• Image about Sandy Cohen


BUCKLE UP

I ASKED ALL you faithful American Airlines frequent fliers to tell me what kind of stories you want to read, and the answers have already started rolling in. I’m glad to hear you want to know about our guys who’ve served in Iraq, because I plan to reconnect with soldiers interviewed in years past. I also received a fabulously written letter from passenger John Gaines, who forgot his novel in the overhead bin and then found my column in a recent issue of American Way.

“Contrary to popular opinion, we are not all bovine monosyllabic morons wandering around in straw hats, with zinc oxide on our noses, Bermuda shorts, sandals with black socks, and Hawaiian shirts,” he wrote. What John wanted to read, he said, was “anything with SUBSTANCE.” Yes, in caps.

Well, the first two letters I received as an American Way columnist concerned India. They got me to thinking about a crazy friend of mine who decided she could change the world with just $15,500 a year -- and to do it in India, figuring (quite rightly) that five figures wouldn’t go too far in the United States.

The choice of India was no coincidence. As a banker in the 1980s, Sandy Cohen had become familiar with the microcredit movement and Muhammad Yunus long before he won his Nobel Prize. After serving her time as a businesswoman and raising four children as a single mother, Sandy spent four months traveling on the cheap to see the real India between volunteer stints in the Israeli army. Afterward, she took off for Africa. She visited 80 countries in five years, started a trading company, and turned her travel experiences into an educational nonprofit in Dallas to teach kids about their heritage. By 2000, she had some strong opinions about the connectedness of the world -- and $5,000 left in her bank account.

Then, her mother died and left her a stipend in a family foundation. Sandy didn’t sit at her desk in Dallas and write a check, of course. She got on a plane to India and interviewed hundreds of nonprofits. Everybody wanted her money; they just didn’t want accountability. One day, driving through rural Rajasthan, she spotted a 13-year-old girl carrying a baby and holding a toddler’s hand. You guessed it: The two children were the 13-year-old’s. “I came home, and I made a decision to do something with $15,500 that was important to me in my lifetime,” Sandy says. It had to be something that would help women, educate their kids, and make them self-sufficient -- all on $15,500 a year. Bill Gates she was not.