Opportunity International



Doubling Gross World Product, While Eliminating Extreme Poverty

According to the World Bank, the Gross World Product is about $75.59 trillion. Vicki Escarra, Global CEO of Opportunity International and former Chief Marketing Officer at Delta, intends to double that figure by achieving the organization’s mission to eliminate extreme poverty around the world in places like, Africa, Asia and Latin America and Europe.

Under your tenure, Opportunity International placed a heavy focus on direct impact—philanthropy, with the goal of empowering individuals and providing them with the tools to get themselves out of poverty, both in a manner that is sustainable, scalable and that facilitates economic growth. What do you see as the main focus of this industry in the next five years, and is there a framework that similar charitable organizations should follow?

The next wave of innovation and growth in microfinance will come from those organizations that can quickly scale outreach to those living in extreme poverty. Opportunity International’s partnership strategy is going to help accelerate that. Through organizations like ours, the percentage of people living on less than $2 per day can be reduced to 3 percent or less by 2030.

Over the next five years, Opportunity International will scale its financial products, services and training to those living in poverty around the world, while facilitating financial inclusion, gender equality, entrepreneurism and job creation to end extreme poverty within our lifetime.

We go beyond just helping people earn a living and work to improve education, agriculture, health and environment, while encouraging sustainable development and community building. Using innovative tools such as digital financial services and group lending, we focus on targeted responses to the needs of clients.

If the philanthropic industry is going to succeed, it must evolve and must be flexible enough to address not just one challenge but also a wide array of interwoven issues.

At Opportunity international, for example, our board completed an extensive review of global banking trends to determine our greatest strengths and competencies and maximize our impact. As part of the process, we increased the number of clients reached in the 22 countries where we operate and forged partnerships with strategic organizations from the corporate sector to help us grow and achieve our commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals faster.

Our non-profit/for-profit collaborations satisfy the corporate social responsibility agendas of multinational corporations to provide us and other organizations with the funds necessary to make real, tangible and scalable change in the world. With both the non-profit and for-profit industries working toward a common goal of sustainable, scalable development, we are much more likely to see real progress eliminating extreme poverty in our lifetime.

Chicago was recently described as a hub for financial technology or FinTech. What role do you think the work of Opportunity International has in facilitating this reputation worldwide?

Opportunity International is headquartered in Chicago, and is using financial technology to achieve our goals and improve lives in emerging markets. We offer Digital Financial Services, including credit scoring, through products such as microfinance loans, savings and insurance. This technology allows us to more quickly and efficiently serve clients—including those in even the most remote areas of Africa, and other rural areas.

This ‘clicks not bricks’ strategy has enabled us to attract investment partners from first-world nations to expand our work and achieve greater results.

Now, more than ever, there is a significant opportunity for financial technology to thrive in developing markets. Mobile penetration is growing in emerging market communities worldwide along with the opportunity to provide services such as banking through nontraditional methods (e.g., once on mobile banking vans, now from mobile phones).

Vicki Escarra, Global CEO of Opportunity International.

When Opportunity International began working in Africa, there were very few banks or even a structured financial network to serve rural communities. Through technology, we have created a new framework to attract socially motivated non-profit and for-profit-partners who will help serve clients more efficiently and effectively.

You are stepping down as Global CEO; what motivated you to make this decision and how did you go about deciding it was the right time for a transition?

I accepted this role five years ago because I wanted to try and make a difference in the world. We have had tremendous success over the last five years at Opportunity International. I’m proud of what we achieved together with our partners, including helping clients create or sustain nearly 18 million jobs which touches more than 90 million lives.

As important, we led positive change for the entire microfinance industry, by altering how banking services are delivered, how credit is established and how financial services are accessed and utilized. We integrated fintech and artificial intelligence to enable faster, more efficient and significantly less expensive access to financial services, and to double the number of clients we serve—which has impacted and improved 500 percent more lives.

Opportunity International is now one of the key market leaders in providing finance and support for affordable, quality education to those living in poverty. A key differentiator of Opportunity’s Education Finance program is that it focuses on the financing and capacity-building needs of educators in Africa, in addition to providing socially-focused financing to impoverished families. We’ve educated 2 million more children across 10 developing countries since 2012 and invested $80.9 million on our way to 5 million children educated in the next 3 years. We have also invested in smallholder farmers by providing access to 500,000 agriculture loans and 800,000 rural savings accounts, as well as insurance and agriculture-related training, so they can feed their children and millions of others in the days ahead as they expand their operations and become more successful. And we’ve touched more than 2.4 million people in India with community health services.

We have also forged strong partnerships, with great organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cisco, Caterpillar Foundation, Credit Suisse and The MasterCard Foundation that have created very positive momentum and will keep the organization moving forward. We’ve also built internal relationships which will allow the organization to scale more quickly and serve more clients. As such, I feel this is a great time to transition to new leadership on a high note.

I have always enjoyed stepping into a new role as a ‘change agent’ then restructuring an organization to take it to the next level, which was the goal of my work at Opportunity International and believe we accomplished what we set out to do together. We have the right people in place to continue taking the work to the next level and that gives me great satisfaction. I will remain an outspoken advocate and donor to the organization, and remain excited about our ability to continue engaging partners, governments, grantors, impact investors, corporations and individuals in joining us in our mission to improve lives and change the world.

Can you tell us more about the goals of Opportunity International, and where you see it headed following your departure?

Opportunity’s purpose, as a non-profit institution, is to channel the power of philanthropic capital to fuel innovative, high-impact, sustainable solutions to end extreme poverty, with the ultimate goal of scaling those solutions throughout the world.

Moving forward, Opportunity International will move more assertively into its role as a thought leader in the space of poverty alleviation, exceeding its goal to create and/or sustain 20 million jobs by 2020. We are well on our way to reach this goal, having already created 17.3 million at the end of 2016.

We will also continue creating life-changing programs that keep clients at the center and allow the 10 percent of the world population who live on less than $2 per day a path out of generational poverty.

We know education is one of the most powerful tools on the planet to break the cycle of poverty in families and communities. That’s why Opportunity will continue focusing a high level of resources and attention on education by investing in neighborhood schools to expand and improve education, and helping families pay school fees and buy uniforms, books and other supplies to keep their children in the classroom.

Other areas of focus include agriculture services, supporting smallholder farmers to increase crop yields and quality, and gain access to profitable markets; fostering community health facilitators to teach women healthy practices so preventable illnesses don’t shorten their lives or prevent them from living better lives; and utilizing industry-leading technology to deliver services to the most marginalized communities and expand financial inclusion.

As important, Opportunity will continue its rigorous Social Performance and Knowledge Management programs to continue measuring change, effectiveness and impact of its programs in improving clients’ lives.

New leadership will continue innovating to create a better world for all to live and thrive—and in doing so, we’ll join the global community in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and eliminate extreme poverty for the first time in the history of the world.