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Women We Love: Mindee Barham of Grameen America

PEOPLE

In April 2019, we launched The Power of Good Fund by bareMinerals, which supports women’s empowerment in the areas of education, mentorship and entrepreneurialism. In this series, we’re putting the spotlight on one female leader from each organization. Today, we’re proud to share the story of Mindee Barham, Vice President of Development for Grameen America, a non-profit financial institution that’s addressing the fact that 1 in 8 women in the United States are living in poverty.

Imagine you own a business. It’s not large — you sell ice cream out of your home — but into it you pour your talents, skills and creativity of all kinds. In return, you have the flexibility to care for your children, pay your bills and forget the thankless minimum wage jobs that didn’t even make ends meet. Any profits you can spare go back in — little upgrades when you can swing them. Then, one day, a friend visits you from the salon down the block. She’s applying for a loan for her shop, and suspects you might be interested in one, too. She’s been turned down by bank after bank, and has finally found an organization, called Grameen America, that will loan her the money to get a credit card machine so she can stop missing out on sales. She just needs to find four other women to form a group, apply and grow their businesses together.

Fast forward five months. The storefront you rented is paying for itself, and you’ve got your eyes set on a second freezer. You’ve talked to your group and you’re all feeling a little more secure — even putting a few dollars in savings each month — and planning to apply again. A woman from Grameen America named Mindee Barham comes to visit your businesses. She’s petite and warm, with an even voice and deep curly hair shot through with silver. With her are donors to your non-profit bank, and she points out changes you’ve made with your loans.

Mindee brings the donors so they can see: yes, a $2,000 loan can transform a business, and transform a life. In their day-to-day lives at the top of large corporations, it doesn’t feel like 16 million women in America are living in poverty, earning less than $12,490 year. Not the Americas, but the United States of America. “It’s easy to live in a particular neighborhood or to work in a particular sector where you don’t come into contact with that level of poverty,” Mindee explains. So, as Vice President of Development for Grameen America, she brings donors to the South Bronx, to the center of Indianapolis, to South LA, to feel what their support can do. “You really see, when women are able to join this program, that they were working a minimum wage job, or maybe they were working off the books, and now they’re able to build something of their own and have some control over their livelihood that they weren’t before.”

Grameen America is headquartered in a non-descript building on a narrow, grey block of midtown Manhattan. The elevator opens to a bright teal hallway with colorful images of women, captioned with phrases and quotes like, “Small loans. Big impact.” And “‘I never expected this much of myself. It has given me so much strength.’” There’s also a photo of Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the original Grameen Bank. His caption: “This is not charity. This is business. Business with a social objective, which is to help people get out of poverty.” Yunus, an economist, founded Grameen Bank in 1983 in Bangladesh, motivated by his belief that economic rights are human rights. The basic premise was that even the poorest people, without credit scores or assets to wager, could be trusted to manage and repay small short-term loans. His model won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

Yunus saw his poverty-fighting solution worked in the developing world, and knew it could be effective in developed countries, too. So he brought the concept to the United States in 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis. “People thought, ‘Well, that’s a crazy idea, a crazy time to open a loan program … nonrecourse loans in the midst of a debt crisis.’ But he felt that’s exactly when it was most needed,” Mindee explains. The pilot was conducted in Jackson Heights, Queens, loaning only to women, who receive just 4% of small business loans from mainstream financial institutions. Ten years on, Grameen America has dispersed over a billion dollars in loan capital, in tiny increments, to over a hundred thousand women. Today, the average loan is $3,300 and Grameen America is paid back at 99%, with the non-profit bank operating in 14 cities and 21 locations across the United States.

Two things differentiate Grameen from other microfinance institutions. The first is immediately evident to every applicant: she cannot apply alone. She must find four other women and form a group before applying. “We don’t form their groups because they have to trust each other,” Mindee explains. “So if I bring you into my group of five, I need to know you’re serious about your business and you’re going to repay your loan. Our destinies are now tied to each other and we support each other because our success depends on each other.” If one loan is not repaid, the group can’t apply for another round. This social contract encourages each woman to persist in spite of the challenges every entrepreneur faces — and gives her four people to turn to with questions, frustrations and good news.

For 6 months, the group will meet weekly with other groups and loan officers to make repayments, learn about topics like credit scores, and continue to build peer networks. It’s at this point that a lendee begins to feel the second difference: “We have a training institute here for our staff, focusing on not just giving out more loans and bringing in more women, but the quality of the service that we’re providing and the quality of those loans,” Mindee says. It’s not enough to give — it’s giving with respect, sharing tools for success, and trusting the women. “It’s not a handout — it’s a hand up” is part of her elevator pitch.

Mindee Barham grew up in New Jersey before attending Northwestern University, where she double majored in Spanish and Political Science. She enjoyed the experience and the education, but it wasn’t until her study abroad, in Seville, Spain, that it felt life-changing. “I came back home with a sort of confidence, and a vision for what I wanted to do next.”

Next was moving to New York and working at a non-profit with an international focus, but she was eager to do work in her own backyard where she could visit clients and have a more intimate connection with the issues at hand. She went back to school for a graduate degree in Nonprofit Management from the New School, and it was there that she met Paula Gavin, a professor and the President/CEO of the YMCA of Greater New York, who went on to become a mentor. She told Mindee that fundraising was an essential skill to rise in a non-profit and get involved in a more senior way — and offered Mindee an internship. “People thought I was crazy because I just quit my job and took her up on it. She offered me to come in as an intern originally and I was like, 8 years into working and in school, but I took this leap of faith because I really believed that that was a good next path for me,” Mindee recalls. Within a month, she had a permanent position. To this day, Mindee reaches out to Paula at turning points in her career.

Mindee’s days are filled with managing a team of 7 people who handle fundraising and marketing communications. She works closely with the organization’s board, and has donor relationships that she manages personally, sharing progress in the community via statistics and site visits. On a macro level, she promotes women’s entrepreneurialism, though she’d never want to be an entrepreneur herself. For the women Grameen serves, she sees flexibility, creativity and independence as important rewards for their commitment. Personally, she loves the structure of being part of an organization.

On a recent Monday afternoon, walking through the halls of Grameen America’s Manhattan headquarters, Mindee paused — Andrea Jung, the President and CEO was standing in the doorway of a colleague’s office. The news: a $2 million donation had just come through. The source was expected; the amount was not. As Grameen America looks to their next decade, with the goal of doubling in size, they’ve launched a campaign to raise $300 million to run operations, implement new programs and services for the women they serve, and raise the loan capital needed to support their growth. Along the way, there will be new learnings; as banks go digital, Grameen is discovering that many women they work with don’t have email addresses. You can use the weekly meetings to set those up; it’s training a busy entrepreneur to check email that takes time. There will be new communities, too. “In this country there are 16 million women who live in poverty, and we’ve served 100,000 women. So we know there’s a need,” Mindee says. To determine new locations (post-Hurricane Harvey Houston was the most recent addition), the organization looks at communities with “an eye to rates of poverty, unemployment, underemployment and underbanked. When we make these decisions of where to go next, we think: Where can we continue to serve this mission and meet this unmet need?”

The goal, in time, is to achieve critical mass in the neighborhoods where Grameen operates, and begin to change the landscape. Enabling one female entrepreneur by giving her a loan, and reporting her payments to build her credit score, changes her own path and is a valuable example to her daughters. But it’s more: “The whole family ends up getting involved with the businesses,” Mindee explains. “In those communities, we’re creating jobs — they get a loan, but if they hire two people, then they’re creating more jobs, so it’s going to have an economic impact on their whole community. If you go to Jackson Heights where the first branch was … every other storefront is going to be a Grameen America business.” Within those storefronts are women who have become entrepreneurs out of passion, and out of necessity. Women who were forced to start over as a single mother or in a new country. Many speak to the frustrations of being turned away by conventional banks. Now, they have credit scores and could move into the mainstream financial system, but they want to stay with the bank that trusted them, respected them, taught them, and made them part of a community of hardworking entrepreneurial women, just like them.

Learn more about Grameen America and The Power of Good Fund by bareMinerals.