This was the scenario in 1993: Rosalind Copisarow was 36, with a Bachelor's degree from Oxford and an MBA from Wharton. She spoke four languages (English, French, Spanish and Polish), had a dozen years of investment-banking experience, and had singlehandedly developed J.P. Morgan's business in Poland, where her position was vice president and country officer for Poland. In the previous three years, she hadn't made a loan for less than $100 million, and J.P. Morgan was talking about a promotion to China or India. Then, in a life-changing about-face, Copisarow gave it all up for a scratch-start, nonprofit microcredit operation in Poland, which meant living in a Warsaw flat that frequently lacked heat and hot water, and rising at 4:30 A.M. to take hours-long train rides out of the city almost every day of the week.
It all began one day while Copisarow was on her regular British Airways commute from London to Warsaw. "I always sat in middle seat, in order to double the amount of market information I obtained from my neighbors", she explains. "Usually I wore more 'arty' clothes and carried women's magazines, which made it easier for men to talk to me, to tell me about their business deals." But on that fateful day, Copisarow was dressed in a business suit. She was sitting between two banking competitors, which meant she couldn't safely take work material out of her briefcase. Instead, she began to read the Financial Times, which happened to include a supplement on Bangladesh -- with a story on Grameen Bank. "I read that more than a million of the country's poorest women had proven themselves to be more creditworthy than the rich, with repayment rate of ninety-six percent on unsecured loans," she says. "Meanwhile, in Poland, there were more then one million microbusinesses that needed money to expand and couldn't get it. Suddenly, I had a clear vision of those entrepreneurs getting the loans they needed."
Copisarow admits that she had no clue as to how she might do this, but she was struck by the novelty of being directly involved with the people and businesses that she loaned to "Here I was, making loans in units of one hundred million -- some deals for chemical plants and oil field were for a billion -- and I never actually saw where the money went, let alone the people who put it to use." A few weeks later, J.P. Morgan hosted a dinner party for Polish government officials and Copisarow found herself seated beside Leszek Balcerowiz, then finance minister. Curious, she asked Balcerowicz if he had heard of the Grameen Bank. He replied that he thought it was an extraordinary financial innovation. "Well, then, what would you think of a crazy foreign woman bringing the Grameen concept of microcredit to Poland?" Copisarow asked, not quite believing the words she heard herself speaking.
He replied, "Rosalind, if you are willing to give up your career to do that, I promise you I'll give you my support in every way possible, I'll make introductions, write articles...." "My stomach fell to the floor," Copisarow remembers, "and I moaned inwardly, 'Please don't say that.' "
On July 7, 1994, President Bill Clinton announced to the Polish Parliament that the Polish-American Enterprise Fund (established under President Bush in 1990) was donating $24 million to Fundusz Mikro to launch a microlending institution in Poland. The founder, chairwoman, and chief executive officer of Fundusz Mikro was and is, Rosalind Copisarow.
"We started with freedom, lots of money and complete ignorance about what would work," she says. With a small staff, she examined 200 different lending methodologies -- including goat loans, where the first two female kids to be born were re-lent to others. "Our object was to discover what models resonated with the traditions of the country." They tested nine pilot models for about a year before deciding on the program design.
"In addition to individuals, we also lend to small groups of four to seven people. It's important for borrowers to feel they have a choice, "says Copisarow. "And we don't make ideological speeches to them -- in Poland, the disillusionment with ideology runs very deep."
Fundusz Mikro now has 20 branches lending to 4,000 clients, with a repayment rate that rivals Grameen's: 98.5 percent of $ 10 million in loans has been repaid on time. In addition, 2,000 new jobs have been created and 3,000 former clients have graduated to the formal economy.
By 2002, Copisarow wants Fundusz Mikro to be self-supporting, with a full banking license. Given what she's accomplished so far, there's little doubt that she will make it happen. "When I reflect on my previous banking career, it seems so two dimensional," Copisarow says, "It lacked soul. What I do now has put real meaning in my work -- and therefore in my life."
Source: American Benefactor, Summer 1998.
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