Casey Wilson is the co-founder and CEO of Wokai, a microfinance nonprofit in China. We caught up with her to talk about the origins of Wokai and her experiences as a social entrepreneur in China.
When and why did you first come to China?
I first came to China in September of 2006, when I moved here. In college, I’d become interested in economic development and studied Chinese. I decided that after graduation, I wanted to live in China for 5-10 years to learn about economic development first hand. At the time, I thought that given China’s pace of development, in 5-10 years I could see almost 100 years of development at a normal pace, learning about what hinders development, fosters development, and gaining valuable lessons that I could apply anywhere in the developing world. When I first arrived in Beijing, I did a semester at the Inter-University Program at Tsinghua University and soon afterwards started Wokai.
Tell us about Wokai.
About 6 months into my time here, I started the first person-to-person microfinance nonprofit for China, called Wokai. I have been growing Wokai ever since, for the past 5 years.
What does Wokai do?
Wokai (我开) means “I start” in Mandarin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit dedicated to alleviating poverty in China through microfinance. Wokai’s approach uses the internet to allow contributors around the world to provide loan capital to borrowers in rural China, empowering them to lift themselves from poverty. Contributors loan as little as $10 to a borrower, collect repayments each month, and allocate capital to a new borrower at the end of the loan cycle. Since the website launch in November 2008, Wokai has raised over 3 million RMB in loan capital, attracted 8,000 users, and empowered over 900 borrowers.
That sounds amazing. Was it tough building this project from scratch?
Every stage has brought new and unique challenges. Along with the challenge of building an organization in China, starting a startup nonprofit of any kind was entirely new to me, being a 23-year-old without any work experience. Challenges are at the heart of the entrepreneurial process. While the nature of the challenges change over time, the challenges never stop coming!
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your entrepreneurial experiences?
The most important lesson that I’ve learned is that if you want to make something happen (in China or anywhere else) you need to never take “no” or “impossible” for an answer and keep going until you make it work.
How has your experience influenced your career or personal development?
China has provided me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see major issues going on in the world and develop innovative models to address those issues. I’ve grown in so many ways over the past five-and-a-half years professionally and become a much stronger, more nuanced and mature person.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about China?
Internationally, people seem to think of China as a rich, developed country that no longer is in need of major poverty alleviation issues. What people seem to miss is that there are still over 200 million people living on less than $1.25 a day in rural areas that need access to opportunities.
What is your favorite thing to do in China?
My favorite Beijing activity is definitely Heyrobics (Swedish Aerobics). It’s the greatest thing ever and has changed my life!
Photo courtesy of Agenda magazine.