Rachel Cook | The Microlending Film Project

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Rachel Cook has studied film at The University of Southern California and Duke University, and Economics and Business at Duke and The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. She worked for awhile as an Equities and Eurodollar Futures Trader in Chicago and New York while studying improv and comedy writing at the iO and Second City. The Microlending Film Project, her first feature, tells the story of mothers, wives, daughters – and entrepreneurs.  Armed with microloans invested in increments often as small as $25, these women work to launch businesses, pulling themselves and their families out of poverty. 

I was working as a Futures Trader on the European shift – in the middle of the night, Chicago time – in September 2009 when I first came across The Women's Crusade, a NY Times op-ed by Nick Kristof. I was floored.  The article told stories of women in the developing world, facing terrifying, seemingly insurmountable odds. And some of these women were able to overcome these odds using a development tool I’d heard little about – microfinance. I was intrigued.  In my own small way, I felt I could relate to these women.  I cared about their struggles, and I was astonished to learn how much $25 could benefit a person, how these loans could put women on a path to self-sufficiency. 

seemed to help women, and it seemed to be a high-return financial investment – both of high interest to me.  I’d studied film in undergrad, as well as Economics and English. I’d loved movies since I was a kid; this topic, it occurred to me, would make for an amazing documentary.

I had moved to Chicago after college to study improvisation and comedy writing at The Second City, the renowned comedy school attended by the likes of Bill Murray, Chris Farley and Tina Fey.  It was fun putting on shows for small crowds, but a film would clearly reach a larger audience.

Though I’d made a few shorts in school, I’d never made a feature documentary with shoots around the world, and knew virtually nothing about production.  If I was going to do this, it was imperative that I surround myself with professionals.

My first step was to post on Craigslist, searching for a seasoned Director of Photography who could help legitimize the project, and found Steve Hiller, a veteran of more than 50 studio Hollywood films, who joined my team as a volunteer.  With Steve on board, I was able to attract a Second Camera who had worked 16 studio films, including Groundhog Day, an Editor who has cut several films for Oscar-nominated documentarian Jon Alpert, and a Composer who has produced for the Grammy-nominated Shiny Toy Guns.

In 2010, while on a short vacation from my trading job, the crew and I traveled to South America to Paraguay, for the first of four shoots on four different continents.

Why Leave a Job You Love?
I love trading.  I wasn’t a superstar, but I was profitable, even during the financial collapse in 2008. I often told people that trading was ‘the greatest real job you could have.’ It suited my huge dislike for playing politics in an office setting – if you made or lost money, you had only yourself to blame. It also appealed to my desire to take risks, and to avoid the bureaucratic haze that I imagined so many people in corporate America never escape.

But over the course of my trading career it became increasingly evident that much of the criticism about the trading world was all too true – particularly in its attitude toward women.  At my first trading firm, I was the only female trader. During the 2008 presidential elections I’d hear these macho frat guy-types yelling at the TV, telling Palin to “go back in the kitchen” after Senator McCain first announced her as his VP pick.  Seriously.  Though I largely disagreed with Palin’s politics, this didn’t lessen the sting of these remarks. Was the trading world the last bastion of old school sexism in the “modern” work world?

At my last trading firm, located in Midtown Manhattan, my boss told me one day they would be interviewing another female trader, so that I would “have a friend.” “Cool,” I muttered sarcastically. My former boss then took the opportunity to tell me “a lot of trading firms will see a woman’s resume and just throw it out, but we welcome women here.” I think maybe he was looking for a high five.  I resigned the next day, wondering if this man would have made a similar remark to an employee who was African-American, or who had an obviously Jewish last name. I had no idea what made him imagine it was okay to say something so blatantly offensive.

Taking the Plunge
Having made more than I had expected to make by 25, a year ago, I quit trading to work on the film full-time.   It’s been scary to embark on an unknown path, living off of my savings, and hoping to find people that are as excited about this project as I am. Despite the risk (and in part because of the risk), and I have loved the thrill. When trading, I wasn’t creating something or helping anyone as I stared at the yield curve, trying to anticipate whether it was going to flatten or steepen. But in making this film, and spreading awareness about microfinance, I believe that what I’m doing will make a difference.  I’ve also never been personally happier than I am right now.

Kenya - Rachel and KidsRachel with two young children in Kenya

Of course it hasn’t been easy.  It’s a lifestyle change.  I sleep on a mattress on the floor, and have lived on less than $2000 a month in Manhattan for the past year.  All of my savings has gone into making this film.  And thanks to grants from generous supporters at Duke University, a private investor, and micropledges through sites like Kickstarter, we’ve managed to keep this going.  And now we’re almost done. We’ve finished filming, we’re now editing, and submitting to all the major film festivals.  Our plan is a limited theatrical release, and a university tour to more than fifty universities.

While I know that quitting my trading job to pursue this project wholeheartedly, I’ve taken on a big risk, but I also know this is the best decision of my life, as the driving force behind this project is my desire to give women the opportunity to build a better life for themselves.

Rachel has launched a fundraiser through Kickstarter with a $7,250 goal.  If reached by December 5, two Duke University Trustees will match this amount, providing them the $22,000 needed to complete the film and make this dream a reality.  They’re able to accept tax-deductible donations, as well as private investment for equity. Please email rachel@microlendingfilm.com if interested in learning about all kinds of opportunities to work with her on the project, financially and otherwise.

I have just donated money to her project – as I care about the financial empowerment of women deeply.  I hope you’ll join me — donations as small at $1 are welcome.

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