The World’s Banks and the Next Billion
A Conversation With Bob Harris: A Multi-Talented Genius Responsible For Funding Thousands Of Dreams
Bob Harris wears many hats. An author of The International Bank of Bob, screenwriter, frequentJeopardy! contestant and serial microlender—he’s personally made over 9,300 loans by recycling his initial $20,000 nearly 12 times on the microfinance platform Kiva resulting in almost a quarter million bucks in $25 loans—talks to GOOD about how a working class American became a bank for the rest of the world, and what cotton candy and generosity have in common.
Tell me about yourself. What were you doing before you started lending on Kiva?
I’ve never been able to thumbnail my career! I’ve gotten to write for CSI and Bones. I ran the writer’s room on a Mexican action show and had to learn Spanish to do it. I had a syndicated radio segment for several years. Between all of that, I was able to supplement my income for years by being invited back to Jeopardy! a lot, which was really fun. I’ve been on the show 14 times.
I’ve had this really jack-of-all-trades career, and in 2008, I lucked into a job working for Forbes Traveler—the luxury travel imprint that Forbes magazine was trying to create—as a luxury travel reviewer which was ridiculous because I grew up working class. My grandfather was a coal miner, my dad worked in a factory for General Motors, and when I grew up you kept track of every dollar—that was just the way we lived. Suddenly I’m flying around the world and staying in expensive hotels!
In the course of that, I was in lots of places where the difference between rich and poor is way more visible than it is here in the United States.
Was there an a-ha moment for your lending and eventually the book idea?
The real epiphany was on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai one particular night outside of the Fairmont Hotel. There were these four guys sitting on the ground at about 11 o'clock at night looking completely wilted, and it looked like they had missed their ride back to the camp where they live. They were just sitting there like they were going to pass the night that way. Meanwhile, upstairs in my room at the Fairmont I was welcomed with a mountain of food on the bed: an enormous platter of fresh fruit and other snacks, which was more food than I was ever going to eat. So I went upstairs, shoved as much of the food as I could in my backpack, went downstairs again and approached the guys.
It was like crossing a threshold. When we choose to help a stranger, there is that moment of social awkwardness of, I don’t even know how to do this; Is this even safe? Is this ok? What will happen? That boundary is often, I think, the thing that inhibits us from doing something good that our heart wants us to do.
One of them looked up and smiled at me. I sat down, we had no language in common to speak of, but they got what I was doing and it was totally cool. There was no sense of indebtedness or whatever. We sat there for about 40 minutes just chowing down together and it was a very pleasant time. Afterward, I just went back up to my room and wished I knew what to do because there are thousands and thousands of people working in these conditions here, and millions around the world, and these guys wouldn’t even be here if the local economy had been better in India where they were from.
I proceeded to feel fairly hopeless about things for about two months until I was in Beijing in Tiananmen Square. People were just at that time starting to upload their photos to the Internet and the whole Facebook thing was starting. And I thought it would be so cool if there was a website where people could upload their work situation, or upload their idea, and other people could help.
It dawned on me a few months earlier I had heard Premal Shah of Kiva give a talk about microfinance in San Francisco. I’d even had the thought of writing a magazine article, or maybe I would make some loans and follow it, because microfinance had won the Nobel Peace Prize. And very quickly the wheels started turning in my head and I said, Okay, I’ll take all the Forbes travel money and I’ll just put it in all these microloans. If they repay, then great—if not, it’ll be like spiritual money laundering. I can live with that.
Then I mentioned it to my literary agent and she said, Oh, that’s a book. And that began nearly four years of going back and forth between the U.S. and five continents visiting clients in the entire Kiva ecosystem in Peru, Lebanon, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Nepal and so forth.
How’d you come up with the title for the book?
It started in 2009 as a joke. The idea that one person could act like an international development lender just sounded amusing. But pretty soon I found that I was re-lending my funds, over and over, like taking repayments from a fisherman in Bangladesh and routing them to support a loan to a farmer in Peru. So conceptually the joke turned out to be pretty accurate.
I tried out the phrase on the message board of the “Friends of Bob Harris” lending team at Kiva, and a couple of people started calling themselves “the international bank of” using their own name, and I really liked that. It was exactly the feeling I wanted to encourage.
How did you decide where to spread your original $20,000 on Kiva before you started following the money? Did you have a formula or criteria for yourself?
At first, it was just about which lenders’ stories really resonated for me. I think the third loan I ever made was to a guy in Paraguay who was borrowing to buy strips of leather so that he could soak them in citronella and make mosquito-repellent bracelets that local kids could wear to avoid getting dengue fever. What a simple, obvious, necessary thing! Of course I lent to him. That affected me partly because I’d had dengue myself. If you go to Kiva, you’ll find a story that you will connect with.
So tell me about your journey and the making of your book.
It was a full-on personal study of taking a bunch of my own money, investing through the Kiva platform, and then following it literally all the way to the client. Through Kiva’s ecosystem, I was able to meet actual clients and field partners, and visit microfinance institutions and loan offices. And despite the rhetoric that we hear so commonly in a nation that is now driven by fear, I was welcomed like an old friend everywhere I went.
It was an amazing experience. I never told any of the clients that I was a lender. What I found was, Yes, Kiva works and it really does help people. Some businesses fail—that’s life—but it does create opportunity.
It becomes this exercise in meeting the world. I’m shaking its hand. What was astonishing is how absolutely identical the interactions were everywhere I went—except for the cosmetic details of language, clothing, food, ritual. On a deep level everyone’s just trying to make a better life for their kids.
The response was universal—we are one.
Did anyone make a lasting impression?
The most important interaction I had was with a guy in Lebanon. We were driving back from visiting a client, and we’re going down this shoreline highway, and he tells me his story about having his home and business destroyed in a war that he had nothing personally to do with. I asked him how he coped with that and he turned to me and said, You love more, you win, which is what I wrote about in a previous GOOD article. It didn’t come out of some Berkley seminar or a yoga class or in a philosophy book; it was something he could improvise on the fly while his life was falling apart. And if he has the strength to do that, then I do too; you do too, and everyone who reads this does.
How about yourself--did you leave an impression on anyone?
You know how cotton candy congeals around the stick? It will just sit in the drum until somebody puts a stick in there and then it will all coalesce and then you can pull it all out and get a big lump? Generosity is a little bit like that. And what people are often lacking is that stick. I accidentally made a stick and then boom! Thousands of people showed up and millions of dollars flew out of the door!
Has there been any change in the types of loans you fund today compared to 6 years ago?
Oh, sure. Now that I’ve been in the field, I actually know the people at a bunch of Kiva partners. I see loans administered by Al Majmoua in Beirut or Urwego in Rwanda, for example. These aren’t faraway places to me anymore. I have friends now in those offices; people I’ve come to really admire. It’s like supporting the work of friends now.
What do you think is the single most important technology to impact the microfinance world?
I’ll start by saying I think the Kiva platform itself has had a larger impact than they’re often given credit for. When Premal Shah, Matt Flannery and Jessica Jackley were first talking about it more than a decade ago, crowdfunding wasn’t even a thing. As far as I can tell, in large part, Kiva seems to have invented it. They’ve also moved the needle on lender due diligence and in trying to quantify social impact. They’ve inspired similar platforms like Babyloan in Europe and Rang De in India.
Worldwide, the combination of mobile banking and affordable smartphone handsets has been pretty huge and the potential is still enormous. A farmer in a rural area, for example, can now check market prices for his crop, repay loans, borrow to buy fertilizer or equipment, transfer profits to family elsewhere… you name it. And lending institutions can administer loans, offer consultation, and so on at a much lower cost, too. This has been underway for years, but as data speeds increase, I bet we’ll see innovations soon that I can’t even dream of now.
We touched a little bit on the idea that the details around microfinance will change because of how fast technology is changing. As the "next billion" people come online, in your opinion, how do you see access to opportunity and financial security could change?
Lots of interesting things are happening. Solar power is getting cost-effective enough that village-sized units can now bring clean electricity to places that have never been on the grid. (Kiva finances some larger loans for programs like this, by the way.) If this becomes ubiquitous, we’ll have families making a leap from the 19th to the 21st century, at least in terms of connectivity.
Meanwhile, Kiva’s now doing something truly amazing: their loans to U.S. clients are on a peer-to-peer basis, without a lending institution in the middle, and at zero interest to the client. The loans are backed by a network of trustees and people in the borrower’s own personal networks, who basically vouch for people. The repayment rate is a little lower than a loan through an institution right now, but they’re working on the model.
Let’s imagine all three things sort of combining and scaling: rural areas coming online and empowered with mobile banking and peer-to-peer lending. Imagine a craftsperson in India needs to borrow to buy seasonal supplies—and suddenly they can do so easily and quickly, financed by a community of trusted lenders and borrowers, creating more time for them to work productively, develop skills, or focus on their kids. What does the world look like a generation later? Obviously, there are massive political hurdles. But it’s interesting to think about.
Are there any other most memorable moments from your travels you'd like to share?
On one of my first trips, to Bosnia, I met the first clients whose loans I’d personally invested in. I actually recognized some of them from photos on the Kiva website, which felt like having jumped through my computer screen to the other side of the world. While I was there, the local Kiva partner was run by Bosnian Muslims, but some of the clients I met were Croatian Catholics—despite the fact that in living memory, these groups had been at war. It was a real lesson in how doing small bits of business with each other helps communities knit together.
One of my last client visits was to a daycare center in Chicago. I didn’t realize until I got there that it was literally walking distance from where I’d lived in my early 20s, when I was so broke that I lived in a YMCA for several months. I saved every spare dollar to pay for improv classes and learn to communicate and perform and maybe someday make a better life. I remember being afraid I’d be stuck there forever. Twenty-five years later, somehow I’d been around the world several times and was now helping somebody else with a big dream and a willingness to chase it.
I feel grateful for the life I’ve had every time I think of that moment. And I’m grateful that I can use Kiva to share my good fortune all over the world.
This article is part of our series celebrating 10 years of collaboration between PayPal and Kiva. Help kick off the next decade of impact. Make a loan today at Kiva.org and the first 10,000 lenders through 10/10/16 will receive a $25 Kiva credit, provided by PayPal, to lend again. Terms and conditions apply.