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Student-organized microfinance conference “first class”

Eastern does not often compete with schools like the University of Penn, widely considered one of the top business schools in the world.

In the last two weeks however, Eastern’s March 28 and Penn’s April 3 microfinance conferences were informal rivals.

Two years ago, Dr. Connie Ostwald encouraged her business students to attend Penn’s conference and learn more about microfinance, the emerging system of providing micro loans to help people get out of poverty. Several students were intrigued by the conference and demonstrated an interest in doing something similar at Eastern.

“[Penn was] a little shocked to hear about the success we had,” senior Justin Tomevi said.

About 250 people attended Eastern’s conference from all across the Northeast. The day was highlighted with prominent speakers like Joyce Lehman from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Henry Waller from Justice Ventures International.

Two separate panels discussed issues within faith-based microfinance. Lehman, the program officer for microfinance at the Gates Foundation, explained why the foundation has chosen to focus on microsavings.

According to Lehman, only 10 percent of the world’s poor have access to financial services. The “bottom billion” – the poorest billion people in the world – store money in things like animals and jewelry, Lehman said.

Eastern’s business department was particularly delighted with the success of the conference. Dr. Ostwald noted that the conference was great for the university’s public relations, saying the event was “first class.”

Josh Raber, a mission major from Nyack College, attended out of curiosity. Microfinance had sparked Raber’s interest as a form of development rather than just relief for the poor of the world. Fellow student Michelle Wolfson said, “It was great to hear people who had hands-on experience.”

The conference was completely student organized and operated. Senior business majors Jess High, Anna Rohwer, Lauren Gotwals and Brian Campbell formed the advisory board, which met with Tomevi twice each week to plan the conference. Eastern’s SIFE business club sponsored and helped coordinate the event.

“We would love to do it again,” Gotwals said. “It’s just a matter of getting the right people together to make it happen.”

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