By Claudine Emeott, KF14, Nepal
On my first day of work at BPW Patan in Nepal, I took a quick look around the office and was amazed to find myself surrounded by almost all women. Granted, it is a small office — BPW occupies just one room — but the ratio of women to men is nonetheless striking. All of BPW’s full-time staff, including loan officers and accountants, are women. BPW’s entire board is made up of women with impressive and varied backgrounds, ranging from commercial bankers and university professors to a former Supreme Court Justice (she and Sandra Day O’Connor are friends). Of the 17 people working for BPW on a paid or volunteer basis, only two are men. With all due respect to these two men for their invaluable work with BPW, it is, to be sure, the women who run the show. I say this because I know the men would agree!
BPW, which stands for Business and Professional Women, serves only women borrowers, so its very foundation is rooted in a mission to empower female entrepreneurs.
Of course, many microfinance institutions share this common goal, and my fellow Kiva Fellow Mei-Ing Cheok recently wrote a great post about CRAN’s work with women in Ghana. What strikes me about BPW is not the mission itself but the way it is carried out.
For starters, it is clear that the staff genuinely enjoy their work. They smile. They laugh. They have a spring in their step on their way to the office (okay, maybe that’s just me). And, lest we forget, this is hard work, with long bus rides to and from the field and piles of paperwork waiting for them upon their return.
During loan meetings in the field, the staff and borrowers interact with ease, friendliness, and warmth. They share stories about their families and pass around babies. They linger after the work is done, talking over tea. Sometimes an invitation to a borrower’s home for fresh curd and a Hindi film is too good to pass up. The borrowers have extended their familiarity and generosity to me as well, not hesitating to tell me when I have ink smeared all over my face (thank you) and inviting me back the following week for dinner at their houses.
This level of equality extends beyond personal relationships to professional collaboration. BPW works in 62 different centers, which have up to eight groups of five women each; the members of each center elect a Center Chief, who is responsible for managing the groups and assisting loan officers at center meetings. The photo below shows Kiva borrower Narayan Devi Maharjan, a center chief in the village of Thecho. At the last meeting, Narayan Devi took over the calculator, helping the loan officers with their work — and clearly enjoying it.
All borrowers benefit from required financial literacy training and can also participate in reading and writing classes (an estimated 30% of BPW’s borrowers are illiterate).
BPW staff have also solicited business advice from their clients. Several of BPW’s staff and board members are entrepreneurs themselves, and Urmila Shrestha, BPW’s director, has taken advice from borrowers about design and material choices for her textile business.
Working in an office with a female majority is a new experience for me. And at this office in particular, it is an empowering and inspiring one.
Claudine Emeott is honored to be working with the women — both staff and borrowers — of Nepal’s BPW Patan. Check out the BPW Patan Lending Team and consider making a loan to a woman entrepreneur from Nepal (both women and men lenders are welcome!).
Previous posts by Claudine Emeott: