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Thought Leader: Jessica Jackley

February 11, 2013

As part of the Carnegie Council Centennial Thought Leaders Forum, Carnegie Council's Devin Stewart spoke with Jessica Jackley, co-founder of Kiva. She is is currently a venture partner with Collaborative Fund, and a visiting practitioner at Stanford University’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much for coming today. It's an honor to have you here.

JESSICA JACKLEY: Thank you for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: We begin these interviews by asking the Thought Leaders to describe the world that they see. When you look out at the world, how is the world unique today, especially from a moral perspective?

JESSICA JACKLEY: I think the world is at a unique moment in time because of the connectivity that we have. It's so specific and so real. A lot of the ideas that I think we have been able to talk about for decadesreally, foreverare so much more tangible today. So we can talk about a moral issue, a problem in the world.

I talk a lot about something that I learned when I was very young, as a girl, in Sunday school about hearing that Jesus told us the poor would always be with us and how I had this picture in my head of what that meant. It was a little bit scary.

Now you can actually see individuals who might need better access to an economic resource. You can meet individuals today who are experiencing this. You can meet the poor specificallyname, face, individual.

You talk about how the world is unique from a moral perspective. Problems are not as abstract. They don't need to be as abstract as they have been in the past. We can get specific very easily, very quickly. And there are specific ways to take action, too.

DEVIN STEWART: You talked about two things. You described it and you also talked about that it leads one to be able to take action. What are the moral implications of this connectedness? Is there more of a duty to act? Is there something else?

JESSICA JACKLEY: For the level of duty, I think the obligation is the same. But what many people can no longer claim is ignorance, especially those of us that do have easy access to technology, to the Internet, to information. We know not only that these problems exist, but there are endless options, really great options, to do something to engage and to participate.

I think consumption and collaborative creation are two sides of the same coin. I think the fact that we have so many options to design and to participate in solutions to moral and social problems together is the mark of this age.

DEVIN STEWART: You're known for Kiva and other initiatives, which is one way for the average person to get involved. One of our big questions for the end of these interviewswe haven't gotten there yetis just about going directly to action. How would you advise the average person listening to these podcasts or reading these transcripts to take individual action?

JESSICA JACKLEY: I am not big on prescriptives, saying that there are a lot of "shoulds" in life. I don't think the best and most beautiful and most meaningful actions are taken because somebody feels guilty or feels like they have been told to do something.

So I guess my advice or my wishI'll put it that waymy wish for every human being would be that, out of a sense of gratitude for what they do in their own lives, out of a sense of a desire to be connected to other people in the world, whether it's online or in some other way, they reach out; they reach out beyond themselves. That can be a very personal day-to-day interaction with somebodygod forbidwho's actually live in front of you or it can be online. We can create communities and express our identities online now, in a way that we just couldn't do decades ago.

I don't necessarily have a "Hey, everyone, you should all go do this," but my wish is that everybody would get to discover the joy of being more connected to one another. It's a selfish thing. I believe that, for me, the more connected that I amto my kids, who are right there in front of me, to my family, to my friends and, yes, above and beyond that, to this broader community that I can access onlinethe more fulfilling my life is. I think life is mostly about relationships. We do have this opportunity and obviously the tools to make connectivity a lot easier.

You didn't ask this exactly, but I want to say one other part on this. I hope this is helpful. Sometimes I get worried that it's too easy to connect and to tune out and to personalize our experience so much. One of my friends, Eli Pariser, wrote a book called The Filter Bubble, and he talks about how there is a danger that we will tune out the public sphere and the problems that face people other than us, because we can so easily tailor and filter just what we want to read about, just what we want to see, just who we want to connect with.

So I worry sometimes that anybody might be able to feel like they have checked off some box of being connected to the outside world, when actually it's a very narrow experience, perhaps, just being connected to the people that they want to be connected to and hearing about the problems or the good things from only the people that they have chosen to include in their lives. It might seem like a broad community, but perhaps it's not. It might seem like you're doing things that do make impact, but I think, while there are easy ways to get involved and to make a great social impactthat's truethey can be sort of detached sometimes, and maybe too quick, too fastone click, just a few dollars.

That's fine, but I wonder often, what does that do to the growth that can happen, the grappling with issues and questions that are extremely important? What does that do, when it's almost too easy to get involved? Does that not give us the opportunity to stretch ourselves and to grow and to ask more of ourselves?

DEVIN STEWART: Just to summarize that, do you think there's a downside to our connectedness?

JESSICA JACKLEY: Yes, I think there can be a downside, not to our connectedness, but to how easy it can be and how easy it can feel to be connected in these often very quick, low-costin all senses of the wordways. I think you grow when you do things that are difficult. You can grow other times, too, but there's something special about doing bigger things and doing more than just clicking a few buttons or giving the change in your pocket to help another person.

To have to encounter people live, in person, and to have real, offlinegod forbidrelationships with them and exchanges with them is something that it's sometimes easy to avoid in certain circumstances.

So I think we have to be really careful to take full advantage and celebrate and, of course, be really excited about the opportunities that we have to connect online, to connect in these quick, easy ways, but to balance that with real live human interaction. That's something I'm very interested in, too. I think we can utilize technology to enable that as well. It's sometimes a little trickier.

DEVIN STEWART: It's a theme that we have been hearing from a lot of interviewees. That's a really good point.

Getting to the next part of our interview, we're exploring common values that are shared across societies or within societiesa very complicated question. Looking at your experience and the people you've met, we're looking at this idea of a shared global ethic, as part of our Centennial. Does that mean anything to you? If so, what does it mean?

JESSICA JACKLEY: It's very difficult to say in a way that doesn't seem trite or cliché, but of course there are more commonalities among us humans on the earth than there are differences.

For what it's worth, what comes to my mind when we talk about a global ethicI instantly want to insert "work" ethic. I think about the entrepreneurial spirit that I've seen all over the planet and how, in so many ways, that's what I look for and that's what I appreciate and try to learn more about and understand, when I do have the luxury of traveling to different places and the luxury of interacting with individuals, whether they call themselves entrepreneurs or not, all over the world.

I know I'm being quite abstract with this, and there are lots of ways to define entrepreneurship. But that spirit of wanting to create and contribute and push things forward, to get up every day and say, "Now what can I do to create more value?" especially with people who see themselves as social entrepreneurs, not just creating value for a small number of people, for paying customersthis very narrow groupbut to create value more broadly, to share that across different communities to those that, again, may not be the purchasersthat spirit of entrepreneurship, of creation is the most redemptive and life-giving common spirit and, I guess, common ethic that I have observed.

It's nice to be able to name it. I wouldn't say that it is a common religionit's not. I don't want to over-glorify it. But that spark and that spirit has been the most exciting thing that I feel like I've gotten to discover in individuals that I've met all around the world.

DEVIN STEWART: Are there specific examples from some of the countries that you would like to talk about?

JESSICA JACKLEY: I've had this wonderful opportunity to write about entrepreneurs throughout, actually, the last several years, whether they have been Kiva profiles, in the very early days, or case studies for Stanford Business School or in this upcoming book. I've gotten to interview and write about entrepreneurs who exhibit these incredible qualities that I see exhibited elsewhere in much more well-known, much more privileged entrepreneurial circles. The Great Rift Valleys of the world, as well as the Silicon Valleys of the world, have these incredible thinkers, incredible doers.

For example, I've met farmers that know their landscape literally so well and can talk about trends, talk about outside influences. The way that they describe their own work is so important and so wise and reflects how there's so much to learn from them about how any one of us can think about our own landscape, figuratively, I guess, and how to navigate that, how to direct resources in the right way across that landscape. There's so much that we can learn from even the simplest of entrepreneurs, like the farmers, the taxi drivers, the rickshaw drivers, the goat herders, individuals like that.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a lesson or a message that comes out that you could tell people?

JESSICA JACKLEY: Yes. What I see over and over again across the board is that great entrepreneurswhether they have an enormous business to show for it or not, whether they are subsistence farmers or people that just own a small kiosk or people who are driving a rickshaw to make a livingthe thing that I see in the best of the best is this resilience and this ability to every day start again and say, "I have enough to take that next step."

When I hear, whether it's people in college settingsand I speak to a lot of amazing college studentsor in corporate settings or in any big cityany well-resourced area, particularly in this country, but all around the worldwhen I hear very privileged entrepreneurs talk about a resource that they need or something that's in their wayyou hear a lot of people say, "If only I had," and then fill in the blank, another $1 million, a better developer or tech team, more expertise in this area"if only I had this thing, then I could really get going" or, "I could really grow to the next level"

I get it. It's great to identify the things that you need to grow. However, having seen entrepreneurs living off of a few dollars a day and making it work with nothing, seeing a brick maker who started by digging into the ground with his bare hands, forming a brick, selling it, and then going from there, it's incredibly humbling and very motivating.

I feel like the theme that I have seen and that I have hopefully absorbed and can believe in every day in an active way is that everybody right now, today, has enough to at least take one step forward. You have enough to start.

So that's the theme that I hope the stories that I can share and can retell for some of these great entrepreneursI hope that that can inspire a confidence and a motivation and a humility in fellow entrepreneurs.

DEVIN STEWART: Another small questionI'm being facetiouswhat is the greatest ethical challenge facing the planet? It's difficult. Part of our exercise here is to try to prioritize things, to help people make organizational and business decisions, as well as policy decisions, help people make sense of the challenges facing the world.

People often talk about either something that's philosophical or psychological, like tribalism and a sense of otherness, or things that are very concrete policy things, like poverty or climate change or coordinating action around those things. Those are some common motifs. What do you think?

JESSICA JACKLEY: I think the biggest ethical question, period, is how we really see ourselves and how we see each other. When we truly believe in each other's potential and we believe in our own potential, and we don't have any residue or doubts around believing that another person that may not have fully realized their own potential because of lack of resources, lack of access to opportunities, et ceteraif we look at them and think that they are less than us or if we think that we are less than what we can be, it's not good for the world.

I think that's just where it has to start. The more that we can believe in our own potential and believe in every other individual's potential, regardless of where they live and where they were born, what they have, what they don't have, their level of educationthat belief and confidence determines everything else. It determines what we choose to spend our waking hours doing, as we work every day. It determines how we talk to each other and look at each other. It determines how we will talk to our children about others. That is where everything starts. That's what shapes all of the rest of our actions in the world.

So if you really believe in human potential in yourself and in others, I think the moving around of resources and the creation of new technologies and innovationeverything takes care of itself and will be directed in the right manner.

So I'm excited to continue working on projects with organizations that champion that, that champion this belief in potential and distribution of opportunity and that can create experienceand reveal this to individuals that might have forgotten this very basic and most important piece of knowledge.

DEVIN STEWART: We're also talking about moral leadership and what it means to people. We're thinking about these issues from different levels. How would you define leadership?

JESSICA JACKLEY: This has probably been said before, even during this interview series. I think the heart of leadership is a desire to serve, a desire to serve not just individuals, but to serve ideals and a vision that you and those around you care about and believe in. When you submit yourself to something bigger than yourself and to other individuals, I think you step up. You feel called, or at least I have felt called, to step up and be the best version of myself that I can be. That's my goal, anyway.

DEVIN STEWART: Another one that we like to askAndrew Carnegie founded our place about 100 years ago. He was an entrepreneur.

JESSICA JACKLEY: I'm a native Pittsburgher. I know the Carnegie name well.

DEVIN STEWART: What do you associate the Carnegie name with?

JESSICA JACKLEY: Carnegie is a name that I grew up with, having grown up in a suburb outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When we would go into the city and see these amazing institutions with the Carnegie name on them, those are memorable. I have this strong association of great public works, great public service with that name.

DEVIN STEWART: I love Pittsburgh, by the way.

So this was 100 years ago. And we like to think about the next 100 years as well. We don't want to put you on the spot and ask for a prediction, because people often will sort of pass, which is understandable. But what would you like to see happen in the next few decades or century?

JESSICA JACKLEY: What I start with when I think about the next 100 years is, what do I hope doesn't change? I hope that we can really make some progress quickly so that the environment that we have still exists. I know that climate change is happening. I'm not in denial of that. But I hope that we can save and protect a lot of the great open spaces that still exist today and that the quality of our environment is still livable. I'm not so naïve as to wish that it's the same as it would be today. Who knows? Perhaps we can find ways to make progress and even get back to a greater quality than we have today. That would be pretty amazing.

I guess I think aboutI don't feel nostalgic for any particular technology, saying I still hope Facebook is around or something. Who knows what will exist even in five more years? But I think that there are some basic components and basic aspects of technology today that are in a sweet spot. I hope that we can continue to use technology for what it's meant for, and not become overly reliant on it, have it integrated in our lives so that the best of human interactions is not lost.

I think with collaborative creation and collaborative consumption, we are seeing more and more that that human component is what's important. Technology is just a tool to do these great things in the world. I hope that it continues to stay in its place.

DEVIN STEWART: Great answer. World peaceAndrew Carnegie was a big peace advocate before it became in the vernacular. World peace 100 years ago was cutting-edge. Now people question it: What does it even mean? What are your thoughts on world peace? Is it possible? What is it?

JESSICA JACKLEY: I do think world peace is possible. I guess the big question is, for how long a stretch, and of what quality exactly? Peace isyou can use that word, I think, to mean something very passive and, if you use it in a negative way, it means disengaged or a lack of interaction. You can imagine it being that wayor just low-key, where everyone's laid back and hanging out.

I think we can have even better than that. I think having world participation in a way that's respectful and empowering of every individualthat's maybe even better than just world peace. I think it's a great starting place. Let's get there, for sure. But from there, I get very, very excited about the kinds of activities, the kinds of creation that we can do together, the ways we can participate, to go from there.

You start with world peace, and there's a lot more to do after that.

DEVIN STEWART: Makes sense.

The final question: You talked about how people can get involved, if they feel, as you said, a sense of gratitude. When you talk about the challenges that we facefor example, belittling the potential of other people or belittling ourselves as wellboth are deep problemswho is ultimately accountable for solving these problems?

JESSICA JACKLEY: I believe that we all are responsible, we all are accountable, perhaps at different levels. I don't expect my little, tiny baby boysthey're one-and-a-halfI don't expect them to contribute the same types of things or the same amount, perhaps, in a certain way, that I expect of some of my peers and colleagues. But I do believe that there are ways, wherever we are in our lives, whatever we may have or not havethere are things that we can do to contribute to more than just our own well-being. And that's what we're here to do.

So I think it's all of our responsibility.

DEVIN STEWART: Perfect. Thank you. Thank you so much for a great last insight. I like that a lot.

JESSICA JACKLEY: A little shout-out to the babies.

DEVIN STEWART: It's funny. Anne-Marie Slaughter talked about her kids, too, a lot. It's interesting.

JESSICA JACKLEY: That's the thing, right? That's the issue right now. The work/life balance.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you want to talk about that?

JESSICA JACKLEY: It has been really interesting over the last two-and-a-half years, going through pregnancy while running a startup, while at one point raising a Series A roundso as a startup CEO, being pregnant with twins. Kind of intense. And then when they arrived and they are out in the world with uspeople say this again and againeverything changes.

I think in particular what changed has been my desire to make things count. I am not messing around. I do not want to waste my time. I know any minute spent with them needs to count, needs to matter, and any minute that I spend away from them has got to be spent on something worthwhile and meaningful. It has to be worth it.

So it has been very clarifying, very good for me to mostly, thank god, recommit to the priorities that I've set for my life and what I want to do and what I want to be a part of and what I don't want to be a part of.

I'm just so thankful for so many reasons. I'm thankful for my kids, period, and I'm thankful for the way that their presence encourages me to look at my life and ask hard questions of myself on a daily basis about how I am investing my life, spending all of the resources that I havetime, money, the talents that I'm trying to develop, experiences, et cetera. I want to use all of those in a way that matters and that counts.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you.

JESSICA JACKLEY: No problem. Are you kidding? That's a fun question. And I can send you photos of them if you'd like to intersperse them throughout.