International experience transformed into social enterprise.
Lily Lapenna is a 32-year-old with Italian parents who was raised in London and went to a French school. But wait, it gets more exotic: while working for an NGO in Bangladesh she witnessed the difference microfinance projects made. In 2007, she set up MyBnk, a London-based social enterprise that works with young people to “build the knowledge, the skills and the confidence to manage their money effectively and to make enterprising choices throughout their lives.”
As the CEO of MyBnk, Lily has created a range of financial learning programs, was named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the New Statesman in 2008 and appointed a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2011. Although Lily is extremely busy with her career and her newborn, she is very close to her family and hasn’t forgotten her Italian traditions. She shared with me that she used to make canned tomatoes with her grandparents and always gets olive oil produced by her family in order to have a little taste of Italy at home. I spoke with Lily to learn more about her and her international experiences.
How did you come up with this incredible idea of microcredit for young people?
The idea for MyBnk started when I was at school, disillusioned with the overly theoretical nature of learning and frustrated at having so many ideas and so little I could do with them. So I started running car boot sales, making and selling things and putting on plays at school, all my profits went to charity.
Did your trips to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe inspire this project?
In Zimbabwe and Bangladesh I developed two passions, one for education and one for microfinance. When I finished school I worked in a Zimbabwean rural primary school on non-formal education programmes. The school became a hub for community involvement and social innovation. … Three days after I graduated [from university] I moved to Bangladesh and worked in the rural north with women borrowers and savers.
These women were using microfinance to change their lives and those of their children: I was inspired by them! I was lucky enough to spend months with them and realise how microfinance was not only a powerful financial tool, but also a powerful educational tool. I started exploring how small enterprise loans and saving schemes provided a transformational educational experience for the Bangladeshi women. They were, in many cases, illiterate and yet they had a business acumen that no MBA programme could teach. They were innumerate and yet they were savvy at managing their family finances in a way that most of us in the UK would envy. I came to the conclusion that I had spent thousands of pounds on my education, but sadly I had no clue how to manage my money.
What started your interest in microfinance?
It started after my work in Zimbabwe when I did a degree at the unorthodox SOAS (School for Oriental and Africa Studies) university in London. In my 3 years at SOAS and a year at the Istituto Orientale in Naples, I became very disillusioned with trends in international development. It was common for western aid organisations to go to less developed parts of the world and impose development solutions that often didn’t lead to the desired outcomes. In contrast to this, I started to learn about microfinance, a local solution to a local problem, a movement in Bangladesh led by superheroes such as Professor Yunus (Nobel Price) and Faisel Abed (the founder of BRAC).
Coming back to the UK I found that many people my age were facing spiralling debt, the majority of adults were financially illiterate (myself included of course), more people were getting a divorce than changing banks and a staggering 150,000 young people were growing up with the belief that an ISA (Individual Saving Account) was an iPod accessory!
The government rhetoric in the UK at the time (2007) was that if we didn’t have an enterprising new generation “China would have us for breakfast and India would have us for tea.” At this point it all started to make sense to me; the need for a sort of microfinance and education programme in the UK was evident.
Do you have a saying you live by?
Right at the start of the MyBnk journey, when it was just me, my laptop and this idea, a group of friends took me to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. We ate, talked and after dinner we were given a fortune cookie each. I opened mine to find this Chinese proverb: “I do not know the solution, but I admire the problem.”
It has been with that in mind that I have created MyBnk, by looking at the many problems and obstacles that we have faced and will face with a sense of admiration, optimism and opportunity. Every day is a joy!
What is your most ambitious plan for the future?
First thing is my family. My first baby Emmalisa was just born, so I want to embrace life as it gets fantastically full with running myBnk and raising a growing family. My plans for the future are to play a pivotal role in supporting young people on their journey to employment. Youth have many challenges ahead of them with high levels of unemployment: 600,000,000 new jobs need to be created to sustain the labour market, and there’s an ageing population to support. It starts with innovation in education to stimulate employment. This is a topic so close to my heart and to the mission of MyBnk as we help young people get work-ready, develop entrepreneurial mindsets and in some cases set up their own businesses.