In 1979, a visionary couple had a big idea. They began helping people in some of the poorest places ,start and run profitable businesses. And it worked.
Glen and Mildred Robbins Leet were lifelong advocates for human rights and economic justice. Skeptical about the effectiveness of giant, complex anti-poverty programs, they asked themselves, “What’s the simplest thing we could do help people escape extreme poverty?”
Their answer: Invest in women.
They started small, providing seed capital grants of $100 to help women start a business, save for future business expansion and family emergencies, encourage them to work together, share knowledge, and support each other through challenges, and gain the skills and confidence necessary to realize their dreams, and inspire other women in their community.
“In years working in the international community,” said Mrs. Leet, “we saw first-hand what an overwhelming need there was for a program that would truly benefit the person ‘at the bottom.’ We saw the massive infusions of aid which really did not trickle down. The rich were getting richer, and the poor were getting poorer.”
The Leets tested their idea with 10 women in the Caribbean Island of Dominica. It worked and now, four decades later, Trickle Up has helped 1.5 million people create profitable businesses that feed their families, send their children to school, and provide enough to save for the future.
For 16 years, Bill Abrams was given the opportunity to steward the Leet’s legacy as President of Trickle Up. We got to learn more about its incredible success when we sat down for The Caring Economy last week. Abrams served as President of Trickle Up from 2005-2021. Trickle Up’s reach, impact, and influence grew dramatically during his tenure.
During our interview Abrams explains that extreme poverty is about more than money, that it’s about isolation and exclusion. Extreme poverty means hunger, illiteracy, and instability. It’s powered by discrimination based on gender, heritage and disability that endures over generations.
Extreme poverty is a powerful force that affects 767 million people in some of the most remote places on earth, so Abrams and his team had to go beyond the paved highways and dirt roads. Almost invariably it was the face of a woman that met them there. As Abrams describes it, she’ll likely be indigenous or come from an ethnic minority. There’s a 1 in 5 chance she will have a disability. She may have fled her home to escape a ravaging conflict or climate, or both. She is confronted by the enduring legacy of life without access to education and the threat of sudden illness without recourse. She is excluded from the social ties of her community and the economic opportunities of local markets.
Trickle Up’s approach to giving these women opportunity is the secret to their success. As they note, “When people get an opportunity, they fight like champions.”
Under his leadership, Trickle Up staff continued to goto some of the most challenging locations in the world, to create economic opportunities for the world’s poorest people. They helped resourceful but marginalized people that other programs leave behind, they can start and run a profitable business that puts food on the table, sends children to school, and save for the future. They call this their Graduation Approach.
Trickle Up’s Graduation Approach involves helping women to run profitable businesses as a pathway out of poverty. It could be a food stall or farm. Even keeping bees. And where markets don’t exist, our participants create them.
When participants graduate from their programs, they’re earning sustainable incomes, able to feed their families, and saving for future goals. Plus, graduates have a greater voice in the decision-making in their households and communities — true progress.
As a result, by 2019 Abrams and the Trickle Up team saw:
- 170,000 participants, people starting and running successful businesses, saving for the future, and eating more and better foods
- 901,000 family members and neighbors of participants benefitting from and being inspired by their success
- 38 partners and global organizations working with them to deliver more inclusive programs
- A graduation rate of 86%, meaning participants in recently completed projects were running profitable businesses that provide sustainable incomes
- A savings rate of 91%, meaning participants were saving enough money to cover their household’s average expenses for three months or more
- A reduction of hunger by 83%, meaning 83%of participants in recently completed projects reported improvements in the quality and number of meals they consumed
The Leet’s legacy, advanced by Abrams over 16 years is now tried and true. Their formula is simple. Their graduation approach trains people to start and run profitable businesses so they can save for the future, build skills, and begin the journey out of poverty.
As a lifelong leader and learner, Abrams left 2021 in great shape and began the next chapter of his career, emphasizing not-for-profit board work and consulting. He currently is a Senior Fellow at InterAction, an association of US-based international NGOs, and served on its board for six years. He also is a member of the Advisory Council of the World Bank Partnership for Economic Inclusion. He now serves the boards of the US International Council on Disabilities, a global disability rights advocate, and Village Preservation, which works to protect the architectural and cultural history of Greenwich Village and adjacent neighborhoods.
Pearls of Wisdom
During our interview Abrams cites collaboration as a key to success. At Trickle Up it meant collaborating with peers around the world, corporations and local agencies to address the gigantic, complicated problem of global poverty. Both in the private sector and in the public sector, they identified actors with shared interest in solving for poverty, finding that common ground where they could learn from and talk with each other. Abrams believes such collaboration lessens the likelihood of an organization getting trapped in its own way of thinking. “It’s better if different entities can actually learn to collaborate and help each other,” Abrams says.”
To that end, Abrams also graciously notes of The Caring Economy, that listening to such diverse, and notable leaders is both easy and stimulating,as well as helpful in challenging the way we think.
As with all guests on The Caring Economy, Abramsexemplifies how leaders with purpose-driven lives and careers are shaping our contemporary workplace for the better.
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