Jessica Jackley is an entrepreneur, investor, professor, and speaker who has spent her career focused on social justice. After co-founding Kiva, she went on to launch Alltruists, which curates at-home, kid-friendly volunteer projects for families that come in eco-friendly boxes. She sat down with Jessica Abo to talk about how she is helping parents teach their kids about homelessness, bees, clean water, hunger, foster animals, and mental health.
Jessica Abo: Jessica, before we get into Alltruists, take us back to Kiva, which is a non-profit that expands capital for entrepreneurs. What can you share about that journey?
I learned about microfinance in a lecture at the Stanford Graduate School of Business as a staffer. I was actually there working as a temp admin right after I graduated from college, by the way, not with a business degree. I’d never taken a class on entrepreneurship. I thought business was bad. I thought it was about tricking people to spend money on things they didn’t need. I thought it was about taking and greed and I thought nonprofits were good. So I had no interest in business or entrepreneurship, and yet I found myself at this amazing institution, Stanford Graduate School of Business in my first job and I happened to be in this incredible department called the Center for Social Innovation. It was a place where every day people were walking through the doors trying to solve social problems, the same kind of problems that a lot of the nonprofits that I so admired were trying to solve, but they were doing so in a different way, utilizing business skills and entrepreneurial thinking. It was mind-blowing to me.
I quit my job at Stanford and I begged my way into an unpaid internship where I could learn about microfinance and specifically, microcredit. It was a three-and-a-half-month project in East Africa. The experience that I had there during this internship, meeting entrepreneurs who had received just $100 to start or grow their tiny enterprises absolutely changed everything for me. It changed the way I saw what was possible. It changed what I thought the role of helpful organizations for-profits or nonprofits could be.
It gave me an opportunity to hear stories firsthand from individuals whose only story I thought was one of total sadness and suffering and helplessness, quite frankly. I met entrepreneurs. I met people who were bootstrapping and lifting themselves and their families out of poverty when they had access to just this tiny bit of money. It was so inspiring that it led to all these what-if questions that eventually led to the creation of Kiva, which is a platform where anybody with a credit card or a PayPal account and an internet connection can lend $25 or more to an entrepreneur somewhere on the planet that is in need of a tiny loan. Sometimes it’s just a few hundred dollars, sometimes more. Today, Kiva has facilitated a little over $1.6 billion in loans $25 at a time from generous individuals all around the world. It’s really been one of the biggest gifts in my life to have gotten to be a part of those early days and it really set me on my own path of entrepreneurship.
Then you had kids. Tell us how that shaped the shift in your work and led you to create Alltruists.
I had four kids and our last little one was born right before the world got crazy with COVID. Even though our existence usually became slow and smaller and close to home after the birth of our other babies, this time was different because our world stayed very contained and insular for a long time as it did for everybody. Volunteering had always been really important to us and it was already really tough to find and schedule opportunities, let alone bring kids along. Oftentimes, they’re not even allowed. But the few things that we were able to do were no longer possible. I really wanted to be able to do something to give back to my kids that wasn’t just, ‘Hey, guys, look at mommy entering her credit card information and donating to this organization.’ I wanted to do something hands-on with them. I wanted them to receive the message that more than anything else, their heads, their hands, their hearts, their time, and talents, that’s what is truly the most valuable thing they can offer to the world even when they’re small.
Alltruists was born out of this desire to create new ways for kids and families to serve together even from the comfort of their own homes. The broadest possible way of expressing that vision is we exist to reimagine and redistribute volunteer opportunities so that anybody can give back anytime, anywhere.
How does it work?
Alltruists collaborates with leading nonprofits to dream up new ways for kids and families to learn from home, to connect with empathy-building stories, often the stories of individuals that have worked with the nonprofit as a beneficiary of their product or services, to do something meaningful and impactful through a volunteer or service project. Sometimes that project is something that kids make or do or collect at home and then send off to another human being or to an organization that can use it to impact the planet or animals, but often, it’s also the case that we make at home projects where you can be more responsible at home, say, for example, with your water usage or perhaps create a bird feeder for migratory birds and put up window clings, something like that.
There’s a wide variety of projects and we really center it on the needs and the perspective and the theory of change of the nonprofits that we work with. There’s also a donation box and a bridge to further activity. Our dream is that this catalyzes people to get involved much more in the short and the long term after they take those first few steps and go through the experience that we design for them.
So many families say they want to volunteer, but what do you think is stopping them?
It’s true. Ninety percent of people say they would like to volunteer more and only about a quarter of us get around to doing so and it’s understandable. It’s not that easy to find the right fit, to find organizations where your values really align and you feel really genuinely excited about what that organization does. The actual activities that are often available for volunteers to do not always fit with what is easy or appropriate for kids to get involved with, which is a bummer, but a reality. Often, nonprofits are dealing with very sensitive issues and very sensitive populations. It’s not always the case that kids can come on in and actually really truly be helpful at that moment. But it’s not impossible, and of course, that’s why we exist. We know that there’s always something that anybody, any human being at any stage of their life can do to be helpful, whether it’s a small thing or a much bigger thing.
There are platforms where families can find opportunities and sign up and actually get out the door and do those activities, but we really see a future and a world where there are other options too, where on a Sunday afternoon if you could open a subscription box that you get and do a craft project, why not do something that is a craft or an activity and it really has a purpose, that really matters to somebody else beyond your own home? We think the best of so many worlds coming together.
What’s your advice for families who want to raise children who are kind and empathetic?
My best advice for what I’ve seen work in my own family is just to walk the walk. Be authentic. Be vulnerable and open with your kids. It’s one thing to talk about the things you believe and the way that you wish the world was different and the kinds of things that are important to you, the values that you hold as a family, but it’s a totally different thing to actually get out there and take action together. I guess I would say take a deep breath and don’t stress too much about all the messiness because the world is messy.
It’s really difficult to engage with the tough issues around climate, hunger, and so many things, but if you grab your kid’s hand and start to walk that walk together, and if you’re not afraid to say, ‘I don’t know. Let’s figure that one out, you and me together,’ I think kids really feel agency. They really feel like they are important, which they are, and you’re showing them, you’re modeling to them that the most important thing you can do is to show up and to start trying, to make that effort, to get involved and be helpful in the best and most humble way that you can.