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Building your business as if your life depends on it

By John Hagerty

When I met some women in India who’d received loans from Opportunity International Australia to build businesses, what struck me most, was that these women were building their businesses as if their lives depended on it. And of course, their lives and the lives of their families did depend on the income they earned from the businesses for life’s basic necessities – food, clean water, safe shelter and medicine. And it’s why they’re so successful.

One thing the women I met in India did extremely well, was identifying a need and taking a product to market that met that need. This is consistent with some great advice from my Dad: “If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you have to identify a need in the marketplace that isn’t being filled by anyone else, and you come up with a way of filling that need in a way that’s superior to any other way that exists.” If you live in a slum in India your idea might be as simple as starting a small food stall within the slum so that the residents don’t have to travel to purchase food. The entrepreneur is taking a risk and hoping to sell the products at a mark-up to make a profit and she aims to deliver it better than any other potential competitor. In Australia, where purchasing any product your heart desires is just a mouse-click away, you have to be a bit more innovative to solve a problem or meet a market need.

I was fascinated that in one little rural village in India the entrepreneurs had established a complete value chain through their businesses. One woman had a business recycling wire. She took a variety of things made from wire and spun the wire into a yarn that she sold to another entrepreneur in the village who in turn, made wire nets using a big weaving machine. The wire nets had several commercial applications and were purchased by other entrepreneurs in the village. The women were sparking off each other and setting up successful businesses as a result of their innovative spirits!

Something else that stood out to me in India is the way Opportunity’s loan groups provide a support base that goes way beyond the practical aspect of loan repayment. These groups meet every week so the women can pay back a portion of their loan to a loan officer, but they also act as a powerful mechanism for providing emotional support. The women act as sounding boards for one another and they share ideas for getting through the ups and downs of running a business. The need for entrepreneurs to support each other is universal given the challenges of getting a start-up off the ground. All entrepreneurs face similar challenges. They have a similar mindset and speak a common language. So, taking the time out to reflect with people who are going to understand your circumstances is very valuable. It provides moral and social support at what can be a very difficult time. This is why I believe Opportunity’s loan groups are integral to the support of the entrepreneurs I met in India.

Entrepreneurs in developing countries are incredibly inspiring. When you look at the circumstances in which they live you realise just what a tough gig they have. The ones I have met are incredibly hard working and dedicated to the betterment of their children. They are also accepting of their own fate - that their own life isn’t going to change much for them personally, but they have the capacity to make a better life for their children. They are totally committed to making that happen. They are predominantly focused on generational change and they are ok with that, rather than focusing on themselves. It’s incredibly generous and selfless.

They are unlikely to quit – they don’t have the option of quitting but they accept that too. When I was in India, I heard a lot of gratitude and commitment and a lot of enthusiasm. I also saw a lot of community building that I thought was fantastic. It’s when you see how hard these women work and their incredibly positive attitude, despite difficult circumstances, that you know that backing entrepreneurs to address social issues is the way to go. Providing access to capital to women who use that capital to build businesses is the way for women to break the cycle of poverty themselves.

If you’re an entrepreneur making your living out of building a business, you can relate to the power of Opportunity’s microfinance model. Its immense power and sustainability. And the way microfinance leverages your donation – it’s multiplied many times before making its way into the field and then it’s paid back again and again and again. This allows it to be lent to other entrepreneurs to kick-start businesses or continue building existing start-ups.

When I decided to support a charity, I was looking for one that made business sense to me and I wanted a personal tie to it. That’s why I support a Community Impact Fund in the Philippines through Opportunity, as I can relate to the entrepreneurs and the journey they are on. I identify with the loan recipients and feel a kindred spirit with them. I can visit them, learn from them and see how their businesses are going. The families I support in the Philippines are running their businesses as if their lives depend on it because they have no other choice but to relentlessly persevere in the face of great hardship. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to help them on their journey out of poverty.

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