Working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on the challenge of scale meant working with Jeff Raikes, formerly CEO at Microsoft. He said to me “we were like Lotus Notes” (a successful but hardly world dominating software company). “We could have gone on like that, we were doing ok. But we wanted more. So we made some big bets. Bill (Gates) bet on the mouse as a replacement for the text based instruction we used in MS-DOS. I bet on the license for Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook as a single package, and available on any computer. If one of those bets had paid off we would have dominated the market. But both paid off, and, well, the rest you know”.
(The moral of this story is not to make too many bets, to think carefully about the core of your innovation, the thing that really makes it work)
There are now tens of millions of self-help affinity, Self-Help or Self-Reliant groups around the world. What bets did the inventor Aloysius Fernandez make?
His answer to the question only takes us so far. “We didn’t respond to need,” he reflected. “If you respond to a need you create a dependency. If you have humility you cannot respond like that. We responded to strengths, which in this case are the relationships of trust and mutual support that we find in the community. And the women wanted to save, to build their resources. And we were not afraid to work with the mainline system, even though it was against us. We went to the Reserve Bank of India and asked them for money and processes for development. Of course, I was lucky there, there is always luck, because I knew people in the Reserve Bank”.
I don’t think Fernadez made all his bets at the beginning. His approach was more sequential, focusing on one bit of the challenge and learning how to solve it the next. My guess is it went something like this.
The first bet was to trust in the group. Bring together people who trust one another. Together they will solve shared challenges. It took about five years of trial and error to find the right structure to encourage connection and trust, the Self-help Affinity Group.
The second was to change the banking structures so that banks could trust in the Self-help Affinity Groups, rewarding the culture of saving, loans and repayment of loans. This meant the groups could borrow and repay more, and members could make more significant investments in themselves, their families and enterprise.
These two bets paid off. But they created a problem. Now there was real pull. Forming a Self-help Affinity Group was a way for impoverished and disenfranchised women to get ahead. Women saw that. They started knocking on MYRADA’s door. The number of groups expanded from hundreds to hundreds of thousands. How to support them?
MYRADA changed the support and accountability structures. Each support unit -staffed by one person aided by one or two part-timers- plays backstop to 150 Self-help Affinity Groups. This support structure is paid for by the groups, and is therefore accountable to the groups.
The final ingredient isn’t so much a bet, it is more an underlying ethic, a way of thinking. Scale means letting go. Once they figured out how it worked, MYRADA gave it all away. If you are in Scotland or Surinam, Burma or Birmingham, if you want to set up a Self-help Affinity Group, even if you want to change the name to a Self-Reliant Group, MYRADA will give you the formula.