Ryan Calkins discusses microfinance and how his Willamette study abroad experience influenced his path. (1:24)
Alumnus Fights Global Poverty through Microfinance
Ryan Calkins '99 had little inkling while at Willamette that he would eventually found a popular organization to support Seattle's burgeoning microfinance industry.
He was majoring in religious studies - a topic far from that of financial services - after his mentor, Professor Doug McGaughey, sparked and supported his interest in the subject.
But during the fall of his senior year, Calkins studied in Ecuador, and the experience showed him an alternate path.
"For the first time, I was forced to have my culture stand in relief against another culture, and what that taught me about myself and what I wanted to do with my life was pretty fundamental," Calkins says.
That semester in South America launched Calkins on a path of fighting global poverty, and nearly a decade later, he discovered a different way to do it: microfinance.
Giving a Hand Up
Calkins worked for development organizations in Colombia and Honduras and earned a master's degree in international relations at Yale before learning about microfinance through a high school friend in Seattle.
The rapidly growing industry presents a way to help those living in poverty by providing them with financial services such as loans - with a promise that the money will be invested and repaid.
"What appeals to me about microfinance is that it creates a relationship of parity - I am going to loan you money because I believe you are worthy of credit, and in exchange you will use that money for a financial need. Over the course of time you will pay me back," Calkins says.
"My experience living in Latin America showed me that folks there don't want a handout - they want a hand up."
Founding an Organization
Calkins and several friends eventually created their own group: Seattle Microfinance Organization, or SeaMo.
Their organization acts like a chamber of commerce by connecting and supporting other groups working in microfinance, giving them new ways to collaborate.
SeaMo runs a website that provides information and networking opportunities for a continually increasing number of subscribers. The organization fields inquiries weekly from people in countries worldwide who want to learn more about microfinance.
SeaMo also hosts a monthly happy hour event in Seattle, Microfinance and Microbrews, which provides more networking opportunities and features guest speakers.
Business networking may seem like a long way from Calkins' initial study of religions, but not in his mind.
He says his Willamette education showed him anything was possible in his efforts to end poverty - whether he was doing disaster relief work in Honduras or connecting engaged citizens in Seattle.
"Willamette allowed me to experiment with different disciplines and find out what I was passionate about. Once I narrowed in on it, I had the support of Professor McGaughey, who was interested in not only my scholarly journey, but also in what kind of person I would become. Willamette provided me with a safe space to explore and form my identity."