Social Entrepreneur and Mother of Three, Jessica Jackley '00 Democratizes Giving.
By Sherri Kimmel • Photography by Shayan Asgharnia
Rain is pouring, and the drought-conditioned denizens of Los Angeles are happily opening their usually neglected umbrellas, striding along soggy sidewalks into upscale buildings like the one Jessica Jackley ’00 is entering. NeueHouse, a members-only shared workspace/social club in a soaring 1930s landmark on Sunset Boulevard, is where Jackley finds the headspace to work on plans for her new venture as well as for an old pursuit, poetry.
In two weeks, she’ll be moving nearby to a 110-year old Craftsman “fixer-upper,” as she calls it, with a view of the San Gabriel Mountains that is nothing less than sublime. There, she and husband Reza Aslan, a highly regarded public intellectual and author who, like Jackley, is also a university professor, and their three boys — 4-year-old identical twins Jaspar and Cyrus, and 1-year-old Asa — will have room to stretch out. The house is the first she’s owned, making it her second major first in the last year. The other was publishing her autobiographical paean to social entrepreneurship, CLAY WATER BRICK: Finding Inspiration from Entrepreneurs Who Do the Most with the Least.
Published last summer, the book illustrates the tenacity of Jackley and the low-income entrepreneurs she first met in 2004 while working for Village Enterprise, a California-based nonprofit focused on microenterprise development in East Africa. A few months prior, she was at Stanford, where she handled marketing and strategic planning for the Center for Social Innovation in the Graduate School of Business (and where she would later earn her MBA). Jackley had “one of those rare, ‘aha’ moments” listening to Muhammad Yunus speak about microfinance and the founding of the Grameen Bank. She writes in CLAY WATER BRICK that Yunus challenged her to think differently about “alleviating poverty … one person at a time, through a series of small, discrete steps … catalyzed with a small loan and support along an entrepreneurial path.”
In 2005, she began traveling her own entrepreneurial path by launching Kiva, one of the first efforts at person-to-person lending over the internet. The startup began with just a handful of entrepreneurs in Uganda but grew rapidly; a decade later, Kiva has attracted about 1.5 million lenders and administered nearly $1 billion in loans, with a repayment rate of more than 98 percent.
Jessica Jackley '00 enjoys family time with, from left, husband Reza Aslan, Asa, Cyrus and Jaspar.
Jackley left Kiva in 2008 but continues to advise the organization. In 2009, she launched a second startup, ProFounder, a community-based crowdfunding tool that was acquired by GOOD Inc. in 2012. She later worked as a venture partner with the Collaborative Fund — early investors in Kickstarter, Lyft, TaskRabbit and other companies — and continues to advise portfolio companies.
Jackley also was a visiting practitioner at the Stanford Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society and now teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California and online to more than 100,000 students. She does a select number of consulting engagements, advising companies on “social impact strategy and taking advantage of new trends in the sharing economy,” she says. For instance, she was Walt Disney Imagineering’s first entrepreneur in residence two years ago. She also works closely with The Lavin Agency to do speaking engagements on social entrepreneurship, and of course, her book. She’s spoken to tens of thousands of people at universities, corporations and conferences (including TED) globally.
However, her most fulfilling collaborations are with her husband, Reza Aslan, whom she met on a blind date in 2010. Of course, their three little dark-haired boys are, she says, “the center of our universe.” But she and Aslan also support each other in their respective careers. The entire family went with Jackley on a six-week book tour last summer. And last fall, while Aslan was trotting the globe filming his new CNN series Believer, as an Anthony Bourdain-like guide for world religions, Jackley held down the home front.
When Jackley was writing CLAY WATER BRICK, her husband “read every draft and just helped me navigate the whole process,” she says. Aslan, who teaches creative writing at UC Riverside, has published four books, including the controversial bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, which has been optioned for a feature film. Aslan wears many other hats, as a writer and professor but also frequent commentator, consultant and television producer.
Aslan also feeds Jackley’s love for poetry, which she first cultivated at Bucknell. A political science and philosophy major and poetry minor who was Student Government president, Jackley was awarded the Julia Fonville Smithson Memorial Prize for poetry her senior year.
“For the last five years or so, every few months we’ve held these big poetry nights,” she says, smiling. “We invite a few dozen friends over, and the only price of admission is that you bring a poem. It can be original or found, famous or totally new, serious or silly. Everyone gets up and reads at some point during the night. So you’ll have the random — like a poignant text exchange — alongside beautiful original pieces. It’s really fun.”
They also are practicing a new duet: sharing the stage at college venues and on social media, explaining how they navigate another important aspect of their lives — interfaith marriage. Jackley, from Pittsburgh, is an evangelical Christian whose brother is a pastor, while Aslan, who was born in Iran, is Muslim. The response to their discussions on the topic has been overwhelmingly positive.
But for now, Jackley’s focus, outside of her family, is on a new venture, which she says, “will create a different way for people to support causes they care about through micro-philanthropy.” The platform will be up this summer, and Jackley says she’ll be “tweeting from the rooftops” at launch (follow her at @jessicajackley).
The spirit of the new enterprise, she says, “is about doing little things every day to construct a legacy of impact, brick by brick, step by step. Just like I want to build up a body of work that I’m proud of across my lifetime, which is the culmination of many small actions, there’s a better way for donors to build something meaningful over time, too.
“Instead of taking action around an issue every once in a while, say by giving big on an annual basis, why aren’t frequent, small contributions the norm?” she asks. “They add up. And more crucially, they shape the consciousness of the contributor. Our actions build us. I do all sorts of small things every day as a parent; those actions shape me as much as they affect my children. If I want to live thoughtfully and practice generosity, shouldn’t I do that every day too?”
If Kiva’s success is any indication, this new project might just have all of us asking that question — and taking action.
Jessica Jackley ’00 will speak at Bucknell in mid-October as part of the School of Management’s Walling Lecture Series. After the talk, a video will also be available in the Speaking of Success series, bucknell.edu/SpeakingofSuccess, where accomplished alumni share their career experience and discuss how Bucknell prepared them to lead.