I’m 54, and I’m the head of Lendwithcare, CARE’s microfinance platform that enables people from the UK to make a small loan (from £15) to an entrepreneur in some of the most challenging places in the world to run a business.
I have led a very average life on paper – I’m married with teenage son, and live in Godalming – same place I grew up. But through Lendwithcare I have enabled thousands of other women’s dreams to take off – and that has been an incredible adventure.
I left school at 16, worked in data entry for the locally-based WWF on the government ‘Youth Opportunity Scheme’. I was paid £25/week, and as I was so keen to learn they kept me on. I moved into fundraising and direct marketing and worked my way up. By the time I left at 32, I was the Head of Consumer Fundraising. I moved to CARE in 1997 as head of Direct Marketing, because I wanted to work for a humanitarian charity. My role was to expand CARE’s fundraising from individuals. We were looking for a way of connecting supporters more closely with our work. That’s when things got really interesting – we looked at how we could harness CARE’s 35 years’ experience in microfinance. CARE is the pioneer of Village Savings and Loans Associations which is now a model used by many other organisations around the world , and the idea for Lendwithcare was born in 2008. It took 2 years of research and relationship-building before we finally launched in April 2010, one of the proudest days of my life.
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
No – all I knew was that I wanted to work rather than study. I learn better doing things in practice rather than studying, so I was keen for real-life experience. My lack of university education did affect my confidence – I assumed I would never get beyond a certain level at work. But my second boss was an incredibly inspirational manager, a woman, and I can honestly say if I hadn’t met her, I doubt I would be the person I am now. She saw something in me that I didn’t, she believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. She held breakfast training sessions with me at her house one morning a week where she’d mentor me and provide training in Fundraising and Direct Marketing. She gave me confidence. She instilled in me the belief that tenacity can be a greater asset than a degree– and I see that lesson lived out every day in the women we invest in through Lendwithcare. She showed me what being a good manager is – I learned from her example. After four years she moved to Canada. I was devastated when she left, but she left me with confidence, an invaluable gift.
It is definitely the four female bosses I’ve had over the years that have inspired me the most, all been really good managers and led by example – that’s one of the things I’ve taken away from them. You have to model the behaviour you want to see in your team.
Have you faced any challenges along the way?
With Lendwithcare, we were presenting something very different that CARE and no other UK charity had tried to do at scale, which was a peer-to-peer lending model to small scale entrepreneurs in developing countries. So addressing all the concerns of the organisation, particularly around foreign exchange risk was a big challenge, particularly to an appropriately risk-averse Board. We had to find a way of dealing with foreign currencies without a risk of loss to CARE. The other major challenge was how we could lend responsibly, ensuring the individuals and their business ideas were appraised properly from the other side of the world. This has been met by working through local partner organisations whose mission fits CARE’s aim of enabling people to find their own routes out of poverty. The other major problem, which is ongoing, was how to spread the word about Lendwithcare with a small marketing budget. For launch we approached Dragon’s Den’s Deborah Meaden for help – she agreed to visit Cambodia to meet some of our entrepreneurs for herself, and she was blown away by their innovation, tenacity and community spirit. She then used her profile to help us launch Lendwithcare and has supported us ever since. It was so gratifying to see how our work stood up to her expert scrutiny. She is wonderful, we owe her a debt of gratitude. We are now working with companies who are willing to get involved by promoting Lendwithcare to their staff and customers.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
My biggest achievement is that we have lent nearly £30million to some of the world’s poorest entrepreneurs since Lendwithcare started – we will reach that milestone by Christmas. We have helped 136,000 entrepreneurs to start or expand their small business – over 80% of them are women. We have 62,000 lenders, 95% of them in UK, and 62% of them are women. This all came to life for me one day during a visit to our operations in Pakistan, I remember a woman walking into the loan office to make a repayment, her business was going very well. My colleague introduced us and said, “Do you recognise this woman?” To my surprise, she was the woman whose photo was featured on our website and business cards! We talked – she was happy and her business was doing well. That moment, meeting that woman whose image represented all we were striving for, and seeing how she was achieving just what we’d set out to help her achieve, felt quite magical – this isn’t just on paper, these are real people who are changing their own lives for the better through our creation.
I’m also proud of the quality partnerships we have made with socially motivated microfinance institutions around the world – the teams who run our operations on the ground. During that first trip to Pakistan I saw first-hand the consideration with which our partner there, Akhuwat, facilitates lending to families. It’s often the woman of the family who has a skill and is supplementing family income through one of the lending businesses. Most of our entrepreneurs in Pakistan are women who work from home, whose family has very low income. Their skills tend to be embroidery/sewing, which enables them to contribute to the household income, improve their standard of living and improves their status in the home and community. This appeals to the feminist in me – I love that we are giving women a route to increasing their independence and influence.
What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success for Lendwithcare?
Determination, hard work and tenacity, and believing from the very early days when it was just me, our Senior Microfinance advisor, Ajaz Khan and Nancy Thomas, who started as a volunteer and now is a Senior Lendwithcare Advisor, having that absolute belief that this was the right thing to do. And despite challenges, just sticking with it and knowing that success would come. I define success as the rate at which people continue to support Lendwithcare after their first loan – most people re-lend their money once it’s paid back, which shows they enjoy the process – as a result we’re now lending around £5m a year and expect that figure to grow.
How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?
Having been mentored myself in my early career, I feel it can be particularly valuable for people who have a lack of confidence because they didn’t go into further education. Without my mentor I wouldn’t have had the confidence to progress. Solidarity among women is a powerful force for good, and this is something we engender across our Lendwithcare programmes as well. We don’t just lend, we enable our partners to provide crucial skills training and support women’s community groups.
If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?
Investing in more women. Many women around the world are dependent upon their husbands, which affects their status in the home and ability to make decisions around their own lives. Once women have their own income, the power dynamics can shift. So the more we can do to provide women with access to and control over economic resources ,the better for that woman, her family and her community. Lendwithcare is an opportunity to invest in a woman, and demonstrate you believe in her.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?
Believe in yourself. If people say good things about you, believe them, don’t listen to your inner voice that says “but they don’t really know, I’m not actually very good at…”. Just because other people might be more articulate or well-read than you, it doesn’t mean they know better – your practical experience is just as valuable. Trust your gut instinct, if based on experience, it will rarely let you down.
The friends you make through work will be some of the most long lasting and valued – surround yourself with people who share your values. Good colleagues are worth their weight in gold when you go through the inevitable bad weeks or months in any job – support each other.
Above all focus on the joy – the standard definition of success doesn’t factor in the joy your role brings you; create your own definition. Be discerning about what you strive for – it doesn’t have to be to move up the ladder. Your role being meaningful and rewarding is more important than financial gain or success on paper.
What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?
The next challenge is taking Lendwithcare to greater scale – there are many thousands more entrepreneurs who need investment. The challenge is scaling up whilst maintaining the positive social impact on the entrepreneurs that we’re supporting. We want to work with more social enterprises as well as microfinance institutions. We’re acutely aware that microfinance can do as much harm as good if not done properly, so as we expand we have to choose partners that have a strong social mission. And of course Covid – that’s an added challenge as we’ll be scaling Lendwithcare in a post-covid world when we don’t yet know the full global financial impact.
Lendwithcare is a truly inspiring initiative – how can other women get involved in supporting?
I just feel Lendwithcare is such a brilliant fit with WeAreTheCity readers – women who are business-minded, feminists and entrepreneurs. I’d urge readers to make a loan through Lendwithcare.org, and invest in another woman’s dreams. In particular do think of giving a Lendwithcare gift voucher as a gift this Christmas – your loved one can choose an entrepreneur to support, and when the value of the voucher is paid back, your loved one can either keep the money or re-lend it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving!
Lastly, we’re always looking for corporate partners to promote Lendwithcare to their employees or clients. Please do get in touch if you’d like to support www.lendwithcare.org.
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