Where does an innovative idea come from? Do you wake up one day and say, “okay, time for a change?” Does it come in a flash of inspiration? Or blossom like a desert flower?
I think innovative ideas come from struggle tempered by experience. They grow from the desire to meet a challenge, solve a problem, make a difference. That’s what happened to two women teaching in El Alto, Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in Latin America.
In 1990 Lynne Patterson and Carmen Velasco were teaching young children in Bolivia. They realized to really help the children break out of the cycle of poverty, they would have to help their mothers.
Most of the mothers struggled with poverty, couldn’t read or write, were plagued by disease, abuse and often lived without hope. Lynne and Carmen clearly saw the need for change, but how to do it?
They also saw hard-working women who would do anything to make a better life for their children. They needed opportunity and a support system. In what they call their “kitchen table” effort, Lynne and Carmen decided they would find an innovative way to pry open opportunity’s door.
They set up a training program where the mothers could learn, support and encourage each other. Lynne and Carmen taught basic skills in business, health and leadership. They soon realized that these women needed access to capital in order to put what they were learning into practice.
With a small grant from USAID, they added financial services and micro-lending to their health and human development teaching – taking a holistic approach to helping the women and their families. They called their efforts Pro Mujer (For Women) and today it’s one of Latin America’s most successful development and micro-finance organizations for women.
Here’s a video from the Pro Mujer site that shows how one woman’s family was helped by their efforts:
Pro Mujer builds solidarity, the women help each other and learn from each other. It has a loan repayment rate of 99+%. Lynne and Carmen built the organization to a certain point, then turned it over to professional management so it could offer a greater variety of financial help to the women.
The video below is a striking example of what their innovative approach was able to accomplish. While the first video is more folksy, more immediate, this one is more elegant and yet strangely distant. Still, both of them leave you with similar feelings and both get their message across.
If you want to learn more, here’s a podcast presentation with Lynne describing the origins and goal of Pro Mujer.
Perhaps it all comes down to determination. Lynne and Carmen just kept moving forward, taking a simple idea, building on it, nourishing their vision until it developed a life of its own. I’m sure they are forceful, committed people. I’m sure they also have a bit of the dreamer in them. You have to think big and push to make things happen. But when you do, and keep at it, you can surprise yourself with what you can accomplish. That’s the power of their dedicated partnership and devotion to the innovative idea that became Pro Mujer – it’s transformative. Millions of people can attest to that.
Lynne and Carmen are not unique. There are other people in the development community who have traveled a similar path, made similar discoveries, found similar solutions. But this story doesn’t end with them.
I’d like to leave you with one last image. Because beyond the rhetoric and the statistics, it all comes down to helping one generation make a better life for the next. That’s something any parent would want for their child. And perhaps that is the greatest gift that these two women have left to so many others.