WIC alumna follows her passions to Bishkek

On Aug. 2, 2014 Sophia (Sophie) Virji (Class of 2001) traveled to Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic to begin a Fellowship with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) in the area of microfinance, leaving her career in private practice as a corporate tax litigator.

After graduating from WIC Sophie went to McGill University and graduated with a B.Comm in Finance (2005). After working for two years as a Commercial Account Manager with HSBC, Sophie relocated to Winnipeg to pursue a law degree at the University of Manitoba, after which she moved back to Calgary, taking a position with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP and subsequently Dentons Canada LLP.

WIC reconnected with Sophie to discuss her work with the AKFC, what led her to become interested in microfinance and to have her share her experiences with our students. If you wish to read more about Sophie’s journey you may visit her blog at: http://sophievirji.wordpress.com

Please note that the views expressed in this interview are entirely Sophie’s and do not represent the views or opinions of the AKDN, AKFC, DFATD or the University of Central Asia.

WIC: Can you briefly describe the work you will be doing as part of your fellowship with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada?

SV: By way of background, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a group of development agencies with mandates that include the environment, health, education, architecture, culture, microfinance, rural development, disaster reduction, the promotion of private-sector enterprise and the revitalisation of historic cities. AKDN agencies conduct their programs without regard to faith, origin or gender. Examples of such agencies within the AKDN are the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and University of Central Asia (UCA).

I was placed at UCA by AKF Canada (AKFC) as a consultant for micro, small and medium enterprise programs. I am specifically helping facilitate the planning and execution of a project funded by the Asian Development Bank and carried out by the UCA entitled the Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Project. The goal of the project is to improve living standards among women in rural areas and small towns in the Kyrgyz Republic. Despite various efforts to develop women’s entrepreneurship, most female-owned enterprises remain very small. Limited availability of appropriate financial services, coupled with high interest rates and short payback periods, provide limited opportunity for women to develop their micro-enterprises into sustainable small and medium businesses. Moreover, lack of knowledge, experience and information present a significant barrier among women micro-entrepreneurs to use financial services and manage their business effectively, especially in the rural areas.

To address the challenges mentioned above, UCA will provide three training components for the project. The first component involves training 300 women entrepreneurs across the country to enhance the viability and sustainability of their businesses and their ability to access financial resources and markets. The training will cover financial literacy, business development, and leadership and communication skills to build female entrepreneurs’ self-confidence and autonomy. The second component involves training 100 loan officers from microfinance institutions to identify suitable tools, methods and financial services to address the needs of women entrepreneurs. The training will strengthen the ability of loan officers to assess lending procedures targeting specific needs of women entrepreneurs, develop new financial services, and expand outreach to women entrepreneurs. Finally, UCA will engage 100 government stakeholders through workshops and roundtables on microfinance, enterprise finance and gender-sensitive practices.

WIC: In your blog you talk about your trepidation prior to beginning your journey. What was it like to “take the plunge,” leave your job and follow your passions?

SV: It was terrifying. I really enjoyed my position with Dentons Canada LLP: I was doing the work that I was trained to do and doing it with some of the best practitioners in the country. When the opportunity with AKFC came up, however, I knew it would be a once in a lifetime chance to do many things that I had always dreamed of: make a difference, change a life, contribute to the greater good. I think my generation is caught in a strange place where we have seen (and can appreciate) relentless professional pragmatism through the hard work and hardship of our parents, but simultaneously yearn for something to give us a more fulfilling sense of purpose and meaning. This opportunity was my ticket to fulfill that latter element. So I took it and I have yet to feel any regret. When I wake up in the morning, I know I am doing a good thing and I can’t argue with that. This experience will undoubtedly be one of the best ones of my life and I am simply grateful for having been given the opportunity.

WIC: What first led you to be interested in Microfinance?

SV: Microfinance has received overwhelming attention over the last few decades. While there are many positions on its efficacy as a development tool, the reviews are generally positive. In this regard numerous development organizations (in some form or shape) have adopted microfinance mechanisms. All this to say, I have been following the microfinance trend for some time just by virtue of the media coverage. Moreover, as I mention in my blog, microfinance interests me because it seems to involve a perfect storm of my skills and passions: my technical finance and legal skill sets mixed with my passion for development work makes microfinance a logical interest.

WIC: You talk about Microfinance and the amazing potential that it has and yet you question whether it really is the solution that some claim it to be. Since you wrote that post a couple of months ago, have you had any further insight? How has your experience in the field shaped your perception?

SV: Although I feel myself getting closer to the answer, the question still remains. After some three months in the field (which is hardly enough to come to any concrete answers) it is my belief that microfinance would probably be more successful if the root cause of poverty was purely economic. However, poverty is much more complex and multi-faceted; it involves issues surrounding social, health, education, gender and environment, to name but a few. As a result, microfinance has not actually effected widespread poverty alleviation in the way that it is theorized to because it just cannot. Microfinance has to be coupled with other poverty alleviation tools in order to gain significant traction. While a handful of microfinance institutions do deliver a “credit plus” approach (wherein borrowers are given financial literacy training or tools in conjunction with credit, thereby addressing some of the social elements of poverty), an apparent lack of qualitative and quantitative data on the needs of clients in order to bring them out of poverty is palpable.

WIC: In what way did your time at WIC influence what you are doing or who you are today?

SV: My time at WIC instilled in me many qualities without which excellence cannot be attained: ambition, perseverance, discipline, to name but a few. These qualities, along with the support and encouragement of the WIC faculty, were instrumental in my choice to pursue higher education and in my desire to succeed in whatever discipline I chose. Whether it is as a banker, a lawyer or a MSME Consultant, I always endeavour to excel in my position and surpass expectations. In this regard, the foundation laid during my time at WIC has played a fundamental role in my accomplishments and where I am today.

WIC: What would you say to our current students and future graduates about your experience? If someone is interested in international development how should they get started?

SV: The field of international development is broad and far-reaching. Careers within the field are no different. I got involved in international development at a very young age through my involvement with organizations such as AKFC and participation in initiatives such as Model United Nations. In this regard there are many ways to get involved in international development at the Junior High and High School level. Although my post-secondary education was not focused on international development, because of my early exposure to the field it was always at the forefront of my mind in terms of a potential career path. My decision to work in the private sector for a number of years before turning to international development was fueled by my desire to gain valuable work experience, establish a professional name for myself and have the financial security to leave the private sector if and when I chose to. No doubt this path, along with my early experience in international development, carved an entry into the field. I am now in a position where I feel I can make a significant contribution on account of my skillset and have some flexibility once the fellowship is over.
This said, many of my current colleagues endeavoured to pursue careers in international development from the time they went to university. For WIC students who know they wish to pursue a career in international development, many Canadian universities and colleges offer some range of international development courses that go a long way insofar as exposure to the field goes. Embarking on an international development career out of undergrad can be difficult, particularly because there are few fellowship/internships programs available for new graduates to gain meaningful experience and most other opportunities to gain work experience tends to require new grads to volunteer at their own expense. However, choosing this path is far from impossible. I see this in my colleagues every day. If you have the ambition and perseverance, like most things, you will undoubtedly succeed in this very dynamic and fascinating field.

WIC: A huge thank you to Sophie for taking the time to share her incredible passion and experiences with us. We wish her continued success and safe travels. To our alumni if you would like to share your story, or know of others with stories to tell, please reach out to us at communications@mywic.ca