To many people working in the field of microenterprise in the U.S., Mott Senior Program Officer Jack A. Litzenberg is a legend. For nearly thirty years, his grantmaking at the Foundation played a fundamental role in the development and growth of a movement to help low-income entrepreneurs start their own businesses and lift themselves — and their communities — out of poverty.
Litzenberg’s work, including in the area of microenterprise, was recognized in 1994 with the Council on Foundation’s Robert W. Scrivner Award for innovation and creativity in grantmaking, the highest award made by the council to a grantmaker.
As he prepared to retire on January 31, 2012 from Mott, Litzenberg sat down with Communications Officer Duane Elling to reflect on the field to which he’d devoted much of his career.
What has fueled your interest in microenterprise? Jack Litzenberg (JL):
|Jack A. Litzenberg|
When I was five years old, my dad opened a small town grocery store — he put in a lot of long hours and the work was hard, but he was really proud of what he was doing and I was proud of him.
His experience showed me that owning a small business can give a person a very real sense of accomplishment and responsibility, which can carry over into every other aspect of their life.
That can be life changing, especially for low-income people. They come to realize that they have real potential and can work their way out of poverty. They cherish the fact that they own something and have earned it.
I also believe in the ripple effect of microenterprise. These small business owners contribute to their local economies and some create new jobs for others who need employment. The businesses become cherished parts of the community, helping to lift everyone up with a new sense of purpose and belonging.What have been some of the milestone developments in microenterprise in the U.S.?JL:
One of the most significant is the growth in funder involvement and interest. In the mid-1980s, it was largely the Mott and Ford foundations that were funding microenterprise as an anti-poverty strategy in this country. Today we know of roughly 80 funders — including foundations, banks, government agencies and other partners — helping to support the field.
Other major advances have been the launch of organizations and programs dedicated to demonstrating the model’s effectiveness and helping to strengthen and advance the field. This includes the Microenterprise Fund for Innovation, Effectiveness, Learning and Dissemination (FIELD)
at the Aspen Institute, and the Association for Enterprise Opportunity
— both are longtime Mott grantees.
That infrastructure, built over time, helped lay the foundation for the exciting new work being done in the field today.Can you share an example of that new work?JL:
A major one is the development of microenterprise and microfinance programs on college campuses. The college students bring a new level of innovation and entrepreneurism to the field, exploring new ways for helping low-income people start and grow their businesses, as well as unique financial products and services for those small business owners. It’s creating a new generation of people who embrace microenterprise as an effective strategy for lifting people out of poverty.What would be your ideal vision for microenterprise in the coming years?JL:
I’d like to see it become even more widely adopted and supported as an anti-poverty strategy, for it to be seen as essential to the national “toolbox” of approaches for helping low-income people create new lives for themselves and their communities.
I’d also like to see greater numbers of low-income individuals owning and operating their own businesses, discovering their skills and capabilities, and making their own unique contributions to our society.
Ultimately, I want to see low-income people in this country get to a place where they aren’t low-income anymore. Microenterprise can help accomplish that.