By Julia Kurnia, Director
One of the most remarkable things about Zidisha is that our operations are almost entirely volunteer-driven. While most nonprofits spend large amounts of money on expensive headquarters and administrative staff, Zidisha has never had a brick-and-mortar office. Other than the director and lead web developer (each of whom receive a small living stipend), everyone who works with us is an unpaid volunteer.
We use email, Skype and the Zidisha forum to collaborate from our own home locations all over the world. Like our loans, our team is unlimited by geography. We have key volunteer staff in such far-flung places as China, Burkina Faso, India and Nicaragua as well as the US and Europe.
Our team is full of incredible people, many of whom have been profiled in this blog. Today I’d like to focus on Bayle Conrad, our volunteer Country Liaison Manager based in Seattle, Washington.
Bayle is one of the most amazing and generous people I’ve ever met. On a purely volunteer basis, she keeps an enormous number of key operations at Zidisha running smoothly. She leads the volunteer teams in charge of new borrower application reviews, loan disbursements and repayment entries, and email communications. She also takes the lead in helping new Country Liaison interns and volunteers get started at Zidisha, providing orientations and making sure everyone has the information and support they need to have a satisfying and productive volunteering or internship experience.
It’s hard to believe that a full year has passed since Bayle Conrad joined our Country Liaison team. Since then, she has quietly helped hundreds of entrepreneurs transform their lives with Zidisha loans, and strengthened our lending program in a multitude of ways. It is in large part thanks to her care and attention that our community has benefited from a strong network of Volunteer Mentors in Kenya, and that our Country Liaison team has become so large and active.
This week I managed to persuade Bayle to take some time away from her many activities to participate in an interview about what volunteering with Zidisha means to her. It’s a wonderful opportunity for all of us to get to know one of the inspiring people whose hard work and passion has made our community such a beautiful place. Here is the interview, reproduced in full:
How did you hear about Zidisha?
I heard about Zidisha pretty early on in my job search upon graduating with a Master’s degree in Global Health. Through my thesis work, I had become interested in microfinance, social entrepreneurship, and working with organizations that focus on poverty alleviation and empowerment. I had the opportunity to work with a non-profit in Kenya that provides services for HIV-positive children living in Nairobi’s informal settlements, and was tasked with the mission of helping the organization create a program for those clients who had grown into adolescence with the disease.
I was struck by the services the teens wanted – over and over they asked for life/job skills development and more opportunities for leadership and empowerment. Working daily in the informal settlement of Kibera, I was also struck by the ingenuity I saw in the community, and wondered what it could accomplish if its residents were given the opportunity to improve their livelihoods in the way they chose, not the way that donors dictated aid funding be used. I also became friends with caregivers participating in a merry-go-round savings group, which had turned into a thriving craft shop and salon. All of these experiences really transitioned my interest away from traditional global health and into a more development-focused career path, which lead me to research potential opportunities in microfinance.
Throughout my graduate school career, I was concerned about how to be an ethical and effective practitioner in international development once I graduated. I wasn’t sure about microfinance at first – I had heard the too-common stories about incredibly high interest rates and questionable lending practices. When I found the Zidisha internship, I really knew very little about microfinance but was impressed at how the organization operated in terms of having few administrative costs so that interest rates were kept low. I was immediately drawn to this approach, which is pretty cutting-edge in the field of development. This vision really spoke volumes about the people behind the organization, and I knew I wanted to be part of it.
What sort of activities have you done since you started volunteering with us?
It’s funny to think about how far I’ve come since I started at Zidisha. I began by working on the email/SMS team, the M-PESA team, and helping create the University Outreach Ambassador program. Since then, I’ve done just about every possible activity, I think!
Right now, I’m a Country Liaison Manager, so I’ve transitioned into more of a supervisor role. I lead the application review team, the M-PESA team, and the Kenyan SMS/email team, while also coordinating new volunteers/interns and beginning to work more with a lender outreach role. I personally love having a variety of things to do, and really enjoy being part of so many teams and working with so many different people every day.
What is your favorite Zidisha volunteering activity?
I love communicating with borrowers. When I first started with Zidisha, there was more of an opportunity to call and speak with Kenyan borrowers, which I really enjoyed. Sometimes it was difficult to coordinate time-zone wise, but it was worth it to make that personal connection. I also became close to several of our Volunteer Mentors when making weekly phone calls to them. I wish I could go back to Kenya to meet so many of the people I’ve come in contact with since I started working with Zidisha. I’ve been invited to homes of complete strangers, for simply answering questions and doing my job. The overwhelming appreciation and generosity I’ve experienced when working with Kenyan borrowers has been an incredible experience.
Do you have a favorite Zidisha entrepreneur story?
This is such a hard question! Almost every day I come across a story that I’m fascinated by. The first entrepreneur that comes to mind is Judith Chidzugwe. I emailed her several times before she became a Zidisha borrower to help her solve some account problems and she was always so polite and patient to correspond with. Every time I see her picture, it puts a smile on my face. She is working on so many interesting projects, and giving back to her community at the same time. I think that’s actually one of my favorite things about reading entrepreneur stories – so many people, whether they farm, or run a cybercafé, or sell used clothing, want to make a difference in their community.
Another favorite entrepreneur story is Dishon Obwaya. I found his profile while introducing my dad, an architect, to Zidisha. It was meant to be, because Mr. Obwaya is an architect working in western Kenya, and I’ve never come across another architect before! My dad was so excited to connect with a person working in the same field, but with a completely different life experience. I see these interactions between borrowers and lenders all the time on Zidisha and it just reminds me how remarkable it is to be part of this community.
Where do you usually work with Zidisha (home, cafe, park)?
Usually, I work at home. I have a large desk in a room with tons of natural light (and even a tiny view of the Seattle Space Needle!) so it’s perfect for working from home. I will occasionally work in cafes, but I find that I distract myself too easily. You will rarely find me far from coffee though!
What do you like to do in your free time?
I am a bookworm at heart. My boyfriend makes fun of me because I will use any situation to get an extra few minutes of reading in – even while brushing my teeth. I was definitely that kid (and adult!) who stayed up way too late reading “just one more chapter” of my current book.
Other than that, you can find me beachcombing the Pacific coast (the saying ‘one man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ is highly debated in my household), searching for the best sushi and Ethiopian restaurants in Seattle, listening to music, and trying unsuccessfully to get my cat to wear a bowtie.
What are your long-term career goals? How does working with Zidisha help advance those goals?
I hope to continue working in a similar field, with organizations that focus on poverty alleviation by empowering communities, whether that is through entrepreneurship training, microfinance, or employment creation. Zidisha has been so incredibly useful in advancing my career goals. It’s given me a foot into this field, and an in-depth background and understanding of the nuances of microfinance which I would not have otherwise. I’ve also gained so much experience in leadership, collaboration, and had so many opportunities to contribute to important projects, duties that I might not have otherwise had in a comparable entry-level position. It’s truly been such a pleasure working for Zidisha and I know it will be a definitive life and career experience for me.