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Actress speaks on behalf of banking organization

By Joanne Hou

Oct. 3, 2007 11:48 p.m.

Actress Natalie Portman said when she first visited Uganda in 2004, she was most moved by an impoverished woman who went from living in the slums to opening a restaurant and sending all eight of her children to school ““ all because of tiny loans.

Wednesday night at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, Portman spoke about this and other experiences she had visiting developing countries around the world as an ambassador for the Foundation for International Community Assistance, better known as FINCA International.

FINCA International is an organization that gives out small loans primarily to women in developing countries to help them start their own businesses through its Village Banking groups.

So far, there are 600,000 such clients around the world.

FINCA’s present goal is to reach one million people by 2010 and have 100,000 banks around the world, said Nurit Katz, external vice president of the UCLA chapter of Net Impact, co-sponsor of the event. Katz is also president of the Graduate Students Association.

Net Impact is a worldwide organization of MBA students and professionals who aim to use their business skills to improve the world socially, economically and environmentally, said Nicole Nasser, co-president of the UCLA chapter of Net Impact.

In Village Banking, small banks are set up in impoverished villages and distribute small loans to the women of the village for entrepreneurial purposes.

The women of the village elect the leaders of their bank, set their own loans, secure the loans they grant, and set rules regarding loan defaults, Portman said.

These loans, usually between $10 and $50, are used to purchase small things that help get a business going, such as pots and oil, said Judy Olian, dean at the Anderson School.

This method, called microfinancing, is meant to help underprivileged people get access to credit, and presenters at the event said they believe it is an effective way to pull people out of poverty.

Bhagwan Chowdhry, a professor of finance at the Anderson School who spoke at the event, said he believes more people in developing countries would succeed as entrepreneurs if they had access to credit, a reliable savings method and insurance.

Some Anderson students are also doing research and field work in microfinance as a way to use their business skills to help poor people on a global scale.

Emily Ellis, an MBA student at Anderson, is working in a group researching FINCA Village Banking clients in Ecuador to see which FINCA loan products they are using for their businesses. Portman said she believes FINCA entrepreneurs not only improve their economic status, but gain personally as well.

She said one of the clients she spoke to said that having her own business has given her a sense of pride in herself and earned the respect of her daughter. Portman added that the woman was able to throw out a man who beat her.

Microloans often lead to additional benefits for societies as a whole as well, Portman said. Typically, the first thing women spend their money on is education, and then health care, which ensures future success.

While FINCA is a not-for-profit organization, both Chowdhry and Portman said for-profit banks could also improve the lives of these people by giving similar loans.

Portman said the clients should be able to choose which kind of loan and bank best serve their own purpose, but it is most important that people are being reached and helped.

“One generation can break the cycle (of poverty),” Portman said.

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Joanne Hou
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