Michaela Walsh

Local Communities, Global Thinking

Recorded: April 8, 2013

How did a quiet young woman from Kansas City end up participating in a global movement to ensure that women had ownership over their production and reproduction, and how did she help to assemble and lead an institution to accomplish this? In 1957, Michaela followed her dreams to New York City where she was employed in the male dominated world of finance at Merrill Lynch. This was the first step in her awareness that women did not have the same access to money as men did. Michaela tells the story about the origin of Women's World Banking, a global institution that has granted micro loans to women in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and North America. This institution has improved the lives of women, their communities, and families throughout the world.

Michaela Walsh is an activist, scholar, mentor, educator, and author. In the 1960s, Michaela was a trailblazing woman with Merrill Lynch in Beirut, Lebanon. She became the first woman partner of Boettcher in the 1970s. In 1980, she founded Women’s World Banking, which is a micro-finance movement that has improved women’s lives across the globe.

Throughout her career, Michaela has maintained a vibrant commitment to education and service. She was an Adjunct Professor at Manhattanville College and Director of Global Student Leadership programs there. Board appointments have included Synergos Institute and Union Theological Seminary, with advisory roles in a wide range of government and social-justice organizations over the decades.

Ms. Walsh was Chairperson of the 59th United Nations DPI/NGO Conference in 2006. She received the Woman of Vision Award of the National Organization for Women, the UN Development Program’s Paul G. Hoffman Award for outstanding work in development, and in 2012 was honored by Women’s Funding Network for changing the face of philanthropy.

Huey Johnson: Certainly you had impact on women and finance in the world; would you tell me how you got started on Women’s World Banking?

Michaela Walsh: It evolved from the time I was younger. I always knew from a very early age that, that I did not want my mother’s life. That I went to Wall Street, when I grew up I went to Wall Street because that’s where the money and the men were. And I went to night school to become registered and so I could do orders, enter orders in a very delicate, small industry, very mechanical industry at the time. And Merrill Lynch, where I went to work was just starting Merrill Lynch International and they had a training program for men only, no women. And some of these people I got to know, one of them said “We’re going to open up a big office in Beirut, Lebanon, why don’t you come and you could help train some of the people or help us get started because it’s going to be open in quite a large way.” And I had no idea where Beirut, Lebanon was on the map, I never had even – you know I had no idea. Here was this green American from the Midwest and so I went to – so I said, “I think I’m going to do this. I want to transfer.” And the personnel department at the time, not human resources, it was personnel department said, “oh, we can’t, we can’t do that,” he said “way too dangerous for us to send a woman.”

So I didn’t say anything, but I resigned from Merrill Lynch. I paid my own way to Beirut and was hired there by Merrill Lynch International. One weekend, I spent all weekend by myself and I thought, “If I don’t go, I’m always going to wonder what it was all about.” And I knew then that I could always leave and come home if I wanted to. And I think that is a thread that has run through my life, the idea that you just – no one should do anything in life without options and no one should do anything where you really felt totally trapped and I think this younger generation has finally gotten that message in our own culture and it thrills me. It’s where my hope rests with them for the biggest part. But I went to Beirut and it was the most wonderful time. It was a freedom that I never had. I found my own identity coming out of a family of 5 children where I never spoke.

I became – I got to play with people from all over the world. I learned by helping to manage an office where the manager was never there for whatever reason and I learned to open a book and realized that I could teach myself, that I didn’t have to go to training school. I could open up a book and realize that the rules were there and I could follow them. And this one kid said to me one time, “Why do I have to do it this way, we’ve always done it this way.” And I realized the American way is not the only way, that there are a lot of ways of getting to what you want to accomplish. So that’s the background behind the Women’s World Banking.

I came back to this country and Merrill Lynch would not let me go into sales, so I left, I took the summer off and I had a phone call from somebody who I had been working with in drug education for teenagers in the lower Eastside of Manhattan and they said they knew of a foundation that was looking for somebody, would I be interested in talking to them? So I said “sure.” So I ended up going to work for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the first woman that was more than a secretary. I learned then that people who don’t – are not risk takers — will always challenge you in a way that if you challenge them back, they back away.

 Huey Johnson:  There is an important lesson.

 Michaela Walsh: No question, crucial. It’s crucial for this, particularly this younger generation to know that until they design more of these innovative things, nothing new is going to happen because the establishment is not going to do it.  The more I read, the more I begin to understand that even this generation understands that better than I do. If you read George Saunders, and I give this in every speech I give now, one of his characters says, “Stay confused. Stay totally confused” because that keeps you open and you keep going more confused and more open until death do you part. You do find your way, you know you don’t have to follow one set pattern and part of it is the lesson that I think is very important for me today, right now, is that change is the only thing that’s really constant. That you can think that you want to do something but it’s only the thing that is constantly — there is change. And what happens one day, you know if you’re so sick or so angry, the next – or so joyful and so happy, the next day it’s going to be different and it’s different and different and different. And when I started Women’s World Banking –people still don’t understand why you can talk about banking and women and say that I did it because I believed that until local communities who understood the environment within which they were living, could link up to “the experts” and all of the fancy language and science that was going on, nothing new was going to happen in terms of managing the environment.