Woman Empowered Empowers Others

Johanna Avila began working at Grameen America in 2008 as a Trainee Center Manager at our Jackson Heights, Queens, New York branch. She helped to ensure our members got the help and services they needed. Now, just 10 years later, she is the organization’s Northeast Regional Director, overseeing 10 branches in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. She sat down with us to discuss her journey and what motivates her to support other women and help them succeed.

How did you come to work with Grameen America?

My first job was at a Burger King. Then I worked at a check-cashing place and a pharmacy. My cousin had a friend who worked with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and he told me that Grameen was opening up in Jackson Heights in Queens, New York.

I didn’t have a clear idea of what I was going to do or say that day of my interview with Grameen America. But I loved that this money was for low-income women, so they can develop themselves and their businesses. I was really excited about the job because I was a low-income woman too. Grameen was helping women like me improve their lives.

What have you learned and how have you changed since you started?

As a Trainee Center Manager, my first visit was to a group training at a salon in Jamaica, Queens. I still remember the five women I met who were participating in that training to become members of the program. I began to understand how these loans could help them get extra income.

Personally, I’ve changed. I was shy when I started, but now, I feel more confident in myself. Over these 10 years, I have learned problem-solving: how to manage our members and situations when they arise. And I learned how to really get out there on the streets to reach women in the community and to encourage and prepare other staff members with the tools they need to serve our members.

When we meet with members, it isn’t just about collecting payments, it’s about getting to know the women and providing them with a service. 

What kind of changes have you seen the organization go through?

We used to keep ledgers and write everything down. It was all by hand and there was so much paper. Now, we’re moving away from that—using technology—and it’s a great thing. We have more ways to do and accept payments now—money order, a system called PayNearMe, and debit cards.

We’re becoming cashless, which is safer for everyone. For some of our members, it’s hard to switch to this new technology—even getting used to text message receipts is hard. But we explain it to them and they understand these are positive changes for the organization, and for them.

What motivates you in this work?

Our members motivate me. We have these members that are really working hard to earn an extra dollar, an extra two dollars. To provide them with a good service and to protect them is the best thing. It’s very rewarding when they become successful. Since I started working at Grameen America, I’ve had two children and I think of Grameen America as my third child since I’ve watched it grow so much.

There are some members who have been with us from the beginning, from Jackson Heights and the Bronx. Their loans are in the big leagues now and it’s a good feeling. But for everyone, no matter the amount, the loans are making a big difference in their lives.

A woman may have just started her business with a $1000 or $1500 loan and is selling tamales from a shopping cart, but she has plans. She wants to get a food permit, get a pushcart, and then a restaurant. We started in 2008 and now we see clients with these success stories, and they keep going. It’s something to be proud of.

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