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Jeroo Billimoria: Social Entrepreneur Teaches Street Kids How to Manage Money

Serial social entrepreneur Jeroo Billimoria, founder of Child and Youth Finance International, rang the NASDAQ opening bell in New York Mar. 21.

By Sunita Sohrabji | India West

2012_3$largeimg230_Mar_2012_160338423Billimoria’s appearance at the stock exchange came at the conclusion of the first International Child and Youth Finance Week in which 26 countries took part. Billimoria’s organization, based in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, aims to create a network of partners across the globe which can train low-income children in money management and give them access to financial institutions by changing existing banking laws.

Founded six months ago, CYFI aims to reach 100 million kids in 100 countries around the world by 2015. It operates on a $675,000 budget, based primarily on an award from the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Skoll Foundation. Billimoria, who has spoken at the World Economic Forum and received fellowships from the Ashoka Foundation and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, is recognized as one of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

CYFI is holding its first annual conference, “Reshaping the Future of Finance,” April 3 and 4 in Amsterdam, bringing together youth aged 8 to 18 to interact with international bankers and financial policymakers, among others.

One of the main goals of the conference is to encourage countries to change their policies to allow children to have banking and saving accounts by revising the Basel Committee Papers, which define the standards of banks throughout the world.

“Children need a formal banking account which only they can access,” Billimoria told India-West in a telephone interview from Amsterdam, shortly after attending the “Change Nation” summit in Dublin, Ireland. Current law in most countries only allows children to access financial instruments with the signature of their parents, who are often themselves the economic exploiters of their earning children, she noted.

Financial security is the key to moving children out of impoverishment, stated Billimoria, a native of Mumbai who earned her master’s degree in social work at The New School for Social Research in New York. “Can you live without money?” she queried, noting that while there were lots of theoretical answers to that question, low-income children need concrete means to secure their futures.

Billimoria said she had witnessed first-hand the lives of impoverished children as she grew up in South Mumbai. But it was the death of her father, a chartered accountant, that inspired her towards a career in social service.

"My father was a quiet philanthropic person. When he died young, we had long queues of people from the streets who arrived to pay their respects. Even my mother did not know that he had silently supported them through the years," she said in an interview with the Ashoka Foundation, when she received a fellowship from the organization in 1998.

Billimoria’s first venture was Childline, which she started with only $6,000 in Mumbai in 1993. The service allowed street children to access a network of support services – including police assistance and health care — by dialing a toll-free number from a public pay phone.

She founded several more non-profit organizations before launching Aflatoun, which teaches children around the globe how to save their money.

“When children save a single coin, it does not represent more than what they carry in their pockets, but once they save a few more, it begins to represent something very different, a choice,” she said on the Aflatoun Web site.

Mahir Jethanandani, a freshman at Saratoga High School in Northern California, serves as the volunteer social media and Web site manager for CYFI and its partner Web site World Financial Challenge. Jethanandani, whose mother Pragati Grover went to college with Billimoria, met the veteran policy maker when she visited the San Francisco Bay Area last year.

“She came over to our house and we talked about this idea to provide financial opportunities to children who live in poorer communities,” Jethanandani, who will attend the CYFI summit in Amsterdam next week, told India-West.

The Indian American said he had been to India, Kenya, and Tanzania, and witnessed first-hand the bleak lives of children who lack financial opportunities.

“In places like Kenya and Tanzania, college is not an option available to most kids,” he said, noting that India is slowly achieving a middle ground of sorts for higher education.

“Street kids are always searching for opportunities to get out of their poor neighborhoods and they will take any opportunity to get out,” he said, noting, however, that parents often present barriers to self-sufficiency by taking away their children’s earnings.

Jethanandani himself forayed into banking at the age of 10, when his father Mahesh Jethanandani took him to get his first savings account with $200.

Two years later, the teenager – through savings and investments in stock, including the Cheesecake Factory – has parlayed his small initial investment into more than $7,000.