<i>To Catch A Dollar</i>: Poor Women, Small Business And a Chance to Succeed in America

Can microfinance, a system that works so well in rural pockets of developing countries, be effectively applied to America's urban centers?
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Patricia, a Guyanese immigrant living in Queens, N.Y., had long dreamed of running her own business. An avid baker, she hoped to open a shop where she could sell the cakes and pastries she made on a smaller scale in her spare time.

But she lacked the seed money to afford the necessary supplies. And without savings or collateral, she certainly didn't qualify for a loan.

Determined to make her vision a reality, Patricia connected with a local branch of Grameen America, an organization that provides small loans to low-income entrepreneurs. With her first check, she bought a key ingredient for her business plan.

"My dream was to get me this big mixer," she said later, beaming. "And I couldn't believe it when I got a check from Grameen that day. I was like, I got my mixer!" She has since used loans from Grameen to grow her bakery into its own storefront, where she sells cakes and Guyanese food.

Patricia's story is chronicled in To Catch a Dollar, a documentary opening at the end of the month that follows industrious women on their quest to pull themselves out of poverty with the help of Grameen America, an arm of Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus' iconic microcredit bank. The film explores Grameen's efforts to empower struggling women by providing them means to establish their own businesses.

Often unemployed single mothers living in tiny apartments and struggling to feed their children, the women Grameen works with are otherwise "unbanked," completely shut out of America's mainstream financial system. They can't apply for a loan because they have no assets to their name, let alone the means to pay off interest.

What these women lack in resources, they make up for in drive. Each profile subject in To Catch a Dollar talks excitedly about her goals, her dedication to her work, her determination to make a better life for herself and her family. Her business gives her something to be proud of, and more importantly, it pays off.

Grameen's services aren't limited to handing out loans. As a condition of receiving such funding, borrowers must attend mandatory financial training sessions, make weekly payments and open a savings account. Clients can only use their loans for income-generating activities, and once they make enough money to repay Grameen in full, they are eligible to receive further assistance.

Each woman is required to form a group with four of her peers and meet with them weekly, along with a Grameen manager. In addition to providing a support network, these gatherings allow clients to track one another's progress and hold each other accountable, while the bank likewise monitors them.

"It goes further than giving money... it connects cultures and people and creates communities," said Alethia Mendez, a Grameen America manager featured in the film.

Yunus founded the original Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1976, operating under a more basic but similar microfinance system for poor women in rural areas, who used small loans to generate income for themselves -- by buying a goat to sell its milk or purchasing yarn to use for knitting salable scarves, for example.

Such microloans have proven widely successful, and through its decades in operation, Grameen has established centers in more than 40 impoverished nations around the world. The launch of its U.S. counterpart in 2008 marked a new experiment in microfinance: Can a system that works so well in rural pockets of developing countries be effectively applied to America's urban centers? To Catch A Dollar explores this question, following the bank's early days in the Bronx.

Skeptics tend to doubt that an organization that gives away loans without demanding collateral could possibly be successful. But Grameen America boasts a 99 percent repayment rate. Supporters attribute this to a number of factors, including the sense of responsibility drawn from reporting to peers each week (a classic tenet of microfinance) to the work ethic of struggling women who see their loan as a rare lifeline.

Still, while revered by many, microfinance maintains its share of critics. Aside from raising eyebrows at the idea of simply handing out loans to folks in need, opponents fear that encouraging large numbers of individuals to self-employ will lead to a bubble doomed to burst, citing the travails that saddled Bolivia at the end of the twentieth century. Yunus wrote a scathing editorial in the New York Times earlier this year denouncing the rise of "loan shark" microfinance as many lenders have shifted from non-profit to commercial enterprises. And even as I publish this piece, Grameen's founder himself faces charges from Bangladesh's government, which has demanded his removal from the company.

Controversy aside, as Arianna pointed out when launching The Huffington Post's "Small Business America" section, the entrepreneurial spirit in our country is alive and well. Given we're facing the biggest unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, Grameen provides an opportunity for its clients to build themselves out of poverty by harnessing that drive.

As in most industrialized nations, U.S. banking operates predominantly on the principle that the more you have, the more you get. To Catch a Dollar brings to life one of the few organizations turning that concept on its head. For the first time in their lives, the women in the film have a chance to succeed within a system in which the odds have long been stacked against them.

The results are nothing short of extraordinary. Just visit Patricia's bakery in Queens.

To Catch a Dollar will be shown in theaters throughout the country on March 31, for one night only, as part of Grameen's larger U.S. antipoverty campaign. You can pledge to see the film here and receive a $1 code to help a woman start or grow her business. You can also request to host a screening at a theater near you. Click here for more, and check out the trailer below.

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