Small lending makes big impact

By Danielle Jackson

Deborah Burand never imagined her long and winding financial consulting career would lead her to become an expert on the smallest of loans.

As the new executive vice president of programs for Grameen Foundation USA, she oversees the technology center, capital-markets group and program operations for the funder, which provides microfinance loans and other financial services to the world’s poor, primarily women.

Since the 1980s, Burand has split her career between the private and public sectors, from serving as a lawyer for global international firms to serving as senior adviser on international finance for the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

But during lunch one afternoon with a woman from FINCA International, a nonprofit that provides loans to entrepreneurs in third-world villages, she began to understand her purpose.

That’s when Burand, then working at Conservation International, an environmental conservation nonprofit, learned about microfinance and launched her new career.

“She was telling me about how women in poor countries often support each other and teach each other to write,” says Burand, who joined the foundation in January.  “I cried three times over the course of lunch. I was so moved at how financial services can empower the powerless.”

The Grameen Foundation was launched by Alex Counts, its founding and current president, with a $6,000 loan from Muhammad Yunus, founder and managing director of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh.

Yunus, who is credited with launching the global microfinance movement, still is an active member of the foundation’s board.

The foundation provides funding, technology, training and information services to a global network of 52 microfinance partners in 22 countries who then provide small loans and other financial services to entrepreneurs in third-world countries.

Based in Washington, D.C., the foundation has touched an estimated 7 million lives in Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East through microfinance since its inception, says Burand.

Loans generally are less than $200 and are used to buy tools and supplies for ventures such as weaving, breeding livestock or providing cell-phone communications.

And as each loan is repaid, generally within one year, the money is recycled as a loan to others.

Burand first worked with the Grameen Foundation as a volunteer.

After working with FINCA, shed served as an independent consultant for the Grameen Foundation and was invited to join its program subcommittee.

“As I got to know more about the organization, my respect for it got higher and higher,” she says.  “After my second program committee meeting, I was asked to have a more permanent relationship. It was impossible to say ‘no.’”

The foundation’s technology center, based in Seattle, is determining ways to use information technology to alleviate poverty throughout the world.

“That is a really unique niche, and something where we’re having some interesting innovative breakthroughs,” Burand says, citing the foundation’s Village Phone program as an example.

Deborah Burand

Job: Executive vice president of programs, Grameen Foundation USA, Washington, D.C.

Born: 1958, San Antonio, Texas

Education: Bachelor’s degree, DePauw University; JD/MSFS, Georgetown University

Career highlights: Conservation finance coordinator, Conservation International, 1988-89; senior attorney, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 1989-1994; associate, Shearman & Sterling, 1994-98; senior adviser/attorney, U.S. Department of the Treasury; Director, Capital Markets Group, FINCA International, 2001-04

Service: Co-founder and president, Women Advancing Microfinance International; board member, Microfinance Opportunities; investment committee, Global Commercial Microfinance Consortium

Hobbies: Freelance travel writing; teaching as adjunct law professor; hanging out with her sheepdog; reading

Favorite book: “Gilead,” by Marilynne Robinson

Most interesting travel destination: Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, Uganda, to see mountain gorillas

Would like to visit: Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Inspiration: “The millions of women clients around the world being served by Grameen Foundation’s partners and Grameen Bank”

“We’re working with telecommunications providers in the countries where we’re operating to get them to start thinking about how to make telephone and cell-phone services to the very poor,” she says.The foundation’s capital-markets group is aimed at tapping socially-responsible investors and finding ways to give partners in the field a broader range of funding sources, including growth guarantees.Such guarantees offer a form of credit enhancement to local banks to help them get over their initial resistance to lending to these populations, says Burand.

“The guarantees are unleashing amounts of currency from local banks,” she says, “and are changing the way they think about lending to the poor.”

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