FALL 2008 VOL. 9 NO. 2

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A Surprising Journey

Kendall Mau, MBA ’76, spent a lot of time locked in his house during the month he was held hostage by sympathizers of Nicaraguan Sandinista revolutionaries in Costa Rica. “The house was surrounded by gunmen and protesters. People were lined up on the runway of the banana plantation’s airport so our food and mail supply planes couldn’t land,” Mau relates cheerfully. “It was a difficult time.”

But since it wasn’t the most difficult thing he’d ever done—not by a long shot!—Mau took it all in stride. Mau’s life story reads like a business-school version of “Indiana Jones.” His personal and professional journey has taken him from the Peace Corps to the top ranks of a multinational corporation and finally back to helping others as an expert in creating microfinance organizations, which provide high-quality financial services to low-income clients in the developing world. Now he is giving Smith students the benefits of that expertise as well.

Mau worked in his father’s credit unions in California and Hawaii all through his teenage years, so he was an experienced loan officer by the time he graduated from college. Filled with enthusiasm, he joined the Peace Corps and took his financial expertise into the small communities of Senegal, Africa, and Panama, Central America, to build local credit unions.

When Mau returned to the United States a few years later, he also returned to the corporate world. While working with a consulting firm in Gaithersburg, Md., Mau came to the University of Maryland to pursue his MBA, intending to build a career in consulting.

But after a few years he found himself itching for adventure again. On his 30th birthday he answered an ad that read “Looking for MBAs with passports,” and shortly thereafter was accepted into Castle & Cooke’s Dole Brand fast-track management training program, a highly desirable position in the fast-paced multinational organization. Before Mau knew it he was back overseas, living the corporate high life in such far-flung places as Colombia, Haiti and Central America.

It was while working for Castle & Cooke in Costa Rica that he was held hostage—not just once, but twice. And eventually Mau came to realize that a corporate career no longer held any allure for him. “I finally decided I don’t belong here,” says Mau. “I decided that this wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.”

But Mau isn’t the sort of person who can just take it easy. He returned to finance, helping to turn around the faltering Silicon Valley Federal Credit Union while studying for his PhD. That, in turn, led him to the world of non-government organizations (NGOs), where he found that his unique combination of global experience, micro-lending know-how and financial expertise was again in high demand. For a number of years he volunteered on financial consulting projects funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) throughout central Asia and Africa, working in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Uganda, Nicaragua, and eventually back to Senegal.

Today Mau is CFO and COO of Prisma Microfinance, a privately owned credit union that operates in Nicaragua and Honduras. The company provides small loans, sometimes as tiny as $50 or $100, to help with enterprise development, or simply as consumer loans to help people purchase a refrigerator or washing machine, or add another room to their house. This earns him the ire of local strongman store owners, who make their money by charging usurious interest. Occasionally there are threats and angry fist-shaking, but for a man who’s been held hostage, it’s really no big deal.

Now Mau’s unique combination of experiences in both the corporate and non-profit worlds is going to be of unique benefit to Smith students. He hopes to offer internships to undergraduates in Honduras with Prisma Microfinance and perhaps offer his expertise to the Dingman Center’s social responsibility venture program.

In His Own Words 

Let me tell you the story about a loan of $200 to a tortilla maker. I thought, “How can we make a difference to this woman’s life with a $200 loan?” And then I went to this lady’s factory, where she had two people helping her hand make thousands of tortillas, and I thought, “Oh, my goodness!” Well, now she’s got a contract to supply McDonald’s and 3 other local fast food restaurants with tortillas, and she can net $300 a month with her tortilla making. That’s not much. However, the average salary of a person at her level in Honduras is $125 or $150 a month. It was an inspiration. She didn’t have to beg, she could feed her family, and her kids were going to private schools now, all because of that initial $200 loan.


Copyright 2008 Robert H. Smith School of Business