January 07, 2010

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By Sam Alcorn

LEWISBURG, Pa. — In the city of Nablus in Palestine's West Bank, a 25-year-old pharmacist is stocking medical supplies and goods in his shop thanks in part to a microfinance loan from Bucknell University management students.

The pharmacist is one of more than 50 around the globe who in the past four years have been recipients of small loans — some as little as $25 — from a microfinance project that evolved in a Management 101 class that hasn't met as an official class since spring 2007.

The group, who called themselves Buck'n Great Shirts, raised $1,600 from shirt sales to seed the microfinance initiative, which, three years after it was launched is still active in making small loans to business entrepreneurs like Nour, the first name of the Palestinian pharmacist. To date, Buck'n Great Shirts has made a total of $5,650 in loans — all of which but one was repaid in full.

House Party Weekend T-shirts
"Buck'n Great Shirts was a spring 2007 Management 101 class," said Tammy Hiller, associate professor of management, noting that the Bucknell course is celebrating 30 years of collaborative and experiential organization learning. "Their business project was a typical spring semester one. They designed and sold House Party Weekend T-shirts."

With funds raised in the sale, the management class held an educational panel discussion with students and faculty on global poverty and how microfinance efforts could help to alleviate those problems. A kickball tournament raised additional money and by the end of the semester the company had lent $1,600 to five people around the globe through Kiva, a nonprofit microfinance organization which brings together lenders, such as the Bucknell management company, and entrepreneurs. (Kiva was co-founded by Jessica Jackley, a 2000 Bucknell graduate.)

"Since then, I have met periodically with students who were in the company so that they can relend the money that has been paid back to them," said Hiller. And now, as the last students who were part of that class are preparing to graduate and leave campus, Hiller has been charged with continuing to make loans on their behalf.

As a first-year student, Erica Hall, Class of '10, was one of 27 students who formed Buck'n Great Shirts.

Establishing criteria
"Our company established criteria for selecting entrepreneurs and we decided to give priority to women and children who needed loans for agricultural or food businesses or new startups," said Hall. "Our company also wanted to spread the loans around the world rather than concentrating them in just one region or country."

And they have done just that with the 54 loans so far. Recipients live in countries ranging from Cambodia and the Dominican Republic to Azerbaijan and Lebanon.

With loans ranging in size from $25 to as much as $800, the class project has enabled a Cambodian borrower to buy a truck and sell wood. A recipient in Ghana was able to buy yams, rice and oil to sell at market. A group from Paraguay borrowed $150 to buy materials to make bedspreads, hammocks and table cloths. In Uganda, a group of entrepreneurs borrowed $100 to buy a refrigerator from which to sell cold drinks.

The group's latest $50 loan to Nour, the Palestinian pharmacist who is married with one child, was the result of a group decision to include men as recipients.

Supply of medicine
"We chose the pharmacist in Nablus because he needed a loan to increase his supply of medicines and to include more items his customers frequently wanted," said Hall. "It seemed like the loan would benefit the health and well-being of many different people."

Sean Coyne, Class of '10 and another original member of the Management 101 company and the company's chief executive officer, said the company was "very passionate" about helping people all over the world.

"I would say the most memorable loan was to a woman in Kenya. She had been making regular loans repayments and was on track to fully repay her loan," said Coyne. "Unfortunately, when there was civil unrest in her country, we stopped hearing from her. We're still not sure what happened to her but our group opted to forgive her loan because of the circumstances."

To date, that is the only loan of 54 to go bad.

Improving lives
"Stories like that remind us of how much trouble there is in the world and that hopefully, by loaning money to people in those areas, we can help to improve their lives," said Coyne.

He, too, is pleased that after the last of company's students graduate, Professor Hiller will continue to make loan decisions based on the criteria they established.

"In this way, our company's money can recycle continuously. It means a lot to me, as well as the rest of the company, that our legacy can continue and help people after we are no longer at Bucknell," said Coyne.

Contact: Division of Communications