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Microloans in a Micro-Country

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It’s a bit like LeBron James getting excited about jumping into a basketball game at the local rec center, or Meryl Streep being giddy about performing with a local theater company. But Andrea Barlow Gooch ’14 clearly holds as much passion for seven-figure transactions on Wall Street as she does overseeing the distribution of small loans in a tiny, remote country.

“I have to get my work-work done so I can go do my fun work,” explains Gooch, a portfolio manager with Wells Fargo’s Managed Solutions and Investment Implementation group and founder of Kindling Kiribati, a nonprofit organization that provides small loans for women of the tiny island nation of Kiribati in the South Pacific.

“That’s the shocking thing,” adds Gooch, who was named USU’s Young Alumna of the Year last fall. “By day, I’m trading in the millions of dollars, easy, and I don’t even blink. And by night, the loans for the Kiribati project are about $250, but they’re completely supporting a woman and her entire family because unemployment is so high down there.”

Gooch graduated from Utah State University with bachelor’s in finance and economics and minors in international business and political science. While in school, she embraced a variety of educational experiences, including studying abroad in Peru, a political internship in Washington, D.C., the Huntsman Scholar Program in Europe, and the Small Enterprise Education and Development program in Ghana.

Gooch also served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for nearly 18 months in Kiribati, a collection of small islands spread over more than a million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean. The country has just 119,000 residents, most of whom reside on Tarawa, a long, narrow atoll that was the site of a fierce battle in World War II.

“Almost everywhere you stand, you can see the ocean from both sides,” Gooch points out.

Even before completing her mission, Gooch was formulating plans to create a nonprofit to help the women of Kiribati. And after finding success working for Goldman Sachs and then Wells Fargo, she founded Kindling Kiribati with help of a board comprised of other USU graduates and professors, including JD Borg, David Herrman, and Brent Thorne.

The organization’s goal is to help women become self-reliant by taking business courses and applying for small loans to start and grow businesses. In addition, Kindling Kiribati has an internship arrangement with USU — halted during the pandemic — that Gooch hopes to restart this summer.

As of December 2021, the 503(c)(3) loaned upward of $20,000 to more than 60 different women and employed three full-time workers in Kiribati. In the future, Gooch wants to extend the organization’s reach to humanitarian efforts, such as sanitation and clean water.

“We’re really hoping to grow just beyond microlending and find other ways that our program can be more effective in supporting Kiribati,” says Gooch. “With the exception of motherhood, nothing’s given me more fulfillment day-to-day.

“It never feels like work.”

By Jeff Hunter ’96
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