December 05, 2006

Friends from MBA Class of '97 Move Investment Portfolio into Microfinance

Group visits India to see funds at work

Charlotte Brownlee ('97)LOS ANGELES - This story begins with a group of women who met in Los Angeles while going to school and later decided to put some of their acquired skills to use with no real goal in mind. It ends – so far – in India where the fruits of their labors benefits and enriches the lives of women who are not, in the end, really so different.

Charlotte Brownlee, Kristin Sager, Ilene Resnick, Ferrell McDonald, Maria (Masha) Zhdanovich-May, Pam Dressler and Janet Harlow met as members of UCLA Anderson’s Class of 1997. After earning their degrees, they stayed in touch, even forming an informal activities group where each member would choose something to share each month. Eventually, the friends decided to form an investment group, the better to keep their analytical skills sharp and their research skills refined. Instead of joining each other on a walking tour of San Francisco, they met to discuss investments and investment strategies, sharing their analysis and picking stocks as a group.

“It was fun and interesting,” Brownlee recalled recently.

The group met regularly for about two years before the members started peeling off. Sager moved to the Bay Area, Harlow to Australia and Zhdanovich-May headed off to Mississippi. They put their money in an index fund and left it there.

Uniting Through Unitus  
Kate Cochran is another member of the Class of ’97. Currently, she is the Vice President, Finance and Operations at Unitus, a company with a noble mission, a mission to fight global poverty by increasing access to microfinance.

Quoting their web site, Unitus works toward this vision by accelerating the growth of the world's highest-potential emerging microfinance institutions, providing capital investments and capacity-building consulting, thus empowering these organizations to scale and provide life-changing financial services to dramatically more of the world's working poor.

Put more simply, Cochran says, “Unitus helps microfinance companies increase their reach.”

Kate moved to Seattle about four years ago, when she happened to attend an event where the chairman of Unitus spoke. Inspired, she joined the company in a fundraising capacity, running that part of the company for two-and-a-half years. Throughout that period, she was transitioning to the operations side and last year she began to oversee the company’s financial functions, while maintaining her relationships with large, institutional investors like The Gates Foundation. She says she still keeps a copy of Prof. Eric Flamholtz’ book Growing Pains on her desk, a prime resource for those transitioning small entrepreneurial companies to large, professional organizations.

Parallel to Cochran’s time at Unitus, Brownlee and the rest of the investment group sought ways to stay in touch. As it happens, Brownlee and her husband Alex Corman (’96) are good friends with Cochran and her husband Jeff (also ’97). It occurred to Brownlee that maybe it was time to do something with the money the investment club still had and that perhaps Unitus could be the facilitator of a humanitarian action – and help the friends re-unite.

“I knew from Kate that Unitus did partner expeditions,” she explained. “I thought we could invest the money and then travel together to see the gift at work.

“I remember Charlotte called and said, ‘We have this portfolio, it's worth something and we aren’t managing it,’” Cochran said. “I want to make a proposal to the club that we donate it to an organization that would make a difference in the lives of women and I thought of you.” As it happens, Cochran explained, much of the work Unitus does focuses on women and many of their partners focus exclusively on women. She did a web conference with the group, explained the company’s model and demonstrated what a donation to Unitus would mean.

The group as a whole invested more than $13,000 to Unitus and Cochran arranged for a trip to India, where the group could meet the women whose lives were impacted.

“It’s funny that we had to go to India to get together,” Brownlee said.

Pam Dressler ('97)Indian Giving  
Brownlee and Cochran were eventually joined on a trip to India by Dressler and Harlow, the others unable to make the journey. Cochran and Dressler had journeyed there before, but the trip was a first for Brownlee and Harlow.

While there, they visited Unitus partner microfinance institutions in urban settings in Bangalore and also traveled to rural areas to see how microfinance was impacting the lives of women and families there. During the trip, Brownlee was struck by many things, including the harmonious way in which Hindus and Muslims lived peacefully without judgment as neighbors in small villages.

In Bangalore they met a visionary CEO, Samit Ghosh of Ujjivan, whose life, she says, was “like a B-School case.” The mission of his institution is to provide financial services to the working poor. The goal for his customers is to be free of poverty within five years.

There were many success stories, like the women whose business it was to take the used and empty bags of grain and re-stitch them so that they could be used as layers under concrete slabs. They met people who bought cows to milk and another woman who sold herbs and used a loan to expand her line to include coconuts, which have a better shelf-life than herbs. And then there was the widow, aided by microfinance, who was paying off the debts left behind by her husband. Though the scale and circumstances were different, the links between entrepreneurial women working to help feed their families and better their communities were clear.

The trip also deepened the relationship between old friends.

“All of us used the time to reflect. We were able to have those deep conversations with multiple layers that you aren’t always able to have when you just meet someone for dinner,” Brownlee said. “I remember we were driving around in the countryside, asking questions like three-year-olds, asking what different things were. The trip really gave us a better appreciation for the things we have and the things we take for granted.”

About UCLA Anderson School of Management
UCLA Anderson School of Management is ranked among the top-tier business schools in the world.  Award-winning faculty renowned for their research and teaching, highly selective admissions, successful alumni and world-class facilities combine to provide an extraordinary learning environment.

The mission of UCLA Anderson School of Management is to be a global leader in management education, research and service. Established in 1935, UCLA Anderson provides management education to more than 1,400 students enrolled in MBA and doctoral programs, and some 2,000 executives and managers enrolled annually in executive education programs. UCLA Anderson alumni number more than 35,000 graduates around the world dedicated to continued networking, professional development and educational activities.  

Contact Information

Paul Feinberg, (310) 794-1215, paul.feinberg@anderson.ucla.edu

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