need existed, and still does exist, in America.  In the Times, Ms. Dewan writes:

“Families in rural Africa are more like U.S. families than everyone wants to believe,” said Jonathan J. Morduch, the executive director of the Financial Access Initiative at New York University, who has studied microcredit and is taking a close look at the financial lives of low- and moderate-income Americans. “The hidden inequality in America is about fundamental security, the ability to plan.”

In the United States, microcredit has generally been defined as loans of less than $50,000 to people — mostly entrepreneurs — who cannot, for various reasons, borrow from a bank. Most nonprofit microlenders include services like financial literacy training and business plan consultations, which contribute to the expense of providing such loans but also, those groups say, to the success of their borrowers.

What, then, does microcredit for Americans enable?

  • Access to capital at rates far below those of payday loan operations (the go-to lender for the “unbanked” and those with low or no credit scores).
  • The ability to increase income, usually in an entrepreneurial endeavor.
  • Skills to “exercise responsible financial behavior”.
  • Education regarding best practices for running a business.
  • Encouragement to save and to seek preventative health care.
  • The opportunity to build a healthy credit score to reduce their costs and move into mainstream banking.

This last point is critical and one that is often lost on those who’ve not experienced being outside of the banking system:

Grameen helps its clients in another way that many experts say is more important than increasing income — it establishes good credit scores. Many poverty alleviation groups have shifted their focus from saving to credit building, because people with poor or no credit must leave large deposits for basic needs like utilities, have trouble renting decent housing, pay much higher interest rates and have a harder time finding jobs.

As noted on the Grameen America website: Small Loans, Big Impact. Microfinance in America, it’s day has come.

Everyone Is An Artist: Everyone Can Bring Creativity To Their Work

August 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

Artist at work in Williamsburg.

If you’ve not yet happened upon the Happy Monday Podcast, hosted by two incredibly creative and prolific folks,  Josh Long and Sarah Parmenter, you should definitely check it out.  Each week, they interview other equally incredibly creative and prolific people, to inform, inspire and motivate.  Think: Seth Godin, Tina Roth Eisenberg, Josh Brewer and Frank Chimera, to name a few.  Some weeks, it’s just Josh and Sarah; these are fascinating, too.

This past Monday (August 26th, Episode 037), their guest was not a fellow creative, but rather a certified coach (and brain science and Myers-Briggs guru), by the name of Ann Holm.  During the podcast, the trio discussed everything from the traits inherent in the personality assessments of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and what indicated “dominance” means in terms of how we approach our work, to Seth Godin’s “Lizard Brain” and its close relative “the sabateur”.  The entire podcast (just over 30 minutes) is worth a listen.

With that said, there was one key takeaway, and a critical supporting concept, near-and-dear to my heart: Everyone is (or rather can be) an artist.  It’s all in how we approach our work.

It is not just the people who come up with the idea/design the product/write the song, that are “creative.”  For businesses to thrive, every player needs to bring that same level of thought, focus and imagination to what they do.

As Josh pointed out, “organizing and managing people, you wouldn’t think that’s creative.  But if you watch them [the managers] work, and how they do it, you’re like wow, that’s magic.”  It’s important to be “looking at everyone as an artist… everyone can be an artist.”  Guest Ann Holm agreed, that “it’s not just painting… There are lots of different way that people can be creative.”

Invoking the thinking of the aforementioned Seth Godin, Josh said of creativity in relation to our work: “It’s what you do really well, and what you do in your element, and how professional you are in seeing it through.”

Implementation, execution, finding creative solutions to problems – all of these activities present opportunities for any person to bring imagination and insight to what they do, for them to invoke the artist.  Each deserves respect as such.

But it’s not a given that it will happen.  Some people naturally work in this way. Others need to be encouraged, need to have it drawn out of them.

Of her own recent experience working with various tradespeople on a new project, outside of her area of expertise, Sarah relayed her conversations with contractors and the like: “You do what you think’s best.  You deal with this every day.  I don’t.  What she discovered: “It’s amazing, giving people that power, and not being particularly dictatorial about what you’re trying to get them to do, you end up with a better product … because you put the power in their hands.”  Yes.

“Instead of I want, I want, I want,” you learn that you “get more out of employees when you let them to do what they do well.”  Amen.

Then Ann asked the big question: “Why is it that we don’t do this more?”  Her answer linked the present-day American work ethic to the dawn of the industrial age.  Workers were taught to be “rule followers” in order to meet the standards expected of the assembly line.  Her argument was that these patterns of behavior still exist in the workplace; and they need to be broken.

It’s worth noting, that when Henry Ford invented the assembly line it was revolutionary, and the new approach to work helped lift tens-of-thousands of workers out of poverty and into the middle class.  An equally dramatic shift in how we work is occurring today.

But changing patterns is not an easy thing.  It requires us to think about work differently and afford respect to less glamorous positions, especially those not deemed “creative.”  It requires us to bring passion and commitment to our own work, so that we lead by example.  And, critically, it requires time and effort to help others do the same.  Because it is much easier to specify exactly how we want something done, or to provide the answer to the question or the solution to the problem, than it is to trust that that the person will over-deliver, or come up with a fantastic solution (one we never would have thought up) on their own.  It requires trust and belief.  It requires raised expectations of what is possible.

This may very well take having the same “aha moment” that Sarah had while working on her latest initiative.  It may take teaching those in positions of authority that this approach is what is needed to survive in today’s rapidly changing, global marketplace.  This what leadership is all about – inspiring and empowering people.

We need to be artists in our work.  And, if we’re in a position to do so, help others be artists as well.

An aside:  If you’ve never completed a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment, the Happy Monday Podcast provided a link with their posting and I have included it here as well.  And you can find out more information about Myers-Briggs on Wikipedia.

Cooking Up Change: In the Kitchen With Daisy Martinez

August 14, 2013 § Leave a comment

Chef Daisy Martinez

Photo Credit: JD Urban

Change is not easy.  Most of us will not set out to dramatically reinvent ourselves (or our products) by choice.  This goes for individuals and businesses.

Think about the people you know, including you, who would love to make a change.  What does it take to get to the gym, eat healthier, quit smoking, quit the detested job, go out on your own with the passion project, write the book?  The list goes on.

And, with the exception of Apple under the direction of Steve Jobs, who regularly conceived of and launched products with the potential to take a bite out of the sales of their predecessors (think: iPhone and iPod), and PayPal, led by current President David Marcus who is in the midst of radically remaking the online payment leader back into a tech startup from the slow-moving, risk-averse global financial institution it has become, very few organizations have the stomach for it either.  It’s too easy to stick with what’s working and worry about tomorrow, well, tomorrow.

Author Steven Pressfield recently published a piece written by his agent Shawn Coyne, “Stories Are About Change,” in which Mr. Coyne explores the extreme difficulty people experience when trying to change, oftentimes with tragic results. He suggests that the reason for the resistance is the risk of loss and associated anxiety experienced when one contemplates a change, even of something as seemingly simple as our chosen brand of toothpaste.

According to Mr. Coyne, what does seem to help is hearing the stories of others who have taken a risk and successfully made a change.  (There’s a reason The Biggest Loser is now casting Season 15).

Stories give us scripts to follow. It’s no different than young boys hearing the story of how an orphan in Baltimore dedicated himself to the love of a game and ended up the greatest baseball player of all time. If George Herman Ruth could find his life’s work and succeed from such humble origins, then maybe they could became big league ball players too.

We need stories to temper our anxieties, either as supporting messages to stay as we are or inspiring road maps to get us to take a chance. Experiencing stories that tell the tale of protagonists for whom we can empathize gives us the courage to examine our own lives and change them.

Which leads me to Chef Daisy Martinez.  She has a great story.

If you’re a fan of cooking shows, whether they be on PBS or the Food Network, you may have heard of Daisy – she has series still running on both.

Chef Daisy Martinez has had many incarnations.  She started her career as a model and actress; left those careers behind to devote her time to her family; then went on to attend ” the French Culinary Institute; was a prep- kitchen chef for her long time mentor, chef and restaurateur Lidia Bastianich; worked as a private chef in New York City; owned a small, boutique catering business called The Passionate Palate; starred in PBS’s Daisy Cooks! and FoodTV’s Viva Daisy! and wrote three global-best-selling cookbooks.”  Nice life.

But, as Daisy says in “Episode 1: Chicken Wing Therapy,” of her new web series, Daisy, the kitchen of life tossed her some changes her way: her four children grew up and moved out of the house; she began the painful process of working through of a divorce from her husband of many years; and, with food preparation being given the reality television treatment with the advent of Food Network stars, she found herself without demand for new episodes of her series. Scary stuff, with risk baked in.

What’s a cook to do?  Take to her bed.  Or whip up a new act.  This one by her own design (okay, recipe).  One that capitalizes on the rise of Latino population and the proliferation of Latin cuisine as something more than “rice and beans.” One that uses her newly acquired sommelier certification to create pairings, as readily as one would with French or Italian dishes.  One that uses her emotional connection to food and its preparation to get through the change and come out the other end, happy and in control of her gifts and work.

Perhaps in doing so, Chef Daisy Martinez will provide one of those stories that empowers and inspires the rest of us to change, maybe even without “the other shoe having to drop.”  With Daisy, she’s giving us a front row seat.

Here is “Episode 2: Potatoes & Tigers & Crepes, Oh My!”, filmed earlier this month at her summer cooking school at Whitehead Light Station in Maine .  I want to be in the kitchen with Daisy!  This is Daisy 4.0.

Watch, cook, eat, enjoy.

Brand Extension: In The Name Of Growth

August 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Adweek_Best and Worst Brand Extensions Graphic

Image Source: Adweek.com

Last Wednesday, I wrote about the week’s buzziest ad, HelloFlo’s “The Camp Gyno.”  HelloFlo, the monthly that-time-of-the-month subscription service, conceived of and released the video to promote the launch of a new product, the Period Starter Kit.  With this new product, created for the parents of young girls in anticipation of their first period, HelloFlo extends their promise to “Simplify your period,” to also provide “Everything she needs for her first period,” for your daughter’s big day (well, one of them, anyways).

Once I moved beyond the bloody brilliant ad, to consider the new product itself, well, I realized that it too is bloody brilliant.  Really, how could someone have not thought of it sooner?  But it took HelloFlo (the name is a riff on “Aunt Flo”) to create what was for them a natural brand extension.  The company’s original offering, launched in March of this year, is not rocket science, but makes more sense than most in a world of monthly subscription services.  With the period starter kit, they’ve potentially expanded their market and have created a real opportunity for growth.  The new product launched in September.

HelloFlo provides a perfect example of leveraging your current product, positioning and awareness to create an additional revenue stream.  Seems simple enough.  Other instructive examples:

  • Cottonelle’s Flushable Cleansing Cloths, also accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek ad, “Test Your Cleaning Logic: The Salon,” in which hair salon clients are treated to a “waterless shampoo.”  How much sense does that make? Right, not much, which is exactly the point.  To quote directly from the ad, “one, two for number two.”  Dry plus wet.  Why sell one product when you can make a convincing argument that two is better?
  • Dollar Shave Club Shave Butter – check.  Dollar Shave Club One Wipe Charlies, buttwipes for men – I’m not so sure, in spite of the video, “Let’s Talk About #2,” a clever play on words for their second potentially viral video (#2) and “number two.”
  • Fab.com launch of a Design-Your-Own Furniture custom furniture offering in Europe, shifting it’s competitive focus away from flash sale sites, towards Ikea and Amazon.  The jury is out.
  • The McDonald’s McRib – a raging hit.  The McDonald’s McLobster, McLean Deluxe and McHotDog – all flops.

You get the idea.  The world is littered with both good and bad extensions. To wit, in February, AdWeek published a list of The Best (and Worst) Brand Extensions.

If you’re a startup or an established small (even medium-sized) business, the same rules apply.  In fact, they’re probably more urgent given the lack of ability to financially absorb a big miss.

Is the product or service strongly related to what you are selling/doing now, so that existing clients and prospects readily associate you with both the old and new?  Can you use the branding you’ve created and awareness you’ve already established?  Is there overlap with your current customer set?

Brand extensions are necessary in the name of growth.  Just make like HelloFlo and pick the right one.

Predictive Search: There’s a downside with the upside

July 30, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Next Web - Google Now

Image Source: The Next Web

Back in March, Fast Company’s Co.Create staff writer Joe Berkowitz published a short, humorous piece about the suggestions displayed by Google Search’s auto-finish based on other people’s searches.  He titled the article “The Accidental Poetry of Google’s Predictive Search,” and opened it with, “Half the fun of finding what you’re looking for online is finding what you’re not looking for.”

When Google updated search to include “sentence-finishing capacity,” a user was given the gift of an unanticipated selection of potential searches to complete. Some of these are funny, in that they are in no way what you were looking for when you set out on your search, and there is no way on earth you would ever have thought to.  For example:

Image Source: Co.Create

Image Source: Co.Create

As Joe Berkowitz points out, “A new thread called Google Poems opened up on Reddit recently, showing off the accidental poetry of four different variations on a theme.”  It still has legs.

But what if, instead of opening up your world to unforeseen possibilities, all of this auto-suggesting is actually limiting it?

There is a piece in today’s New York Times, “Apps That Know What You Want, Before You Do,” that details the next phase of “predictive search — new tools that act as robotic personal assistants, anticipating what you need before you ask for it.”

These applications, from the likes of Google (Google Now), Evernote, reQall and Mindmeld, to name a few, pull data from your smartphone, calendar, email, social network activity, search history and sites visited, and merge it with “public” data, such as the weather forecast and movie showtimes, to make suggestions as to what you should do, where you should go, and when.

Glance at your phone in the morning, for instance, and see an alert that you need to leave early for your next meeting because of traffic, even though you never told your phone you had a meeting, or where it was.

The intent is essentially a good one: take the massive amount of information on the Web and present it to you in a manageable way that helps you make decisions and better manage your life, day-to-day.  Journalist Claire Cain Miller digs into the current shortcomings of the technology, for example, suggesting movie times for a movie whose trailer you viewed but did not like.  But these glitches are of minor concern; challenges in functionality will be overcome in time.  What I find disconcerting (or “creepy”) is this:

The technology is the latest development of Web search, and one of the first that is tailored to mobile devices.  It does not even require people to enter a search query.  Your context — location, time of day and digital activity — is the query, say the engineers that build these services.

The companies providing these new tools make some sweeping assumptions: that you want to be defined as “your context;” that you want to be presented only results that are determined to be of interest to you by some bit of code that bases your potential options on your previous online activity and the activity of those you have never met; that you want all of that activity tracked to make your life easier.

What if “your context” has changed?  What if you’re not the same person that you were yesterday and want new opptortunties?  At what point does “helpful” cross the line?  And, when it does, will you have the opportunity to opt out?

Something to think about next time you Google “why is…

The Power of Pocket

July 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

Pocket iOS App Icon Cookie

Image Source: Garrett Gee, iOS App Icon Cookies

I recently penned a post regarding my habit of not recognizing the unproductive things that I do on a continual basis.  In the piece, I mentioned an online tool that helps one to organize her, or his, reading life: Pocket (formerly Read It Later).  At the time I wrote the piece, I had downloaded Pocket onto my laptop (unbeknownst to me, a new feature) and had begun to Pocket articles to read later.  I thought this was the best thing, well, ever.

Not long after, I was at a meeting during which I learned that I was not the only one who had been keeping 39 tabs open, in perpetuity, so that I could keep track of what I wanted to read.  (There was some relief in that conversation, as there is most definitely a generational divide, of which I am on the far side).  I (extremely enthusiastically) mentioned my discovery and followed up with an email and link to the site site.

But my excitement about this new tool, and my rush to start using it, exposed another of my time sinks – not liking to read instructions, at all.  This latest shortcoming was revealed to me in two phases.  The first came as a nudge.  After having used Pocket for a few days, I was checking my Twitter feed when I noticed that the menu of actions I could take had grown by one, namely Pocket.  No clue. Of course, I had to test it.  I clicked on a link to open the page, “Pocketed” it.  All good.  And then I did the same, by simply clicking Pocket on my Twitter menu. Yes, it worked.

The second phase came serendipitously via Pocket itself.  I was reading an article that I had discovered via Twitter and saved to read later, “Apps for College Grads.”  Pocket was one of the tools listed.  Along with the description came this quote from one of the grads surveyed:

“I can’t live without Pocket,” said Marc Phillips, a marketing graduate from Ithaca College. “It allows me to save interesting links and stories to the cloud so I can access them on-demand from any of my iDevices and laptop.”

Really?  You see, I did not read the iTunes product detail or the site detail or the FAQs, and, thus, did not realize this.  I spent the next 15 to 20 minutes downloading the app, signing in to Pocket on my phone and iPad, and connecting them to my Twitter account.  Voila.

Now, my life really has changed.  Now, I don’t go mad standing in the interminable checkout line at the drug store. Instead, I pull out my phone and read one of my “Pocketed” articles.  Now, I know that I need to spend 15 minutes reading the prompts and product details to properly set up an application in order to get the most out of it from the get-go.

This is the power of Pocket.

Doing Unproductive Things (Over and Over)

July 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

Black-and-white clock

Image Source: Pinterest

I still have a Hotmail account.  Although it’s now technically a Microsoft Outlook account.  But I still consider it my Hotmail account, and I still type Hotmail.com to access it.  I’d like to do away with it, but it’s like a legacy system – it’s my back-up and I am afraid to let go.  I am afraid that by disconnecting it, I’ll lose some thread connecting me to something about which I need to know.  Not to mention that, no matter how many times I email my mother using my Gmail address, to which she will readily respond, when she initiates an email exchange between the two of us, she uses my Hotmail address.  So, how can I cut off my mother?

Given it’s secondary status in the hierarchy of my modes of communication, I don’t check the account all that often.  And, until recently, I checked it exclusively in my secondary browser.  For some reason, I kept two browsers going – Broswer A and Broswer B, one work and one personal – and relegated various sites and tasks to each.  The trouble is, that at some unknown point, I abandoned the original premise and used both for, well, both. Then, worse, abandoned the back-up browser entirely, with the exception of checking my Hotmail account.  This went on for weeks (okay, maybe months), until one day it suddenly came to me that there really was no reason to open Browser B, I could just type Hotmail.com into Browser A, and, voila, my mother’s emails would appear.

Yes, I know this is not “rocket science.”  But it got me wondering how many other little habits I’ve formed that had absolutely no purpose whatsoever or, worse, were total time sinks … like opening another browser when there was absolutely no reason to do so.  Here is what I came up with:

  • Not bookmarking a website, thinking, “of course I’ll remember,” and then spending 20 minutes trying to pry the name of the restaurant out of my memory and search history and NYMag.com.
  • Not keeping a notebook with me at all times, including the oft-recommended one beside the bed, knowing with certainty, I’ve got this; this is so great, there is no way I won’t remember it in the morning.  Then an hour or two after waking, remembering that I had a brilliant idea, but having no idea what the idea was – for the theme of an pretty damn important proposal.
  • Not signing up for fabulous (free) online tools to help me manage, sort and actually read the copious amounts of content I seem to need to feed my brain, and wasting more time trying to find it (again).  Feedly, anyone?  How about Pocket?
  • Not hitting “Control S” nearly often enough, and losing my work when the program gets irretrievably hung up, especially Word, or not frequently clicking “Save Draft” when I am preparing one of these posts, with the same result, when my Wi-Fi goes on the blink.  Re-do.

No doubt there are more – but you get the gist – and I am determined to find them.  In the name of productivity, not to mention my sanity, I am on a quest to question every habitual thing that I currently do without thinking.

Care to join me?

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