CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- University of
Illinois students who enrolled in Bruce Wicks' recreation, sport and
tourism course on entrepreneurism this semester did so thinking they
would be learning how to create a business plan and finance, begin
and market a small business.
They are. But they're also learning
firsthand what it's like to be on the other side of the business
start-up process -- as lenders.
That's because Wicks, a professor of
recreation, sport and tourism,
decided to incorporate a new Web-based component into the lesson
plan of the course he has been teaching for 17 years.
With the assistance of a Web site
maintained by the San Francisco-based nonprofit
Kiva, Wicks' students have become
micro-lenders. So-called "micro-loans" are small-denomination loans,
typically issued by nonprofit or nongovernmental agencies to
entrepreneurs in developing countries who may not qualify for
"I got the idea (for using Kiva in the
classroom) from reading a little blurb in The New York Times
Magazine that listed '100 neat things in 2006,'" Wicks said.
At the beginning of the semester, the
professor asked his students if they would be willing to commit
their own resources -- "the cost of a couple of lattes or beers" --
in order to help individuals in developing countries around the
globe who are seeking relatively small infusions of capital to start
or sustain small businesses.
The vast majority stepped up to the
plate. Wicks estimates that 45-50 of the 70 students enrolled each
voluntarily contributed $10 to the enterprise.
Class members next studied the Kiva
site -- which includes a selection of loan applicants, their
pictures, background information and business plans -- and, over the
course of the semester, supported four loan applicants. The students
have provided funds to a tailor in Afghanistan, a grocer in
Azerbaijan, a used-clothing broker in Kenya and -- most recently --
a clothing storeowner in Honduras.
Wicks said Kiva reports a repayment
rate of nearly 100 percent. Lenders don't receive interest on the
loans; when they are repaid, the funds can be withdrawn or channeled
into new loans. In the meantime, lenders receive periodic reports on
the progress of the businesses they support.
"It's a small part of the overall
course," Wicks said, referring to the online micro-lending
enterprise. "We use it when we talk about finance. For instance, we
talked about what makes a good lendee. What are the criteria for why
you'd loan someone money? Because they're a single parent? Because
they have a good repayment history and you want to preserve your
That discussion, he said, segued to
"What about you? Why would someone lend you money to start a
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The Kiva-based exercise also prompted
discussions of the practice of micro-lending, social
entrepreneurship, gender issues related to starting a business, and
what it means, in general, to help others. Wicks said the class also
has studied the work of Bangladeshi banker and economist Muhammad
Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to make
small loans available to impoverished Bangladeshis seeking
self-sufficiency through entrepreneurial pursuits.
As the semester draws to a close,
Wicks said he believes the experiment with Kiva has provided a
positive, engaging experience for most of his students.
"This has been a situation where
they've been able to learn something and do good at the same time."
That's exactly what Shannon Smith, a
junior majoring in recreation, sport and tourism from Savoy, Ill.,
is taking away from the course.
"The micro-lending portion of the
class is an entirely new notion for me and many other students in
the class," Smith said. "This project has shown me that, as an
individual, I can help and assist smaller businesses. A family in
Hungary may only need a $500 loan to purchase a cow to help produce
and sell milk for the family business. I now see that I am able to
be a part of that."
The social entrepreneurship aspect of
the course also happened to mesh well with her own career interests.
"My heart lies in not-for-profit work,
especially as it relates to urban communities," said Smith, who is
hoping to land an internship with an organization that provides
playgrounds for inner-city kids. "I want to be able to use the
skills I have learned to make a difference in the lives of the
As for Wicks, he's just hoping to make
a difference in the lives of his students, one class at a time. By
the time the current group's Kiva loans are repaid, those students
will have moved on to other things. So -- with the support of this
semester's class -- Wicks plans to use the original pool as seed
money for future investments by the next class.
Meanwhile, the instructor says his
current crop of students has reinforced something he also has become
more aware of this past year as the new director the U of I's
East St. Louis Action Research
Project, a program that promotes service-learning and
volunteerism among students.
"Most of our students are socially
responsible," he said. "They're just not being asked to show it."
[Text copied from
Illinois news release]