President, Women's World Banking
As president of New York City-based Women's World Banking (WWB), Nancy Barry has changed the lives of millions of poor women and their families around the globe. The nonprofit organization is a network of 53 microfinance institutions and banks in developing countries that make small loans to low-income women-and in some instances, men-so that they can build their own business and move beyond poverty. A customer in The Gambia, for example, used her loan to purchase a refrigerator for storing juice from baobab fruits, which she then sells at the local market.
"The impact of these loans is extraordinary," says Barry. "Poor women have shown that they are the world's best customers, repaying their loans and using their increased income to feed, clothe, and educate their children and strengthen their communities." Today, the WWB network provides financial services in more than forty countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East.
At the same time, this global organization helps microfinance institutions and banks build retail capacity and introduce responsive lending, savings, and insurance products. Together, WWB and the leaders in its network work with policymakers to create financial systems for the needy majority in their regions.
Barry joined WWB as president in 1990 after fifteen years in top positions at the World Bank. At that time, WWB, which was founded in 1979, had a budget of only $2 million, and many of Barry's peers questioned her decision to leave one of the world's most prestigious institutions to join a much smaller player in the global economy. "On day one I had to order my own pencils," she recalls with a smile. But Barry saw WWB's size as a virtue. "It was a remarkably nimble organization," she explains, "with revolutionary principles and a transformational agenda that focused on supporting local organizations and leaders and bringing a business approach to effecting economic and social change."
Barry put together a small, highly competent team of practitioners, analysts, and managers from around the world. And she fostered the development of an organization that engaged the talents and commitment of network leaders. "To create real networks, you have to believe that the center of an operation does not have a monopoly on truth, and you need to trust the people, trust the process," she says. As the network took shape, members began holding each other accountable for achieving high standards of performance and for using their leadership to bring about systematic change in their countries.
Barry has long been aware of the impact of business and government on society. After graduating from Stanford University in 1971 in the midst of demonstrations against the Vietnam War, she took a freighter to Peru to work for a government agency there that was constructing middle-class housing. But the poor people, Barry observed, were clearly the ones in need. "With all the self-confidence of a 22-year-old," she remembers, "I persuaded the agency to use its money to provide the slums with water, sanitation systems, and electricity and to create enterprises that would help these people build income and assets."
While in Peru, Barry set her sights on Harvard Business School. "I saw many Peruvians who could do my job, and I wanted the kind of graduate education that would make it possible for me to have a bigger impact," she explains. Her international work continued, however, during the summer between her first and second years in the MBA Program, when she worked for McKinsey in Tanzania on a program to make socialist villages economically viable.
Joining the World Bank's Young Professionals Program after earning her Harvard degree, Barry soon made her mark. She pioneered the World Bank's efforts in small enterprise development, for example, an initiative that grew to $3.3 billion over a decade. She also led much of the work on industry, trade, and finance in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And before leaving the Bank, she headed its global Industry Development Division.
In 1981, Barry had begun serving on the board of WWB—a role that influenced the way she formulated her strategy at the World Bank. "I applied what I was learning in the young WWB to create a network for learning and change at the Bank in areas such as small enterprise lending and export promotion," she says.
When the WWB board approached her to become its second president, Barry was ready to make the move. During the past fifteen years, the network's aggregate portfolio has grown to more than $8 billion, and WWB has gone from serving some 20,000 low-income women to helping over 18 million households. WWB supports this global system with an annual budget of only $10 million, helping network members get what they need to succeed as microfinance institutions and change agents. Under Barry's leadership, the organization has also led the microfinance industry in product innovation, industry standards, policy change, and the mobilization of banks for microfinance.
Barry's influence has also long been felt at HBS. The first case on Women's World Banking was written in 1990, and she has been a regular classroom visitor when it is taught in its updated versions. She is also a founding member of the HBS Social Enterprise Initiative Advisory Board, and in 2001 she received the HBS Women's Student Association award as the outstanding female graduate in finance and consulting.
Named to Forbes magazine's list of the world's most powerful women for the past two years, Barry continues to focus on showing how low-income women entrepreneurs and the institutions that help them are changing the way our world works. She is truly making a difference.