In a semi-urban area on the outskirts of Santiago, Brenda Araque is helping particularly disadvantaged women launch micro-enterprises that will benefit themselves, their families, and the larger community. The centerpiece of her undertaking is a revolving loan fund, but Brenda and her associates place special emphasis on training and counseling services that respond to the special needs of the program's participants and help assure the success of the new enterprises.
The New Idea
Brenda is convinced that access to small amounts of credit and, equally needed, to training and counseling services, can enable poor women to build successful micro-enterprises and dramatically improve their economic situations and prospects. Having observed that women in mushrooming, semi-urban communities on the outskirts of Santiago are in particularly desperate need of such opportunities, she has established a small, community-managed nongovernmental organization in one of those communities to provide the needed help and hope.The new organization has established, and is now enlarging, a revolving loan fund. It has also developed a parallel array of business training and counseling services to address the special needs and problems of the women served by the program, most of whom are single heads-of-households, poorly educated and poorly prepared to manage their fledgling enterprises, and under considerable psychological stress.
Brenda's efforts are focused on the provinces of Talagante and Melipilla, some thirty-five kilometers from the center of Santiago. The two provinces are characterized both by continuing agricultural activity, in which approximately one-quarter of their economically active populations are engaged, and by rapid urbanization, a substantial portion of which is the consequence of the displacement of Santiago's poorest inhabitants to outlying areas. Another important characteristic of this rapidly changing semi-urban area is a notable absence of organized collective endeavors, through clubs, social or charitable associations, or other community groups. In these two provinces, and indeed in much of Chile, women are the traditional mainstays of family stability, but most of them have little or no direct access to the financial resources that their domestic responsibilities require. Frustrated both by their traditional roles and by their financial inability to meet their responsibilities, many rural women, particularly single mothers, move to urban, or urbanizing, areas, leaving their traditional rural support networks behind. Psychologically and financially adrift in their new surroundings, these women often move from job to job and are plagued by frequent illness.In Talagante and Melipilla provinces, and in similar settings around the country, women in varying circumstances, including those just described, are not lacking in ideas and hopes for business ventures that could generate desperately needed income for themselves and their families. But they do lack both the financial resources and the preparation needed to launch such ventures, and they are bedeviled by the absence of public or private structures that effectively address those needs. In some instances, credit is available from private-sector sources, but only at usurious rates of interest and without related training and support services. Relevant government programs, to the extent that they exist at all, are focused almost exclusively on center-city settings and fail to reach women in outlying, semi-urban areas.
Responding to these circumstances, Brenda is implementing a program that offers credit, training, and support services for poor women in semi-urban communities. Her first step in introducing these much-needed services was to organize a new non-profit organization, Work for a Sister Foundation, located in Malloca, a rapidly urbanizing community in the province of Talagante in the Santiago Metropolitan Region. With initial financing of some $3,000, some from individual donations and a church agency and the rest from the money-raising activities (e.g., collecting aluminum cans for recycling) of supporters, Brenda opened an office, assembled a board of directors, and developed a small network of women's groups, several of them newly organized, in the surrounding area.The Foundation's board members, most of them young neighborhood and business leaders, helped give the new undertaking instant visibility throughout the area. They also provide institutional oversight and guidance, assist in continuing fundraising efforts, and play a central role in identifying, evaluating, and selecting candidates for loan and training assistance. In the latter process, they are especially attentive to projects that will have a positive impact on the community, in addition to benefiting the women directly involved. With the help of board members, a small revolving loan fund has been established, and training and other support activities have been launched. The Foundation's training programs rely heavily on a learning-by-doing approach, and topics covered include entrepreneurial skills, cost control and financial management, and business expansion techniques. In addition, drawing on the services of board members and other community resources, Brenda makes sure that participants in the Foundation's program have ready access to business advice, psychological counseling, and other support services.In the program's start-up phase, the number of economically disadvantaged women served has been limited by organizational and financial constraints. But more than fifty women, many of them single mothers with several dependents, have already received business training, which is normally a prerequisite for loan assistance, and growing numbers of them are benefiting from loans as well. The rapidly expanding list of nascent businesses that have been aided by the Foundation's programs includes three small bakeries, a cleaning service for offices and stores, a gardening and lawn care enterprise, and a day-care service.The start-up phase of the Foundation's program has provided abundant evidence not only of the need for the services that it offers but also of the organization's ability to respond swiftly and effectively to those needs. With the program's initial success as a strong talking point, Brenda is now seeking to expand its funding base, in part through grants from Chilean public agencies and international funding sources. She is also laying plans to extend the Foundation's services to other communities in Talagante and Melipilla provinces and, at a later stage, to other settings with similar needs in the Santiago Metropolitan Region.
Brenda was born in central Chile and raised in comfortable circumstances as the youngest child in a family with conservative traditions and strong religious principles.An avid learner and outstanding student throughout her school years, she was admitted to the University of Chile, where she trained as an obstetrician. Upon receiving her degree from that institution in 1983, she received special recognition for her initiative, leadership, and hard work in student organizations and service programs organized by the University. While employed in a clinic in Santiago, she pursued additional studies in public health and received a master's degree in that field. More recently, in her tireless search for solutions to vexing social problems, she has pursued legal studies as well.Now in her mid-thirties, married to a doctor who specializes in forensic medicine and the mother of four young children, Brenda is a dogged and creative social entrepreneur. The Work for a Sister Foundation initiative that she has created is a clear reflection both of her deeply rooted commitment to helping women in difficult circumstances and of her equally strong appreciation of their untapped strengths and talent.