BOOK REVIEW: Clay Water Brick by Jessica Jackley

Ever since the dawn of modern history, contemporary capitalist cultures have been divided over two interpretations of freedom. One wants freedom from… exploitation and poverty. The other wants freedom to… make as much money as legally possible with permission (thank you) to live without guilt concerning the have-nots.

Each camp has its own concept of global citizenship and our obligations to one another.

Jessica Jackley- co-founder of Kiva and author of Clay Water Brick - belongs to the “freedom from” folks. She’s devoted her entire life to the issue of poverty, refusing to believe that it is inevitable. “The poor will always be with us,” her Sunday school teacher had once said.

Ironically, it was the same Sunday school teacher that gave Jackley a social conscience when she quoted Jesus from the Book of Matthew. “I tell you the truth, what you do for the least of these, you do for me." (25:40) Suddenly the little five-year-old understood that helping the poor was helping God, as clearly confirmed by the Lord’s Prayer: "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."‪  ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Without realizing it, Jackley was allying herself with the social gospel, an alternative to the traditional version of Christianity formulated by Calvin and other Reformation leaders that eventually fueled the industrial revolution and colonialism; the version that believed it was natural law to exploit workers at home and “the other” abroad; the version of Christianity that accepts poverty as a normal human condition in which some people are just born poor and destined to live at the bottom of the ladder.

Given Jackley’s comfortable, middle class childhood, one might think her indignation about poverty would make her renounce her bourgeois Pittsburgh, Pa. suburban life and join an ashram on a windy hilltop in India. Or maybe a grassroots revolutionary cell in Berkeley.  No way. Jackley wanted to make a difference and this meant engagement. Not escape.

She took an MBA at Stanford University and started applying business principles to the alleviation of poverty, one person at a time. Instead of donations, she arranged to give no-interest loans to fledgling entrepreneurs in nations with populations that existed on $1 (or less) a day. Eventually, Kiva became the model for the world’s first personal microlending platform.

Her personal story is riveting, recounted with candor and trust in the reader. Once she realized that donations to charities were not efficient, she turned her attention elsewhere, seeking long-term solutions.

Jackley’s mantra:

“Hear a story about poverty. Feel sad, give a few bucks. You are buying a temporarty sense of relief and eventually, you’ll forget about the incident. Hear a story about a hardworking entrepreneur. Feel inspired, lend a few bucks, stay connected, get repaid, and in the end you’ll care more than you did before.”

Jackley describes how she “stalked” NGO specialists, begging them to teach her how to be effective; how hearing Muhammad Yunus changed her life; how she got her first experience with microenterprise when she went to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania to evaluate entrepreneurs that had each been given $100 by the NGO, Village Enterprise. Jackely’s job was to find out exactly what that $100 had accomplished; how did it start - or grow - a business repairing shoes, selling spare bicycle parts, growing millet or maize, knitting sweaters or serving rice and beans to workers on lunch break. And exactly how many people were benefitting from the results.

When Jackley and her partner/husband, Matt Flanery started Kiva, they travelled a zigzag path with obstacles and innumerable disappointments. They met with lawyers - over forty of them - who told them their dream was naïve and unworkable. To each doubting lawyer she affirmed:  “Yes, I really did think there were individuals out there who would want to lend their hard-earned money, for free, to someone they didn’t know. Yes, I really did believe that technology would keep us connected to even seemingly remote areas like rural Uganda.”

They ignored the lawyers’ advice. Leaning on their friends, family and each other for strength, and pushed on until they eventually found a lawyer who would help them take the risks.

“… I drafted an email to friends and family, telling them about the website and our little project. We couldn’t promise repayment. We couldn’t promise much of anything. But we hoped they would want to join us in this experiment to lend $25 to seven friends on the other side of the planet.”

“We hit send and held our breath.”

By September 2005, the entrepreneurs had repaid the entirety of their original loans, and the founders realized they had developed a sustainable microcredit concept. Since its founding Kiva has facilitated over $700 million dollars in loans among individuals across 216 countries at a repayment rate of 99 percent.‪ As of November 2013, Kiva was raising about $1 million every three days. The Kiva platform has attracted a community of more than 1 million lenders from around the world.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

After four years, Jessica Jackley left Kiva and started ProFounder, a pioneering crowdfunding platform for U.S. entrepreneurs to facilitate investment between start-ups that needed money to launch and willing investors who didn’t know how to invest in a private company. Challenging the status quo for retail start-up investing and fund-raising, ProFounder helped change crowdfunding laws in America, a big victory for the crowdfunding industry.

Perseverance. Imagination. Courage. These are the main takeaways of Clay Water Brick. Jackley wants to share her experience with us, hopefully to recruit the next generation already poised to build a movement away from an ownership based economy towards a sharing-based economy.

Jackley has a lot to teach us, and she cleverly uses case studies to introduce her themes and lessons; conceptual metaphors, as it were. The book’s title comes from Patrick, a brickmaker in Eastern Uganda.

Sitting on the ground, watching the sun rise as he leaned against the side of the mud structure where he slept, he wondered as he did every morning, whether he would eat that day. He rested his hand on the warm dry earth. His gaze shifted from the sky to his hand, and he stared at the gound beneath his fingers. An idea began to take shape. In a moment of inspiration, he rolled up his sleeves and he began to dig. He used a thick, short piece of wood and some scraps of discarded metal as tools. As he dug, he learned. He saw that certain patches of rust-colored earth were harder and contained more clay than others. He experimented and found that if he mixed the clay with water until it was the right consistency, it could be shaped. Slowly, with his bare hands and a single scrap of wood, he began to work the clay into bricks.

Patrick learns how to fire his bricks and eventually replaces his homemade implements with a shovel and a trowel. He hires others and by the time Jackley meets him, he has a thriving brick business and a new home.

“The minute that Patrick began to dig was the moment he began to create a new life for himself,” Jackley says. And here’s the lesson: “He saw opportunity where others saw none. He saw potential within himself, despite all that he lacked. Pulling from the earth one brick at a time, Patrick became an entrepreneur and built his future.”

Eventually, we meet Katherine the Fishmonger, who teaches us to move out of our comfort zone; to take risks. Then there is Blessing the shopkeeper in Dar es Salaam who teaches us not to be shy; to move into the center; to have the courage to place ourselves smack in the middle of the action. And then comes Samuel the Goatherder, who teaches us to pay attention to the individuality of those we encounter; to question our first impressions and to know that what we believe about someone else can literally limit what is possible for them - or - it can set them free to achieve greatness. Constance the banana vendor in Kenya teaches us to cooperate with our competitors and then stake our claim to what we do best; a type of comparative advantage.

Leila and Zica are hairdressers in Rio de Janeiro. Without a formal education in chemistry, they invented Super-Relaxante, a hair relaxer that became the foundation of a nation-wide business. To cope with the overwhelming traffic their product generated, they invented a unique salon experience that is now duplicated throughout Brazil. These stores will eventually employ 15,000 employees and serve millions of customers each year. The lesson: partnership, innovation, focusing on an underserved market. Above all, confidence.

One of the most important chapters in Jackley’s book is Chapter 6 about integrity and being faithful to your mission. Jackley describes conversations she had with her father, a moral compass in her life, and how his influence prepared her to turn down $10 million when it was offered to Kiva. Here the lesson is about “mission drift” and staying faithful to your vision; remembering who you are.

Raj the rickshaw driver in Jaipur, India teaches us to take our own path and when advisable, to take the side streets.  Clay the candy shop owner in Honolulu teaches the wisdom of treating everyone like “family,” ohana in Hawaiian. This resonated well with Jackley for a good reason. From the beginning, Kiva’s mission was “to connect people through lending.” Connecting people creates ohana; a circle of trust. (Kiva is Swahili for unity.) Loans went to people who became friends with their lenders, which is probably why Kiva had such a high repayment rate.

Shona is an artist; a sculptor in Cape Town, South Africa, who used her design skills to create a wheelchair and other equipment for children with disabilities. Jackley says that Shona is a master of the interative design process. Just after meeting Shona, we hear about Jackley’s experience at Stanford in a course called “Design for Extreme Affordability.” Here we hear how a hybrid course involving engineers, business and liberal arts students can create amazing new things such as a water storage container for people in Myanmar.

Li the tailor in Beijing, China teaches us not to get too attached to what we build; to have the courage to “rip apart the seams,” if necessary, in order to get it right. Abasi the farmer in Rwanda was obsessed with watching and predicting the weather. “Likewise,” Jackley says, “smart entrepreneurs recognize the forces around them that they cannot control – especially those forces that hinder their progress … they manage the inevitable storms so minimal damage will occur.”

There is pathos in Chapter 11 as Jackley describes how a trusted colleague committed fraud and how she made the decision to leave her marriages to Matt Flannery and to Kiva.

Other reviewers of Clay Water Brick have summarily dismissed this book by describing it in a single word: “inspirational.” True enough, but this ostensible praise turns out to be a shallow evaluation of a non-fiction book that is so much more than that. Clay Water Brick challenges serious, debilitating dogma about the poor: “They don’t deserve more because they don’t contribute.”  “They shouldn’t be allowed to drink water they didn’t carry.”

Clay Water Brick destroys these bigoted concepts – brick by brick. But how many more migrants will have to die on the top of a traveling train before we pay attention?

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