This interview originally appeared in some issue.
While on assignment reviewing the most expensive hotels in the world for Forbes Traveler, Bob Harris saw firsthand the absurdity of the gap in wealth between the richest and poorest people on the planet. At the Emirates Palace, a $3 billion hotel in the United Arab Emirates, they didn’t have a Coke machine, but they did have an ATM that spit out gold ingots. They also went through 11 pounds of gold a year in pastry decorations — tiny flakes that were sprinkled on top of guest’s chocolates. Since gold is indigestible, Bob realized that people were essentially flushing a half a million dollars’ worth down the hotel’s toilets every year. “Of all the bewildering displays of wealth I had seen, I don’t know why my brain took this literal assload of gold so personally. But it did.”
Meanwhile, he met some of the men who built hotels like this and discovered that they were living 10 to 12 to a room, without air-conditioning, and working 12 hours a day, six days a week, in 110 degree heat for six bucks a day. They did this so they could send money home to their even more impoverished families in India. “Win big at the birth lottery, and you get to poop gold by the kilo. Lose big, and you’ll be among the billion without even clean water to drink.” After witnessing this huge discrepancy of wealth and privilege, Bob said, “I just hit overload. I knew I needed to try to do something different. I just didn’t want to leave this world without doing something where I thought maybe I’ve done some good.”
Bob Harris is a diverse mixture of comedian, writer, adventurer and trivia master, and long-time friend of, and contributor to, Funny Times. His newest book, The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time, was released in March of this year:
Funny Times: How did you go from being a stand-up comedian and Jeopardy Grand Champion to becoming an internationally known micro-financier?
Bob Harris: Thanks, but I’d hardly call myself either of the last two compliments. I’ve won my share of Jeopardy games and have been invited back for three invitational tournaments, but I’ve never won any of the really big ones. So far, in fact, I have not won a total over $3.1 million on the show. Four brain farts during Final Jeopardy — a total of only two minutes of my life, mind you — have cost me a minimum of more than $100,000, and probably a lot more. So your kindness is appreciated, but ‘Grand Champion’ would be an adjective I’d apply to Brad Rutter, Ken Jennings, and maybe a few other people. If the best players on Jeopardy were a baseball team, I probably wouldn’t belong in the starting nine. I’d be on the bench, the scrappy reserve who is too small but keeps his place with a lot of hustle and pep.
I just used the word ‘pep’ in public. From this you can surmise that I am either a hipster in Brooklyn or a card-carrying member of AARP.
As to the lending, it’s no big deal. There’s this amazing microlending charity called Kiva.org, and I took a chunk of money a few years ago and started lending it in $25 pieces to mom-and-pop businesses all over the world. When the loans have repaid, I’ve reinvested them in other businesses, and since many of the loans repay in as little as six months, my own cash has cycled around the world about seven or eight times now. So the $20,000 or so that I originally put in has turned into about 6,200 loans so far. But anybody with $25 can invest in somebody, too. And I had nothing to do with creating either the concept or anything about the infrastructure. Kiva and its field partners are the fireworks display. I’m just this guy saying ‘oooh’ a lot.
FT: The idea that became The International Bank of Bob came about as the result of a chance encounter with guest workers in Dubai, where you were on assignment for Forbes Traveler, writing reviews of some of the most luxurious hotels on the planet. That seems like a long way from Cleveland.
Bob: Actually, it’s all kinda similar. My mom and dad both came from one of the poorest parts of Appalachia, moving to Cleveland in the 1950s because that’s where the jobs were, and they could build a better life. Dad worked crazy hours in a warehouse for 37 years, but it put food on the table. The ‘guest workers’ in Dubai — and you’re using the polite term, although ‘indentured servants’ would be more accurate — are people from poor parts of India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and so on; places where too many people often live on as little as a dollar or two a day. So the men take construction jobs in the Gulf for the princely sums of six or seven or eight bucks a day, they live as cheaply as they can, and they send the rest home so their families can have a better life. I empathized with the workers and wanted to find something I could do that might have a shot at improving the economies back home.
I don’t mean to compare the danger, distance, and difficulty of these workers’ lives with those of my mom and dad. The Kathmandu airport receives dead bodies coming home from the Gulf almost every day, especially in the summer. Men are literally worked to death in the heat sometimes. My dad was fortunate enough to belong to the United Autoworkers Union. So the motivations in the stories were similar, but the stakes seemed massively higher for the men I met in Dubai.
FT: Kiva gives ordinary people the chance to loan money to total strangers across the planet, yet the payback rates of these loans is much higher than when I loan money to many members of my own family. How do you explain that?
Bob: Amazing, isn’t it? The repayment rate at Kiva is about 99 percent, and has stabilized there for a couple of years now. But there are lots of good reasons. A lot of the lenders with whom Kiva works offer education and training in addition to funding. One lender I visited in Rwanda requires a months-long course in everything from financial management to personal health before you can take your first loan. It’s a different relationship. Also, in America, we have a lot of options — if your start-up fails, you can declare bankruptcy, seek other funding, go get a job, scramble in a variety of ways. But in some of these countries, getting a business started might transform your children’s lives. Personal commitment to their businesses is huge. There’s also social standing involved — in group loans, nobody wants to be the one who can’t make their business work, and everybody tends to pull for each other and share resources. I could go on, but you get the flavor.
FT: Kiva allows people to anonymously lend money across the world. The people you loan money to have their pictures and personal stories available on the website, though not their full identities or addresses. In your book, you break through this wall of anonymity and actually go and visit a number of the people who you’ve made loans to (though you never identify yourself as the source of the loans). How did it feel to actually meet these people and find out what kind of an impact your loans were having on their lives?
Bob: This is one of those things where language starts to fail, or at least in my hands it does. It’s not so much that my money was all that important — my contributions were only $25 here and there, done in quantity, never the complete financing of one business. Part of this was so there could never be a sense of indebtedness. (How gross would it be for Donald Trump to show up at your house and say, hey, how’s that refrigerator working out? I paid for it, you know …) But just to see how people all over the world, in some of the most challenging places you can find, were all just trying to do the same things: put food on the table, give their kids a better life, find a way.
After seeing the same thing, over and over, in Peru, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Morocco, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, India, Nepal, Cambodia, the Philippines, and more, I came home utterly convinced that things like language and religion and culture all seem important, but it really is cosmetic. It all started to feel like a coat of paint you could scratch off with a fingernail, and underneath, the same exact people, doing the exact same things, for the same exact reasons: the love of their children.
Ultimately, that winds up being a big part of what the book is really about.
FT: What was the funniest thing that happened to you on your round-the-world journey to write this book?
Bob: When I was visiting rural areas in western Kenya, it wasn’t unusual for some of the small kids not to have ever seen a white guy in person before. I didn’t even know this was still possible, but yeah. Sometimes I’d hear the word “mzunga!” — Swahili for “white dude!” — and I’d see a couple of little kids pointing at me and figuring out how to react. This was never hostile; it was about the tone of being in the backseat of a car on an American freeway and yelling “slugbug!” when you see a Volkswagen. So I’d say about three words in Swahili back — which is about all I know — and usually there was just a nice surprised laugh and a wave.
Keep in mind, by the way, that I’m not just Caucasian, I’m really pale, and on top of that I was always coated in sunscreen and mosquito repellent (having already had dengue fever once, I didn’t particularly want it again). So in western Kenya, which is at altitude and near the equator, in that sunlight I’m not just white — I basically glow.
So one day, I was visiting this group of deaf-mutes in this small farmhouse, and this beautiful little girl, maybe three years old, sees this giant, glowing, yellow-haired monster approaching, and she just totally loses it. BLEEEAAAAAAUUUUGHHHH! Nothing any of us could say or do could possibly calm her from the notion that I was there to destroy the world. It was sad and funny and adorable and all of us adults were laughing while we were trying to help her pull it together. I had no idea that visiting a group of deaf-mutes could be so loud. I’ll remember that little girl for as long as I live.
FT: You are literally the face of and inspiration for the Friends of Bob team on Kiva. Your team has made over $3.5 million worth of loans to 125,000 people in more than 70 different countries. Why do you suppose so many people have decided to become a part of your team? What’s your secret for motivating generosity?
Bob: Honestly, I don’t think I have all that much to do with it. I didn’t even start the team, and at first I didn’t even think it was all that important an idea. (Why would one need a team to make these loans?) But it turns out that a sense of community makes coming back to the site over and over more addictive. Most people already are generous. Kiva has created a great place to put that generosity. All I’ve done is created a fun place within their site where people can safely share that generosity and encourage other people.
When you buy cotton candy, it’s all spinning around in the tub before you get there. Then somebody just has to put a simple stick into all that sweetness, and up comes the treat. If the hundreds of thousands of lenders at Kiva are the candy spinning, my book just happened to be a really useful stick.
FT: You visited loan recipients in some of the hardest hit places on the planet, like Sarajevo and Rwanda, and the turnaround stories you tell are amazing and inspiring. Do you think the Kiva model can be successful making microloans to small enterprises and start-ups in the United States, in places like Detroit, Cleveland, or stripped out areas of Appalachia?
Bob: My book actually ends in Chicago, where I visited several clients whose stories are truly inspiring — and also similar to stories from the rest of the world. (This was a full circle for me, since my own adult life starts in Chicago, almost on the exact city block where I found myself visiting the last clients in the book. This was a wild coincidence.) Kiva, meanwhile, has put special focus on Detroit, New Orleans, Little Rock and a number of American cities in need of community investment.
As to Appalachia, that’s a tougher thing — when you get into rural areas with lower population density, administration costs go up. It just costs more and takes more time to visit clients when they’re two miles apart than when three of them are on the same block. Fortunately, there are technological advances that might remedy that, too. One thing I’m very excited about is Kiva Zip, which is a peer-to-peer model that takes administrative costs out of the equation. Where banking by mobile phone is common, Kiva Zip can theoretically bring financing almost anywhere a cell signal can reach.
FT: As a result of your book, you’ve been asked to speak at places like Google and the European Parliament. What kind of reception have you gotten at these types of huge institutions? Is Google going to start GoogleBank and allow people to save and lend money to anyone on the GoogleEarth?
Bob: I don’t know anything about Google’s financial plans. If I did, I’d probably already be wealthy myself. But Google and Citibank and Visa and every other company, think tank, foundation, and university audience I’ve spoken to has been extremely receptive. Of course, I’m getting a big chance to learn every time I give a talk as well. It’s a rapidly evolving field. What I think may be the most exciting thing about it is that it’s not something a Google or a Citibank could just buy up or dominate, even if they really wanted to. As the technology evolves and peer-to-peer financing becomes increasingly common, it’s not hard to imagine a future where commerce itself is decentralized, sort of the way the Internet has flanked and out-innovated broadcast media. For the billions of people on the planet trying to improve their lives on three bucks a day, this could be a very good thing.
You can become a banker, too! Try out loaning money to great people around the world at Kiva.org. And while you’re there, join up with the most fun team of lenders, the Friends of Bob.