The crux of both my academic and personal ambitions in life has pivoted around one word: access. Having the access to the right education, the right people, the right experiences, and the funds to reach one’s definition of success seemed to be the threshold for a better life. Growing up in a small town in western Kentucky, I questioned at an early age how people’s access to certain products, experiences, and resources could profoundly shape their path in life. Recognizing that my small town did not afford the same opportunities as many neighboring cities, I constantly sought experiences that would provide me access to this success as well. I spent my collegiate years understanding how systems and access shaped not only my former peers’ lives, but the lives of people worldwide. Upon graduation, I even spent time working with the Access Microscholarship Program in Guatemala as a Fulbright recipient, seeing firsthand the value of access to language and leadership skills in the lives of my former students. Yet, throughout my professional career, I began to realize that while having access can certainly open doors, more was needed to succeed in life.
So what happens when access isn’t enough? When simply having a savings account doesn’t equate to knowing how to utilize it? This is a question I frequently asked myself while working with Accion, a global nonprofit dedicated to “harnessing the power of digital technology to create a financially inclusive world.” At Accion this summer, I served as the Global Insights Intern, working alongside the Global Solutions Advisory (GLAS) team, which is the consulting arm of Accion. Collaborating with this team, which spanned the U.S. and parts of Colombia, I had the chance to contribute to blogs, reports, research initiatives, and consulting projects with partners such as Metlife and S&P – who sponsored financial access and wellness projects with financial institutions in Mexico, Chile, and Ecuador.
In writing blogs about some of the new programs and services offered by partner financial institutions, I learned of some of the new and innovative patterns in the fintech industry across Latin America. I gained understanding of banking structures and clients within Ecuador while working with Banco Pichincha as they built out more financially inclusive services. I also came to understand the importance of financial wellbeing in ensuring the success of microentrepreneurs throughout the region.
Most interesting of all, however, was the opportunity to do research for a comprehensive COVID-19 Response app for entrepreneurs. Noting efforts across sectors and industries showed me how ecosystems can come together in times of uncertainty – and for some – economic distress. The role of financial institutions, particularly for entrepreneurs, is a vital one, opening doors for individuals to pursue their dreams. But particularly in times such as this, when many businesses are struggling even to remain open, entrepreneurs need more than access to resources and services, they need the right resources and services suited to meet their day-to-day operations and real struggles. For this reason, the entrepreneurs themselves were at the heart of every design project, conversation, and strategy session I was involved in this summer. Every step of the way, Accion pushes their partner financial institutions to inquire about and design financial products that seek to meet the realities and preferences of individual entrepreneurs. It is not enough to simply provide a blanket service to every entrepreneur. Individuals are all different, with varying financial goals, backgrounds, and motivations. In order to see them truly succeed, we must first ask what services would benefit them most as they take on this endeavor. Being part of these human centered design projects brought me to a new understanding of success – one that is defined by the individual.
Completing an internship in the midst of a global pandemic was certainly not what I had envisioned for my last summer in graduate school, and while I missed the daily interactions that would have happened organically in Accion’s D.C. office, being intentional about connecting with people virtually also afforded fruitful conversations: connecting over shared experiences abroad, passions about the benefit of education, and the role of entrepreneurs in the community ecosystem. Those who are in the Accion community are committed to the organization’s mission and vision, and their passion for empowering people who are underserved while revolutionizing financial services for people who are left out never failed to inspire me. Through these rich conversations and experiences, I witnessed how it is not just access alone, but access to the right resources – those designed with the entrepreneur in mind – that could mean the world to small business owners as they seek their own version of success.