I have just returned from an incredible summer internship as an Accion Ambassador at Grupo Compartamos in Mexico City. Looking back on my time, I feel so fortunate to have had the experiences I had: participating in the strategic planning for the Compartamos Foundation, seeing some of the microfinance operations in the field, and being part of a large yet tight-knit community for eight weeks. In my last week there, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ivan Mancillas, one of the founders of Compartamos and my boss there.
Ivan is the Director of the Compartamos Foundation and the developer behind several different Compartamos departments throughout his 20+ years there. In his early twenties, Ivan was a microentrepreneur himself; he owned three different businesses: carpentry, snacks and sandwiches. Coincidentally, he met Carlos Labarthe, Compartamos’ Co-Founder and CEO in college. Carlos invited Ivan to volunteer at a youth conference in Guatemala, where they were put in charge of organizing the meals for 1,000 people. This task inspired the two to begin a similar food distribution program in 1987, this time under the name of Compartamos (Spanish for “we share”). After Ivan finished his college education, he continued volunteering part-time and then began working at a company called More Business Forms. About a year later, he received a call from Carlos with a job offer to volunteer full time at Compartamos. Although hesitant to give up his job, he finally agreed. From then on, the two transformed the food distribution program into a fully-fledged microfinance operation.
Mexico’s microfinance industry was essentially non-existent at that time (the early 1990s), so Ivan and Carlos began researching and interviewing experts in the field. Before too long, Compartamos launched its first microfinance operations in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca (where they had previously served food in Compartamos’s early days), but it needed a loan to grow its own operations. Ivan and Carlos were denied a loan from USAID in 1994, but they were invited to participate in a week-long including Alfredo Harp, Pedro Aspe and professionals from CEMEX, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor to help launch Compartamos’ operations, which would serve low-income clients in a profitable way. It was during this time that the “other” Carlos at Compartamos, Carlos Danel, joined the company as Co-Founder and Chairman.
The company experienced its fair share of trial and error, but soon, it was scaling operations throughout the entire country. Ivan headed up this department and developed the sales structure that now serves as Banco Compartamos’s operating model, including establishing new offices, recruiting and hiring new staff, and providing training and capacity-building for them. Client numbers grew rapidly, and, in 2000, the sheer numbers forced them to become a regulated bank.
With the IPO in 2007, the company was then faced with how to ensure quality. As the microfinance model was already developed by then, Ivan was put in charge of developing the company’s Leadership Department. He created a program called Pyxis that helps with staff’s professional development and the Model of Integrated Service Leadership (MIS) that the program is based off of. From then on, Compartamos began its huge effort to invest in its people. According to Ivan, this human aspect of Compartamos is what brings them their success and sets them apart from any other microfinance company. As he told me, “Microfinance is easy to replicate, and anyone can do that. It’s the quality that we have here through talented, dedicated employees that you can’t copy.”
After meeting his goal in Leadership, Ivan returned briefly to the Bank and sales force to help transform the identity of Compartamos, and he is now heading up the Foundation, where I worked with him and his team. Although I won’t be there to see the Foundation programs that we worked on in action, I know Ivan will have success on the level of his previous achievements.
When I asked him about his biggest lesson with Compartamos was, he told me three things: Anything and everything is possible. It is important to learn how to learn, and you have to be open and be flexible. Lastly, you have to know the “why” aspect about what you are doing – don’t forget to consider how your reasoning lines up with your actions. I learned a lot working with him, about professional and personal matters alike, and there is no doubt that Ivan has so much to share and teach thanks to his wealth of experiences at Compartamos.