April 5, 2000: Column on Women Entrepreneurs and Microcredit



April 5, 2000

I first met Cate Muther last October when the President and I hosted a White House Conference on Philanthropy. She was part of a panel exploring the power of the new economy to transform charitable giving.

Soon, I discovered that Cate and I had something in common. Each of us had traveled to Bangladesh to visit the Grameen Bank, where the concept of microcredit, or small loans, originated. And both of us returned to this country inspired by the power of these loans to enable even the poorest of women to start businesses, lifting their families -- and their communities -- out of poverty.

I first heard about the Grameen Bank over 20 years ago, when Bill and I invited the bank's founder, Mohammad Yunus, to Little Rock to help us introduce microcredit lending programs into some of the poorest rural communities in Arkansas. Since then, as I've traveled around the world, I have seen the power of small loans to improve the lives of women and their families. And I've been constantly amazed by the rates at which these loans are repaid -- rates that make them the envy of commercial banks. On his recent trip to Bangladesh, the President also had the opportunity to meet some of the women whose lives have been transformed by the loans they received from Grameen.

Over the past two decades, I have encouraged the creation of microcredit projects in every corner of the world, including our own country. Meanwhile, Cate, who had been the senior marketing officer at the networking giant Cisco Systems, drew on her private sector experience and what she had witnessed in Bangladesh to start the Women's Technology Cluster. The first incubator specifically targeted to female high-tech entrepreneurs, the WTC was the first project of the Three Guineas Fund, a foundation that Cate funded herself and named after a Virginia Woolf essay on philanthropy and women's financial independence.

Both the Three Guineas Fund and the WTC reflect the philosophies of microcredit lending. For although the economic plight of a poor woman in Bangladesh who wants a loan to buy a second milk cow or a sewing machine may seem worlds away from that of a technology entrepreneur in San Francisco, the bottom line is this: No matter where they live, women need help breaking down the barriers to capital.

Last week, I traveled to an old San Francisco neighborhood called Dogpatch to meet Cate and participate in a round-table discussion with some of the women whose companies are now part of the cluster.

I met Gina Johnson, whose web site, RosePlace.com, offers resources to those who care for senior citizens. And Lavonne Luqies, who was recently named one of the Top 100 Influential Hispanics in the United States by Hispanic Business magazine. She hopes her web site, Latino.com, will become the premier cultural portal for the Latino community. Finally, as we watched, CEO Tiffany Bass Bukow launched MsMoney.com, her new financial services site, designed specifically for women.

At the WTC, these women and their businesses receive inexpensive office space, business consulting and mentoring services, discounted health insurance and long-distance rates, and shared staff support and facilities. Most importantly, though, they have access to a network of experts, business mentors and programs that help them attract capital investment.

As Cate explains it, "More than 30 percent of new women-owned businesses are in the technology field. But accessing capital continues to be a systematic problem for women entrepreneurs. The Women's Technology Cluster is a model for breaking these structural and cultural barriers." Muther's goal is twofold: to provide women with the help they need to break through the barriers, while, at the same time, developing a new generation of philanthropists.

As I have observed in places around the country and around the world, when women become full economic partners in their communities, they are likely to become philanthropists as well. At the WTC, Cate is banking on that fact. Each CEO who participates in the incubator must pledge 2 percent of the value of her company to an equity reinvestment fund. Over time, Muther expects two things to happen: First, the WTC will become financially self-sustaining. And second, as they participate in the decisions about how to support the existing charitable endeavors in their communities, every entrepreneur will become an active and engaged philanthropist.

What I saw at the WTC last week is a remarkable example of how the blessings and opportunities of the Internet Age can be extended to increasing numbers of Americans. Not only is Cate Muther opening the doors of Silicon Valley to women, giving them the opportunity to join the ranks of successful high-tech entrepreneurs, she is also fostering a culture of charitable giving, turning entrepreneurs into philanthropists. It's a wonderful idea, and an example that I hope others will follow.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.


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