Our Humble Beginnings – by Jon Bishop

In 2007 our team met with Armando Gutierrez, Director of Prestanic in Nicaragua during a trip to explore potential partnerships”. 

On April 30, 2023 Envest’s portfolio reached $10 million. For those who have been following Envest for a
while, you know that it has been a long road to reach this milestone. I’d like to take the opportunity to
reflect on some of our humble beginnings and our vision for the road ahead.

Our humble beginnings

Most microfinance investment vehicles that I am aware of started out as a project of another
organization or with a significant infusion of cash. Envest did not. Envest started in 2006 at my kitchen
table. By 2012, when we incorporated into an LLC, which is the current structure, we had just under $1
million in assets, raised entirely from individual investors.
By that point we had moved into an office suite, shared with a local nonprofit, The Partnership for the
National Trails System (PNTS). The office, which was located close to the University of Wisconsin –
Madison, made it possible for a cadre of wonderful interns to help me run the show in the early years.
Interns have been, and continue to be, an instrumental part of the Envest team.

Laura Dreese joined Envest as an intern in late 2012 and became the second employee in 2013. We
could not afford to pay her full time, so we brought her on half time, and PNTS also brought her on half
time so that she worked for two separate organizations from the same desk. Laura and I ran a tight ship
back then (and we still do today). We once drew our bank account down to $127 so that we could
disburse a loan to PROCAJA in Panama, and when a current investor dropped by the office and pulled
out a surprise $25,000 investment check, it was all we could do to keep from grinning widely in his

Even as Envest started to grow, our tight-ship-running continued. When Envest was just under $1M in
total assets, I attended the Latin American Microfinance Forum in San Jose, Costa Rica. Rather than
taking a taxi from the hotel back to the airport, I took the public bus which required me to walk one mile
in a drainage ditch along the highway. I met a number of airport custodial and restaurant staff trekking
alongside me. These types of money saving-choices typified Envest’s early days and continue to be part
of our DNA as we grow.

As we were growing our assets and our team, we were simultaneously developing our core competence
– lending to financially solid, socially focused MFIs considered too small by most international lenders.
We developed lending relationships in countries and regions overlooked or rejected by most of our
peers (think Zimbabwe). We do this by assessing the evidence of the individual situation rather than
relying on the country’s reputation, and by building strong relationships with the management team.
This capability has enabled Envest to have successful partnerships with many small but mighty MFIs in
far corners of the world. We plan to feature many of these partnerships in future website posts over the
coming months.

Looking ahead

When Envest had a portfolio of one, two, even five million, we were always focused on survival. A
portfolio of $10 million gives us the capacity to begin looking beyond survival, exploring opportunities
for additional social, economic, and environmental impact. Right now, our growth is primarily focused in
Africa. We are currently looking at MFIs in Uganda and Kenya in East Africa, and in Togo and Benin in
West Africa. The need there is tremendous, and we have found several solid institutions that are not
being served by international lenders. We look forward to placing the next $10 million with our existing
and future partners that are deepening financial inclusion in their local communities.