Cake
  • Log In
  • Sign Up
    • Please join me in welcoming Shyam K. Iyer, founder of SKI Charities, for a Cake panel!

      About Shyam: Shyam K Iyer is a finance professional based in California. In 2010 he founded SKI Charities Corp, headquartered in New York with overseas offices in Santiago, Chile and Mutare, Zimbabwe. SKI Charities focuses on empowering economically excluded women and girls through microfinance, scholarships, and creative art.

      Welcome Shyam!

    • So thank you so much for taking the time to do this Cake Panel, Shyam! Can you tell us a bit about your journey leading into you founding SKI Charities?

    • Throughout my academic and professional life I have traveled to a number of frontier markets, places off the beaten path that haven’t achieved a great deal of development where a lot of people are struggling economically. During graduate school in London I took a course in development economics and studied economies where people don’t have access to capital, there’s not much investment coming through, and they lack a lot of opportunity. Then I went to a regular type of corporate job in New York, working as a management consultant with companies in Africa and Latin America where I continued to observe and ponder this same issue. In 2006 the Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Prize for his work in microfinance with founding his Grameen Bank. And that’s where the practical part of it clicked for me. He focused on small groups of females in these types of markets where he’d provide micro-loans to them and they would start or invest in their small businesses, and his results were really amazing. So I thought that might be a way of going about it. I continued to work for a couple of years, and then I decided in 2010 I decided to leave the corporate world to start my own company and my own charity, and so that’s where I decided to start SKI Charities. 

    • Leading to the year 2010 I was aware as a finance professional that the finance industry was not viewed in a great light. I understood much of that frustration following the Great Recession but I also knew that finance could be used to empower and help people achieve independence and self-reliance. And for me personally in 2010 I felt it was a time for me professionally to either commit to the corporate life or get out and do my own thing. And a major part of doing my own thing was SKI Charities. Around this same time our eventual first location of Zimbabwe was really at rock bottom: the economy was in shambles, the currency was experiencing trillion-percent inflation. I studied with a number of Zimbabweans in graduate school and they always struck me with their stories of and educated and enterprising population who took advantage of the opportunities they were given in a productive way. So these guys told me “Look, you’ve always wanted to do some work in supporting and empowering females through finance. Now is the time for you to come here and seriously consider if you can do it.”

    • Well as I mentioned the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh made headlines with the concept of successful microfinance for women. Study after study has backed up women’s reliability as beneficiaries. On a personal level I thought a lot about my own mother and many of her peers who grew up in modest circumstances. Somehow she was given the space to get educated, follow were ambitions to become a medical doctor, and then to move the USA with my father to start a medical practice. The spillover effects of her hard work include employing so many people and serving countless patients. And now with SKI Charities when I visit our locations in Mutare or Lebu I see women following the same path towards adding tremendous value to their families and communities.

    • SKI Charities has different ways of reaching those you serve: there’s your SKIMFI Microfinance institute, SKIPGO which grants scholarships, and SKILLS which commissions skilled artists. You started in Mutare, Zimbabwe, and have expanded operations to other areas like Lebu, Chile. What attracted you to those regions?

    • What’s in common among the countries we operate in (Zimbabwe and Chile) is that I have strong networks in both locations, which has been the most important part of making SKI Charities work for almost a decade. They can introduce me to the right people, help me make decisions with local sensibilities, and if anything goes wrong they have their own networks on the ground who can jump in urgently. The second factor is a practical one: language. To me the language is really important so you can communicate with your beneficiaries and get a feel for what’s really on their mind. In Zimbabwe, English is almost universally spoken, and in Chile, we speak Spanish, so I feel we have things pretty well covered. Finally the number three factor is simply that these were two communities of great need. I told you a bit about how Zimbabwe was struggling in 2010, and unfortunately they’re still struggling quite a bit in 2019 - there was an uptick in the middle, but it’s still a difficult place to invest in and for the locals to get jobs in, so the need is there. And for Chile, it’s a much more developed economy than Zimbabwe, but there are pockets of indigenous communities who are struggling in a similar way. We focus on these people, the Mapuche people, as many of them have been left behind in the broader economic growth of the region. The need is strong in Chile for this group as much as anywhere else.

    • This is a very interesting point. We are operating in pretty isolated places with little opportunity to begin with, and then we come in and say we are going to level the playing field and focus only on females. This is the definition of disruption. I have held town halls and many meetings to explain our intentions and how empowering women will empower the whole family and then the entire community. Then we hire women from the local community to run the projects. Not only do they have the knowledge required to manage through any cultural difficulties but with them as the face of the charity they also inspire their compatriots inside and outside of our charity. I truly believe this is the only way to successfully manage a project like this: with local staff who are free to make decisions and take ownership of the ideas we are seeking to implement.

    • We’ve got the three programs as mentioned. Right now we’re pretty happy with the combination: the finance side (SKIMFI), the education side (SKIPGO), and the cultural side (SKILLS). That’s keeping us pretty busy for now. As far as locations, we’ve established ourselves pretty well in both Zimbabwe and Chile. There is still quite a bit to learn in both places but we have a good idea of the way things operate. 


      I do remain open to a third location that meets the factors we discussed earlier. Over the last decade I have traveled on behalf of the charity to Sri Lanka and Burma (among other potential locations), scouting for places where we had a strong network and there was a need. But unfortunately I couldn’t get the local management right. We really need solid, reliable, consistent local management, and that’s not always easy to find. To be perfectly honest I am incredibly grateful to have found that in Zimbabwe and Chile.

    • You’ve said in other interviews that you want to make sure the people that SKI Charities is working with so that your microfinance clients aren’t feeling like it’s aid, but rather a business transaction. What kind of feedback have you gotten from SKI clients over the years?

    • We’ve heard from our SKIMFI beneficiaries that being treated like finance customers is exactly what they want. There’s a term we like - “a hand up, not a hand-out.” By making our program akin to a banking transaction, we’re like a bank for people on the less advantaged side of the socio-economy. And just like any of us walking into a bank for a loan, our microfinance beneficiaries come to us with references and a business plan. 


      At the end of the day, the purpose of SKI Charities is to bring people closer to independence and respect for themselves and what they do. Treating our beneficiaries as banking customers who have a responsibility to pay back their microloans means they are treated like everybody else in the financial system. So we think it’s worked out great, especially with people achieving that self-affirming respect. It’s key to everything we do.

    • The impact is beyond just our beneficiaries. For instance when a woman in SKIMFI has her own business she then hires people from the local community, rents out space from someone, and trades with other businesses. And with her profits she may tithe to her church or spend on her children’s schools. Another thing they do is send money to the rural areas of the country to help their friends and family. And then those areas enjoy more economic activity. The spillover effects mean a lot to us. 


      With SKIPGO, when we provide scholarships we also take an active interest in how the scholars are doing outside of school. Our manager in New York has an education background and she’s been able to advise parents on engaging with their children and providing different types of learning enrichment. And we see kids who aren’t part of our program reaching out as well.


      And with SKILLS, encouraging local art and culture brings life to communities that don’t see much interest in their works. Our artists are very proud to demonstrate their ancestral skills and history.

    • Yes, that’s something I am working on in the background. We often post photos of the art created by our beneficiaries on social media and all art is available for purchase by interested members of our audience. When someone does buy one of these pieces we send all the profits to the artist in Chile, so that’s a way to increase engagement among our audience while giving the artist more pride in their craft from a commercial point of view. I think many times we discount how traditional cultures express themselves through art, music or song. But when our audience shows interest that gives them strength and respect. We are always looking to showcase them in more and more places.

    • Good question. On our website, we have a link with details on how to get more involved. The charity is run pretty streamlined so the best way to get involved is to follow us on social media, give us ideas, and if you contribute, we have listed different ways the money can go towards our beneficiaries. The best thing to do is stay engaged with us. I’m always reading what we’re receiving through the charity on social and through feedback on our website, and we really do implement many ideas from our audience. We get a lot of great ideas of people who know the areas we are operating in or ways we could help even more. So we definitely want to stay in touch with our audience that way.