This story was picked up by the Associated Press.
By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
He's a store man by trade.
He couldn't help it; his father owned West Brothers, a popular department retail chain in Louisiana.
So as Glen West grew up, he learned about merchandise, staff morale, productivity and the daily finances of a small business.
'It was second nature,' said West, who's now retired and living in Temple.
The shop talk hasn't left him. He's using it to carry out a life-long dream of Christian ministry.
'I had a profession of faith at 17,' West said. 'I've always wanted to do God's work. That's what this is about.'
For three years West has run a department store called West Brothers No. 2 in Ahmednagar, India, to generate the funds for a ministry he operates there.
'The ministry is a microcredit center,' West said. 'We give $300 loans interest-free to women in poverty, so they can start their own businesses and make a profit that will give them a good home. We're there to encourage the women that they can improve the lives of their families and that they can do more than they think they can.'
The center is a wing of Singing River International, a non-profit Christian foundation the West family started in 1970. West recruited the team of volunteer business coaches who man the center.
'It's self-financed,' West said. 'The staff earns their salaries by working at West Brothers and at the dairy Singing River owns.'
West contributes as administrator and manager. He telecommutes with his staff in India by phone and e-mail.
'But I get to India every now and then to see how things are going,' he said.
His most recent trip took place the last two weeks of August.
'And it was great,' West said. 'Everyone was really excited, and the program seems to be gaining enthusiasm from the local community.'
Who it helps
One success story belongs to Shobha Chothe of Ahmednagar, India. Her income tripled after going through the Singing River microcredit program.
To start, her only income was the $50 she earned every month from working a vegetable stand. With it, she was expected to support two sons and a husband.
'My husband is alcoholic and does not bring any money in the house,' Mrs. Chothe said via translator Stavan Balhal, the head business coach at the Singing River microcredit center in India.
After receiving a loan from Singing River, she was able to expand her vegetable business.
'And after two months, she was earning $100 a month,' Balhal said. 'And after seven months of business, she asked for a second loan, so she could purchase a taxi cab.'
Her business plan was solid, Balahal said. Her research showed she could earn a substantial amount of profit if her son did the driving.
'Now my income is at $300 per month,' Mrs. Chothe said. 'My son drives the taxi. I get up at 4 a.m. to go to the wholesale market where I buy the vegetables for selling. The whole I day I sell them on the roadside. I take a two-hour break in the afternoon so I can go home to cook lunch.'
Mrs. Chothe's family lives in a one-room house that measures 100 square feet. She said there is no privacy, electricity or running water.
'It has a dirt floor and a tin roof,' Mrs. Chothe said. 'My goal is to have a better house and buy another taxi to expand my business.'
West likes how Mrs. Chothe thinks.
'That's thinking big,' West said. 'I want to be thinking big as I go about this microcredit project.'
That's important to West because of a conversation he had three decades ago with Sam Walton of Benton, Ark., the founder of Walmart.
'When Walmart was starting, Walton came out to Louisiana to look at West Brothers and how it worked. We were doing pretty well then,' West said. 'And he liked what he saw. He said our only problem was that we didn't think big enough. I never forgot that. So I'm thinking big as I go.'
And that's not an understatement. In the last six months, his ministry has doubled in size.
Earlier this year, West launched a Singing River microcredit center in Kabul, Afghanistan. Financed by West Brothers No. 3, the new center is working with its first batch of 100 women.
To receive a Singing River loan, the women must go through a six-week credit education course.
West modeled the curriculum on microcredit studies discussed in 'Banker to the Poor' by scholar Muhammed Yunus, the 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The book discusses microcredit finance and how it can be beneficial for women in low-income societies.
'The thought is that in Third World countries women are more responsible with money than men,' West said. 'If you give the money to a man, he'll take it to gamble or buy alcohol. You give it to a woman, and she'll spend in on food, bills or housing needs.'
A February 2008 study by Reuters showed similar findings. Women were the 'best family bankers' in the involved countries: Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, South Africa, Britain and the United States.
Each Singing River microcredit class has about 25 women subdivided into groups of five.
'It's a close group,' West said. 'Because if one of the women reneges on a loan, the other four become responsible for the debt. The system develops a sense of trust, responsibility and good ethics.'
The first two weeks of the microcredit school are devoted to the women getting to know each other.
'There are Hindus, Muslims and Christians participating, so there's a lot of cultural differences,' West said.
'But they have to learn how to work together, so we don't let them sit with the people they'd normally gravitate toward. The first step is to learn how to talk to others who might be strangers, be pleasant and have an enjoyable encounter.'
The first few days are rough.
'But by the end of the first week, they find out they have a lot in common,' West said.
Participants use the second two weeks of the school to interview the business people in town and gather information about potential jobs and suggested profit.
'We help them come up with the right questions to ask and how to conduct themselves,' West said. 'We try to show that business is not just about the product. People have got to like you to buy from you.'
The final two weeks are when the women write their business plans.
'They present their business, how they'll start it, how they'll maintain it and how it will make money,' West said. 'If they can, they'll write it up and do a presentation. If they're illiterate, they present it orally.'
Women who successfully complete the program receive a loan of $300, which covers the launching costs of the business.
'We've had some women go in together to operate farms, others sell vegetables and some have cleaning, delivery or driving services,' West said.
Since launching in 2005, the microcredit center in India has had more than 100 women graduate the program.
'All of them are bringing in more dollars from their new businesses than they were beforehand,' West said. 'And several of them are doing very well, bringing in so much profit that they started a second business.'
Fewer than five have defaulted on a loan.
In the cases where endeavors thrive, West's team encourages the participant to take out a second $300 loan.
'We don't want to see a woman start to succeed and then fail because funds dry up,' West said. 'We want to feed the businesses that grow, so they can continue to grow, until it can sustain itself with surplus profit. So a second loan is often issued and sometimes a third.'
Balhal, the head business coach, said the Singing River microcredit center in India is 'almost famous.'
'It is more and more popular as it is growing,' Balhal said. 'I have many new women coming in my office every day to ask if they can be a part of this program. It has made such a difference. They are seeing profit in their income and their lives are getting better.'
To get involved
The Singing River International Christian Foundation, managed by Glen West of Temple, operates two microcredit centers, one in India and another in Afghanistan. The goal is to help women in poverty find profitable employment with small business loans of $300. Central Texans wanting to help can contact West at firstname.lastname@example.org or 778-5909. Details are available at singingriverinternational.org.
Did you know? -- The Singing River International Christian Conference Center in Evergreen, Colo., served more than 150,000 people from 1970-2005. The proceeds from its sale paid start-up costs for the Singing River microcredit centers in India and Afghanistan.
-- Singing River built its first church in India this August. It will serve as a place for clients from the microcredit center to participate in Bible studies and learn computer skills.
-- The Louisiana West Brothers opened in 1921.