REED HOME Gryphon icon
Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoAutumn 2007

Leesa Wilson Schrader ’89

Lending to the Poor

Leesa Wilson Shrader ’89 is a microfinance guru. She’s spent the last 15 years searching for new ways to extend financial products—primarily loans—to the world’s poorest. And for most of that time, as Shrader has worked for the United Nations, the World Bank, USAID, Women’s World Banking, and other organizations (including one she founded, the Russian Initiative for Self-Employment, or RISE), her field has enjoyed relative obscurity. That changed abruptly last year when Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Bangladesh-based microlender Grameen Bank, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Shrader, who has an M.A. in public policy from Georgetown University, is taking the hoopla in stride—a rapid, purposeful stride, that is. At 41, the mother of two (ages five and six) has tales to tell: of a camel-hair blanket maker whose business she tried to help in St. Petersburg, and mixed-ethnicity bank boards she worked with in the Balkans.

Now, she’s riding the next wave of microbanking innovation. Based in Jakarta, Indonesia, with her husband, Hans (a development specialist with the International Finance Corporation), Shrader is trying to bring the power of commercial banks to bear on poor communities. Working as a consultant for Portland-based relief agency Mercy Corps, she’s been lobbying the Gates Foundation, Intel, and several international agencies to join in founding a new Indonesian commercial bank.


Indonesians benefit from microfinance arranged by Mercy Corps

Reed: What has it been like watching microlending become better known to the general public?
Shrader: When my mom finally heard about it in the press she called me and said, “I finally get it!” A 30-minute TV program, and it finally clicks in. I’ve been trying to tell her for years.

At the same time, the sector is in total flux and I think some people are scared. In India, a gigantic commercial bank is channeling money through microfinance institutions to poor people; it’s allowed the bank to go from 400,000 poor clients to six million in four years. It’s good. It’ll allow those people to eventually join the formal financial sector. What people in microfinance are afraid of is that some day this big bank will come in and take over completely and these microlenders—community-based, reaching out to the poor—will be replaced by Big Daddy Bank.

What are you aiming to do with this new commercial bank you’re involved with in Indonesia?
Microfinance institutions tend to keep deposits in a big wad of cash. One thing we would allow them to do is deposit in a commercial bank and earn money off their deposits. They’re also going to be like branches of a commercial bank in the villages and offer new services—remittances, microinsurance, education bonding, housing finance. We’re talking about the social safety net here. Big commercial banks in Indonesia take money from the poor in the form of individual savings deposits, but they don’t lend it back to them. We want to get a net transfer back to poor people. That’s the real pioneering innovation: trying to get more money back down to them in loans.

Was there anything about your Reed education that prepared you for microfinance?
I was an international studies major with a Russian minor. The international studies program was pretty half-hearted when I was there, and I had to get a special exemption to write my thesis about perestroika, because it was predictive, which they didn’t like. What was invaluable was the grounding in analytic thought. I realize how rare that is these days.

What switched you on to small money?
When I was 10, my father’s company [in Tulsa, Oklahoma] went bankrupt. It threw us into total chaos to be suddenly in poverty. I believe people have the right not to live in poverty. It’s a huge component of global peace and security and human dignity. And what I love about microfinance is that it’s not a handout.

reed magazine logoAutumn 2007