In late 2004, at 2:00 am on a chilly San Francisco morning, Matt Flannery, founder of Kiva.org, phoned his wife in Africa. Only recently married, Jessica had announced the day before the wedding that she wanted to go and live in Africa and learn about microlending. Matt said he wanted to live in San Francisco and start a business – preferably an online business. So in keeping with their desires, Jessica headed straight to Africa and Matt found himself living the life of a bachelor in a San Francisco mission. When Matt called Jessica that chilly morning, it was a phone call that would change his life forever.
In March 2005, using Jessica’s contacts in Uganda, Matt posted seven businesses on Kiva.org that were looking for a total of US$3,500 in loans. They included a goat herder, a fishmonger, a cattle farmer and a restaurateur. Six months later every loan had been repaid. In October 2005, Kiva.org announced to the world the first peer-to-peer microlending website via a press release. Shortly after this press release, a website, The Daily Kos, discovered Kiva.org and broadcast the website to hundreds of thousands of its readers.
The attention was growing rapidly and Matt and his business partner, Premal Shah, knew they had to raise money to help drive the development of the idea. Premal was a Principal Product Manager at PayPal, an eBay company, during which time he drove a number of key initiatives including a yearlong project defining eBay’s role in economically empowering the global working poor. They bought plane tickets to new york where a friend of theirs had organised a Kiva awareness party in Greenwich Village. They met many different people, one of whom was Bill Clinton’s secretary. Impressed by the duo’s vision, she invited Premal to speak at the the Clinton Global Initiative. So impressed by the Kiva.org idea, President Clinton wrote about the site in his book, Giving, that debuted on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The rest is history.
In 2007, Kiva grew from US$2 million loaned to US$18 million in loans and in 2008 Kiva.org has grown from a small personal project to one of the world’s largest microfinance facilitators, connecting developing countries’ entrepreneurs with millions of dollars in loans from tens of thousands of lenders around the world.
What was your childhood dream?
I didn’t really have a childhood dream. The first time I had a dream of what I would like to do with my life was when I was in high school. I started wanting to be an entrepreneur. The word is pretty vague so it wasn’t that clear. I was trying to start a dotcom business like yahoo in Silicon Valley that would be a huge success story. I wanted to get computer knowledge and computer science experience that would help me.
Were your parents an influence on your career choice?
I am sure they were. I am a little bit rebellious and I guess if I were truly sticking to my family path I would have become a businessman – meaning I would have gone to business school. My father would most likely have encouraged me to take a safer route than the path of becoming an entrepreneur.
How would your friends describe you?
My friends always say I am trying to be different. I’m the kind of person who always has a new idea and is always talking about it. I try and have a new business idea every day; 365 ideas is my goal.
What attracted you to business?
When I was in high school there was always news on famous entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jerry yang – so that inspired me. One thing I did a lot when I was growing up was to go to Mexico and build houses with my church. I grew up definitely aware of world poverty. When Jessica and I got engaged, I had a job writing software and doing some design at TiVo. Many of my friends who had graduated from Stanford with me had struggled to find work in the depressed tech market, so I knew I was lucky to have a job. Still, I spent a good deal of my time dreaming up new business ideas.
What made you choose social entrepreneurism as your business path?
I am excited by using the principles of business to make social change. If it weren’t a business I would not be excited by Kiva. Once you can separate yourself from the need to act for money, there are so many more infinite possibilities. My wife, who was working at the Stanford Business School as a staff member in the Public Management Program, had access to a wealth of ideas and contacts in the social entrepreneurship arena. She would come home talking about things like ‘Social return on Investment’ and ‘The Double Bottom line’. for me, this was an interesting but academic discussion. One night, she invited me to come hear a guest speaker on the topic of microfinance, Dr Muhammad yunus. Dr yunus spoke to a classroom of thirty people and shared his story of starting the Grameen Bank. It was my first exposure to the topic and I thought it was a great story from an inspiring person.
Can you remember the exact moment you decided to create Kiva.org?
The day before I was married, my partner said to me she wanted to go and live in Africa and work in microfinance. I said I wanted to live in San Francisco and start a business! After we were married she started looking for ways to move to Africa and it was a very stressful period as I was worried about quitting my job and paying the bills. I wasn’t ready to move but then she found a way to move there as a volunteer for three months. I went with her for a month but then I had to return. I became a bachelor for two months and got a roommate to help pay the rent. It was your typical bachelor time of bar hopping every night, etc. When we would return home late at night I would get these phone cards from the liquor store and ring my wife in Africa. She would be in her village and it would be morning where she was. She would fill me in on all the stories of people starting businesses or wanting to start businesses. As I walked home late one night after one of these conversations, the idea of sponsoring businesses popped into my head. The next morning I woke up and wrote a business plan on how it could happen. At the time I was really restless and I had a number of businesses on the go. I think they were an online rental clothing business and a DVD business.
Do you believe in a God and, if so, which one?
I believe in a universal God. I think we are all talking to the same God. I don’t bring religion into my workplace, but it affects my life in many ways. It reminds me that what I’m doing everyday isn’t about me – it’s part of something bigger. It helps me focus on a higher goal that isn’t about me but more about the community of people I serve. “ I try to bring a servant’
Who inspires you?
My family, God, cool things and communities on the internet inspire me. I also love the open source community.
Where do you find peace in life?
I do a lot of prayer.
What is your dream now?
What I am focused on is stabilising Kiva. It is still very much a delicate social experiment. It is still very risky so I am trying to mitigate all risk.
What are your words of wisdom?
It’s not about me.