Late in 2009, Rachel Cook made a split-second, middleof- the-night decision that sent her on a global odyssey. Now it's changing her life—and potentially those of women around the world.
Cook was working as a trader in Chicago when late one evening, while tracking European trade behavior, she came across a New York Times column headlined "The Women's Crusade." Written by Nicholas Kristof, the piece explored a trend of microfinancing —the intimate loaning of small sums of money—between women, and its impact on poverty and destitution in certain parts of the world. Cook recalls texting her sister soon after reading the column, already having determined to re-route her career.
"I was often the only woman, or one of few women, at the trading firms I worked at," Cook says, explaining why she felt particularly drawn to the idea of woman-towoman microlending. "It was weird to see that type of sexism still existed…especially among people in their twenties."
An English major who had studied film at Duke, Cook set out to explore how microlending was making a difference for women around the world. She has produced and directed a documentary film, titled The Microlending Film Project, that profiles four women who have benefited from microlending.
Among them are a Paraguayan woman named Pablina, who after exhausting her savings battling her son's cancer borrowed fifty dollars from a local microlender to make and sell cakes to tourists. She now owns a thriving business. Cook visited India, where her contact was a lender, CEO, and India's first female Air Force pilot, Anupama Joshi, and Kenya, where street vendors text orders directly from markets. She also visited Detroit, where the web-based microlending platform Kiva stationed its first "Kiva City" in May 2011. The film is now in its final editing, and she is submitting the work-in-progress to several film festivals for consideration. Meanwhile, she continues to solicit support to complete the film and related projects.
Cook has conceived a mobile device application that would allow users to lend small amounts of money to people in Kenya. "It's a game to make microlending fun," she explains. The game, which is being developed with the assistance of an undergraduate computer- science class, will use mobile banking to exchange funds between the lender and borrower. The parties also would be able to share text and video updates on how the money is used. The idea was a finalist in the 2011 Duke Start- Up Challenge, sponsored by Duke's Global Entrepreneurs Network (DukeGEN).
While she has not actively participated in any of the microloans featured in her film, Cook has made some loans of her own. "Microlending works and generally has a positive effect," she says. "I'm an advocate. I'm definitely an advocate."