This interview is with Rachel Cook, director of the Microlending Film Project, a documentary examining the impact of microloans in developing countries. The interview was conducted and summarized by Andrew Chen. (Download the full audio recording of this interview here.)
Q. Can you tell me about your background?
A. Sure. I’m 28, I grew up in a small farm town in Ohio, and then went to Duke University, where I majored in English, minored in Economics, and got a film certificate. And then after that—because I realized I hated Los Angeles after spending a few months there—I moved to Chicago to study improvisational acting and comedy writing at Second City.
While I was there to pay the bills, I got a job working as a futures and equities trader, which was awesome. I was doing that during the crash. I love trading, but I thought traders were the worst people in the universe.
Even though I made more money by 25 than I expected to, I was sitting on a trading desk when I read an op-ed in the New York Times about the positive impacts of microfinance on women. So I launched a documentary project right away.
That was more than two years ago. We put together a great team. We filmed on four continents. We were in South America and India, and then here in Nairobi, Kenya, and in Detroit, Michigan. While I was filming in Nairobi last year, I saw that there’s this super-exciting mobile money transfer infrastructure in which even people who live in the slums have access to cell phones and can go buy virtually anything they need using text messaging.
So now I’m working on launching a start-up called “Seeds” that marries social gaming and microfinance. It’s an immersive social game that allows you to microlend directly to somebody’s cell phone here in Africa, and we are also setting up a domestic initiative as well.
Q. How has your career path evolved, and in particular what was your thought process along the way as you made different career transitions?
A. To be honest, I think it was less about thought and more about instinct. I came out of Duke, and Duke tends to be a mill for investment banking and consulting. There wasn’t really an arts or entrepreneurial undergrad culture.
So I think I felt I had to do certain things coming out of school, but quickly realized that wasn’t the life I wanted to live. So it was just listening to my instincts and figuring out, if this doesn’t seem right, but I’m really excited about this other idea, then I’m going to run with that other idea because I’m excited about it and hope it leads me to other people who think the idea is cool, too.
And it did. It totally worked. I’m a lot poorer than I was five years ago, but I’m much happier. It’s great and I feel like I’m really doing something that’s going to make a big difference and can be hugely profitable as well.
Q. So you left Duke and moved to Los Angeles? What were you doing there?
A. No, actually, Duke’s film program is pretty bootleg. So you can do Duke in L.A. or go do a semester at USC. I knew I wanted to do something with film and writing, so I was out there. And it was good just to realize that it wasn’t the city I wanted to be in after graduation. So I decided to try Chicago, because there was more of a clear path if you went through Second City and went through the class structure there.
Q. So while you were at Second City, you were also working as a prop trader in finance to help “pay the bills.” How did you parlay a liberal arts degree into a finance job during the height of the financial crisis when companies everywhere were laying people off?
A. It’s kind of funny. I actually found my first trading job through Craigslist. They blew me off at first, and then I got a bunch of friends to call them on my behalf so they would hire me, which they did. But it was a prop shop that didn’t really care at all about the people working there.
Later, a guy who was also looking for a trading job contacted me through Facebook, even though we had never met before, and I helped him get in. And that made me think: “Oh, this is a great idea. I’ll just contact people through Facebook to find other trading jobs.” So I just found every female trader in Chicago — and there weren’t a ton — and just asked whether they could help me out. I ended up finding two trading jobs through Facebook, which was cool.
Q. How did you then make the transition from trading and Second City to deciding to work on the microlending film? What were the specific steps you took to actually make it happen?
A. Well, comedy writing in Chicago is super fun. It’s a very niche and incestuous community, actually. It was cool. I wrote a couple sketches and was in several shows, but nothing major. Being in a good improv show is the best feeling in the world.
But if I wrote a sketch, maybe thirty people might come to see it one night. And I started thinking about how I could have more of an impact, because obviously if you make a film, then hopefully it lasts forever. There was also this tricky environment, any improv environment for that matter, that was just so weirdly sexist in a way that I didn’t know existed among 24-year-old people. And it made me ripe for some sort of opportunity in filmmaking that could also help women in some way.
So when I read Nick Kristof’s article, I was just very primed for an idea exactly like that. So I posted on Craigslist and found a director of photography who worked on fifty studio Hollywood films, and he was super legit, and he was willing to volunteer. And once he was on board, it was pretty easy to assemble a really talented team.
Q. So the transition happened because of a discontentment with finance, then around the same time reading that New York Times op-ed, and then literally going to Craigslist to start assembling a team.
A. Yeah. But I want to be clear that there wasn’t a dissatisfaction with finance. I really enjoyed trading and I still miss it now, because it’s like a rush and it’s great. No politics are involved, so it’s just bottom line. If you mess up, it’s only your fault, and you know that. I really appreciate that. But it was just that the environment was weird.
Q. Got it. So a distinction between profession and culture.
A. Right. Exactly.
Q. What is it like working on the microlending film? And I also understand you’re working on a startup now, called Seeds, that’s centered around microlending and is partially an outgrowth of your film. For both projects, what do you do on a day-to-day basis?
A. Sure. The day-to-day is so varied, and I think that’s the case for anyone who is launching their own initiative.
The film is mostly done at this point. We started filming in April 2010 in Paraguay, South America, and then we filmed in nine different cities in India. Then we were here in Nairobi, and finally in Detroit. So the bulk of the filming is done, and we’ve been cutting and working with an editor based in New York, where I’m technically based now.
But because I was here in Nairobi, and there was a startup competition just in the last couple days, we were shooting some of that to just follow up.
At this point, though, I’m mostly focusing on the startup. I’m working on business development, working with a programmer who is actually from Duke undergrad and came out here with me, and talking to as many people as I can in the space to figure out what additional steps we need to take to bring this to the next level.
Q. What is your film about and what problem will your startup be solving?
A. The microlending film project is a global exploration of the impact of microloans on women, shot on four continents. A lot of people have no idea what microfinance is, so we wanted to go see what impact lending a woman, say, in Pakistan who wanted to start a business selling coal would be if she had a $25 loan. People make these loans through web platforms like Kiva. But we wanted to see what actually happens on the ground. And we saw a lot of stuff, mostly positive things, but there are definitely also challenges and some bad people involved who are doing not-great things. So that’s what the film is about.
My startup Seeds is a social game for mobile microlending. Basically, we figured out that the average social gamer is a 43-year-old woman. And microlenders also skew female. That is, people who use platforms like Kiva. And women are largely the beneficiaries of microfinance. So Seeds is unique in that it is merging these two hugely profitable industries in a way that is high-tech, that can hopefully benefit women, and that women will also use.
Q. What have you found most exciting about working on both projects?
A. I love throwing myself into these worlds and figuring them out. I had no background in this stuff before just doing it. I like novelty a lot and doing new stuff every day is pretty important to me.
Startup stuff is also just exciting, and I think mobile is the future in so many ways, and it’s happening here in Kenya in a way that it’s not happening anywhere else in the world, including in the United States. So it’s just really exciting to see it happening here.
Q. What do you most wish you could change?
A. The only source of anxiety that I constantly have anymore is just worrying about funding, and how we’re going to find X amount of money to do Y.
AirBnB has actually been sustaining me over the last several months. I rent out my apartment in New York constantly, and because it’s New York, people stay there all the time, and it’s funded this trip, which is pretty awesome. My roommate is great because she helps coordinate while I’m gone.
Q. What do you see yourself doing in the future, and how do you think what you’re doing today will help you toward that goal?
A. I think Seeds is going to be occupying my time a lot over the next few years. I’ll probably be back and forth between Nairobi and New York — or somewhere else in the States, maybe San Francisco.
I’m really passionate about this idea of thinking about gaming and how we can channel the billions of hours people spend each week worldwide playing games so that there’s a real-world positive impact. And just changing the thinking around that.
So we’re building an API for Seeds, and I’d love to see a world in which all digital games have functionality so you can make a microloan through these games that helps someone out who needs some funding.
I love the idea of changing the way people think and changing social behavior, and I think we can do that using gaming.
Q. What advice do you have for people who might be interested in transitioning into either something you’ve done before, whether it’s Second City or finance, or a role like your current one in filmmaking or entrepreneurship?
A. My advice is to just do it. I was unhappy for years and I didn’t see a way out. I was just trapped into this way of thinking that I’ll stay X number of months, then get my bonus, and then I can decide what to do.
But who wants to waste their 20s thinking that way? You should be as happy as you can and do something that really excites you and fulfills you. So just take that jump, and once you do you’ll never regret that you did.
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