In 1991, at 24 years old, I felt called to Nizhny Novgorod, Russia (then still the Soviet Union city of Gorky). At the time I was curious about the political, social, and economic changes that were taking place in communist countries. And in those first days, I often wondered where the Lord had brought me.
Then, within months of my arrival, the Soviet Union collapsed. Amidst the ruins of the former political system, economic chaos reigned. I witnessed long lines for bread, and rising poverty and crime—but there was also a palpable desire for something new.
I was still living in university housing and unsure of my next steps when Larry Reed, then the Regional Director for Africa, came to do a feasibility study because a private donor and USAID were interested in supporting microfinance in Russia. Opportunity International found me through a Christian microfinance network and brought me on because of my experiences with microfinance at USAID and other organizations. Dennis Ripley, who is now a Senior Advisor to the CEO at Opportunity International, set the wheels in motion for a Nizhny Novgorod microfinance office, overseen by the newly appointed Opportunity regional director for Eastern Europe, Ken VanderWeele. A faithful and rather daring donor contributed $100,000 (about 40 million Rubles at the time) and all of a sudden, I had a new calling.
"IT'S IMPOSSIBLE IN RUSSIA"
Opportunity International was the first microfinance organization in Russia; there was no precedent for our work. At every turn I was told, “It’s impossible in Russia!” At the time, there did not even exist a legal format for not-for-profit organizations. Boris Nemstov, the progressive governor of our region, had to officially decree us as an organization so we could register and begin lending in 1994.
I was told it would be impossible for us to ensure that people, especially low-income people, would repay their loans. But as we grew, it became evident (to the envy of many larger banks) that low-income people in Russia would repay their loans.
Part of the challenge in lending to microbusinesses was that the vast majority, especially in the early years, were traders. During the Soviet years, science and manufacturing were seen as respectable, while trading was looked down upon. In my experience, when the voices were crying “it’s impossible!” the loudest, our opportunity was the greatest. Through our work, we demonstrated respect and showed that every person carries the image of God and has dignity.
By 1998 we had organized six lending organizations in Western Russia, which we then merged to form one national organization with 45 offices. We did all this work in spite of the devaluation of the ruble and the ensuing economic crises. In 2007 we began operating as a fully licensed commercial bank. From the initial grant of $100,000 in 1994, we grew to assets of approximately $100 million in 2013.
GOING MACH SPEED AND AT THE SAME TIME STANDING STILL
Sometime in the 1990s Suzy Cheston, then the executive director of the Women’s Opportunity Fund, asked me how we were progressing. I answered, “We’re going Mach speed, but at the same time standing still.”
Some changes we took part in—such as the alleviation of widespread poverty—happened so quickly that they took my breath away. In 1995, 50% of the population of Russia was living below the poverty line. By 2010 the poverty rate was under 6% (with some of that reduction due to changes in how poverty was defined). Microfinance and the support of microbusinesses played a significant role in reducing poverty in Russia. We also worked with other microfinance organizations to bring about legislation and tax policies that vastly improved the bureaucratic environment for microbusinesses. Today’s micro and small business support programs are still based on those early policies.
And yet, there are changes that come slowly, especially in the midst of Russia’s underlying economic structure. Micro, small, and medium enterprises make up only 22% of GDP in Russia (2019), while small businesses in the U.S. make up 43% of GDP (2020). We know that building stable systems and cultivating visionary leadership is a process that takes many years, and we continue to have hope in Russia’s future.
Opportunity International brought that something new to Russia and led the way in creating opportunities for those living in poverty, accomplishing big change when others said it was impossible.
I cannot remember the days of Opportunity International in Russia without thanking in memoriam Keith Flintham who, together with Stuart White, taught us banking, but even more importantly stood with us through crises and tumult in Russia, never flinching.
FORUS bank was the first formal bank for those living in poverty in Russia, and many others quickly followed. In 2010, being self-sustaining and no longer needing philanthropic funding or program help from the Opportunity Network, the bank became privately held. It continues serving small-scale entrepreneurs working their way out of poverty, still headquartered in Nizhny Novgorod.