This week’s long-awaited CMC Celeb is yet another distinctive duo. Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci are both sophomores dual majoring in International Relations and Economics with a focus in Development.
Chris, from Norwalk, CT, is the President of the club tennis team, takes rock climbing and soccer for PE, is a member of the Microfinance Task Force, and is a TA for Engineering 79: Energy and the Environment. Zach represents Bainbridge Island, WA on the lacrosse field as a member of the Claremont Cougars men’s lacrosse team. He is also the Treasurer of the Claremont International Relations Society, a member of the Microfinance Task Force, a Research Assistant to Government Professor Taw and an Office Assistant for Frazee Faculty Center.
Not only are Zach and Chris extremely active members of the CMC community, but they are also pioneers of student involvement in microfinance. Their passion for microfinance and philanthropy inspired them to create MFI Connect, a website that serves as a connection and forum between microfinance institutions (MFIs) and students. Zach and Chris are on the forefront of student involvement in microfinance, and their goal is to make it easier for everyone to get involved. As well as their work with MFI Connect, they have worked in South American countries to gain first hand experience in the benefits of microfinance.
I had the pleasure to sit down with them on a sunny afternoon to talk about their recent work. To say I was impressed by what they had to share would be an understatement. I will let their interview speak for itself.
1. What are the top 5 most played songs on your iTunes?
1. Walking On Broken Glass, Annie Lennox
2. Semi-Charmed Life, Third Eye Blind
3. Bullet and a Target, Citizen Cope
4. Stairway to Heaven, Led Zeppelin
5. Satellite, B.o.B
1. I Got Mine, The Black Keys
2. Southside Revival, The Blue Scholars
3. Mykonos, Fleet Foxes
4. Clandestino, Manu Chao
5. Burden in My Hand, Soundgarden
C: Every time I look at a digital clock I automatically manipulate the numbers in my head to equal a factor of 10.
Z: I cannot remember the lyrics to a single song (not including “The Bear Necessities“).
3. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
C: One time, I fought off five enraged pigs with a large wooden mallet while pooping on a mountain in Peru.
Z: Refereeing an international lacrosse game between Austria and Slovakia without ever refereeing before.
4. What is something that you learned from your family?
C: You can’t live your life afraid of the avalanches. But you can bring a shovel.
Z: How to corral sheep.
5. If you could be a character from any book, movie, or TV show, who would you be?
C: Jason Stackhouse from the TV show True Blood.
Z: Sam Witwicky from Transformers.
6. What is your favorite unknown tidbit about CMC?
C: The crane is climbable.
Z: We are probably the only school in the world where the 4 by 3 can take place on campus.
First, let’s talk about MFI Connect. What exactly is it?
C: So basically what we have done is created a website called MFI Connect.com with the goal of connecting students to opportunities within microfinance. We connect them with opportunities for any type of involvement ranging from online microfinance classes to discussion forums to blogs to innovative fundraising campaigns and lastly to field trips.
Z: Actually, this April we are taking a trip to the 2010 Regional Microfinance Conference in Nairobi, Kenya. We just finished a scholarship where we’re funding two other students to go as well.
C: In total, for that field trip, we have over 40 students from around the country who are attending with us.
Z: We are organizing all of the students at the conference because last summer at the 2009 Regional Microfinance Conference in Colombia, we were the only students. This year we are organizing to bring more students to Kenya. We’re planning field visits to local MFIs and a meeting with Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and creator of microfinance.
How did you guys get involved in microfinance?
Z: Well, we kind of have different stories but we met here at CMC. Chris, do you want to tell yours first?
C: Well, I took a gap year before coming to CMC and interned with Grameen Bank for the year and went to a couple different countries and worked in the U.S., Mexico, and Columbia. When I got back people kept asking me about my trips, and when I told them, they always asked, “Well, how do I get involved? What can I do?” So that was kind of where the basis of the idea was born – to provide other people with opportunities to get involved and to help out. It just kind of grew from that and it just made sense to try to create some sort of forum to make this happen. We have a team of seven people working on MFI Connect from around the country and actually one in Scotland, too. We have our weekly conference calls and 25 e-mails a day to organize everything.
Z: Yeah, we have around 900 members and definitely over 50 campuses from around the country involved. My story is not as cool as Chris’: I worked for a nonprofit in high school, working for education for indigenous children in Mexico and they had a community-building program that focused on microfinance. I thought that was a lot more interesting than school so I kind of got into that and ended up partnering with Chris on MFI Connect last year.
For those that are not familiar with microfinance, can you talk a little bit more about what you’re doing with it and how it is impacting the countries you are working in?
Z: Microfinance itself is providing loans to people that live in poverty; specifically, it targets women and families/households where these people cannot get loans from banks because they have no collateral. So, microfinance addresses their lack of capital to start businesses, etc. There are a lot of aspects to microfinance now: there’s venture capitalist firms, there’s MFIs (which actually lend to poor people), and there’s Kiva, which is an online lending program.
C: On a broader scale, microfinance is an alternative to charity. I don’t know if you’ve heard the old saying “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Microfinance is the idea of empowering people to bring themselves out of poverty instead of just giving them the food and money they need. The people are still able to keep their own dignity and they are able to learn and climb up the poverty ladder. Microfinance is a pretty sweet thing that has been used worldwide now. It is something like 300 million people have been affected by microfinance throughout the world. It’s huge. And it kind of goes against the principle of conventional banking that you wouldn’t give a loan to someone who has no collateral, no credit. But, worldwide it still has a 98% repayment rate because the people receiving the loans actually recognize that this is their chance, their one option to feed their kids, send their children to school, and survive. Because of that, the repayment rates are extraordinarily high, which is pretty unbelievable.
What are the criticisms of microfinance?
Z: One of the things that people claim is a problem with microfinance is that you actually are charging interest on these loans that you are giving to poor people. People see it as “Oh, we shouldn’t be making profit off of development, why don’t we just give them the money instead?” But that kind of defeats the whole purpose. It goes against all the principles of microfinance and the empowerment it gives to those in need.
C: That is one of the concerns, that it should just be interest free loans. But then the problem is these companies can’t sustain themselves to continually give loans out and to reach more and more people. One of the best aspects of microfinance is that it is sustainable. Because of the interest that it charges, roughly 15%, it is able to keep itself sustained. We are also not advocating for microfinance as a cure-all poverty alleviation. There are a lot of other things that need to happen as well. There should be focus on microfinance as well as other programs.
What are your future plans for MFI Connect?
Z: We are actually working on a documentary for this summer. We are going to go to a rural village in Guatemala to do research on the financial instruments that people living under a dollar a day use. We will be looking at instruments such as microfinance, small loans, and even lending/borrowing from family members or savings and credit clubs. We’re just going to be looking at the different tools that they use to budget their money while living under a dollar a day. We are going to be living under a dollar a day as well. We’ll have a plot of land and be farming on it and shooting our documentary. So that could be quite interesting.
C: It’s in partnership with Whole Planet Foundation, which is the philanthropic wing of Whole Foods. They run a microfinance village in Guatemala so that is where we will be doing our research. We are going to take a microfinance loan at the start of the summer to purchase a quarter-acre plot of land and a small shack. We’ll be growing our own crop and attempting to pay back our microfinance loan and essentially live as if we’re in poverty, while conducting interviews. We’ll be constructing financial diaries of how people, including ourselves, are able to budget such a small amount of money. If we get $10 one week, we need to budget that $10 over however long. When living like that, it is quite difficult to prepare for emergencies and feed yourselves.
Z: Through this we are also trying to raise money by having people match us with how much money we would spend if we were just living here at home for the summer in comparison to how much we are actually spending there. Our goal is to raise $100,000 for Fonkoze, which is the largest microfinance institution in Haiti, because they need a lot of help right now.
C: There’s a lot of literature out right now about how they do not need any more aid, that they’re at their capacity for aid organizations, but microfinance still has infinite capacity to help. So this summer we’ll be trying to raise a whole bunch of money and hopefully don’t die!
How does it make you feel to know that you are helping these countries in need?
C: Right now our involvement is a little indirect because we haven’t made the documentary yet. Our website was created because we found a need in the industry that we wanted to fill. We are not working directly with the borrowers on the ground but what we do still needs to be done. We are always asking “What is our part?” and although we can’t be on the ground working with borrowers in these countries, we have found a different way to add value to the cause. Our website has become our niche in how we can help this industry.
Z: We really feel that students have been underutilized in the microfinance industry. We have all of this time and creativity to be used and we just need to harness it and focus it. We are just trying to figure out a way to make that relationship easier between microfinance and students.
Zach and Chris are as “CMC” as they come: utilizing their interest in finance to be the leaders of their field. Walking away from our interview, not only was my jaw on the ground, but I was incredibly inspired. These guys, in only their second year of college, have taken the initiative to contribute what they can to a global cause. While most of their classmates are using the same education to run investment banks on Wall Street, Chris and Zach are getting down and dirty to make their impact on a grander scale. If you’re feeling as galvanized from their story as I am, there are several ways to join their cause: First, please become a member of the MFI Connect community! Also, they are looking for people to help them with fundraising for their trip this summer to Guatemala. And if microfinance isn’t your thing, but you’d like to get involved, they are looking for someone to help out with the web design of MFIConnect.com. If you have any interest in making your contribution to alleviating poverty on the global level, contact Zach ([email protected]) or Chris ([email protected]).