Prosperity to the People

Online microfinance can unleash your inner Rockefeller

Founded a year ago with scarce seed money secured from corporate donations and a few investors, Kiva recently hit the million-dollar mark with its loans.

"People are feeding their kids with these loans," Shah says. "The measurement of success isn't the acquisition of a VCR, it's super-basic: 'I'm able to plan for my health, get anti-malarials.' It's basic survival."

Online journals maintained by Kiva's field officers allow investors to see exactly where their money is going. Transparency is a key word for both Kiva and Prosper, which is not surprising, given Larsen's high-profile advocacy for financial institutions disclosing their offshore outsourcing programs to consumers.

Like Larsen at Prosper, Shah speaks with the zeal of a true believer, and the two companies share a mutual respect. Larsen says they're both "trying different ways to crack the code." Even with scrutiny, it's hard to find a downside to either venture.

"This is an awesome time, man," Shah says. "You know the Chinese proverb, 'May you live in interesting times?' We're doing something right now that I believe will outlive ourselves, Kiva, and Prosper."

Benevolence isn't typically the bottom line in the financial realm, but both companies function on the notion that altruism and asset management can coexist. Microfinance in its various forms is an economic revolution and its ramifications have just begun to be felt. A new year is the perfect opportunity to make some waves yourself.

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