5 Minutes With a Visionary: Premal Shah

Editor’s note: As part of CNBC’s “20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow” TV documentary, we interviewed thought leaders and visionaries who have paved the way for the next generation of entrepreneurs. In a series of Q&As called “5 Minutes with a Visionary,” we discover what has shaped and molded the careers of these innovators. The following interview was conducted via email.

Premal Shah
Credit: Kiva.org
Premal Shah

Premal Shah is president of Kiva, the world's first personal micro-lending website. Launched in 2005, Kiva.org allows anyone with an Internet connection and $25 to make a microloan to an entrepreneur in need. Kiva works in over 60 countries and has raised over $300 million in funds for the working poor. We caught up with him via email.

What do you consider to be your greatest success as an entrepreneur?

Somewhere along my journey I realized the difference between gaining a sense of achievement as an entrepreneur and gaining fulfillment. I realized my desire was not only to be an entrepreneur but a social entrepreneur. I wanted to measure my successes and riches through the lives I’ve touched and the positive change that I am lucky to be a part of. For me, that is the path to a more fulfilled life, and is my greatest success as an entrepreneur.

What innovation in the last 20 years has had the most positive impact on society?

The invention of both the Internet and mobile technologies has given each of us the chance to
engage in solutions for our world’s most seemingly intractable problems.

The Internet has brought microfinance into the mainstream. It is the enabling technology for
Kiva.org. On Kiva.org, anyone can get involved in microlending — all they need is an Internet
connection and $25. This incredibly low barrier to entry provides a way for everyday people to
crowd fund loans to the working poor. Through each loan, they are also supporting an issue they care about such as clean energy, women’s economic empowerment and access to education.

New advances in mobile and electronic payments enable a direct flow of funds between lenders
and borrowers who may be unbanked or underbanked. Flowing funds in this manner helps to
reduce the cost of borrowed capital, typically seen through interest rates or fees. Access to mobile technologies is growing faster in the developing world than access to financial resources. Mobile penetration has reached 79 percent of the developing world and is expanding rapidly; cellphone use tripled in the developing world from 2005 to 2010.

M-PESA in Kenya gives us a glimpse of the power that mobile transactions can have in
creating a connected global community of borrowers and lenders dedicated to alleviating
poverty. In only four years, M-PESA has grown to 14 million users. It now processes more
transactions domestically in Kenya than Western Union does globally.

The Internet and mobile technology make it possible for Kiva to facilitate loans quickly, efficiently, and on a large scale. It is quickly becoming the key to unlock financial access for the billions of people around the world who are unbanked or underbanked. In doing so, we are creating a way to help alleviate poverty and are changing the trajectory of individuals, families, communities and nations.

What current challenge, when resolved, would do the most to change the world?

I believe that breaking the cycle of global generational poverty will make the most impact.

What if every person in the world knew that financial resources are available to them to help make their lives, and the lives of their families, better? What if they had the means to gain an education, start a business, access clean water, or bring renewable energy products to their communities? What if each of us knew that if we tell our stories about helping to lift up individuals from poverty and allow people to join us in our journey, that people would support us?

Right now, we don’t really see each other. If we are all connected in some way that enables us to see each other, my hope is we wouldn’t allow injustice to happen.

We need to help ensure that the spirit and promise of entrepreneurship is accessible around the world, from the largest cities to the most remote villages. Engaging with and empowering millions of people to transform their lives is one of the greatest returns on an investment.

If you had the world's intellectual elite all in one room, what thought provoking questions would you pose for debate?

My first question would be: How can we broaden the definition of an intellectual elite, and in turn, expand the number of individuals in the room?

How can we leverage technology to create abundance where there is scarcity?

How do we give everyone a way to consistently be their best selves, including maximizing their
potential to do good for others? The capacity and will is there, we see it when the world comes together to assist after major disasters. How can that hope, compassion and connection — that fundamental understanding that we are a human family—continue to flow long after disasters?

I also might ask for an answer to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s observation, “Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this.”


What individual or innovator has had the biggest impact on society? (and/or your career)

I am most drawn to people like Gandhi, because he led by example. I think it is tempting for us
to look to a singular leader or innovator to solve the world’s problems. The reality is, as much as we look for the next MLK or Gandhi, there are billions of Rosa Parks around the world making a difference. Those are the kind of people I look to for inspiration, and are the individuals who are ultimately making the biggest impact on society.

Editor's Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.

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