From coffee to connectivity: Board Member Bryan Woliner has a mission to get communities the capital they need

From coffee to connectivity: Board Member Bryan Woliner has a mission to get communities the capital they need

We have a deep bench of experts in digital infrastructure, investments, community-building and social change who sit on our governance board and advisory council. Here, Board Member Bryan Woliner shares how his journey as CFO of Root Capital informs his leadership at Connect Humanity.

Why did you decide to join the board at Connect Humanity?

Because I am inspired by its mission to achieve digital equity for the 3.6 billion people who currently lack access to the internet, and therefore are falling further behind as society digitalizes around them.

The need to address digital equity is more critical than ever. I’ve seen the stark contrast in my own backyard during the COVID pandemic. My three kids have the privilege of attending a school where instruction was relatively uninterrupted due to a combination of a well-funded school district that only saw brief interruptions in in-person education, coupled with teachers and students who almost all had adequate digital connectivity to participate in remote learning when required.

However, I only need to drive 15 minutes down the road to a near-by urban school district that didn’t offer in-person education for the full 2021-2022 school year due to inadequate funding, with hundreds of students who missed a year of education because they lacked access to affordable internet to ensure they could participate in remote learning.

This is unacceptable, but it is a solvable problem, and I’m excited to do my small part to help be part of the solution. 

Tell us about your work investing in communities and how that shapes your thinking about digital equity.

For the past twelve years, I’ve had the opportunity to work at Root Capital, including serving as CFO for the past two years. Root Capital is a non-profit social lender that provides financing and training for small and growing rural agricultural businesses and cooperatives in poor, environmentally vulnerable regions of Africa, Latin America, and Indonesia. These enterprises collect and market crops such as coffee, cocoa or grains on behalf of hundreds and often thousands of scattered smallholder farmers.

To help these agricultural enterprises and cooperatives grow and thrive together with the rural farmers and communities that supply them, Root Capital offers tailored support that includes credit, financial and agronomic training and critical market connections. Since 1999, it has disbursed $1.6 billion in loans to over 750 businesses, improving the livelihoods of nearly 10 million people in farming families.

The approach that Root Capital has pioneered can help to drive progress on a range of areas where we need new ways to provide goods, services and economic opportunities within communities.

Root Capital’s model is a huge inspiration for how we think about expanding connectivity.

Yes, Connect Humanity, like Root Capital, is anchored around a credit-plus-capacity-building approach to help solve an urgent developmental need that hasn’t been adequately addressed by commercial financial markets, or traditional philanthropy or government programs. We need to apply this model more widely, and I’m excited to work with Connect Humanity as you invest in initiatives to connect underserved communities that traditional operators have left out. This will be a powerful accelerator for digital equity. 

Say more about the parallels between the communities Root Capital invests in and the non-traditional operators we’re focused on.

Root Capital’s clients are small and growing agricultural enterprises that have tremendous growth and impact potential, but lack access to the capital needed to reach that potential. Despite recent gains in microfinance, agricultural businesses that need a loan of $200,000 or more are often too large to be served by microfinance institutions, but at the same time considered too small, too remote, or too risky to secure financing from conventional banks. Root Capital serves clients in the “missing middle” of agricultural finance and provides both the credit and technical assistance required to help our clients achieve their growth and impact potential. 

I see a number of relevant parallels between the agricultural enterprises in which Root Capital invests and the non-traditional operators with whom Connect Humanity partners. Both have the opportunity to be anchor institutions in the communities in which they operate, where they can help address critical and social and economic issues in a sustainable and scalable way.

What lessons have you learned at Root Capital that our team should think about as we grow our work?

Part of what has made Root Capital so successful over two decades has been our client-centered approach, coupled with deep collaboration with other organizations that share our vision, including other social lenders, government agencies, and private sector corporations. 

Accordingly, I was immediately drawn to the approach that Connect Humanity is taking in supporting, catalyzing and scaling holistic solutions that includes both capacity building, grants, and investments, and empowering communities to be stakeholders in their own digital futures, with coordinated support from non-traditional operators, philanthropists, impact investors, and civil society organizations. 

At Root Capital, we have also learned how complicated and challenging it is to be a non-bank financial institution, on top of all the challenges that go along with building a non-profit organization. I’m here to help share some of those lessons learned with the Connect Humanity team in my role as board member. 

We appreciate your leadership Bryan and look forward to working with you to support communities to build digital connectivity on their terms.

You’ve put together an amazing team of staff and advisors to lead the organization and I’m ready to help in any way I can on anything from the right type of blended-capital to fund our operations and lending activities to more tactical issues such building best-in-class lending policies, systems and staffing structures. I’m excited to help advance this important work.

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