In this episode, taken from the Buddhist Geeks Conference 2012, Matt Flannery, founder of the incredibly popular micro-lending service Kiva.org, joins us to discuss his personal journey. He shares what it was like building Kiva.org and his own struggle to balance reflective practice–in his case Zen–with making big changes in the world.
Matt: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here. I really really appreciate my first ever Buddhist Geeks’ conference. Wonderful to be here. I started listening to the Buddhist Geeks podcast a little while ago maybe two or three years ago at a period when I had insomnia. So it says something about the podcast which is it’s very relaxing and it gets your mind working at the same time enough to get it off of whatever you’re worried about and help you go to sleep. So after doing this for several months in a row I wrote Vince and talked about maybe potentially coming here. And it was cool to see the people behind the podcast and it’s great for me to be here.
I titled the talk Buddhist Geeks of Action. I am perhaps not a Buddhist Geek. I think sometimes I’m Buddhist and I think most of the time I’m the geek. I’m barely, almost never in the same thing at the same time. So maybe you guys can help me throughout the weekend wrestle with those two things. I have sometimes struggled with the dichotomy between being quiet, reflective, relax, working on my practice and also getting a lot done and being a person of action. So hopefully I’ll allude to that in several ways throughout the talk and then just talk about my work, my personal story behind work and some ideas for the future based on this work that maybe you can apply to your work. Real quick this is a picture of me in Cambodia. I was here at a village bank outside of Cambodia. How many of you guys know what a village bank is? Okay. Great, some of you. Village banks exists across the world. They’re groups of people that get together and share money.
So people put money in a pot and they simply rotate the money around throughout the group. And there are several different schemes, several different forms of this. But what’s amazing is most of the time in such a setup like this people pay back each other at enormously high rates almost virutally 100% of the time. And usually people like this are illiterates. So when I was there we were going through our accounting training, working through our passbooks, learning how to do basic ledger based accounting. People that don’t have any financial background all the time pay each other back all the time across the world. It’s an incredible phenomenon. I discovered it several years ago when I was traveling in Africa and have just been dedicating myself to working in this kind of work ever since. And I’m not in the village bank but in this picture I am in the picture. Real quick. I run a website called kiva.org which is person to person lending website. People lend other people all across the world for the purpose of poverty alleviation.
We started it in Africa and since then it’s spread to about 65 countries. We have tons of lenders, about a million lenders and we have tons of borrowers, about a million borrowers. People are lending to people. Often times the borrowers are unbanked, so you can’t send them the money directly so we work with NGOs all across the world, who source the loans and distribute the loans to people like those people in the village bank in Cambodia. Sometimes we lend money directly to people as well onto their cellphones or their PayPal accounts in certain countries where electronic payment systems exist. They don’t exist everywhere right now but they’re certainly spreading so eventually this whole thing will become an online digital community of people lending to people both locally and globally to help them. And we’re at a very early stage right now in doing this because the world is not quite ready for that idea as a whole.
We have lending teams meaning people getting together in groups deciding to lend together. We have a religious category. Probably none of you are on this team. I’m on this team. The Buddhist ranks 6th in all the religions so we’re doing quite well but we can do better. We’re right behind the church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s a powerful religion. Buddhism is quite open so you can be a member of this team as well. There are probably a lot of similarities between the two religions. But yeah this is the all time biggest most powerful religion on Kiva today. But I just showed you this to illustrate a little bit about how we work.
Some of the foundational principles of Kiva: I started Kiva in 2005 after I saw this man speak, Professor Dr. Mohammad Yunus, who is a Nobel Laureate. He started the Grameen Bank. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh which is a woman’s cooperative of groups of woman who bank together and deposit money in the central bank and take it out and all the women are the shareholders.
The women are often very poor and very illiterate but they pay back virtually all the time at low interest rates. Dr. Yunus started this in Bangladesh in the 70s. No one said it would work. He proved that it would work and that movement has spread all over the world whether through Grameen Bank or through other banks like that in almost every country right now. He said something really interesting. I saw him speak to an audience sort of smaller than this at Stanford University. I went to Stanford University. He said something like capitalism doesn’t fully capture the full essence of what it means to be human. Capitalism certainly incentives and captures our desire to be greedy, to protect ourselves, to gain security. But it doesn’t really capture that side of ourselves that wants to reach out to others, that side that wants to be generous.
It doesn’t really incentivize that and there’s no trace of that in the capitalist system in general. And he is talking about creating a worldwide system which captures that other side of our humanity and I thought that was quite interesting. I went on a long journey with my co-founder to learn more about micro-finance which is the movement he started and sort of working in Africa in 2003 just for a period of time. I was a programmer at [TiVo] and for a few years I had been helping people pause live TV. That was our mission. That’s not supposed to be funny. It’s awkward for me. Lots of friends there. But one day I got a promotion. My first ever promotion out of college and they gave me a business card. They said you know on the back of the business card you’re supposed to write your favorite shows cause that’s the thing you have in common in this desire, you know, talking about our favorite shows.
And I didn’t have a TV at the time so I had no favorite shows. So I think my card might be the only one in [TiVo] history without any favorite shows. I don’t know how I got on that topic. I took time off from my job, went here and just worked for a small micro-finance institution on the eastern part of Uganda and was documenting people’s stories. So I was a videographer as well as working at [TiVo] and so I was interviewing this people like a pharmacist or a guy that works at a bike tire shop or a clothing reseller. And I was interviewing these people and was asking them how the loan affected their life and the impact it had on them, what kind of suffering they were going through. I noticed I was trying to emphasize sort of how hard their life was before this loan and how good it was after the loan. But people don’t really want to talk about themselves as victims.
And I noticed that in making a documentary for a nonprofit I was trying to frame people as being a victim of some poverty or some oppressive regime or society, which they weren’t really volunteering. So I thought that was interesting and that’s sort of one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned and applied to my work is people universally don’t see themselves as victims and they see themselves as hopeful and they want to focus on their dreams and strategies. And for some reason we have the need here in North America to portray them that way and somehow that services us in some interesting way so maybe it serves our need to think of other people across the world as in that way. So I’m interested in that conversation, changing the conversation, working with it a bit not completely opposing it but working within the frame of that conversation and helping tweak people’s points of views little by little by just having them know each other and connect and experience the awkwardness of that interaction over time and experience other people as hopeful agents of change, not necessarily victims that you can save.
You know through conversations like this I’ve met single mothers, business people. This woman operates a store. It looks often very similar to stores in my neighborhood in San Francisco. It’s not that different. She is in a society that doesn’t have a huge safety net. So she’s struggling to send her kids to school. She has to make decisions whether to buy medicine or send them to school or get food on the table. Definitely a tough society. Definitely a lot of struggles but not a hopeless person and not doing so bad. But there’s an extraordinary lack of opportunity. And by the way we have $25, $50 we can lend to this person who can definitely pay you back. They always pay you back. And you could really affect her trajectory in a good way and experience that progress with her.
I used to sponsor children as a child myself and I wanted to take that sponsoring a children dynamic and translate it to a more mature adult dynamic and see what happened. So this is our first borrower. I went home, got my job back at [TiVo], programed all night for like a year program this person to person website where people could lend to other people internationally and put this woman on this site. She is a fish seller so she sells three or four fish from the side of the street. And if you’re able to give her a $500 loan you can imagine she could sell many fish cause she could buy a freezer, put the fish in the freezer, you know, have some benefit of the scale. I don’t know what the word is, and increase her profit margin. So ideas like that are simple but really hard to achieve in a place with no financial markets. So we put her on the website and my dad and my co-founder’s dad funded her on the day we launched in 2005. And she was able to get a $500 loan to buy that freezer and to buy fish in bulk from the fisherman not from the middle man and take that trip to the lake. So we just dedicated ourselves to repeating stories like this over and over and over ever since. It’s just been six years. It’s been an amazing journey.
We started working in other places. We started partnering with NGOs and other places outside of Africa. So this is a woman in Kenya, who got a loan to buy a goat. In this case it was a hybrid goat, which is a more efficient goat maybe. Women in Africa were sort of the thing for like a year plus and they’re very popular. They fund very fast and so we decided to expand it all through east Africa. Then there was a war in Afghanistan so we started working in Afghanistan and in Muslim societies you know women don’t show up in photos. And so we sort of met a lot of men in Muslim’s societies and that worked out really well because our lenders were drawn to places of political unrest where they think they can help. So it’s really interesting.
We’ve had interesting dynamics of people uploading pictures of cats and lending to people. And the borrowers see that and we have to explain why this is. And the borrowers universally asked why do I have to repay that cat or that sunset. So I didn’t mean to just come up here and tell jokes all the time. I went through a really hard period after three years of doing this of just total burnout. I encountered a lot of fraud and difficult situations personally and professionally across the world. I was totally burnt out. I don’t know if any of you ever been there. Just when you can’t sleep enough, your battery is like in a deep discharge. There’s nothing you can do to get energy back.
So everyone I know that started meditating at least in the States has a story. Oh you meditate, what happened to you? So that’s my born again meditation story. But I don’t think in other cultures it’s that way but often in San Francisco and beyond the States people that meditate had some sort of difficult situation. So for me I was the same. I discovered Jack Kornfield, great author. He was here last year. So this is picture of him at the Buddhist Geeks conference. But he said something that’s really affected my work about compassion. Compassion and pity are very different. Whereas compassion reflects the yearning of the heart to merge and to take on some of the suffering, pity is a controlled set of thoughts designed to assure separateness. Compassion is a spontaneous response of love. Pity the involuntary reflex of fear. And so I reflect on this a lot trying to foster and cultivate that dynamic of compassion, connectedness between people.
Where you want to help somebody because you realize there’s a sense of a part of yourself in that person. And that person in fact is one with you. And I don’t need to portray you as a victim that I can save to make myself feel better. But actually I realized in helping you I’m helping myself cause we’re really not that separate after all. And so that dynamic is really the driving force behind my life and my work right now and I’m just trying to get better and better with those connections so that people can see this for themselves.
At the Zen Center in San Francisco, we have this idea of the Bodhisattva vow the idea that I vow to save all living beings. This is a quite stressful vow. So here I was burnt out and then I’m thinking Zen is going to solve all of these problems, go to the Zen center and I learned now I’m signing up to save all living beings which I was trying to do before and it totally exhausted me.
But I’ll end on that note. This is halfway through the presentation but it’s a good place to stop cause I have to go cause I’m going to be forced off the stage. But there’s something about realizing that yes we are trying to save all living beings. But actually there’s no separation between me and those living beings so the more we meditate, the more we practice the more we realize that truth, the less stressful it is because we realize that those living beings are just our self and in the practice of saving ourselves we are doing that. And the practice of saving those living beings we are saving ourselves. Those two things are one and the same, which is a really refreshing and freeing thing to think. Thank you.