Academics and Research / Magazine Feature / People

Student travels far and wide to learn about microfinance

Julie Markham stumbled upon an article in Forbes magazine ranking the top-50 microfinance institutions in the world. Little did she know it would have a profound impact on her education, and possibly her career.

After reading the article, Markham — who’s on track to graduate in June 2010 with a with a BSBA degree in real estate/finance, a minor in leadership studies, an MBA, and a MS in real estate and construction management — decided to learn more about microfinance and has since spent part of the past year studying microfinance in locales around the globe.

“Microfinance focuses on giving small loans to people who live below the poverty line and are considered by commercialized institutions as ‘unbankable’ because of their lack of collateral,” she says. “Microcredit loans help give borrowers the necessary financial leverage to build wealth and potentially rise out of poverty.”

In December, Markham arranged to visit Bandhan, a highly ranked microfinance institution in Kolkata, India, to learn about their work. She returned to the Daniels College of Business and enrolled in its Microfinance and Sustainable Development course. The class traveled to Cambodia in March to help analyze a loan application from a microfinance institution for Deutsche Bank.

Markham then began looking for other learning opportunities that would help her write her thesis on means of poverty alleviation in Southeast Asia. Armed with a summer research grant from DU’s Undergraduate Research Center, Markham spent five weeks interning with the one of the world’s foremost microlending institutions, Grameen Bank of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

“My objective for the trip was to gain a better understanding on the methodology of microfinance,” Markham says. “Global poverty is very different from poverty found within the United States, and the best way to at least gain a better understanding is to go into the field.”

Grameen’s internship program was unique in that interns are treated as guests, not workers, and are free to choose their activities and learning experiences. Markham was responsible for arranging her own housing, hiring a translator, and organizing daily meetings and field visits.

“Looking back, I am surprised how it did not even cross my mind that this was not feasible or potentially unsafe, and I literally showed up in Bangladesh with my visa in hand and an eager desire to learn,” she says.

During her time in Bangladesh, Markham familiarized herself with the operations of the head office, met with employees of some of Grameen’s sister companies, traveled to rural villages to meet with branch managers and interviewed loan borrowers and wrote case studies on their experiences.

She also attended Grameen’s 56th International Dialogue Program, where 27 representatives from more than 14 countries gathered to gain an understanding of the Grameen model through field exposure and dialogue sessions. Because she was an American, Markham was asked to give a speech of congratulations to Grameen founder Muhammed Yunus, who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“The time she spent at the Grameen Bank was an opportunity to work at the ‘birthplace’ of many of the operating procedures and policies used by microfinance institutions around the world,” says Daniels College of Business professor Mac Clouse, Markham’s grant adviser. “All of this experience will be a preparation that will set her apart from others when she looks for her career opportunities.”

While she is still undecided about her next steps following graduation, she says the experience has fueled her desire to work in the social enterprise sector.

“As I continue on with my life, I hope that everything I do will help me to serve as a ‘change-catalyst,’” she says. “Though I am not sure in what capacity I want to serve the world or what my job title will be, I hope that the work I am doing is helping to create social change.”


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