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Reflections on The Visits of Natalie Portman and Alan Patricof

I recently attended two events related to microfinance in developing economies; one focused on debt capital and the other on equity capital. At the close of the evening I left these events with a sense of powerlessness that went beyond the topic of microfinance. In life we come across any number of causes that hope to compete for a privileged place among our priorities – the battlefield for our hearts, minds, and efforts is a dynamic one indeed but it is a conflict that we need to understand.

The FINCA International event on Microfinance that was hosted for the Social Enterprise Club by Prof. Michael Chu and Natalie Portman was engaging. Ms. Portman was a gracious guest; she held court during her first trip to HBS with poise, humility, and a sense of collegiality that is seldom seen in such campus events. It was clear that she was open to a dialogue and after a few short minutes of prepared remarks she yielded the reserve of her time to questions from the audience for her, Professor Chu, and a representative from FINCA. The lessons learned from Ms. Portman’s efforts to understand the plight of individuals, particularly women, in developing countries and the challenges they face in getting access to credit presented a stark reality. And by my own estimation some six hundred individuals listened intently to her story of advocacy and belief in microfinance. Although Prof. Chu acknowledged that there are Social Enterprise Summer Assistanceships available to students who are interested in pursing a summer opportunity with FINCA, I left the event wondering what to do next, the answer clearly was not for all of us to go to work for FINCA.

Prior to the FINCA event I attended an African Business Club sponsored event with Alan Patricof, cofounder of Apax Partners, Inc. and Seth Cohen ’08. Mr. Patricof focused on making the case to students that microfinance is in fact not the silver bullet for the challenges facing the developing world, and that equity capital must be involved instead of thinking only in terms debt assistance. He argued that we should convince talented individuals to return to developing countries like Africa to build world class enterprises or work as “true” venture capitalists directing investments of less than two million dollars. In attendance were roughly one hundred students and I began encouraging my colleagues to pursue their interests back home, start businesses that employ people, and personally appreciating the impact that equity has had in allowing entrepreneurs to fail and succeed in America.

The contrast in the feelings I had leaving each event might be ascribed to the sense of empowerment I had to have impact following the event with Mr. Patricof versus the powerlessness I felt in impacting the issues raised by Ms. Portman – sadder still because both individuals endeavored largely to address the same problem. Two thoughts came to mind:

First, the messenger matters, more than we would like to admit. I am quite sure that there are any number of experts on microfinance distributed through the student body at HBS, not mention the faculty here at Harvard. Most of these experts have a hard time finding an audience in this community. Yet when the issue was teamed with Ms. Portman’s experiences the result was an event in Burden that yielded hundreds of attendees. In some ways it is encouraging when we can bring someone lends their credibility in one arena to another for a noble cause. However, this is concerning because it may mean the advocates of these causes may not be given attention without stylish celebrity. I have pondered what will come of international adoption, the fight against poverty, or healthcare philanthropy around the world when it loses its luster or celebrity backing. It seems troubling that we respond to branded social causes in such a robust and simultaneously transient way- its sad to think that we would no longer care about Jerry’s Kids in the absence of Jerry Lewis, Poverty in Africa without Bono and the U2 edition iPods, or international adoption without Ms. Jolie and Mr. Pitt choosing to continue to adopt children.

Second, there is no substitute for having what Ms. Portman noted as a sense of “agency in [our] own lives.” Ms. Portman saw elevated strength in the lives of women in developing countries as they were able to take ownership of their life stories because of access to credit. She noted that this strength was tied to their ability to have control of their circumstances. I question what it will take for the rest of us to feel that way. I think of Avi Kremer, a recent HBS grad who was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and took the event as an opportunity to have agency in his own life and fight for a cure for himself and others. Mr. Patricof spoke of stepping away from his day to day role at APAX, a leading large cap private equity firm, to get back to venture capital where it all started for him – making investments from two hundred thousand to two million dollars. Such actions in both examples signaled a level of substance and commitment to their respective causes that inspires others.

Looking back I think that these two events would have been better served in a combined effort to raise awareness and action related to microfinance. With so many social causes to be considered I think we should be ever mindful of the need to collaborate and build more meaningful alliances in addressing issues such that we become neither reluctant to take individual steps nor afraid to yield celebrity to our causes. This is likely what it will take for individuals to meaningfully compete for mindshare in convincing any of us to alter our perspectives and actions to assist in addressing larger social challenges. That being said, the powerlessness that I felt related to these two events is tempered by the fact that these events could not have happened here without students and faculty who were already committed to these issues.

November 5, 2007
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