Jessica Flannery is, in many ways, an accidental entrepreneur. Had she not met a guy named Matt at a DC conference in 1999, the entire enterprise she's known for (Kiva.org) might not exist today. I was fortunate to be able to sit down with Jessica for an interview on Thursday here at Pop!Tech 2007, where she agreed to share many of the other fortunate "accidents" that have marked her journey.
The best part about interviewing someone like Jessica Flannery is that I don’t have to tell and re-tell the Kiva story. After all, NextBillion.net was one of the first web sites or blogs to even talk about Kiva, the peer-to-peer microfinance web site that Jessica co-founded with her husband, Matt (ok, that’s a smidge of story, I admit). What’s more, Sara Standish – a former NextBillion writer and current MBA candidate – conducted a long interview with Kiva principals including Matt, Premal Shah, and Krista Van Lewen. And Kiva has been featured in a slew of mainstream media – from Newsweek to BusinessWeek to Oprah to NPR.
Since the basic story of Kiva is well known, Jessica and I decided to focus our conversation on some of the lesser-known aspects of her journey and the business it has spawned.
A special thanks to Jessica Flannery and to the Pop!Tech press folks, who helped make this interview happen.
Rob Katz: Why did you take two years away from Kiva to attend business school?
Jessica Flannery, Kiva.org: To be honest with you, it’s the result of timing more than anything. When I applied to the Graduate School of Business at Stanford in 2005, I was working at the school and Matt was full-time with TiVo. Kiva was just a nights and weekends projects. We started it with 7 businesses that I met in Uganda and $3100 that we raised through friends – and we raised it by spamming our wedding list.
So in the fall of 2005, I entered business school. About two months later, we got slammed on the blogosphere – mostly through NextBillion, Worldchanging, and BoingBoing – and Kiva took off. I was in the middle of my first semester, but I strongly considered leaving school. After all, Kiva was a dream for me. After conversations with professors and administrators at Stanford, and long talks with Matt, we decided that I would stay in school and Matt would quit TiVo to concentrate full-time on Kiva.
RK: Why Matt, and not you?
JF: I admit that it didn’t necessarily make economic sense. Matt was earning a paycheck, while I was costing money in terms of tuition and living expenses while at school. But fundamentally, Matt is a true visionary – which makes him better suited to run a high ceiling social enterprise like Kiva. And on a practical level, Matt could program the alpha and beta versions of the web site, while I couldn’t.
Ultimately, my decision to stay in school was a good one. After all, there’s no better place to be while starting something than business school. Stanford’s community of students, professors, and outside experts provided a great test bed in which Matt and I could develop and grow Kiva. It also took over six months – from November 2005 to April 2006 for Kiva’s platform and deal flow to be sufficient to support us. By April 2006, I was nearly finished with my first year of business school. So from both the theoretical and practical side, my staying in business school was definitely the right choice for me, and the right choice for Kiva.
RK: You have a bachelor’s degree in English and a passion for international development. Why did you go to business school in the first place?
JF: Honestly, I happened into business school. To understand how I ended up at Stanford, you first have to understand how I ended up in California – and that goes back to 1999. In 1999, while a senior at Bucknell University, I attended an interfaith conference in Washington, DC, where I met a really nice guy named Matt. We stayed in touch throughout the year, and when I graduated from Bucknell, I moved to California to be closer to him.
When I got to California, I moved into an 11-person group house on Sand Hill Road. My rent was $200 per month (we eventually got evicted). But I moved to California to be 3 miles from Matt, instead of 3,000 miles. I had no job – so I took copies of my resume over to the Stanford campus and walked around.
My first job in California was temping at the Center for Social Innovation. It was a directed accident, if you will. I knew I was interested in international development, so when I read a little about the Center for Social Innovation and what it does, I decided to walk in. The accident part of it was that they needed a temp. My temp job became a contract job, which became a permanent job.
RK: How did your work at the Center for Social Innovation develop from temp job to Kiva to business school and beyond?
JF: Well, the first thing I did with the Center was help coordinate the Global Philanthropy Forum. I was a 23-year old, moderating sessions with Fortune 100 CEOs – and it worked. It was an eye-opening experience for me. I kept working at the CSI for three years, watching students go through business school. At first, I wasn’t jealous – I cared about changing the world, not driving core competence in search of profits.
But after a while, core competence – and incentives, profit maximization, and all those other b-school concepts – started to make sense to my own personal mission. These business school students, contrary to their stereotypes, actually cared about changing the world. Not only that, but they were getting my dream jobs – managing and running non-profits – when they graduated. So that’s how I became interested in business school.
RK: What about Kiva?
JF: Kiva was, in some ways, born out of necessity. Matt and I had a relationship problem: he wanted to do high-tech startups, and I wanted to do microfinance in Africa. We knew that we had this problem when we were dating, but we were in love, so we got married anyway and decided to figure it out as we went along.
Think about it – Kiva marries the high-tech startup world with microfinance. It’s the perfect solution to Matt and my relationship problem, and I can honestly say that it was born out of love. I would never have been able to get my head around Kiva had I not worked at the Center for Social Innovation, where these kinds of social innovations were part of the standard, day-to-day office talk.
RK: What do you want NextBillion.net to know that we don’t already?
JF: Pursue your passion. Peel away the boundaries between you and the people you want to work with. If you do that peeling, you can build connections that change you and change the world. In the course of pursuing passion and peeling away boundaries, you become vulnerable. Don’t fight it. Strive for vulnerability – beautiful things can happen out of it. In that same light, here’s my one-liner: never, ever think you are better than anyone else. If you can live like that, and work in the BOP context, then you can really change things.
The part I find most inspiring about this interview is the realization pursuing a professional passion does not automatically have to mean the end of a personal one!
Truly a case of Jessica doing unto others as she would have them do unto her -- that goes both for the borrowers and the lenders. She is enjoying the good path so much that she will love whatever goals are "accidentally" achieved. What a way to live and love.
This is just a huge "thank you" to Jessica for starting Kiva. I'm an active lender, and enjoy having a loan paid off so I can find another business to give a hand up to. Kiva and the Heifer Project also tend to make up a LARGE part of my Christmas/birthday gift list!