I’m often asked about my story. Why did I start an organization? How did I do it? And how the hell did a gawky kid from Pakuranga get into microfinance?
Rather than retelling the same story like a washed-up has-been, I’ve decided to write about my experience with the Auckland Microfinance Initiative (AMI). So next time someone asks, I can direct them here.
Stumbling into Microfinance
I stumbled into microfinance by accident.
While on exchange at the University of Melbourne in 2011, I walked past a peculiar club called the “Melbourne Microfinance Initiative” (MMI). I had no idea what microfinance was. Frankly, I signed up believing it was a finance club that could help me land a banking job.
At MMI’s first event, I was surprised to learn that microfinance involved using small loans to lift people out of poverty. My mind was blown. I thought finance existed to make the rich richer, not to help the poor.
After a semester volunteering, I was hooked. I became fascinated in the potential of business to create positive change.
I began to think: why didn’t this exist at home?
Making The Jump
Returning to Auckland, I felt graduation looming. With just over a year left and needed to think about a job. My resume was depressing. I had little to show beyond good grades, studying abroad and a summer job in sales. My prospects weren’t promising. I needed some “leadership experience” that recruiters harp endlessly about.
I had two options. A: join an established organization – like MCC – and progress into a leadership role. Or B: pursue my interest in microfinance and start something like MMI.
I grappled with the decision for weeks. My time was limited. Could I afford it to spend it chasing a crazy idea? What if I failed? I’d have nothing to show.
I chose option A. I joined MCC’s Development Squad. While MCC is a great club, my heart wasn’t in it. I grew tired of reading HBS cases about risk-takers building their dreams. I didn’t want to read about these people, I wanted to be one of them.
As the semester passed, the voice in my head grew louder: what would I regret most – not getting a job or not pursuing my passion?
I sought guidance from friends who had started something – like Dan (Founder of I AM Challenge) and Fernando (Founder of MMI). I admired these people. They ignored conventional advice and took the path less travelled. They leaned into their passion and urged me to do the same.
So, in July 2012, I made the jump. And AMI was born.
5 years later, AMI is one of the leading student charities in New Zealand (or so I tell myself). But this has been the least notable achievement.
In building AMI, I learnt more about leadership and organizations than I ever could from reading HBS cases. I developed self-confidence and awareness that will serve me for years to come. Most important, I gained countless like-minded friends who will each leave a positive mark on the world. Many of whom are still involved with AMI today.
Advice for Students
For students, I’ve got three pieces of advice:
Many people come to university with the sole goal of landing a job. They approach it like assembling IKEA furniture: following instructions to the letter. Pick the right subjects, get good grades, do co-curriculars and graduate.
This is a waste. University is an opportunity to experiment in a low-risk environment. You will never get a chance like this to explore new things. So, take a new subject. Study in a different country. And join some odd-sounding clubs…like the Auckland Microfinance Initiative.
Too many students ask: what can I get out of my 4 years at university? What can this club offer me? What internships set me up for the best graduate role?
This is the wrong approach to university – and frankly, life. You only get what you give. The most successful students were those who found a calling greater than themselves. They didn’t strive to leave university with a job. Rather, they left a legacy.
There will be times when you stand at a fork in the road, facing two paths. One is established and well-trodden. It will take you to a predictable destination. The other is a less-travelled path. It is paved with your passion, but you’re not 100% where it leads or when you’ll arrive. The thought of taking it scares you. It’ll feel like a leap of faith.
When faced with such a decision. I urge you: Jump.
Alex Li is the founder of AMI and on the Board of Directors. He is currently working at A.T. Kearney.