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Promoting World Peace through Microcredit and Dialogue

Dr. Steven Funk, CML Global Capital, Chairman

"I'm the product of microcredit," says Steve Funk describing his years growing up on a 160-acre farm outside Osage, Iowa. "My parents were farmers. One hundred percent entrepreneurs operating a small business, depending on small loans, working to create something of value."

In addition to hard work, farm life taught Funk about possibilities. "My favorite thing to do as a kid," he recalls, "was lay on my back and imagine why the sky never ended and get in touch with infinity. I began to believe all things are possible."

Today, Funk is the founder and chairman of Grand Marais Investments Ltd., a private equity investment company with substantial assets that, in partnership with Yountville Trust, controls CML Global Capital. CML's primary interests include Aspen Properties Ltd., a commercial real estate business, Consolidated Properties Ltd., and Imperial Parking Ltd., an Asian-based parking and traffic management business. Funk serves as the chairman of CML Global Capital. His wife, Elizabeth Collet Funk, is CEO of CML and the head of Yountville.

Funk attended Purdue University on an athletic scholarship and earned master's and doctorate degrees at the University of Iowa. While deciding where to apply for residency programs in oral surgery, he happened upon a National Geographic Magazine story about Vancouver, British Columbia.

Funk finished a year of oral surgery training in Vancouver living in an apartment above the home of a friend of Nelson Skalbania, a real estate entrepreneur who suggested he work for him for a year. Feeling constrained by dental practice, Funk accepted his offer.

"That was my MBA on the street," he says. "He threw me in and let me work through so many business investments, environments, and strategic initiatives, including stationing me fulltime for two years in Hong Kong."

Peace Action Network

After five years with Skalbania, in 1985, Funk started his own company and, needless to say, never returned to dental practice. Success came quickly, making Funk eligible to join Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), which he’d been encouraged to do by Skalbania and Peter Thomas, another mentor who owned Century 21, the largest real estate network in Canada.

Funk found YPO to be a rich environment for learning from the best and meeting, as he puts it, "type A, affluent, influential and well-networked entrepreneurs, creating very interesting access and opportunities in both social and educational formats."

Believing you "get out of something what you put into it," Funk attended some 15 YPO Universities, three regional conferences, four Harvard Business School Presidents' Seminars and served as group leader at a Stanford Business School Seminar.

Then came 9-11.

"Post 9-11, a group of internationally active YPOers looked at the organization and said, "We're philanthropically involved. We're trying to make a difference in the world. Let's start a forum of like-minded people and support each other in whatever the cause is."

Peace Action Network (PAN), dedicated to empowering the membership of YPO in their efforts to actively make a different in areas of conflict and need, was formally voted a chapter of YPO in June 2004. PAN now has 100 members and has spawned eight forums. In February 2005, it was voted a chapter of World Presidents' Organization. Elizabeth Collet Funk is the current chair of the PAN chapter of YPO. Funk is membership chair.

"We can make a difference like few organizations," says Funk, citing highlights of PAN's accomplishments:

  • The Indo-Pak Forum catalyzing a major breakthrough in relations between India and Pakistan in November 2003 by arranging for 133 Indian YPOers and their spouses to visit Pakistan, the first trip ever into Pakistan for the vast majority. Participants met with Pakistan President Musharraf at the presidential palace where he first announced his decision to open travel between the two countries
  • The formation of an India-Pakistan CEO Forum of business leaders to capitalize on growing commercial opportunities between the two countries
  • The Jewish/Arab/Muslim America Forum bringing together North Americans affected by the Middle East conflict to create programs and host events to promote better understanding and shed light on issues most pressing to its members
  • The Microcredit Forum, launched in May 2004, to facilitate the efforts of YPOers committed to supporting other members in their microcredit efforts by sharing strategies, contacts and resources
  • Global Conference Calls covering timely and relevant issues relating to global and regional conflict.

Empowerment through Microcredit

Funk admits to occasional frustration but has come to terms with the realization that he can't fix all the world's problems. In the meantime, he's dedicating time, expertise and financial resources to expanding microcredit, the same kind of assistance that helped his parents succeed as farmers in Iowa.

"Microcredit is loaning money to individuals who want to work and who are therefore by definition entrepreneurs in a segment of society we call poverty," he says. "The repayment ratio of people who receive microcredit loans is in the 90 percent range, higher than the corporate repayment rate in North America. Institutions, from insurance to bankers, are now seeing this massive population of poor people in the world who, given access to capital, will work and become clients of their institutions."

Funk sees microcredit as one of the most empowering social tools ever invented. In addition to founding the YPO Microcredit Forum with his wife, he serves on the board, raises funds and gives generously to Unitus, a nonprofit organization founded by the former human resources director at Microsoft.

Unitus' mission is to alleviate poverty in developing countries by accelerating the growth of the highest potential microfinance institutions. To date, the organization has touched more than 170,000 lives through microlending.

Funk describes his return on investment in microcredit by pointing to lives – particularly women – throughout the world that are tangibly improving because of access to capital he's helping make possible.

"I'm 100 percent in support of empowerment," he says. "I hate handouts. The more a society's workforce is empowered, the more likely it's going to be peaceful. When people have something to lose, they’re less likely to be involved in conflict."

Making a Geometric Difference

Funk says the more difference he makes, the more he wants to make.

In Canada, he ran the largest group of funds under the Investor Immigrant Program, which was designed to attract entrepreneurs to the country by facilitating immigration in return for their investing in these funds. Over ten years, Funk raised several hundred million dollars for these funds to invest in Canadian startup businesses. He frequently spoke to dental classes about entrepreneurship, established scholarships, and sponsored interns in his businesses.

In the late 1990s, upon donating 640 acres of land to Sheldon Kennedy to build a ranch for abused kids, Funk was quoted saying, "It was probably the most productive thing I have ever done in my life." At the time, Kennedy was Funk's neighbor in Ontario and a forward with the National Hockey League's Boston Bruins who was sexually abused by a former coach. Kennedy's courage in coming forward inspired hundreds of men similarly abused to do likewise.

Funk believes in the geometric power of giving, particularly to entrepreneurship. He cites his own experience raising funds for Unitus to illustrate his point.

"In the last two weeks, I called on about 20 people with whom I've sat on boards, financed, or been partners and asked them to give to Unitus," he said. "Almost all have said yes."

"If you’re given a chance to succeed in life, when you have the means, you'll pass that chance on to someone else. Entrepreneurs are generous, and few who have been backed and achieved any kind of success forget that. They turn around and support entrepreneurs of the future."

© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.

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