hether you’re talking about dot-com startups in the Internet-dominated Silicon Valley or peasants in rural Central America, economists will tell you that access to capital is the single most important factor for entrepreneurial success. While Internet executives launch “initial public offerings” to generate billions of dollars of seed money for their high-tech companies, half a world away would-be entrepreneurs are looking for loans as small as $60 to set up decidedly low-tech businesses like selling vegetables or hand-sewn clothes.
Working in Nicaragua, Kathleen O’Sullivan ’90 has been at the front lines of this capitalist endeavor. As country director for the nonprofit Pro Mujer Nicaragua (pro mujer means “for women”), O’Sullivan spent four years guiding a microlending program that now helps more than 5,000 women and includes 50 full-time staff members. Instead of giving handouts that could create a culture of dependency, Pro Mujer solicits donations from the first world and in turn provides market-rate loans to women in the third world.
Along with the loans, Pro Mujer’s clients get business training, a network of local women building similar microbusinesses, and access to better education and health care. Recently the United Nations cited such microcredit programs as a major factor in the improving condition of women in the developing world. And economists who champion the free market like microlending because it grants the world’s poorest citizens access to nothing less than the capitalist system itself.
O’Sullivan says, “Women deal with limited opportunities in Nicaragua, as in most developing countries. Fifty-five percent of Pro Mujer clients were unable to attend school beyond the primary level. With little opportunity for formal employment—a job—they look for a way to earn enough to put food on the table.” As for men in the family, she explains, “the relationship structure is often transient, and when men move on to another relationship, they don’t normally provide child support.” Nor do they usually wish to adopt or support children who are not their own. O’Sullivan says, “The women we work with are not ‘entrepreneurial’ by nature but have become micro-entrepreneurs because of a lack of other alternatives.”
Kathleen O’Sullivan ’90 advises a Nicaraguan woman about starting up a small business to support herself and her children.
At Skidmore, in addition to completing a sociology major and Asian studies minor, O’Sullivan worked with an after-school program at the local Franklin Community Center to help prevent juvenile delinquency. She credits her liberal arts education with helping her broaden her horizons. After graduation came graduate school—an M.A. in political science from the University of Rhode Island—and then three years working for “Coffee Kids,” a nonprofit dedicated to investing coffee industry profits back into the communities where the beans are grown. The work strengthened O’Sullivan’s belief that business can be a solution to poverty when jobs are created and profits are shared with workers, farmers, and families. O’Sullivan next took a two-year posting with the Peace Corps, teaching nutrition and vegetable gardening (“I planted more radishes than I ever thought possible”) in Bolivia, where she was introduced to Pro Mujer and was offered the chance to help start its Nicaragua operation.
According to Lynne Patterson, Pro Mujer’s co-executive director, who hired O’Sullivan out of the Peace Corps, her commitment to Pro Mujer’s clients never waivered. “She stayed when the going got rough; she did not quit,” says Patterson. “She lived through volcano eruptions, a hurricane, smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture that prevented planes from landing at the airport, a serious illness.” In fact after her three-year contract was up, she stayed another year to continue developing the program, before returning to the States this summer. And Stephen Downes, a member of Pro Mujer’s board of directors (and father of Stephanie ’93), calls O’Sullivan poised, committed, a listener, a leader, and “a mentor to all the staff.”
For O’Sullivan, it’s all about providing opportunities. “I have always known that I have been blessed with a wonderful family and incredible opportunities, and I wanted to open up those kinds of opportunities for others—so they can work for what they want. I really believe in the capability of each person to get ahead on their own if given the right opportunities.”
After six years in Latin America, O’Sullivan says she’s glad to reconnect with friends and family at home. But first, she made sure that Pro Mujer Nicaragua was in good hands: “We just hired an outstanding replacement. I feel comfortable with her ability to lead the team I formed and take the business forward.”
Which is no easy task. O’Sullivan’s greatest challenge came in October 1999, when Hurricane Mitch pounded Central America with 40 inches of rain, killing 9,000 people and causing $1.5 billion in damage to Nicaragua alone. Over night, Pro Mujer’s clients went from worrying about their businesses to fighting for their homes, their children, and their lives. “When I woke up, my house, which was raised two feet off the street level, was entirely flooded,” O’Sullivan recalls. “The streets of León were rivers three feet deep. I was terrified and saddened at the same time, because I knew that if my house in the city was flooded, the poor people in the countryside, the ones in plastic huts, must have been suffering terribly.” She says, “Although none of our clients died in the storm, several died from illnesses in the weeks thereafter and many lost immediate family members. It was a very intense time, when tears flowed easily.”
O’Sullivan and Pro Mujer quickly went to work distributing more than 50 tons of rice, beans, sugar, soap, and other necessities to those most affected by the disaster. And once their clients’ immediate needs were satisfied, O’Sullivan and her staff began the long process of helping the women rebuild their businesses, replace inventory that was destroyed, and start earning money again. Take Natalia Veronica Centeno Davila, 43, who according to Pro Mujer’s annual report has six children and sells food, cosmetics, and fruit. As she sees it, “We women have to do whatever we can to get food for our house. What I like most about Pro Mujer is being with other women. We are learning how to be united and help each other.”
Jens Ohlin ’96, former Skidmore News editor, is currently a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Columbia University.