From The Field: Oakland

We sat down with Sonya, Grameen America’s Oakland Branch Manager, to hear about her experience. Read on for a Q&A-style interview with Sonya.

What inspired you to join Grameen America?

I have always been drawn to economic and social development. After graduating college, I was awarded a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to pursue my Master’s degree in Colombia. I spent several years in and around Medellin studying Participatory Budgeting and community based microfinance in some of the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods. I was able to see firsthand the crucial role microlending plays in the developing world, particularly with women borrowers. These experiences inspired me to return to the U.S. and contribute to the microfinance movement here where there are so many low-income women entrepreneurs in need of financial services.

How have you seen Grameen America contribute to the community of Oakland?

The Bay Area is going through incredible change and transformation. Despite the region’s renowned start-up success, there exists an extreme and growing divide between those with and without access to capital. For many low-income and immigrant communities it can be impossible to start a small business in this climate. Grameen America loans provide women from these communities an opportunity to build something self-sustaining for themselves and their families.  Our program is so effective because it is truly a bottom-up, grassroots approach to economic opportunity, with social support at the core. Together, my team has found a way to successfully penetrate the hardest-hit communities around the Bay Area and tap into a powerful network of motivated, hard-working women entrepreneurs who inspire and empower each other to get ahead in life.

Is there a particular moment or member from your time at Grameen America that will stay with you forever?

Our branch in Oakland has served more than 4,500 members to date and there is an incredible story behind every one of our borrowers. So many inspiring women are part of our program, but it’s the women who have succeeded in the face of extreme adversity that stick with me the most.

There is one member – one of the very first to visit our branch – whose story is particularly inspiring. After successfully repaying her first two loans, she faced difficulties on her third loan cycle and started having trouble repaying in full and on time. Between a medical emergency and other unforeseen family circumstances, she faced tremendous setback in her personal life, which inevitably affected her business. In spite of it all, she was determined to stay on track with her loan repayment and continue with the program. She leaned on the other women in her lending group for support and turned to our staff to come up with a plan to stay afloat. After recovering from this situation she was able to get her business back on track and eventually came to us for another loan with backing from her group.  She is now making all payments in full and on time, and is in the process of expanding her flower shop. Her discipline, determination, and commitment to follow-through and improve her situation embody the spirit of Grameen America.

What is your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is working with and motivating my team every day. What I love about Grameen America is that we hire from within the communities we serve. My staff are mostly young mothers who prior to Grameen worked in fast food restaurants and other low-wage jobs. Now, all nine of them are each managing about 400 members and overseeing six-digit loan portfolios.  Their relationships with members go far beyond financial management, as they are seen as true leaders in their community. The demands of their job are unbelievable. But due to their perseverance, dedication, and teamwork I am proud to say our branch maintains a 100% repayment rate. It has been so rewarding and inspiring to see their growth and I continue to learn from them daily.