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Empowering Individuals in the Global Community Through Entrepreneurship
Steve Wanta, who just returned from Kenya and is on his way to Eastern Europe next, says he has the best job in the world.
Wanta, who splits his time between Austin and the road, supervises the foundation's overseas staff members supporting microcredit programs in 52 countries where Whole Foods Market sources product.
A native of the Midwest, Wanta came to Austin during the dot-com bust for — what else? — a job in high-tech. But a subsequent stint in the Peace Corps best prepared him for his current job at the foundation.
Wanta spent a couple of years in Guatemala — "one of the most beautiful countries in the world" — before he returned to Austin in 2006 to visit friends.
He found the foundation job in an online job posting: "I about fell off my chair."
His first posting? Guatemala, of course.
But in his new gig, Wanta found himself working alongside the pioneers of the industry, Grameen Bank, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning microcredit bank for the poor.
He's never looked back.
His recent trip to Kenya was just one weeklong stop on a six-week tour that included India, Bangladesh and several African countries. But Wanta was doing double duty in Kenya, representing the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce while also doing his foundation work.
American-Statesman: Please describe the Whole Planet Foundation's mission.
Steve Wanta: Whole Planet Foundation's mission is to support programs that work to alleviate poverty through entrepreneurship in developing communities where Whole Foods Market sources products. Our approach is to work with microfinance institutions around the world to fund microloans that empower the poor with a chance to lift themselves out of poverty through their own hard work.
Who gets micro loans?
The type of microcredit that the foundation supports is focused on women who usually live on less than $2 per day. These women and their children make up the majority of people living in poverty. They continue to be the most economically and socially marginalized. These microloans are designed to reverse the old system. Capital now can become an agent for change rather a barrier for development for the world's poor.
Our work is purely philanthropic, so our funding does not go to Whole Foods Market suppliers but rather the very poor in the communities where these suppliers live and work.
How large are the loans, and are they repaid?
The microloans are typically $250 or less, and are paid back through small, frequent repayments. The system of microcredit is designed in such a way that our partners have a 96% repayment rate on their loans.
What does your international staff do?
Our staff does an enormous amount of research including financial analysis and site visits before selecting new microfinance partners to work with. This due diligence ensures that the foundation supports lending projects that put the interests of the microcredit borrowers first.
We continue to conduct ongoing monitoring and evaluation of our 52 (and growing) projects around the world.
How many people has the foundation helped since its inception in 2006?
Whole Planet Foundation has supported access to microcredit for more than 212,000 clients, which has benefited an estimated 1.26 million family members through the creation or expansion of home-based businesses.
How do you select the countries the foundation operates in?
The first step is determining if the country has a Whole Foods Market product connection. Once the connection is identified, our program team analyzes potential lending partners that share the same pro-poor lending methodology as Whole Planet Foundation while operating on a sustainable basis.
Is there a U.S. component to the foundation?
Yes, we support microcredit through Grameen America in New York, Indianapolis, Omaha, San Francisco, and we plan on continuing to increase our support for other US markets.
What attracted you to serve on the board of the Capital City African American Chamber?
I believe diversity is very important for Austin, especially as we continue to grow. As a member of the Capital City African American Chamber, I hope to help expand the brand of Austin around the world in an effort to make us a truly global city.
In Kenya, who did you see on behalf of the chamber?
In Kenya I met with a number of companies that were focused on technology, primarily mobile technology. Kenya is becoming a center for social innovation and is leading the world in mobile money.
What would most surprise our readers about what you've seen or learned from so much world travel?
While traveling the world, I've come to appreciate the importance of living life with an open mind. Two beliefs have arisen from seeing how the world's poor live:
1. The poor have great potential but lack access to opportunities, whether a job or capital. Microcredit is an important resource that can aid the poor to create a better future.
2. We can learn something from everyone. Regardless of where we stand culturally or economically, the willingness and ability to keep an open mind will help us expand our collective consciousness.
How can Austinites get involved?
I am asked this question a lot, and my answer depends on the person and their personal goals. For some, simply becoming more conscious consumers is a major and important first step. Others may be ready to make, a bigger commitment and the Peace Corps could be right for them. Joining one of the many Austin chambers is a great way to connect to our greater community. Whole Planet Foundation is constantly creating new ways for people to engage with our mission, so I encourage everyone to check out our website and follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.