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Lee Benson, Deseret News
Mark Petersen is CEO of Mentors International, a charitable institution that loans money to the poor.

DRAPER — When the clients of Mentors International thank Mark Petersen for everything the microfinance company has done for them, it's not what they say that warms his heart. It's what they don't say.

"I expect them to talk about the healthy foods they're now able to feed their family, or about the child they're able to send to college, or the medical care they can now afford," says Petersen.

"But they don't say that.

"What they say, time and time again, is thank you for letting me do it myself."

Mentors International is essentially a bank that is only open to poor people. The bank was started in 1990 by a St. Louis businessman named Menlo Smith after he returned from a three-year missionary assignment for the LDS Church to the Philippines, a country with deep-rooted, abject, hits-you-in-the-face-when-you-see-it poverty. It works like this: You're poor and you have a plan to make money, but first you need money to get your business up and running.

Mentors International will not only loan you the money but also provide you with a mentor who will help you, train you and encourage you to succeed. Your own private consultant and cheerleader.

They're the opposite of loan sharks. They charge low interest and bend over backward to help you so you can pay off the loan.

And if you don't pay it back?

They don't break your thumbs. They just don't give you another loan.

In the 20-plus years the poor person's bank has been in business in the Philippines, Guatemala, Peru, El Salvador and Honduras, the loans have been paid off at a rate of 95 percent. Bear Stearns should have been so lucky.

Petersen remembers his two-word reaction a little over four years ago when Menlo Smith approached him about taking over as CEO of Mentors International.

"No," followed by "Way."

At the time, Petersen was where he wanted to be doing what he wanted to do.

He had a good job in public relations and marketing at Dixie State College in St. George, where he'd worked for 20 years, watching the school quadruple in size and the public relations department expand from a one-man show (him) to a five-person staff.

He and his wife, Becky, had just moved into the home they would grow old in.

But he gave Smith, who owns a vacation home in the area, the courtesy of hearing him out.

"What he said touched me," says Petersen. "I always knew there was severe poverty in the world but I didn't know how to do anything about it. Beyond donating to my church, I did nothing. But when I heard about this microfinance concept and the idea that it's not a handout, it's a hand up, I couldn't stop thinking about it."

By the time he did stop thinking about it, he and Becky and their kids had moved to the Wasatch Front and he was running Mentors International from its world headquarters in Draper.

It's not a big headquarters. Just six people in a small suite of offices next to the freeway.

They coordinate about 250 employees located in the five countries where the company currently does business — a staff that in turn manages a client list that numbers over 45,000 and is growing exponentially every day.

Within six years, Petersen expects that Mentors' client list will be approaching 1 million in a dozen countries. (The company's website is www.mentorsinternational.org).

Petersen, 52, isn't making more money, and he's got a crummier commute, but he exhibits no regrets in his job-change decision.

"I'm happy I'm here," he says, "it just makes you feel good to think you're doing something meaningful for the world."

His travels as company CEO, where he has seen the depths of poverty firsthand, have only reinforced that thinking.

"In many of the places where we function our clients literally cannot get in the front door of the bank," he says. "There's an armed guard standing there and if you don't have the proper credentials you can't even enter the building to talk to someone about borrowing money. They have no chance."

At Mentors, it's just the opposite. Being poor is the only way you can get in the door.

"What we offer is dignity," Petersen says. "In the end that's what people thank us for; allowing them to take care of themselves."

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.