Crowd-funding & Developing Nations: FDR Global Fellow Alicia Merganthaler

IMG_20140725_155448_816This week Alicia checks in from London

The life of a rising senior at Harvard can be unpredictable. I was all set to intern at the Financial Times in London, but at last minute my required work visa didn’t go through. However, despite this setback, I was saved by the Foundation and Adams House alum, Mr. Lars Kroijer, who offered me a place working at the London startup that he’s heading. The startup’s concept is a ‘crowd-funding platform aggregator’ with a focus on investments in developing nations. What is a crowd-funding aggregator, you may ask? Crowd-funding in its most general sense is the practice of funding a cause or business venture by gathering contributions from a large number of people (especially if it is facilitated through the internet). The idea of a crowd-funding aggregator is to unite these websites that send money to developing nations and put them together in an easily searchable and informative way so individuals from all over the world can support budding entrepreneurs in these countries.

Having the chance to work with an Adams House alumnus here in London has been an incredible experience so far. Every day as I ride the tube and see advertisements for Oxfam, Amnesty and other international charities, I’m reminded of what a socially conscious and vibrant city this is.

In the process of working on this crowd-funding project, I’m learning a ton about the budding field of crowd-funding in general and its potential to spur economic activity in developing nations. Although crowd-funding is largely a developed country phenomenon (i.e. campaigns to start a food truck in San Francisco or fund your vacation to Hawaii), it’s widely recognized that crowdfunding has a great deal of potential for developing nations, where talented entrepreneurs are often restrained by traditional attitudes towards risk, finance and innovation. For example, it may be next to impossible for a small-scale entrepreneur in El Salvador to buy cloth and a sewing machine to start her clothing shop, but with the help of a crowd-funding campaign, she is able to make her business a reality. The job of the crowd-funding aggregator we are working on is to increase the visibility of these campaigns and empower investors to support projects like these.

My first week working on the aggregator has me in the thick of the action. Last week, I enjoyed going on a “treasure hunt” and researching existing crowd-funding services that send money to developing nations with the rest of the team. This week, I’m calculating the capital flows from these websites to each country. In addition to these facets of the project, I’ve been finding humanitarian, academic, and non-profit contacts in developing nations that could provide invaluable information for the business strategy.

Many of the crowd-funding concepts we are making more visible and accessible are lesser-known platforms that may only be known at a local level. Even though there are 1000+ crowdfunding platforms online, I only knew a handful before embarking on this project (Kiva, IndieGogo, Kickstarter). Now I’m familiar with platforms that are focused on specific humanitarian purposes in typically unrepresented countries, like, based out of Nepal, which raises money for healthy pregnancies and women’s heath.

On a lighter note, exploring what London has to offer culturally has been wonderful. Despite the heat wave that has washed over the UK, I’ve enjoyed being in air-conditioned galleries and museums, including the British Library and British Museum. It was incredible seeing two surviving copies of the Magna Carta and a Gutenberg Bible (second only to Harvard’s, of course) up close, along with Mozart, Chopin and Beethoven manuscripts. Next week, I’m hoping to visit several local microfunding non-profits and visit a local Rotary Club to learn more about the vibrant non-profit scene here. As a Rotary alumna, I’m curious about the work they’re doing there (not to mention that FDR was an honorary Rotarian!)