If you appear 13 times on Jeopardy, chances are, you know some stuff. Bob Harris did just that in 2002, leading to a book about the experience with the unforgettable title, Prisoner of Trebekistan. For the past few years, he’s been traveling the world to track and report on the various microloans he’s been making via Kiva.org, and this, too, has led to a book. The International Bank of Bob has received pre-publication praise from everyone from legendary psychology professor Steven Pinker to fellow-game show alum, Ken Jennings.
With the trend of microloans gaining attention, we asked Harris what drew him to investing in small businesses around the world. It turns out the inspiration was a very personal one.
I was about two years into the process of researching and writing my new book, The International Bank of Bob, before I realized the whole exercise was triggered by how I’d always wished I could have made my dad’s life easier.
I’m in a small print shop in a village in western Kenya. “How many hours a day do you work?” I ask the proprietor. I’m in a shoe seller’s kiosk on a highway in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I’m at a candle maker’s stand near a churchyard in the Philippines. A family grocery in Beirut. A tortilla maker’s home in León, Nicaragua. An artist’s small studio in Dar Es Salaam.
10, 11, 12 hours a day, come the answers. 10 hours, six days a week, seems like a minimum.
My dad in Ohio worked in a General Motors warehouse for nearly all of his adult life. “Unskilled” labor, they called it. Dad’s education, in the small Appalachian schoolhouse where he met my Mom when they were children, ended in eighth grade. His family needed his hands on the farm. “Unskilled,” he kept food on his family’s table from the time he was a teenager.
The warehouse in Ohio took only eight hours of his life on most days, but he was a bony little man who never weighed more than a buck-forty, if that. Eight warehouse hours for a larger, stronger man must have felt like at least 10 for him—when he wasn’t also working a second job, second shift, third shift. A weekend.
When I was a boy, Ohio was a place where you worked to get by, a hard-boundaried world where you earned the kids’ clothes, food, and schoolbooks. The print shop proprietor, the shoe seller, the tortilla maker—they all have kids, too. 10, 11, 12 hours a day, they work. You’d have to be blind not to see the lives lining up.
Dad also used to make little wooden carvings of animals. He was good at it, too—he could fashion a squirrel or a whale with a few tools and a cheap piece of wood. He sold them at craft shows; people loved them. I still have a few. They’re all I have of him, really. I think it could have been a business, maybe gotten him out of the warehouse. Not that anyone saw the potential.
I first got interested in microfinance—typically meaning the provision of financial tools to the working poor in developing countries, although there are plenty of folks in America who can and do use it as well—because some workers in Dubai reminded me one night of my dad.
At the time, I had a quantifiable excess of fortune in my life—specifically, about $20,000 saved up from a brief, lucky job getting paid to loll about luxury hotels and write a few words about lolling. So, what do you do when there are men from small villages all over South Asia where two bucks a day is the Appalachia they’re escaping, Dubai is their warehouse, sweatshop, prison, best hope, and there are unimaginably more fathers than can ever be helped?
Maybe you give the money to a charity. Maybe you find an excuse not to. Or maybe, if you’re the son of an autoworker whose best skill went unrewarded, you do something else. And what you can do is lend out the money in small business loans, over and over, through Kiva.org.
And then you can go travel to Nepal, Rwanda, Vietnam, onward—try to see if it does any damn good for people just like your own mom and dad, and their kids just like you.
I read lots of books to prepare, using the education paid for in part by Dad’s life in the warehouse. Muhammad Yunus, after his Nobel Peace Prize and his book, Banker to the Poor, was essential. So were researchers, dreamers, realists, and active builders of many stripes—Portfolios of the Poor, The Bottom Billion, Dead Aid, Out of Poverty, so many more. With each trip also came local stories, their titles often troubling by themselves: Killing Mr. Lebanon, Pity the Nation, Machete Season, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. I sought refreshment from the travels of Michael Palin and Bill Bryson, whose African Diary may have planted a seed.
And then, half-educated, a little frightened, and certain I had no idea what I was getting into: I’m in housing project in the Peruvian Andes, listening to children playing quietly in the bedroom next door. The adults, out here in the kitchen, are sharing ideas for each other’s businesses. I’m drinking coffee in Bosnia with two furniture makers, a loving couple with three boys and a growing trade. I’m with a bike tinker in Morocco who works 10, 11, 12 hours a day to put food on the table, clothes on his kids’ backs, schoolbooks in their hands.
My dad’s life never got much easier. I don’t pretend that all of these clients will ever escape their own warehouses, either. But their kids very well might, just as I did.
But explaining why and how that all works, and why I now have more hope for humanity than I ever dreamed in Ohio—I hope, somewhere, Dad can hear that as thanks.
Bob Harris is the author of Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy!, Who Hates Whom?, and The International Bank of Bob. A 13-time contestant on Jeopardy, he has also written for media ranging from National Lampoon to the television show CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. He lives in Los Angeles.
This piece was updated on September 22, 2014.