At the point when Fonta Gilliam joined the foreign service out of school, she didn’t expect it would lead her to business. However, subsequent to seeing group, community loaning practically speaking all through her work in East Asia and Africa, Gilliam thought about what might happen if she consolidated these conventional practices with new financial innovation.
Everything began when Gilliam was working in the visa division at the embassy in South Korea.
“I was interviewing a South Korean woman who had about $300,000 in her bank account,” Gilliam said. “She was a restaurant owner of a really small kind of stand… so I said, ‘How do you have so much money, I don’t understand?’”
The woman explained to Gilliam that she had used a village savings and loans tradition that was similar to a lending circle.
The practice of a lending circle is a kind of informal savings program. Say you have 10 members who each put $100 into the lending club each month. One member collects the full 1,000 each month and each month the total amount rotates until 10 months has passed and the circle starts back at the beginning.
Gilliam saw this same technique in practice while running entrepreneurship programs across Africa for the State Department. In Ghana the practice was called sou-sou.
“They were almost running their own banks,” she said.
Gilliam wanted to see if she could provide mobile technology to make these existing lending circles easier and to build a platform to spread the technique in new places. She called her business Sou Sou.
Sou Sou is currently in pilot testing in developed and less-developed markets. The program will launch to the public in June 2018. In addition to modernizing lending circles, Sou Sou also helps users build credit by reporting monthly pay-ins to local credit rating agencies. This helps them find future success when applying for bank loans.
Through testing Gilliam found that prospective home buyers are particularly interested in using Sou Sou to save for their home and build credit.
While Sou Sou is open to all users, Gilliam said it’s designed with women and minorities in mind. “These groups are the future,” she said. “It was designed for women, by women, to empower women.”
Gilliam wants to make sure that Sou Sou can help empower women from her neighborhood in D.C. to all corners of the globe. During her travels with the State Department she watched women running businesses get denied local loans over and over again. She thinks this kind of peer-to-peer lending can circumvent some of those problems.
Because Sou Sou has global ambitions, it was important that they have an international team. Gilliam’s co-founder is Tanzinian and has helped them partner with a group of 600,000 women farmers to test their product.
In addition to having a global team, it was also important for Sou Sou to have a team with a variety of complementary skill sets. “I’ve remembered a quote, I think Bill Gates said, ‘Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.’” And I’ve really tried to do that,” Gilliam said.
As Sou Sou looks toward the future, everything is focused on launching this summer. And Gilliam has learned how to be the entrepreneur she never expected to be. “You really need to focus on doing one thing well, getting that right and moving forward,” she said. “Think globally but act locally.”