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November 14, 2007

At a Meeting with America’s Best Leaders

The current edition of US News and World Report features “America’s Best Leaders”. The list (picked by a panel arranged by The Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University) includes celebrities like Nancy Pelosi, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Michael J. Fox. It also includes Mary Houghton and Ron Grzywinski, cofounders of ShoreBank Corporation in Chicago. They aren’t famous except in microcredit circles; but they’ve had an enormous impact first on the poor neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side and increasingly on the rest of the world.

Mary and Ron helped Nobel Laureate Muhammed Yunus get Grameen Bank going in Bangladesh. (Mary sent me an email about their pioneering use of VisiCalc to help Grameen get its first Ford Foundation money. You’ll find that story here.)

Typically ShoreBank isn’t idle during the subprime meltdown. According to the article:

“In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, most bankers are fleeing from at-risk homeowners. But a bank in gritty south Chicago is running toward them with open arms. ShoreBank is courting low-income homeowners threatened by exploding adjustable-rate mortgages and persuading them to refinance with stable fixed-rate mortgages. Since September, the bank has closed on 26 loans worth $4.5 million—with more to come.”

ShoreBank has been “courting” low-income home owners for a long time. It’s made a good (in both meanings of “good”) business of making loans to people who usually pay them back but wouldn’t have gotten credit elsewhere. They’ve helped save neighborhoods that otherwise would be burned down or boarded up.

Typically, ShoreBank is being creative (in the good sense) in how it raises deposits to fund its lending – especially now that expansion of credit is needed to help people with good properties and good intentions but the wrong variable-rate mortgage. They’ve created a way that you and I can help without either risk or sacrifice (not that those are bad things). The bank is now offering FDIC-insured online savings accounts paying five percent APY (currently) with NO restrictions on length of deposit. There is a minimum deposit of $1.00, however (not a typo!). Like E*Trade or Ing Direct accounts, these can be electronically linked to the checking account you maintain at your regular bank so you can easily move money between accounts AND get high interest meanwhile.

By happy coincidence, I spent yesterday afternoon in a board meeting of ShoreCap Exchange, one of the many facets of Mary and Ron’s continuing activities – this one is a nonprofit providing subsidized (but not free!) technical assistance to local microcredit banks around the world. It draws on both the expertise of the mother bank in Chicago and an international network of bankers. As usual, Mary and Ron sat silent for most of the meeting, proud, I’m sure of the younger generation of leaders they’ve trained and inspired to run Exchange and the other for-profit and not-for-profit social ventures. Very occasionally Ron or Mary supply either experience or help focus discussion with a question which the rest of us should’ve asked but didn’t.

Leadership doesn’t have to be noisy to be great.

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