Blaine woman finds happiness in micro-lending career
By Tara Nelson
Blaine resident Summer Starr’s definition of success doesn’t depend on financial wealth.
If that were the case, she wouldn’t have voluntarily taken up residence in a mud hut in Kenya, sharing quarters with a bat that ate many of the giant spiders while accummulating credit card debt to pay for the experience.
Starr, 27, is a graduate of the University of Washington’s international development program and has worked for several international development agencies including Africa Aid and the Center for Microfinance in Amedabad, India.
Micro-lending is a process of economic development in which small loans are granted to the very poor in developing countries to help start or expand a business. In many cases, micro-lending has been successful in enabling impoverished people to engage in self-employment projects that generate income and in some cases, allow them to escape poverty.
She is currently working on her masters degree at the University of California at San Diego and was interviewed while home visiting her family in Blaine.
Q: What is it exactly about your job that you enjoy so much?
A: I just am very fascinated by the fact that every day is a struggle for people who live in these countries. It’s as much of a learning process for me as it is for them, but it’s having a connection with people that drives me. I’m not going to Africa to save the world. With microfinance, you give a woman a loan and it’s exciting to see what she does with it and how it helps her and her family.
It’s witnessing that power that is given when they have the opportunity to make that decision, when she is given that opportunity, that is so exciting. These women are just amazing and I feel honored to work with them. We talk about strength of character and they really have that. I’m hoping I might get some of that through osmosis.
Q: You talk about the role of gender in micro-lending. Explain.
A: The focus on microfinance is really with women because part of the model of microfinance is that when you give group loans, we call that building social capital, because that is tied to the respect of your peers and the attachment you have to the community. That’s a lot more prevalent with women.
Men are a lot more independent in their work and a little more autonomous and competitive at the same time and so these loans are repaid as a group and the women tend to be much more cohesive as a group and a lot of time, the men see small loans as something unimportant to repay. They tend not to take it as seriously. It’s interesting as much as there are cultural differences, those kinds of qualities exist in most of the communities you go to.
They always say if you increase a woman’s wealth, that wealth goes to her family rather than if you increase a man’s wealth. So while there are cultural differences in terms of how you address people, they are kind of over-ridden by these gender dynamics.
They’re not the politicians, or authority figures, but you go to the market and these women are really the backbone of the country. They run these businesses but they also run the families as well.
Q: How did you get involved in mirco-lending?
A: I had my first experience traveling abroad in 2001 when I went to Vietnam, I had a friend who came into work and said she really wanted to go on this study abroad trip but there weren’t enough people.
That trip really changed my focus. I had been wandering around and wondering what to study, taking pre-med classes but as soon as I went to Vietnam, I realized this is what I want to do.
After that, I started volunteering with an organization called East African Center, a Seattle-based educational group where my focus was working with a sewing group and helping them revise a small business curriculum. That’s where I got my interest in working with small enterprises.
The same friend who got me to go to Vietnam, later told me about the International Relations and Pacific Studies program at the University of California at San Diego and I focused on international development.
Q: You said your previous focus had been education but that you found the effects to be intangible in some countries.
A: I was looking for something that I could see the direct impact, teaching people to read or to go to secondary school, I had real questions about the effect.
I heard of kids going to secondary school and not having anything to do when they got done, or they have to move away. That messes up the community dynamic. You have communities that are fairly well isolated and established so when you have people moving out of the community, it’s sort of disruptive. It’s forcing people to make a change to their lifestyle rather than incorporating the development into the community.
When I found micro business education I felt like I found my calling, which is helping people redefine what they’re doing in their business and make more strategic decisions.
Q: Were you paid for this work or were you a volunteer?
A: I was living on credit cards, but I also had some support from UW in the form of a fellowship. So they paid for about half of the trip, which covered the airfare. I was paying off that trip for a couple of years.
I was also living like the locals did in a mud hut with no electricity, and I had a bat that ate all the really big spiders. It wasn’t really domesticated but I was really happy it was there.
This summer, I went to Ghana to actually implement a microfinance project with Africa Aid. It’s the first time I’ve actually been paid as a stipend.
Q: Can you talk a little about the differences in culture between the U.S. and these countries?
A: My very first thought after I got back from Ghana was ‘Oh, my god, there are so many white people here.” I was just shocked. I don’t remember that same shock going to Ghana, but it was a little shocking coming back.
Going to these countries you stick out so much and everyone wants to talk to you. It gets a little tiring after awhile and in Kenya, they call you “Mnzungu,” which means foreigner, and the kids jump and down and yell “Mnzungu!” and then coming home you’re just one person in a sea of people.
But if I got lost someplace in Kenya or Ghana, I could ask anybody for directions and sometimes people would take you several blocks out of their way to show you. The people were incredibly nice.
I think during my trip to Kenya I really learned about community. Their emphasis on community is just amazing. There was one weekend where I lived with two Peace Corps people and they were both gone for the weekend. I thought I was going to be alone for the weekend and the community just wouldn’t leave me alone. They just didn’t understand that someone would want to be alone and thought it was abnormal.
People kept knocking on my door, and finally someone insisted I have to come stay with their family, so I spent the weekend with a family.
Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 or 20 years?
A: What about in three months? I would love to be doing the same work – capacity building – in Ghana. In reality, a lot of the jobs for practitioners are kind of like more oversight of grants or rating the microfinance institutions. Telling people how well they’re functioning as an organization. But still, for me, having travel as a big part of what I do and having that connection with these organizations, those are the main things I’m looking for in a job.
Right now, I have one more quarter left of school and I’m just applying for as many jobs as possible. I’ve submitted applications to a lot of small organizations Plan International, Grameen Foundation, they actually have an office in Seattle, the Gates Foundation.