Leah Davidson, 2014 Seltzer winner, photographs her travels to India and Peru

This is an interview with Leah Davidson, a rising junior at Wharton, who was awarded one of our Seltzer Digital Media Awards in 2014 in order to pursue research in Peru and India:

“Leah Davidson W’16 … explore[d] social entrepreneurship in Peru and India under the guidance of Ian MacMillan, the Dhirubhai Ambani Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Director of the Sol N. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center. In Huancayo, Peru, she collaborate[d] with Blue Sparrow, a non-governmental organization that provides low-interest loans and free consulting services to entrepreneurs. In Chennai, Bangalore, and Delhi, she explore[d] various models of making finance accessible to rural populations. She … use[d] a digital SLR camera to document the similarities and differences between the small business landscapes in these two countries.”

Here is her account of her experience in her own words and photographs:

Leah on an adventure in India with her new camera.
Leah on an adventure in India with her new camera.
(PennWIC) Jaime Marie Estrada: What inspired you to apply for the Seltzer Family Digital Media Awards?

Leah Davidson: I saw the award on the CURF website and thought a DSLR camera would be helpful in documenting some of the work I was doing in Peru and India. During my freshman year, I launched a microfinance project to help rural entrepreneurs in Peru develop business skills. I founded a bakery with a group of high school students and a women’s knitting co-operative. Last year [2014], I expanded the program after receiving a $12,000 grant from the Ella Lyman Cabot Trust Foundation and recruited a team of four Penn students to travel to Peru over the summer to provide entrepreneurial training and consulting services. As a team, we started 10 businesses, ranging from guinea pig farms to retail and dentistry operations. I applied for the Seltzer Family Digital Media Awards because I wanted to have quality images and audio files that I could incorporate into presentations and research papers.

JME: How has winning the award impacted your work?

LD: Winning the award has allowed me to introduce a much broader audience to my work. I’ve delivered presentations for around four different research conferences this spring and plan to work on a few more creative pieces this summer, such as photo essays on themes around social justice and international development. I’ve also written several blog entries for the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI), which have incorporated images and insights from my travels.

Here Leah photographed local businessmen at work on the shore.
Here Leah photographed local businessmen at work on the shore.

JME: Could you describe your work in Peru and India? What leads you to those places?

LD: Last summer, under the mentoring of Management Professor Ian MacMillan and through a Wharton Social Impact Research Experience (SIRE) grant, I traveled to Peru and India to conduct comparative research on microfinance and small business development. In comparison to Peru, I found that microfinance organizations in India have greater integration of technology (e.g. mobile banking), provide insurance packages with their loans to mitigate risks, are subject to more governmental regulation (e.g. interest rate caps), run with for-profit business models for greater scalability, and focus on group lending through Joint Liability Groups (JLGs) and Self Help Groups (SHGs). I interviewed entrepreneurs and founders of microfinance organizations, reviewed literature and financial documents, and was able to test best practices in the field on my own social venture in Huancayo, Peru. Here’s a link to my research paper, which has since been published on Penn’s Scholarly Commons. I had already worked in Peru, so it made sense to travel back there, and India was a country I had always wanted to visit because of its rich cultural diversity.

Leah trying on the sari, a traditional garment worn by women in India.
Leah trying on the sari, a traditional garment worn by women in India.
JME: I see that you’re a Wharton student with particular interests in environmental art and helping start microfinance programs in rural areas. How do those two things work together?

LD: I have always been interested in social impact and social entrepreneurship – using business to bring about positive change. I became interested in Antarctica during a high school expedition, in which I observed at first-hand the power of natural landscapes to evoke emotion and promote behavioral change. As part of the Act for Antarctica campaign, I started delivering multimedia presentations in schools around Philadelphia and working with teachers to integrate the polar regions into academic curricula. I have since worked with the Undergraduate Humanities Forum and the new Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities (PPEH) to study environmental (literary and visual) art and how art intersects with psychology and activism.

My Wharton coursework has allowed me to explore how finance, marketing, accounting, and management skills can be applied in the non-profit and social enterprise sectors. After reading about Kiva and Grameen Bank, I loved the concept of how giving entrepreneurs access to funding could help them launch ventures that promote broader economic development and create a sustainable pool of funding in the community. I’ve had a chance to work on the ground with microfinance organizations in Peru and India. Although my environmental and economic development work seem very different, they are united by my desire to study and adapt innovative approaches to widespread problems and inequities.

Leah in India 2
An almost aerial shot of India! Look at all the gorgeous colors.
JME:  If someone wanted to see an exhibition of your photographs or a collection of them online, where would they go?

LD: I would love to have them featured anywhere – probably on social media, so that they could be shared with a wider audience, as well as on the CURF website or Penn’s ScholarlyCommons.

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