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UN-NGO Profiles - I

Michaela WALSH
: "I learned that your own integrity is the
only thing that will sustain you."

Interviewed by

For the Light Millennium

This is the first of a series of profiles of significant figures in the UN NGO community. Today we welcome Michaela Walsh, activist, scholar, mentor, educator, and author. Her credentials as a pioneer are impressive:  she was the first female partner of a brokerage firm, the first female manager of Merrill Lynch International, and the founder and past president of Women's World Banking. Michaela is the founder of the Global Student Leadership Program and currently Director of Women and Community Leadership at Manhattanville College. Michaela is serving as chairperson of the 59th conference of the DPI/NGOs at the United Nations, coming up this September.

The interviewer is internationally known psychologist, college professor, newspaper columnist, and radio and TV reporter, Dr. Judy Kuriansky. Dr. Judy is also a UN NGO representative for two international organizations:  the International Association of Applied Psychology and the World Council for Psychotherapy.

Dr. Judy: Michaela, you are well known and respected throughout many fields of finance, academia, and international relations. One of your major achievements is founding the Women's World Bank. How did you arrive at doing that?

Michaela: A lot of it stems from the fact that I love to learn. And I think also I'm kind of known as -- a trouble maker. I’m more comfortable breaking new ground than I am being comfortable with “same old, same old.” I'm not an expert in anything. I just enjoy people and trying to create new ground.

Dr. Judy:  Still, you are a risk-taker and an inspiration. How does the Women's World Banking work?

Michaela: Women's World Banking was set up as a financial institution designed to help low-income women around the world set up their business by providing microcredit and business development services.

Dr. Judy: WWB is appropriate for small businesses, whether you are selling cows or running a bicycle shop. Isn't that so?

Michaela: Absolutely. It has grown in the environment of what has now come to be known as the microfinance industry. It's unique and different from other microfinance projects in that it is in fact registered as a financial institution linked through local affiliates in forty-six countries around the world where women are primarily the managers and the owners. They are legally registered with access to the central banks and the ministries of finance in every country where there is a Women's World Banking. Independent of some outside organizations, each one of those affiliates belongs to Women's World Banking. Fifty percent of the global board of Women's World Banking has representatives from those affiliates, working side-by-side with representatives from major financial institutions and banks on a global basis.  We provide capital to these small financial institutions. Some of them are banks; some are not-for-profit organizations, and some are for-profit organization. It doesn't matter, so long as they run as a real business. Each one of those groups has been trained to manage their loan portfolio so that on a daily basis they know how to make a profit from the loans they are making.

Dr. Judy: Speaking of profits, you have used the term "relationship banking," referring to the importance of keeping the money warm. What does it mean, that money is "warm" or money is "cold"?

"When I first got into this field in 1975, I realized that you cannot have a developing economy if 50% of the workforce or the producers had no access to the tools of production."

Michaela: Money is warm when it keeps being turned over and over, and the savings and profits from the small business and the loans go back to the local community to help other neighbors, friends, colleagues, and whatever. It's not put into a computer and whisked away to a capital city; it is reinvested and reused at that local community level. This is the way big businesses, big banking, and governments work. It's very important that the least common denominator of a developing economy understands how the money works. When I first got into this field in 1975, I realized that you cannot have a developing economy if 50% of the workforce or the producers had no access to the tools of production. It was a pretty basic and simple principle.

Now I am working to extend what we learned from Women's World Banking to the younger generation, so we don't have to wait until women are married and already locked into a certain lifestyle. We need to start to educate them at a very formative time in their lives, to teach them to take responsibility for their own leadership, and to know how to use modern technology so that they can work locally but have a link to global networks where they can learn to problem-solve and to connect with colleagues. It's like the "old boys network"; now we are doing it for local women.

Dr. Judy: Obviously you made a big contribution in women's finance around the world, especially in developing nations. Now you are making similar contributions to students.  In what way are students so important to you?

"The purpose of using resources, access and connection is to help empower other people."

Michaela: Yes. When I was a student, my key sense of life was that I wanted to go to Wall Street to work, since power is where the money was, so women had to go where the money is, to get the power. It wasn't until when I went to Mexico City, to the first women's conference, that I began to realize that power wasn't for me; it was the empowerment of other people that really matters. The purpose of using resources, access and connection is to help empower other people. That is the only way to achieve environmental protection, developing economies and human security in the world. Ever since that meeting, I keep stepping into arenas that I did not plan to step into. A good example is my current teaching position at Manhattanville College. I never even thought of myself as teaching on a college campus; but I have learned so much, and I am so enriched by students.  It really changed my own life in terms of enrichment by learning from young people, their energy, and honesty.

Dr. Judy: You are very dedicated to young women and young people in general. One of the Millennium Development Goals for the UN is to promote gender equality in education.  At the Commission on the Status of Women, males also participated.  What role should men play?

Michaela: I realize that men have to be a part of this women's movement, if it's really going to succeed and change the way the world works.

Dr. Judy:  You've been an example of blazing the way for women and gender equality early in your career.  I understand that when you were at Merrill Lynch and you wanted to go to the Middle East and they didn't want to send you, you went anyway. You paid your own way. That's a beautiful story. What happened?

Michaela: I was working for Merrill Lynch in the international division here in New York. And I met some people who were going to go over to open up a Merrill Lynch office there. A couple of them said, "Why don't you come?" So, I went to the personnel department but they said, "We can't send a woman. That's too dangerous." So, the only alternative I had was to resign from Merrill Lynch USA, pay my own way to Beirut, Lebanon and then I was hired by Merrill Lynch International, and I never thought anything of it; it wasn't a problem to me. It was an opportunity that I can go learn something. I didn't even know where Beirut was on the map.

Dr. Judy: How did the idea come to you? What was going on in your mind that you said this is something I want to do?

Michaela: It was an opportunity to learn and travel to see the world. It turned out to be a wonderful learning experience. I couldn't understand how people would apply for a job and all they were interested in was what kind of benefits were available; I didn't care about that for a certain time. Of course, it was a different world then, compared to what we are living with now. I did not have a fear of going. I've always been adventuresome. The idea of getting on an airplane and flying to Europe and then flying to the Middle East was just an adventure. I got off the airplane in Beirut and I felt there was a cloud of passion floating around in the air.

I had the most wonderful time. I found my own identity. And I worked very, very hard. I used to work seven days a week for long hours. After the office got set up, I would go in to work early in the morning and then go out to lunch, go swimming, come back to the office in the late afternoon when the New York Stock Exchange would open. Then at 10 or 11 o'clock at night when the market would close, I changed my clothes in the office and went out and danced all night. Then I'd take a shower and go back to work. Sleep didn't matter. It was just a whole other world I didn't know.

Dr. Judy: Your life was round the clock with no sleeping those days. That was the typical day of Michaela Walsh then. What's the typical day now?

Michaela: During the preparation for this UN DPI/NGO conference, there is a lot of paper work and many, many e-mails everyday. It's a challenge for me to take a tradition like this UN NGO conference and input new ideas and new personalities and to talk about what the future might be.  It was a big accomplishment just even to get the agreement that 30% of the participants and the speakers will be under 30 year of age. The public doesn't know what kind of effort goes into accomplishing such a conference.

Dr. Judy: You are the chair person of the 59th conference at the UN DPI/ NGO conference, under the auspices of the UN Department of Public Information. There are thousands of NGO's around the world. The title is "Unfinished Business: Effective partnership for human security and sustainable development." What will the conference entail?

Michaela Walsh is the Chair of the upcoming UN DPI/NGO - 59th
Conference. Michaela is during the Plenaray Meeting
at the United Nations
on May 4, 2006.

"What I'm hoping to see during these three days of the conference is that we see new faces and hear new voices talking about things that are working to effect change."

 There will be six round tables, three plenaries, and thirty workshops.  Participants will hear about effective partnerships to help the UN obtain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by the year 2015. I believe that we have had enough of negative aspects of what happens in our world, and of numbers and theories. What I'm hoping to see during these three days of the conference is that we see new faces and hear new voices talking about things that are working to effect change. I think if we can create that kind of positive energy into the imagery of the 2,000 people attending, then hopefully we can make a difference to eradicate poverty and stop the depletion of our environment and resources, and improve human security.

Dr. Judy:  When people hear of those MDGs, and associated words they sound like very lofty goals. What does "human security" and what does "sustainable development" actually mean?

Michaela: It means different things to different people. In a broad sense, I think "sustainable development" means that we do not continue to rape the environment.  Even though big buildings increase development, we need to learn how to preserve the natural system, and we need to stop global warming and find ways to produce food and clean water to feed people throughout the world. There is enough information around so that we can live without abject poverty and end the fact that a third of the world's population is deserted refugees. We have a chance over the next very short period of time to stop global warming, but it's going to take major commitment from every individual on the face of this earth. We also require a much different attitude towards the UN's role, the role of the NGOs, corporations, and academia - especially academia geared towards the younger generation to increase their sense of responsibility. We all have to try to work towards the goals together. The UN conference offers an opportunity to do that. Last year, there were about 3,000 people registered and 1,800 attendees at the UN DPI/NGO conference. The meetings offer an opportunity for positive change and not just dealing with problems.

Dr. Judy: The Millennium Development Goals are meant to be accomplished in 2015. Are you optimistic about this?

Michaela: I'm very optimistic about the views and the attitudes of the younger generation. I'm too old. They are the ones who have to go out and make the change. We need encourage them and step out of the way and let them take responsibility. What I have learned from this particular participation of mine is how often and how difficult it is to get people to change their minds about things that they have believed for years and years. That is the challenge that we are faced with; how do we change our perception of peace, security, and how much we need of things or food? What are the issues of health that we don't know about? I think the younger generation understands, but we don't, the impact of new technology, new information of DNA, and the complexity of the way the world is put together.

Dr. Judy: One of the areas you are interested in with this UN conference is new media.

Michaela: To understand the new media, new information, and technology, just watch the younger generation deal with the computer. I'm thrilled that I can do e-mail. But there is a lot of information that the younger generation can process and understand much faster and in a more complex way then we in the older generation can. That's where my hope is for them. Basically I do believe that people are good, even if I don't always agree with all of them. But there aren't any reasons why we all aren't good. That's a very positive and optimistic way of looking at the world. If people can survive working inside the UN system which is the most complex system I have ever dealt with, then they can deal with their own environment.

Dr. Judy: What do you hope the participants from the NGOs who come to the conference bring back to their country?

Michaela: I have been asked that question two or three times. I hesitate to answer because I strongly believe that what one person is going to take away, another person won't even know about. The most important thing that usually has come out of this conference is the networking that goes on. That's hard to evaluate and judge in terms of the larger picture. This year we are bringing in new corporate personalities to make presentations, and people from as many countries as we can possibly get to the table. I'm hoping that it becomes much more of a learning experience then it has been. I think if an NGO can play an equal role in listening and learning, as well as speaking, they have a chance to find new ways and new avenues to develop a really working partnership. There is an enormous effort in the world today to build such initiatives between large major organizations. My sense is that money is not going to be used effectively if it's not engaged with NGOs who really know how to work at the grass roots and community level. This is the time for the NGOs to understand that they are partners with the UN, not dependent with the UN. Often the smaller NGOs feel quite dependent on their connections in the UN rather then saying, "Look, we are a strong voice, we do a lot of the UN work; therefore we are entitled to sit down at the table as equal partners in finding ways to solve the problems". So, we all hope to change the ways in which to work together. Just because somebody is in government does not necessarily mean that they have the capacity for problem-solving. We all have different information. Was it Oscar Wilde who said, "We are all ignorant, we are just ignorant about different things"? So, we have to figure out a ways of learning from each other. The younger generation is much more comfortable with working and sharing information then their parent's and grandparent's generation.

Dr. Judy: Partnership is an important word for you, and an issue addressed in the upcoming DPI/NGO conference and in the 8th MDG, which calls for creating partnership between civil society and business. How can the individual do something to reach out, to make those links happen, to gets kids involved and to reach out to business. Most people think, "They'll never listen to me."

I see the world as a cylinder. If you poke a hole in the tire, nothing works."

Michaela: That's where you start. You get beyond the idea that they are not going to listen to you. I teach my students that they are not going to learn unless they are going to understand that learning is the relationship between "me" and "them." They must be confident knowing who they are as leaders. What's the use of saying, "What can I do?" I say, "Go plant a tree." Just get involved in something you are comfortable with, because from that you will learn other things, and from that, you will build on other things. We have evolved into this modern era of society where there is a queen bee or a king and a hierarchical structure. Instead, I see the world as a cylinder. If you poke a hole in the tire, nothing works.  Therefore, we have to re-image the way we see the world. I think there is a huge need for us to step back and say, "What am I a leader of?""How can I be a leader of myself?" "What can I do, and not ask tell someone else what to do"; they have to decide for themselves. I think we are going to see a rebirth of small business because I think that large corporations can't do it all anymore. Statistics shows there are an increasing number of entrepreneurs, but more small business fail. But a lot of big businesses have failed. Look at Enron, it has made a lot of people suffer. But we can't think of Enron as one business because individual control like that does not survive.

Dr. Judy: Where did all these thoughts and ambitions come from in your childhood? As a psychologist I find this fascinating. You decided you were going to go to the Middle East and you went. You have an amazing view of partnering. Who brought you up? What happened in your childhood?

Michaela: I grew up sitting up at the dinning room table and not talking because everybody at the table knew so much more then I did. It took me a long time to grow up; but once I did, there was no stopping me to look at life as though I was such a very lucky, fortunate person. I always felt the best time of life I could have ever been born in was during the women's movement, at the end of the twentieth century. It was a golden age in a way. I was lucky to be born then. I was also lucky to be born into an environment where I knew my parents and grandparents had made a contribution to the world. My grandfather was the first chairman of the New York State College Board many years ago, and was very close to Roosevelt and the Irish politicians in New York City, and my father was a congressman in the state of Missouri. I grew up in Kansas City. I had a mother who wanted everyone to love her and a father who was a liberal, and I just wanted to stir up trouble. I drifted through life thinking I don't have to go to headhunters; I just have to be myself and sooner or later something would come along and will give me an opportunity to use my words.

Dr. Judy: What about President Truman do you remember that was pivotal to you?

Michaela: I loved his folksiness in a sense that I can see him walking on the street. He was friendly; he spoke to people. He had a mother in-law who treated him terribly but he went on and did his thing. He didn't care whether people really loved him or not. He was totally honest about who he was and even in his politicizing in the state of Missouri he went for it. He was extremely loyal. Even took people you may not totally trust yourself. He represented a lot of things that I could trust as a leader. I wish we could have that kind of leadership today.

"I learned that your own integrity is the only thing that will sustain you."

Dr. Judy: What other people do you admire?

Michaela: Eleanor Roosevelt had an impact on me. She wasn't a beauty model, and yet she had the courage. I also have many mentors in my career as I moved through many different careers, and many of them are friends. My ambition was not for my own success and my own career. I think that when I left Wall Street I knew I was trusted because I didn't take fees so people knew what I said they can trust. And I kept that open mindedness in terms of my integrity so that I don't have a hidden agenda. This is how you get longevity particular in the world of finance which is where my grounding was. I learned that your own integrity is the only thing that will sustain you. Also, the market taught me to take risks. Risks are not a scary thing; in most cases you will win. People take risks in the market; people have losses but basically most of the time you will win. If you take calculated risks, and risks that you believe in, and if also you agree willing to hang in there to finish your job, people will trust you. If you want to do something, and you agree to do something, then do not leave until the job is done.

Dr. Judy: You are not afraid of taking risks because of a fear of a failure and losing everything. How would people get rid of that fear?

Michaela: I see that operating in many of the younger professional women, with regard to being professionals in the business world. Men and women don't want to be associated with things that don't represent huge success, and that represents possible failure. But how do you define failure? Because it's a small NGO, because it's a small borrower, or whatever, that doesn't necessarily mean failure. Professional people don't like to be attached to the unknown and I don't understand that. These are not people I would like to be around. I like to be around successes and I have been around many of them in my life. But that isn't what motivates me.

Dr. Judy: What motivates you?

Michaela: Having an impact on the empowerment of other people definitely motivates me. It runs through everything I do, whether it's been my nieces or nephew, my friend's children or my own teaching. That is a great strain of hope for me, in terms of seeing and being able to find themselves, and make a contribution a lot earlier than I did. All of us have to move faster and faster. The goal is to send them out the door with a level of confidence and not being afraid of taking a risk, and being willing to explore and give back. Similarly, the empowerment was a motivation factor when I went to Wall Street, because that's where the money was and money in my pocket gave me an opportunity to buy presents for people and to empower me. Then I realized that empowerment in other people was much more interesting to me and much more satisfying.

Dr. Judy: You've won many awards in your career, most recently from the Club of Rome. What is the Club of Rome?

Michaela: That was quite a surprise. Years ago, I came back from Mexico City and had been working on Women's World Banking. Hazel Henderson invited me to go to Berlin to a Club of Rome meeting. On my way, I went to Holland to visit a law firm who ultimately set up Women's World Banking. It was like a weekend trip to Europe, and it was the first time I had been to the Club of Rome. After that, I was involved with setting up the United States' Club of Rome. As you know, the first report of the Club of Rome was to grow.

It was a wonderful, wonderful startup. I remember one of the first Club of Rome meetings I went to in Washington. All the women were sitting around the table, such as Hazel Henderson and Danielle Meadows, talking. I was so curious, "What were these women talking about?" This was a long time ago. Of course it is different now but it was quite fun. One of the women scientists struggled to make sure Club of Rome wouldn't lose its identity here in the United States because it still remains in Europe. The Club of Rome awarded me. It was a very touching experience because many of the members are much older than I am.

That was the first time anyone began to think about sustainability. It was started by a man who was the head of Volkswagon. He and a group of businessmen in Europe began to say, "What is this growth? Where is it going? How long can you keep it up and make it grow every year?" It has taken thirty years to reach a universal understanding of what we were really talking about at the time.

Dr. Judy: And it will still take longer for people to understand this concept.  There is another group, the Lindisfarne Fellows, which is another international think tank that has honored you.

Michaela: I was a partner of that, and it was like going to graduate school for me. When I was working for the Rockefeller Brothers, I went to go see Bill Thompson. It was just like man of from heaven; it was just a glorious time with meetings with Gregory Basin, Margaret Need, and John and Nancy Todd. My students don't even know who these people are and yet they were very cutting edge.

Recently I have been going through my library and I have a whole library of books from that era. Now I am trying to find a school or institute where I can donate them so they can be used, not to go in some big library somewhere, but to be really used for young people who are beginning to think about these issues in a new way. It really was grounding for historical moments when those issues became relevant and surfaced as important aspects for the future.

Dr. Judy: Michaela, you care about so many important issues and have accomplished so much. You are a pioneer and an inspiration. Businesses and institutes of all kinds in developed and developing countries are indebted to you. Thank you, Michaela Walsh, current chairperson for the 59th UN/DPI Department of Public Information and NGO Non-Governmental Organization Conference coming up this September.
(This interview was realized on May 3, 2006 at the United Nations.)

* * * * *

Additional bio info on Michaela:

Michaela Walsh was President and Chair of Women's Asset Management, Ltd.. In 1975, following the conference that marked the beginning of the United Nations Decade for Women, Ms. Walsh and a small group of delegates to that conference founded Women's World Banking (WWB), a private, non-profit organization which serves as an intermediary between community organizations, individuals and lending institutions, and provides business management and skill training. She served as President of WWB from 1980 to 1990. Prior to 1980, Michaela Walsh served as Project Director for the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and as a Program Associate with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. She was the first woman partner of Boettcher & Company and the first woman manager of Merrill Lynch International to work in its New York, London and Beirut offices. She serves on the Boards of Directors of several organizations including the Synergos Institute and WorldWide, and as a member of the Advisory Board to the Overseas Development Council, the World Resources Institute, the Energy and Education Study Institution and USAID. She is a member of the Committee of 200, the Financial Women's Association and other institutions which support and encourage the advancement of women in the economy and environment.

Inteview Transcribed by:
Minhajul MEJE, student, Fordam University, and intern for the Media Committee of the UNDPI-NGO 59th NGO Conference.


Malyna Kettavong,
student, Smith College, and intern for Dr Judy and the International Association of Applied Psychology, who also helped for the transcription.

Special Thanks to:

Joan LEVY, Co-Chair of the Media Committee of the UNDPI-NGO 59th Conference.
Isolda OCA, Co-Chair of the Department of Public Information of the United Nations.
Mona GILLETT, DPI/NGO Resource Center

Also to:
Bircan Unver, for the interview arrangment and videography.

* * * * *


interview might be quoted or reproduced by given its full credits and related hyper link's as follow>
UN NGO Profile: Michaela WALSH, Interviewed by Dr. Judy KURIANSKY, originally e-published in the Light Millennium's Summer 2006, #19 Issue>"

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