CFI is excited to welcome Sharlene Brown, who joins us as the Executive Director of the Microfinance CEO Working Group (now the Partnership for Responsible Financial Inclusion), where she will oversee the Working Group’s ongoing efforts to support the development of its member organizations and the microfinance industry at large. I had the opportunity to ask her about her work thus far, how she views the ever-changing inclusive finance industry, and where the Working Group fits in.
How did you first get interested in microfinance?
I was born in Jamaica and raised in Brooklyn, New York, so depending on the time of day and where I am, I might say I’m from Jamaica, or Brooklyn, or Brooklyn by way of Jamaica. Regardless, from a young age I knew I wanted to be able to give back. During an opportune economics course at Wellesley College, I came across Professor Yunus’ work and began to connect the dots between my own internal drive and burgeoning interest in investing and social responsibility, and the money management practices I had seen in my own community. ROSCAS, susus, juntas, or whatever you choose to call informal savings and credit groups, were the way that my family largely built their resources and foundation in the United States. So, early on I recognized that these types of non-traditional financial services can work well.
Where did this take you after graduating from college?
I followed an urge to challenge U.S. corporations on their bad behavior and joined Domini Social Investments, an investment firm focused on triple-bottom-line investments. Following a few years at Domini, I stayed in the socially responsible investment space and worked with the U.S. Sustainable Investment Forum, a member association for social investors. I also had an introduction to a New York-based group called Shared Interest, which supports microfinance in South Africa. There I created a social impact framework to help them balance their partners’ social results alongside financial performance.
When did you formally break into microfinance?
My first formal foray into microfinance was at Shared Interest doing social performance work, but I really expanded my expertise in this area at Grameen Foundation, where I trained MFIs and microfinance networks on social performance in my role as Senior Program Officer for the Social Performance Management Center. I oversaw projects for microfinance institutions in the sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East / North Africa regions, focusing mainly on supporting institutions to use the Progress out of Poverty Index (PPI). It was very important to scale up the usage of the PPI tool to improve business intelligence on clients being served and to increase the usefulness of PPI data to social investors. Accordingly, I focused on training microfinance partners of Grameen Foundation, CRS, and Oikocredit around the world.
It was during this time that I accepted a seat on the board of Oikocredit USA. So following Grameen Foundation, I went from sitting on Oikocredit USA’s board to serving as its National Director, which is where I was most recently and for roughly the past five years.
What attracted you to the prospect of leading the Microfinance CEO Working Group?
During my time at Grameen Foundation, it was clear that a number of commercial entrants were moving into the space under the cloak of social investing, even if the social mission wasn’t there. When talking with groups in the field, I often received the feedback from partners that every foreign investor says they’re social investors but you can’t discern who the true social investors are. Then, with the no pago (no payment) movement in Nicaragua and the Andhra Pradesh crisis in India, the risks were clearly coming to the surface.
Fast-forward to today, in looking at microfinance and how technology has changed the industry… And again, my family lives and breathes these traditional systems in many ways, but let me put it like this: I love Uber, despite all the controversies around it. To me, in some ways, many traditional microfinance organizations feel like the old, pre-Uber taxis. The technology providers, the fintech startups, the microfinance institutions employing new business models, they are shaping the future, and they’re growing rapidly. This brings many good things. For example, you’re able to get money to your family faster. But, a lot of the things we love about traditional microfinance – the close client relationships, the building of client confidence and capability, the partnerships with other socially minded organizations –they won’t be bundled into these new providers.
The Working Group has the unique opportunity to raise our heads. As the owners of the original mission of microfinance, we have the voice and network to help ensure that clients around the world aren’t just receiving access to financial services, but are better off because of them. I love that the Working Group network came together – a group of CEOs to lead the conversation and ensure that as we move forward with this work and as access to financial services change, client welfare is really at the center of everything. The Working Group has staked a position that says: we’re going to make sure that the social mission is embedded throughout our organizations and the entire industry. That was really the impetus for me joining.
How could you see the Working Group leveraging its position to further embed the social mission among the new “Ubers” of the financial inclusion world?
The CEOs in the group have already started thinking through such questions. Their combined knowledge is really rather unique because they have been doing the heavy-lifting, i.e., the fostering of effective relationships with clients at the base of the pyramid. And there is certainly an openness among the new inclusive finance players that we can work together to not just offer financial services, but do so in a way that is responsible, leveraging the knowledge of all groups. The CEOs and their organizations are inclusive finance specialists, and so they bring these very unique sets of knowledge that can be used to help broaden access to quality services. That really is the opportunity.
Please join us in extending the warmest of welcomes to Sharlene.
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