In 2005, Jessica Jackley co-founded Kiva and not only changed the world of microfinance but also the conversation about how we can all play a role in fighting global poverty.

Today, through the donations of over 1.3 million users, Kiva has facilitated over $760 million in loans to entrepreneurs.

Jackley, who grew up in the north suburbs of Pittsburgh, also co-founded and led ProFounder, a pioneering crowdfunding platform for U.S. entrepreneurs. She is currently a consultant and investor in the Collaborative Fund, which invests in social enterprises and whose portfolio includes Reddit, Kickstarter and Code Academy.

On October 28th, Jackley returns to Pittsburgh as the featured speaker at Speak Freely, to promote her recently released book, Clay Water Brick: Finding Inspiration from Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most with the Least.

You co-founded Kiva a decade ago and changed microfinance from something that large NGOs do to something that anyone with $25 can do. What inspired you?

I wanted to help tell a new story about poverty and potential. I wanted to share stories of entrepreneurship, not just need, of people living in poverty. And I wanted to allow anyone who heard those stories to respond with a loan, not a donation, because to me that connection promotes a bond of equality, empowerment, confidence (and a donation doesn’t always do this).

What do you know now that you wish you knew in 2005?

Everything turns out OK. (Actually, much, much better than OK.)

Kiva was an audacious proposition that changed many rules—and definitely met with some resistance in the beginning. What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs who have game-changing ideas and are facing the same challenge? 

Don’t be afraid to hear criticism, because you can almost always find something helpful or something to learn in the process. But, don’t get discouraged by it too much, either. The best way to figure out if something is going to work or not is to just try it. So get started, test, experiment, iterate . . . and prove the naysayers wrong! (And if it ends up they weren’t wrong, don’t stress, just learn and try again. The only way you can fail is if you stop trying.)

Pittsburgh has been receiving a lot of recognition as a fast-growing city for innovation. What do you think is the single most important thing the city and our investment community can do to support promising startups and encourage innovation from the grassroots?

Yes! It’s been very exciting to see Pittsburgh start to get some of the recognition it deserves. And this is just the beginning, I hope.

I think there are some obvious things that folks in this community can do to continue supporting entrepreneurs, like continuing to provide capital and resources, but one of the more subtle things I always like to encourage is an acceptance—or, better yet, a celebration—of “failure.”

I put that word in quotes because I think very few circumstances in life actually deserve to be called failures; usually, especially in the story of a startup, a “failure” is just an opportunity to rethink things, to learn, maybe to innovate, and then figure out how to move forward. So I think it’s hugely important to create a culture that understands, and doesn’t flinch at, the reality of the entrepreneurial journey, the twists and turns and bumps along the way.

In Clay Water Brick, you also share how your father has helped shape how you approach the “different seasons” of your life—with a clear mission statement anchored by a strong sense of identity. What struck me about that is the understanding that life is cyclical and our mission statements can change depending on where we are in that cycle. Do you still have “car conversations” with your dad? 

I am still very close with my parents and still learn a great deal from them. I think the main difference now though is that the exchange goes both ways and we seek each others’ advice. Of course, I love talking to them about parenting strategies most of all—they have a lot of wisdom in that department!

Speaking of seasons . . . what’s next for you?

I’m launching something new in coming months but not at liberty to say more about it . . . yet.

Kiva has changed the lives of over 1.7 million entrepreneurs in over 80 countries. In Clay Water Brick, Jackley shares many of the inspiring stories of individuals and families whose lives have been changed. We asked Jackley to share a story that has inspired her in particular and she quoted an excerpt from her book about a brick maker in Uganda whom she met 10 years ago. 

As a boy, Patrick lost most of his family when a militant rebel group attacked his village in northern Uganda. He and his younger brother fled the only home they had ever known and headed south. Patrick was unsure where they would end up, but after weeks of traveling they settled in a village near the Uganda-Kenya border, where they came across some distant cousins. They wanted to be as close as they could to family—any family at all.

Patrick and his brother had no home, no food, no money, not even shoes on their feet. They were young, orphaned, uneducated, homeless, and hungry.

It would have been easy for Patrick to look at his life and count the things he had lost. It would have been easy for him to view himself as a helpless victim, as someone who had been dealt too much injustice, suffered too much loss, and experienced too much pain to fight for a better life for himself. He could have assumed that because he had nothing, he was nothing—and would never become more.

But one morning Patrick made a simple decision that changed everything.

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 ground 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, he began to work the clay into bricks.

His first attempts produced meager results. The bricks were rough, misshapen, and cracked and crumbled easily. But he kept at it. Soon some of the bricks were good enough to sell, though just for a fraction of a penny each.

He saved some money over the following weeks until he was able to afford a wooden brick mold. The bricks he made with the mold were far better than his first batches; these were smoother and more uniform. They sold for a little more.

Patrick initially let his bricks dry in the sun, but he knew that they could be made stronger if they were fired. So he saved more money and bought a book of matches, gathered some kindling, and stacked his bricks around it to create a self-contained kiln. The kiln-baked bricks sold for even more.

Eventually he could afford a shovel and a trowel to replace his homemade implements. After that, he bought charcoal instead of wood for his fire. Soon he had enough work and enough money to hire his brother. After that, he hired a neighbor. Then another. By the time I met Patrick, in the spring of 2004, he employed several people, had a thriving business, and had built a lovely new home for himself—out of his very own baked mud bricks.

The moment that Patrick began to dig was the moment he began to create a new life for himself. Patrick saw opportunity where others saw none—in the ground beneath his feet—and he saw potential within himself, despite all he lacked. Pulling from the earth one brick at a time, Patrick became an entrepreneur and built his future. 

To connect with Jessica (and get updates on what’s next), visit her website www.JessicaJackley.com or follow her on Twitter @jessicajackley.

Leah Lizarondo

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment....