How 'accidental entrepreneur' Julie Hanna became Obama's enterprise ambassador

The exec chair of P2P lender Kiva discusses how she's aiming to create opportunities for new businesses worldwide.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 02 Jun 2016

‘As an Egyptian, as a refugee of war, as an immigrant, I grew up watching my family and people around me not get access to things,’ says Julie Hanna, exec chair of P2P lender Kiva and Barack Obama’s Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship. ‘So the dreams I created were about a world that understands that talent is universal, but opportunity isn’t.’

Hanna has been a founding exec of five Silicon Valley tech firms, so knows better than most both what’s needed to thrive as an entrepreneur and how tough it can be. She was never determined to start a business – she calls herself ‘an accidental entrepreneur’ – but knew she wanted to create opportunities for others.

Born in Egypt, Hanna and her family moved to Jordan and found themselves caught up in the Jordanian Civil War. They moved to the US in 1972 and the seeds of entrepreneurialism were sown when Hanna graduated from university with a degree in computer science. ‘I saw technology as a way of enabling fair access; I think it’s the most democratising force in the history of humankind,’ she explains. ‘That’s what has propelled me and I found that being an entrepreneur was the most effective outlet of fulfilling my dreams.’

Read more: Why purpose-driven businesses are few and far between

Her focus, she says, is ‘purpose-driven companies’. P2P lender Kiva is a crowdfunding marketplace for underserved entrepreneurs across the world. ‘We’ve reached two million entrepreneurs across 86 countries to date, with nearly $1bn in capital,’ Hanna explains. She’s also an investor in firms such as ride-hailing app Lyft, fuelled by a wider aim to develop ‘the movement around purpose-driven tech companies’. It may seem difficult to reconcile with the sky-high valuation land of Silicon Valley where profit seems the priority, but Hanna feels it’s a common fallacy to think you can only have one without the other.

‘Purpose and profit are natural partners and they’re part of a virtuous cycle when you take the long view on how to build a highly profitable and enduring business,’ she argues. ‘One of the things you notice about the most successful companies in Silicon Valley is that they make lots of money precisely because they are purpose-driven. It’s Google’s mission to organise the world’s information to create more value than it extracts; it’s Twitter’s mission to give voice to the voiceless; it’s Facebook’s mission to connect every person on the planet. These missions aren’t just words on a wall, they’re the very essence of what drives these companies and what allows them to attract top talent and unlock business models that are highly profitable.’

Hanna spoke to MT while she was in the UK to collect her Global Empowerment Award from the Asian Women of Achievement Awards. It’s a nod both to her work with Kiva and in her ambassadorial role, where she’s been tasked with inspiring potential entrepreneurs and helping them progress, through mentorship, access to capital and resources. Hanna also advises public and private institutions on how to create environments that will allow budding businesses to flourish.

‘In Silicon Valley, we have a very successful model of entrepreneurship of building products and businesses,’ she explains. ‘If we can export that to other geographies, we can help drive the same kind of economic and societal uplift. That comes down to what we have in our ecosystem that we can replicate elsewhere – access to knowledge and network access.’ The sharing of stories, be they success or failure, are also key. ‘I can now be an entrepreneur in Rwanda and learn what the top entrepreneurial minds in Silicon Valley are doing to succeed,’ Hanna says. ‘That’s unprecedented.’

A personal focus for Hanna has been access to capital, because of her involvement at Kiva. Her signature initiative, Global Capital Access for Women and Youth, is a commitment to drive $100m in funds to 200,000 entrepreneurs across 86 countries. She says the initiative’s already well past the 50% mark.

‘The entrepreneurs I meet [through the initiative] are probably my greatest source of inspiration,’ she says. ‘People like Circle Cambodian Sewing Cooperative, raising $700 for sewing machines. You see the radiant pictures of young twenty-year-olds and learning the story I found they had been rescued from human sex trafficking. All of a sudden you realise these sewing machines aren’t just tools of hope but they’re symbols for a future that takes them away from a tragic past.’

‘It’s people like Teresa Goines who started a supper club in the most dangerous part of San Francisco so that gang members and kids who tangled with the law could have a path that didn’t take them back to prison. It’s Erastus Kimani who I met in Maragua, Kenya, a 73-year-old retired school teacher who explained to me he’d become an entrepreneur because he had dreams of sending his six daughters not only to school, but to college,’ Hanna says. ‘They’re the unsung heroes of entrepreneurship. Frankly, they have more resilience, grit and ingenuity than many celebrated Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.’

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