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Businesswoman Katie Smith Milway started writing kids books while on her second maternity leave. ‘In life, you just follow the joy and the growth,’ she says. ‘It has all been very serendipitous.’
Businesswoman Katie Smith Milway started writing kids books while on her second maternity leave. ‘In life, you just follow the joy and the growth,’ she says. ‘It has all been very serendipitous.’

Katie Smith Milway

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Katie Smith Milway is the woman who wrote One Hen, which hatched a phenomenon.

"This has become an open source movement," she says, wielding a laptop and a big, enthusiastic smile.

Ms. Smith Milway is a businesswoman with an international consulting group based in Boston, which explains why she speaks in fancy, grown-up managementese.

But it was the simplicity of language in her children's book that helped inspire a new generation of socially responsible global citizens. In her day job at the Bridgespan Group, a non-profit consulting practice, she uses far more sophisticated strategies to help philanthropic companies develop effective programs in the social sector.

"We underestimate children, and a lot of writers overestimate adults and how much complexity they want in their messages," says the 49-year-old mother of three, who was recently named ABC News's Person of the Week.

One Hen (subtitled How One Small Loan Made a Big Difference)explains the concept of microfinance in the developing world to children aged 8 to 12.

It tells the story of Kojo, a boy in Ghana, West Africa, who receives a small loan to buy a hen. He and his widowed mother eat some of the hen's eggs. The rest they sell for profit, which he spends to buy more hens. He also uses the money to get an education. After college, he uses all the money he and his mother have saved to buy a poultry farm, which eventually becomes the largest in West Africa, employing many people. The book is inspired by the true story of Kwabena Darko, a major poultry farmer in Ghana who lost his father when he was a child.

An associated website, onehen.org, is a virtual marketplace for easy-to-understand microfinancing. Participants play interactive games that earn them beads, which they "lend" to various Third World entrepreneurs, whose stories are also featured.

It's far more than just child's play, however. The site leads to real financial investment. For each bead lent, the site makes a donation to real entrepreneurs through Opportunity International, a global microfinance organization.

Ms. Smith Milway approached the organization (to which she and her husband Michael are donors) and MicroPlace to help set up a One Hen fund. In the one year since the book was published, close to $50,000 (U.S.) has been released in loans to people in Africa.

The non-profit site also provides curriculum content for schools about financial literacy and global social responsibility. One Hen Inc., which is run mostly by volunteers (it has just received funding from microfinance institutions for a handful of executive positions) also holds teacher-training workshops.

"Elementary school is the strike zone," Ms. Smith Milway continues in her PowerPoint manner. "You ask any third, fourth, fifth grader, 'Have you started a business?' and they say, 'Oh, yes, I sell Girl Guide cookies, I babysit, I walk dogs, I have a lemonade stand.'... Ask high-school kids how many started a business, and few hands go up, because by then business is a big, complicated thing.

"But kids are natural entrepreneurs. There's lots of psychological research that shows that the best way to build self-esteem in kids is to give them ways to help. But today, setting the table does not address the problems they hear about. In my day it did, because I wasn't hearing a lot of the things that were going on in the world." Ms. Smith Milway's own success story reads like a step-by-step children's book of simple, sequential decisions.

"I had no clue what the path was. In life, you just follow the joy and the growth. ... It has all been very serendipitous; a continuing revelation," she says.

Born in Connecticut and raised in Vancouver in a family of four children, she worked as a journalist for several years at The Gazette in Montreal before becoming a researcher at John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Later, when she realized that she wanted to do more than just write about international development, she joined Food for the Hungry, based in Phoenix, co-ordinating community programs in Africa and Latin America. She also wrote two books on sustainable development, Growing Our Future and Human Farm, and attended the 1992 Earth Summit as a delegate.

Marriage came next, and an MBA at INSEAD business school in France. That led her to join Bain & Co., an international group of management consultants, where she worked for 14 years. She spearheaded Bain's global publication initiative before turning back to non-profit work two years ago.

The urge to write children's books arose during maternity leave with her second child. In 1998, while living in Toronto, she entered a Canadian children's fiction contest with a story her mother used to tell about a cow who liked the colour "blooo." The story made it to the finals, which led to its publication as Cappuccina Goes to Town, co-authored with her mother, Mary Ann Smith.

After her efforts to write sequels didn't pan out, she recalls thinking, "I really want a positive midlife crisis. Is there some other kind of book I can be working on?"

And that, in turn, is how one woman started thinking about One Hen.

 

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