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Gregory Casagrande is the driving force behind South Pacific Business Development (“SPBD”), the first successful microfinance network across the South Pacific, with operations in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.
Greg’s desire to “make a positive impact” and help others developed early in his life. From working with the homeless in Washington DC, to helping children in Spanish Harlem, to repairing dilapidated homes in Detroit, Greg actively engaged in giving others the encouragement and opportunity to improve their own future.
While traveling abroad to Africa, Asia and the Caribbean as a teenager and young adult, Greg witnessed poverty and an absolute lack of opportunity in developing countries. His firsthand experience in an apartheid-era South Africa helped to raise his awareness and to form his belief in empowering others with the opportunity to do something positive with their lives. Greg tells his inspiring story below.
Why Did You Choose Microfinance? I’ve always been interested in economic development both at home and abroad, believing that when empowered, people can help themselves and improve their own lives. I also believe in entrepreneurialism as a force for positive change, and I admire deeply people who create new businesses from the ground up. My real-life hero is my father – he is a successful entrepreneur who worked hard to make his dreams come true.
After completing my MBA program, I worked in the automotive industry in the US and Japan for nine years. While I learned a ton about running a business effectively and efficiently, I wanted to follow my dream of making a difference by economically empowering people more directly, so I left the automotive industry and Japan, moved my family to New Zealand, and began exploring ideas for my “next phase in life.” It was during this period when I first learned about microfinance.
I studied the subject thoroughly and extensively, with a particular eye on the operational elements of running a microfinance institution (MFI). Then I traveled to Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire in 1999, with my business plan in hand, to learn more and participate in the second Global Microcredit Summit. This conference was a transformational event – for the first time, I had the opportunity to meet many like-minded microfinance practitioners who encouraged me and advised me on the next steps in making my dream come true.
Microfinance enables people, women in particular, to access the financing they need to launch or grow small, income-generating businesses and improve their lives and the lives of their families. It provides meaningful economic opportunity to those who want to work hard and work their way up the economic ladder.
Why Did You Decide To Focus on the South Pacific? When we left Japan, my family and I chose to go to Auckland for a few months because it was summertime in New Zealand and winter back in the United States. I also figured that it would provide me with a lot of free mental space for “out-of-the-box” thinking for a few months while I determined my next career step. Of course a few months turned into nine years. I was based in New Zealand when I decided to enter the microfinance industry, and I explored our new “backyard” to assess the need for microfinance. I created a table detailing all of the key populated islands of the South Pacific and used specific criteria to assess the opportunities for microfinance on each island. After researching and traveling to Samoa, which the UN classifies as a Least Developed Country (LDC), and after dozens of conversations with microentrepreneurs, it became clear that there was, indeed, a huge need for finance among this group.
Prior to launching my own MFI, I visited Chittagong, Bangladesh for a few weeks to learn firsthand the details of operating an MFI from one of the world’s most successful organizations, Grameen Bank. Back in Samoa and armed with new knowledge, I launched a Greenfield MFI to give Samoan women the opportunity to improve their families’ lives. And thus, SPBD was born. When my family and friends learned what I was doing, they wanted to help. So, we established The MicroDreams Foundation (originally called SPBD-USA) to raise awareness and funds for microfinance in the South Pacific.
There really is a lot of need throughout the independent nations of the South Pacific. I’m keen to find solutions to help all poor people – solutions that can be scaled and can make a difference in places that haven’t been reached successfully before, but where there is a need.
What is the Secret to Building a Successful Microfinance Network? To build a successful microfinance network, I believe one of the key factors is to be client-oriented – we must always be respectful of our clients and work hard to directly serve their needs. It is this culture of respect and client service that runs throughout the work that MicroDreams and SPBD does. This is why we refer to them as “clients” and not “beneficiaries.”
I’m very proud of our clients. To show our appreciation and recognize their hard work, we established annual “Businesswomen of the Year Awards” ceremonies in each country of operations. This is a day for the SPBD team and our clients to celebrate – it gives us the opportunity to show our clients the appreciation and admiration that they deserve.
What Has SPBD Accomplished? I’m thrilled at our success – since 2009, we replicated our model in Samoa and expanded SPBD to three new countries – Tonga (2009), Fiji (2010) and Solomon Islands (2012). We also created a holding company based in Singapore (2010) which fully owns each microfinance institution and is instrumental to the further expansion of the SPBD network.
In the world of poverty eradication, we are making a difference. We are good operators, and we serve as an inspiration that no market is too small or too remote to serve effectively. I invite all of our supporters to visit us – come see our operations and meet our clients. You will be inspired!
- Greg Casagrande