Personal View

By Anjali Banthia
BS 03

I’ll never forget Asma and Shahnaz, two entrepreneurs I met on a very hot, long day in Lahore, Pakistan.

I was interviewing Asma, a 34-year-old mother of seven, while researching the barriers to women’s micro-enterprises as part of a team from Women’s World Banking, an international network of microfinance institutions. When Asma walked into our cramped, humid interview room, I remember being taken aback by her frail frame and yellowish skin, which I soon learned were the symptoms of a debilitating case of Hepatitis C. As Asma told us about her grueling daily schedule, which included waking up at 4:00 a.m. to care for her seven children, managing her household, and knitting sweaters to sell in the local market, I couldn’t imagine the struggles she endured to support her family.

While Asma’s quiet dignity and her difficult life deeply moved our team, we were uplifted when we met Shahnaz, a boisterous, charismatic beautician who began telling us all about her thriving beauty salon business as soon as she entered the room. Even before we could ask her a question, she was already recommending new hairstyles for each of us! We learned that Shahnaz had not only run a successful beauty salon in central Lahore for over 12 years, but she had also trained more than 200 women to be beauticians and hairdressers — all while raising an autistic son and her two other young children.

On the surface, Shahnaz could not have been more different from Asma. But I realized that as mothers and businesswomen, they shared a common dream of providing a better future for their children. They faced similar financial obstacles to managing their households and businesses, such as paying for health care or finding resources to invest in better supplies. Their stories -- and the stories of other women like them around the world – inspire my work in microfinance and reinforce my passion for researching and developing innovative financial products that can help reduce these financial obstacles for the poor.

A New Frontier in Microfinance

Most commonly, microfinance institutions provide tiny business loans to micro-entrepreneurs, usually women. Yet the development of a full suite of impactful and profitable financial products customized to the varied needs of the poor represents an exciting frontier in microfinance. Promising innovations include affordable health and life insurance policies for the poor, housing loans, and advances in technology such as mobile phone banking to expand access to microfinance into rural and remote regions.

Since graduating from the Haas School of Business, I have been focused on developing and managing innovative products, initially in the household goods industry at the Clorox Co. and now in the microfinance industry at Women’s World Banking, where I work as a strategy consultant. My two years at Clorox taught me the importance of building a strong understanding of consumer behavior, and convinced me that well-designed products do have the power to solve real problems in people’s lives.

After graduate school at the London School of Economics, I decided to pursue a career in microfinance because it allows me to improve the lives of others by using both the training I received at Clorox and the knowledge I gained at Haas in such business disciplines as marketing and finance. I also like that microfinance is not a charity response to poverty. Rather, it’s a business response that aims to empower poor entrepreneurs to develop and grow their own businesses while also providing the lending institution with profits for reinvestment and/or dividends for social investors.

Empowering Teens in Mongolia

One especially memorable recent assignment took me to Mongolia, where I worked on researching and developing a savings and financial literacy program for low-income teenage girls. The aim of the program is to empower girls to learn how to manage their money at a young age. Speaking with girls about their dreams and financial goals at a school in Ulaanbaatar (pictured above) was one of the project’s highlights. I was truly impressed by their intelligence and confidence, and I am excited to see how our program (currently being tested in Mongolia) will enhance those qualities.

As I look back over the past six years since graduating from Haas, I cannot overemphasize how much Berkeley has influenced my career and my life. Long before I discovered my passion for microfinance, the energetic environment of activism and global awareness at Cal sparked a desire and a sense of responsibility in me to use my education to help contribute to a better world. For me, that feeling came as much from activism on Sproul Plaza as the classrooms at Haas, where we were encouraged to use business skills to make a positive impact in the world around us. Just as important, the global network of lifelong friends, colleagues, and faculty from Haas constantly inspire me with their dedication to do good business and good work. Go Bears!