Heather Carlucci-Rodriguez's business plan for Lassi, a spice line that she sells in conjunction with her New York City-based Indian restaurant of the same name, reflects her desire to share success with others. In the future, she hopes to turn Lassi into its own retail venture, but for now it serves a different purpose. With the help of Grameen Bank, which specializes in giving small loans to Third World entrepreneurs, Carlucci-Rodriguez donates proceeds from her spice line to struggling entrepreneurs. "As my business gets bigger, hopefully my lending through Grameen Bank will, too," says Carlucci-Rodriguez, 40. Her contributions currently fund new female entrepreneurs in India, and as her business continues to profit, she hopes to expand her lending to include entrepreneurs in the Dominican Republic, her husband's birthplace. Each woman funded by Carlucci-Rodriguez receives technological as well as personal support. And it's a gift that keeps on giving: When funds are repaid, they are made available to other applicants.
Bangladeshi banker Muhammad Yunus, who founded Grameen Bank in 1983, is credited with launching the microfinance concept by popularizing it and encouraging others to get involved. Many entrepreneurs, such as Jonathan Lewis, pro bono CEO of MicroCredit Enterprises, find Yunus' ideas appealing on a personal level. MCE makes carefully researched loans to budding enterprises in developing countries. "We're providing hope and business opportunities to [some of] the most desperately poor women on earth so they can feed their children," Lewis says. MCE is one of several organizations that allows investors to reach out to struggling entrepreneurs across the globe. Even online behemoth eBay recently got into the act, launching Microplace.com, which allows investors to provide low-interest microloans to business owners through PayPal, its online payment service.
Critics of microfinance contend that establishing businesses in these countries to employ the poor is more beneficial than funding solo entrepreneurs, but Lewis disagrees. "If you're in a rural area, you are particularly isolated from job opportunities," he says. Plus, with investors in microfinance like Carlucci-Rodriguez, isolation is turning into success--one new entrepreneur at a time.