By Richard Springer
Happy Day Microfunds, a nonprofit microfinance organization launched by students at Mission High School in Fremont, Calif., received a major boost Sept. 28, when President Barack Obama praised their entrepreneurial project in a back-to-school address at Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington, D.C.
The vice president of Happy Day Microfunds, Mission High senior Kunal Shah, said he was “surprised” and team members were “ecstatic” by the mention and the subsequent attention and publicity.
Founded a year ago, Happy Day Microloans makes loans of several hundred dollars each to under-served youths with entrepreneurial dreams. The interest-free loans are made with no collateral.
“After Obama’s speech, there was a lot of publicity,” the 16-year-old Indian American student told India-West.
“Several news stations came to our school to interview us: ABC, CBS and NBC. We started receiving a lot more e-mails on our Web site, as well as more publicity from people in our school who had heard of (co-founder and president) Will (Kim) being mentioned in the president’s speech. It helped quite a bit in terms of publicity and we couldn’t ask for more.”
Obama lauded Kim for “giving loans to other students. He (Kim) set up a non-for-profit. He’s raising the money doing what he loves – through dodge-ball tournaments and capture-the-flag games. But he’s creative. He took initiative. And now he’s helping other young people be able to afford the schooling that they need.”
Happy Day Microfunds received earlier buzz after profiles of the group were published in the San Jose Mercury News and other newspapers.
The son of Viren and Shachi Shah of Fremont, the young entrepreneur said he became interested in microfinance in the ninth grade.
“We are very proud of Kunal’s initiative,” his mother said. “He is very passionate about helping people less fortunate than him. He got interested in microfinance after my husband mentioned this field to him couple of years ago. After reading ‘Banker to The Poor,’ a memoir by (Nobel Prize winner and microfinance pioneer) Muhammed Yunus, Kunal really got hooked.”
The young Mission High student said that when Kim approached him with the microfinance idea, he (Shah) “jumped” at the opportunity. “We struggled with the idea at first. The first idea was to go international. However, we brainstormed for about two months before we reached the final idea of keeping it local in the Bay Area.”
Asked what has been the biggest challenge, Shah said it was “finding the entrepreneurs.”
“We usually contact schools who are involved in the NFTE (Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship) program, which…helps under-served youth come up with business plans.”
“Then we talk to the teachers who recommend us to particular students who they feel…would be a good fit for a loan. We usually meet with these people. They provide us with a business plan and if we deem it adequate, we talk with them about what size loan they want.”
“It's hard to find under-served youth who have a somewhat reliable and stable business plan. Thankfully, NFTE helped us greatly and we have also been in contact with BUILD, a similar program to NFTE.”
“We’ve raised around $5,000 and we've given out $300,” Shah told India-West. “Our first project was to Erika Simmons, a 18-year old who goes to Cal State East Bay and makes ‘waist-beads,’ kind of like bracelets for your waist which are very in-fashion where she lives and in her community. We gave her $100 for supplies.”
The second entrepreneur to receive funding was Huong Cheng, a 21-year-old San Jose State student majoring in animation and illustration, who got $200 for her business, Always Adamo, which designs T-shirts for couples and large groups.
Happy Days MF has established several charter clubs in Bay Area high schools and hopes to spread nationally to college campuses.
“Right now, we have a person in the East Coast trying to start a chapter in Harvard,” Shah said.
“We have some charter clubs in schools within the Fremont Unified School District to help with fundraising and to raise awareness. Our goal is to make this a nationwide network eventually…We believe we will have more success in college campuses where there are more students with thought-out business plans.”