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Micro-financing a better life

As part of a field study program last summer, Northeastern University student Shilpi Roongta gave a $200 microloan to an impoverished woman in the Dominican Republic to start a small business selling fried chicken.

“The loan made it possible for her to provide for her family,” said Roongta, a business major with a triple concentration in social entrepreneurship, finance and marketing. “Without it, I didn’t see how she could survive.”

Roongta is one of 40 students in a social entrepreneurship course who will spend spring break in Mata Los Indios, a rural village in the Dominican Republic where hundreds of residents live on about $1 a day.

The goal of the 10-day experiential learning opportunity is to design a microfinance business plan to alleviate poverty in the community. The students, who hope to raise $25,000 by the end of the semester to fund small-business loans, also plan to build a school and a house for an especially poor family.

Students will complete the project through Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute in collaboration with Esperanza International, a nonprofit microfinance organization in the Dominican Republic. A handful of students have completed co-ops with the nonprofit, which has granted some $23 million in loans to about 35,000 families over the last 15 years.

Carlos Pimentel, president of Esperanza International, spoke to about 100 students on campus on Wednesday, as part of the Social Enterprise Lecture Series. Pimentel, who made his first visit to Boston this week, will return to the Dominican Republic with more than three-dozen students on Saturday.

He praised the young, globally aware business leaders for conducting research and hosting focus groups on the impact of microloans on impoverished families. Some 3.2 million people in the Dominican Republic live in extreme poverty.

“Northeastern is teaching a new generation of students the power of social entrepreneurship,” said Pimentel, who added, “micro-credit is the most dignified way to fight poverty.”

He said that students at Northeastern and impoverished men, women and children in the Dominican Republic each want the same things in life, including economic freedom and happiness. “We would like to see our families enjoying the same things that you want for yourselves and your family,” he said.

Dennis Shaughnessy, founder and director of the Social Enterprise Institute, said that experiential learning opportunities in countries such as the Dominican Republic give students a practical understanding of concepts learned through coursework.

“Students truly commit themselves to raising capital to help poor families,” said Shaughnessy, who noted that some 150 students would have helped the country’s poor start small businesses by the end of the summer.

“What better way to learn than by seeing the impact that microfinance has on people’s lives?” he said.