The world is shrinking – and that’s just fine with Karen Little. As Director of Development for Kiva, a global nonprofit connecting people through lending to alleviate poverty, she sees the sunniest side of the sharing economy. In the past 10 years, the San Francisco-based organization has crowd-funded over $730 million in microloans to people without access to traditional banking systems.
Little’s personal and professional globe-trotting has recently taken her from Paris to the Philippines to Hong Kong. Whether she’s scouring Airbnb for affordable rentals in a foreign city or watching lenders make new Kiva loans every four seconds, she’s heartened by the ways in which technology enables human connection and financial empowerment.
But her perspective on the power of access to capital is also quite personal: A graduate degree in International Relations left her $90,000 in debt. She’s never let that figure overwhelm her, or stop her from chasing her goals — such as taking a six-month career hiatus to volunteer in Liberia.
We asked the thoughtful, driven 36-year-old, whose husband of three years also works at Kiva, to let us peek into her finances. She told us how they afford living in the nation’s most expensive city, why a career in nonprofits has never felt like a sacrifice and how she managed to spend only $100 on her wedding dress.
You got your master’s degree in International Relations. Were you freaked out by the size of your student loan?
No, but it helped that in my first job I was promoted to director within three months because I had a master’s degree — so I felt like it was working for me right away.
What’s been your strategy for paying off the loan?
I’ve always just thought about my student loan payment as being part of my rent. If my rent was $1,000 and I was making a $400 loan payment a month, I just thought about my rent as $1,400 a month. So it hasn’t felt like a big deal.
Have there ever been moments where you wished you’d chosen a for-profit career path (and the commensurate salary)?
I think I’ve always had faith that I will be able to [afford] the things that I want to do. And that’s been true: I travel … I have nice dinners with friends. When I was writing my master’s thesis, I temped at a building management company. And it did pay well, but it didn’t give me any excitement. I just think there’s something so powerful about waking up every day feeling good about what you’re doing. To me, that so far outweighs the financial side.
We sometimes talk about budgeting as an expression of one’s values. Is that something you think about?
Definitely. We’ve done things where, for a whole month, we’ll track every single thing we’re spending money on. We drive our car maybe once every week or two. Clothes aren’t something we spend a lot of money on. So it’s really food – going to the grocery store or going out to eat – and travel costs, because maybe every other weekend, we go somewhere.
Tell us about all that travel. Frankly speaking, how do you afford it?
Well, let’s see. We just went to Salt Point on the Sonoma coast with friends who went abalone diving. There were 10 of us and it was potluck-style camping, so it was really cheap and really lovely. That’s our favorite kind of trip; we rarely stay in hotels.
You had a particularly beautiful, low-key wedding. Will you tell us how much it cost?
Ha. So [my husband] still thinks that we spent too much money on it, because he would have loved if we only spent, like, $5,000. But really, I think we came in at about 60% or 70% of the cost of the average wedding (which I think is around $30,000).
It was so fun; we had a camping wedding at the Coloma Resort on the American River. We provided two dinners and two breakfasts, so four meals for 250 people. We were able to keep it to $10 a head for the dinners and my wedding dress was $100 from Zara.
What’s one piece of financial advice you live by?
“My mom taught me that in salary negotiations, whoever says the number first loses — so always let the potential employer give the figure first.”
My mom taught me that in salary negotiations, whoever says the number first loses — so always let the potential employer give the figure first.
Is there anything you wish you were better about, financially speaking?
We don’t invest [beyond retirement accounts]. I’m looking into Wealthfront, and thinking about RSF Social Finance, a very cool organization where you make long-term investments in social impact ventures. But we’re trying to find a financial planner and it’s been, surprisingly, really hard. It’s either $3,000 for an hour to talk with them or they’re generalists and don’t really know how to help. I actually sent out an e-mail to about 20 friends, and nobody had a recommendation, but I got back multiple responses saying, “if you find someone, let me know.” So there’s a really clear need for that — someone affordable who can talk not just about 401(k)s and car loans.
How has working with Kiva changed the way that you think about money?
It’s definitely made me think a lot about loans and about the impact [they] can have on your life. When I speak at conferences, I always will ask people at the beginning, ‘raise your hand if you’ve ever taken out a loan.’ Almost everybody does, always. But then I ask them to think about how two billion people currently can’t access a checking or savings account—and definitely not a loan.
You know, hundreds of years ago, people would take out loans through social connections – like, ‘I trust you or you trust me.’ And we’ve gotten so far away from that, where it’s all bureaucratic and you have to have a certain FICO score and you have to have all these specific things in place. And if you don’t have that, you’re barred. So, yeah, it’s made me think about how important and valuable it is to have access to those basic financial services.
And what has Kiva found is the key to providing that access?
We have a completely different philosophy. With Kiva Zip small business loans, for example, borrowers have to get about 20 of their friends and family to each lend them $25 first. So they have to show that they have the willpower, the drive, the motivation—that they’re entrepreneurial. It’s a social underwriting component.
What advice would you give someone who’s coming out of grad school right now and looking at the nonprofit world?
What’s really interesting to me right now, actually, is that the choice isn’t just for-profits vs. nonprofits. You also have social businesses and the B-Corp movement. Companies are also having to do more and more on the social side, and nonprofits are having to run more like businesses if they’re going to be successful. I think what we’re seeing is, at the best nonprofits, salaries are growing and becoming more competitive as the landscape shifts. So my advice is, if you have a goal to do something, trust that you’ll figure out a way to get there. Just make sure you wake up doing something you feel a consistent positive affinity towards, whether it’s a for-profit or nonprofit.
For more information about philanthropic lending through Kiva, go to kiva.org.