WE’s Beginnings: Giving Back for a Meaningful Life

Women’s Empowerment International took form in December, 2003, when 35 San Diego women met to discuss forming a new nonprofit organization that would provide microfinance loans to women in poverty.


For two years, Winifred Cox, an associate vice chancellor at UC San Diego, had been mapping out a route to a fulfilling retirement, based on the belief that giving back is an essential component to a meaningful life, especially as we grow older. During this time, she educated herself about microfinance and the fundamentals of starting and administering a nonprofit organization.

She was intrigued with the idea of creating a nonprofit organization modeled after the investors’ club, in which small groups of individuals meet regularly, invest collectively and develop successful stock portfolios. Winifred’s nonprofit version transformed the collective funds into a charitable donation – an investment in poor women around the world.

The mechanism for offering these funds to women would be microfinance – small, repayable business loans, typically less than $100.

Winifred invited two friends, Leigh Fenly, a journalist, and Jan Percival, a marketing executive, to join her in creating this new model of giving. After extensive study and discussion, the three women presented the idea to a small group of friends at that initial December meeting in 2003. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

Building on Microfinance

The idea of microfinance – providing very small loans to poor people – blossomed in the early 1980s when Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economics professor, established the Grameen Bank to provide tiny loans to people so poor they were living on less than $1 a day. Since, more than 80 million families have received such loans and repaid them at a rate that tops 98 percent.

Thousands of organizations like the Grameen Bank – called microfinance institutions, or MFIs – now provide microfinance loans around the world. The new nonprofit – Women’s Empowerment International – was established to support these organizations by raising funds for loans so poor women could create, through their own hard work, a better future for themselves and their families.

Soon after that December meeting, Winifred and Leigh formed a core group of women to join them in moving the idea forward and they became Co-founders and Co-Presidents of WE. The WE board was formed, WE gained nonprofit status in 2005 and the basic tenets of the organization were clarified. These include:

•    WE is a membership organization that draws on its members for direction, guidance, volunteers and support.
•    Overhead is kept to a bare minimum – no rented office space or full-time staff. Volunteers handle the work of WE from their dining room tables and home offices.
•    Donors have the option to direct 100 percent of their donation to the program of their choice, with no fees removed for overhead.
•    WE always seeks ongoing communication between its members and clients who receive loans. We have accomplished this through frequent visits to our partner programs in Mexico, Honduras and Ghana and also through our ongoing relationship with refugee and other low-income clients in San Diego.