Jessica Jackley, CEO and Co-Founder
2012 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker
Jessica Jackley is a co-founder of Kiva.org, the world’s first peer-to-peer online microlending website. Named as one of the top ideas in 2006 by the New York Times Magazineand called “revolutionary” by the BBC, Kiva (www.kiva.org) lets internet users lend as little as $25 to specific developing world entrepreneurs, providing affordable capital to help them start or expand a small business. Kiva has been one of the fastest-growing social benefit websites in history, and since its founding in 2005, has loaned over $100M from lenders to entrepreneurs across 182 countries.
Professional Title: Cofounder, Kiva.org. Cofounder and CEO, ProFounder.com
Educational Background: BA, Philosophy and Political Science, Bucknell University. MBA, Stanford Graduate School of Business. Certificate in Public Management, Certificate in Global Management, Stanford Graduate School of Business. Honorary PhD, Centenary College
You have an undergraduate degree in philosophy. Did your philosophical background influence your work in social programs and entrepreneurship in any way? If so, how? If not, why not?
It did. Philosophy taught me how to think critically and ask the right questions. Many of the concepts I studied still inspire how I see things and how I frame ideas. For example, I wrote this in the Stanford Social Innovation Review a few years ago: The first text assigned in my sophomore philosophy of science course at Bucknell University was Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This important work, our professor explained, analyzed the evolution of science and scientific thought. Interesting, I remember thinking. I’d always been taught that science proved things and produced facts, and I was curious to witness this truth-producing process questioned. At the same time, scrutinizing the whole history and process of science seemed aggressive, audacious, even arrogant. And this was precisely what I loved about my philosophy classes: permission to question the unquestionable. By the end of the book, Kuhn had left me with the following concepts:
- Normal science operates within these sets of beliefs, or “paradigms,” and many scientists’ research is “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education,” as Kuhn puts it.
- Scientists don’t work alone, but as part of scientific communities with sets of agreed-upon beliefs.
- Sometimes scientists observe things that don’t fit existing paradigms (Kuhn calls these anomalies), and when enough strong anomalies build up and validate each other, a new paradigm emerges and the old paradigm bursts. These shifts are scientific revolutions, “tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science.”
- Scientific revolutions happen slowly. They also threaten the status quo. Remember Galileo, put under house arrest for claiming the Earth revolved around the sun (not the other way around)?
After that year, I found Kuhn’s ideas informing my thoughts about all sorts of things. Aren’t we all part of communities with agreed-upon, foundational beliefs? Deep down, conscious of it or not, we think we know something about what the world is like, and we gravitate toward others who think similarly. It’s easy to go about our days without stopping to question these fundamental assumptions, though they can limit what we’re capable of seeing and believing is possible. So usually, we’re open to interpreting the world only in ways that perpetuate what we—and our communities—already believe to be true. Thankfully, anomalies happen. We get shaken up, surprised, or just baffled by life. We get hints that the world might be different from what we’d thought. It’s easy to shun these inklings and to tell ourselves, “No, that can’t be true,” or “I must be crazy,” or “But that’s just not the way things work.” Sometimes, however, the anomalies are true, and we’re not crazy, and we’ve gotten a glimpse of something that could actually redefine the way things work. A well-timed, powerful new insight has the potential to shape an entirely new paradigm around it—shifting the scope of possibility in the world! When I became an MBA student at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Kuhn’s ideas melded with my studies of innovative organizations and how these organizations create new products, new markets, and in a way, entirely new paradigms. Many begin with a bold, fresh insight about how things could be better—a kind of prescriptive anomaly. They then build themselves around this vision. Sitting in one of Professor Bill Barnett’s strategy courses one day, I realized that this was happening with Kiva, then only a year old: We had seen before us the enormous untapped potential of entrepreneurs’ stories to form connections and inspire action, and we had then used technology and microfinance to build the company around this insight. Want to start your own revolution? Be aware of your most basic assumptions, and be ready to question them. Keep your eyes open. You might see something new and true. Trust yourself when you do. Follow the insight. It just may be the first step to changing the world.
How did your undergraduate experiences at Bucknell prepare you for your career as a businesswoman and social entrepreneur?
In addition to what I studied in the classroom, I had many opportunities to practice leadership and participate in creating positive change on campus. Sometimes this was through big commitments through student government (I served as class president or student body president all four years) and sometimes it was through very small things, like one-time volunteer projects. All of these types of things exposed me to the kinds of social activism I might participate in later, and gave me ideas as to how I wanted to create new ways of bringing about change.
Tell our readers about your work in Uganda and Kenya and its effect on you as well as those with whom you worked and served.
My work in East Africa exposed me to a whole new world of entrepreneurs. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it now, but their wisdom and business savvy took me by complete surprise. I’d gone there to serve the poor, but realized once I was there that “the poor” were very different than I’d imagined. They did not need or want a hand-out; they were smart, hard-working entrepreneurs doing all in their power to change their lives for the better. It was a very necessary and humbling experience. It completely changed my paradigm.
Describe what you might want to be doing in ten years–or even the rest of your life in terms of your work, projects, activities.
I never want to box myself—or anyone else—into a “type” that limits how I think or how I might choose to try and change the world for the better. It could be through more work with nonprofit entities, but could mean starting other for-profit businesses that create jobs and provide a lot of value for people through innovative products or services. What I do know is that I want to be driven by my values at every decision point.
What resources/support from faculty and other adult mentors have helped you along your life’s path?
My parents taught me to believe in myself and really convinced me I could do anything—not EVERYthing, but anything I chose. At the same time, they taught me I had to work hard, and that no one is better than anyone else; I think this balance was really important because it ensured I was motivated to earn what I wanted (not just expect it to fall into my lap). I have also had great teachers throughout my life who have helped me see my strengths and weaknesses, and find specific ways to work on those. They gave me the tools and the encouragement to get better and even create new strengths. More than anything, the greatest influencers in my life have been people who have helped show me my weaknesses with honesty and love. Being open to feedback like this has been invaluable. I don’t think I was as open to it growing up, but more and more, I welcome it, and even seek it out. And I seek out people who can deliver it to me in a way that makes sense.
What are you most passionate about in your life?
I am passionate about my family. They mean more to me than anything. And, in my work, I am passionate about empowering all people to pursue their dreams and find their voice. I believe one of the best ways to do this is by making sure we all have access to the resources we need to do this. Kiva, ProFounder, and all other projects I seek to be a part of share this idea.
You serve on the Board of Allowance for Good. What is this organization and how did you get involved?
From the website: “Allowance for Good was established in the summer of 2010 to cultivate a culture of giving and to inspire a ripple of change among American youth to become the next generation of engaged global givers and citizens. The organization teaches participants that meaningful, thoughtful, and even small contributions to the needs of international communities can broaden their perspectives of the world and help make a difference in the education systems of developing countries. Allowance for Good aims to reach students of all socioeconomic backgrounds and demonstrate that participating as a global citizen is not bound by income, race, or culture.Through this process of learning, connecting, and actualization, Allowance for Good seeks to teach Young Catalysts humility, to promote their respect for other cultures and the challenges they face, and to instill among them commitment to long-term, high-impact philanthropy.” I became involved through my friendship with AFG’s founder, Lisa Macholan, with whom I worked at the Stanford Graduate School of Business several years ago. I believe in Lisa and AFG’s vision!
A small percentage of those who found technology start-up companies are women. Why do you think that this is the case?
See piece I wrote in Forbes a few months back: “The Pregnant Entrepreneur And The VC Who Wouldn’t Fund Her.” A few days ago one of my investors wrote a blog post titled “VC CONFESSION: ‘I Have Doubts Once I Think Of Women Founders Having Kids And Being Distracted From Work,'” airing his concerns about a dirty little thought that popped up in his head when he learned that I, a cofounder and CEO of ProFounder, was expecting. The thought? “A pregnant founder/CEO is going to fail her company.” He then continued to voice a very specific concern about me, using my situation—I am pregnant—as an example. “How in the hell is this founder going to lead a team, build a company and change the world for these businesses [while] carrying a kid around for the next few months and then caring for the kids after?” I don’t blame my investor for doing his job, wanting to know how any new event or circumstance will affect my company or my plans for its future. However, it’s unfortunate how often this line of questioning is focused on women alone. I’ve never heard someone ask the same of a founder-CEO-dad, worrying about a slightly different dirty little thought: “An expectant father/CEO will fail his company.” The idea that mothers are the de facto “foundation parents” to a new baby (or multiples) perpetuates the stereotypes and structures that make it more difficult for anyone, male or female, to balance work and family in the first place. I took a few days to respond to his blog post, not because of a lack of interest or desire to participate in this dialogue, but because, frankly, I’m busy running said company. I expect to be even busier with not just one but two babies (yes, to be clear, I’m expecting twins) arriving this fall. As all entrepreneurs know, you live and die by your ability to prioritize. You must focus on the most important, mission-critical tasks each day and night, and then share, delegate, delay or skip the rest. So, while the post was intriguing and important, it wasn’t urgent—until it came to my attention that my team was somewhat bothered by it. When they saw one of our investors questioning my abilities as a leader, they were confused and frustrated. So I replied on their behalf as well as mine. I announced my pregnancy right at the standard 12-week mark. Nearly all my 30-plus investors responded immediately with enthusiasm and congratulations, and many of them also offered to help think through postmaternity work plans, which I greatly appreciate. From the start, ProFounder was created to make sure anyone could be empowered to pursue their dreams through entrepreneurship. Together with these investors, we agreed on strategies and goals, key milestones, etc. I promised them our team would work its hardest to meet these goals, and we’ve been doing so ever since. I never did, and never would, promise them that I wouldn’t fall in love, get married, have a family at some point. Why would I? Who in their right mind would actually ask this of a person? And what would it even mean to keep a promise like that? Parenthood will be a new experience. As with any new experience, with lots of variables and forces beyond my control, it’s hard to know what will happen in the future, or exactly how I will feel when I’m there. I’m comfortable with this. But I am also an entrepreneur, so that doesn’t mean I can’t have a carefully considered plan, informed by the advice and wisdom of other leaders I respect. My plan includes, first and foremost, an incredible cofounder and an amazing, talented team. They believe in my leadership, my ability to serve them and our vision—with or without kids. I have a strong support system, including a husband who is a true partner and my greatest champion. I am fortunate enough to be able to afford full-time help if and when we need it. And, like most professional women in my situation, I have been thinking about this season of my life for a very long time. (Disclaimer: I’m just talking about my circumstances. This isn’t a complete or prescriptive checklist for anyone else, or a statement about what all women should have or do.) There’s another aspect of this conversation that seems unavoidable as well. It’s about an underlying assumption that perhaps the founder of a company shouldn’t have the goal of achieving balance at all when in startup mode. Do I work long hours? Weekends? Of course. Pull all-nighters when needed? Sure. But working until I fall asleep on my laptop and doing nothing else on a regular basis makes me less effective. Turns out that getting at least a little sleep, exercising regularly, having healthy relationships outside of work, spending time with my family, reading a book for fun now and then, etc., makes me a better founder-CEO. In fact, this isn’t just how I run my life, but it’s how my cofounder Dana and I run our company. We created ProFounder with the intention of shaping a healthier—and more efficacious—culture that gives everyone on our team the opportunity to be a full person, not just a cog in a machine. We not only encourage but celebrate each other’s victories in and beyond work. At our last team retreat we reported our proudest moments personally and professionally; on the personal side of things, every single individual shared some detail about how the most important relationships in their lives had become better since they began working at ProFounder. This model is working. Business is thriving. We are flourishing. And we’re trying to give every entrepreneur we work with through the ProFounder platform the same options for their own endeavors, starting with the chance to include investors who care about them as human beings—who are invested not just in their business but in them as people. When my titles expand from just founder-CEO to founder-CEO-mom, I may have a different kind of load to bear than that of other entrepreneurs, especially if we’re talking about ones who fit the old Silicon Valley stereotypes (fill in the blank here with the obvious demographics and attitudes that come to mind). I’ve tried forcing myself to fit more into this profile during other seasons of my life and would like to report that, shockingly, there’s really no correlation between eating takeout everyday or skipping that 30-minute jog again and great entrepreneurial success. If anything, I’ve found the opposite to be true. I have no desire to fit that old stereotype. I desire to live a life that is rich in relationships both in and outside of work. I desire to reap the many rewards that are abundant in my job, working in this incredible startup every day. I want to surround myself with a team, including investors, that challenges me and helps make me better. I want to live my life transparently, and if being a happy, successful founder-CEO-mom serves as a helpful example to anyone who wants to use me as such, great. Mostly I want to get back to my team and work on our business. So a quick closing thought: What I, and my team, believe—and this is ProFounder’s mission statement verbatim—is that all entrepreneurs should have access to the resources they need to succeed through the engagement of robust, supportive communities. ProFounder exists to champion all entrepreneurs, and we have a special place in our hearts for those who don’t care to pitch their companies to the same “usual suspects” investors—and this is a great thing for the world! Through our platform and tools, we are changing the way startup and small-business funding can be done, by engaging and empowering communities to invest. We hope these communities might think differently about what makes a great company, or a great leader. I hope we can show more and more people a path that includes sharing their entrepreneurial journey (and, the financial and social upside they will create) with people who know their story, their context, maybe even their families, and believe in them all the more because of it.
In one of your Twitter posts you say that “In NYC for 9/11. 50% of Americans have negative views of Islam. 60% claim to know no Muslims. Please starting talking to each other. Today.” Have you found in your experiences in business, world travels, networking, education, etc., that social entrepreneurship can help to advance interfaith cooperation?
Relationships—not simply data, unfortunately—have the power to really change the way we think. That tweet was about how important it is not to isolate ourselves from anyone out of a fear that we are too different from one another. I’ve been very blessed to have met countless people in dozens of countries, and person by person, I have learned that that fear is unnecessary and wrong. I was raised as a Christian, and I am married to a Muslim (a very outspoken one!). He shares more of my values than anyone I’ve ever met. And, he genuinely lives these values. I so look forward to raising our two boys (twins, born just a few months ago) to share these values as well, and to become men who don’t just tolerate but fully embrace and celebrate all people.
You meet and interact with notable CEOs such as Howard Schultz (Starbucks) and Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo). Has this sort of high profile networking changed you as a person?
It has made it nearly impossible for me to become intimidated by anyone else, because I know that even the most successful individuals are just people. Sure, they have some incredibly special gifts and unique life experiences to learn from—but everyone does! Getting to meet so many of my own heroes throughout the years has convinced me that anyone can become a hero. What makes this happen is listening to your own voice and writing your own story the best you can, not trying to become anyone else.
Why did you decide to found Profounder?
Dana Mauriello (my cofounder) and I started ProFounder in August 2009 out of a desire to give entrepreneurs access to the resources that they need to succeed. We were first exposed to entrepreneurship through interactions with microenterprises in the developing world (Jessica) and in small family businesses in the US (Dana). When we got to Silicon Valley and met in business school at Stanford, we were overwhelmed by the incredible resources that suddenly surrounded us—resources that the entrepreneurs we had come to know and love outside of the Valley could only dream of. We started a dialogue about how to bring these same resources to entrepreneurs, starting with others across the US. The answer came when we saw our Stanford Graduate School of Business classmates raise money from each other. We learned that this situation—friends and family funding each others businesses—happens everyday, to the tune of over $100B each year (an amount that dwarfs venture capital funding, among other sources). We set out to innovate around what we called “community funding,” or utilizing social networks for investment capital in a way that would be simple, inexpensive, efficient, and legally compliant for all involved. We’ve learned more than we could have imagined and we’ve grown and evolved our business along the way. From offering a step-by-step fundraising system, to providing unique individual tools to assist entrepreneurs at all phases of their community funding journey, to holding events, to simply building awareness and community around this vision, we’ve evolved our products and will continue to do so to best meet entrepreneurs’ needs. Through these changes, we remain committed to our original vision, that all people are empowered to pursue their dreams through entrepreneurship. We believe in entrepreneurs like you, and the power of community to celebrate, support and provide key resources along the way.