The 2014 Social Impact Leadership Series culminated with a fireside chat between John Edwardson, '72,  and Vicki Escarra, CEO of Opportunity International, an organization providing financial solutions that empower people to transform their families’ lives and improve their communities.

Here, in excerpted form, Escarra and Edwardson discuss international development through entrepreneurships and highlight the importance of measuring impact.

Vicki Escarra:

The crisis that we are facing is that half of the world lives on less than two dollars a day.

The work Opportunity International does is, at its heart, about creating jobs. We’re about eliminating poverty.

John Edwardson:

While Vicki and I have a lot of things in common in terms of work experience and history, the thing that we have most in common is our love of fishing. What I mean by that is really our love of helping other people learn how to fish. You have all heard the saying, “You can give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Or you can teach a man (or better yet, a woman) how to fish and feed him for the rest of his life.”

Opportunity International is dedicated to the idea of “teaching people how to fish.” Our entrepreneurs prove every day that when you give people the tools to make a living, they will support their families and strengthen their communities.


The Opportunity model, as John mentioned, is pretty simple. We start typically with a loan of $150 to $200. Most of our clients begin in a trust group, which is a community of 15 or 20 people locally. You must be recommended for a loan by another member of the trust group, so individuals are committed to repayment.

This past year, Opportunity International put over a billion dollars of capital into the hands of hard-working entrepreneurs to create jobs.

And today, 98 percent of Opportunity loans are repaid.


But Opportunity isn't just in the loan business. I am actually doing some volunteer work with Opportunity on technology, so that’s another aspect I want to touch on. It’s clear that technology is going to play a big role in this organization’s continued growth because you cannot continue to grow this fast without good systems.

One of the things that I have been sharing recently is the use of smart phones in regards to property insurance. With GPS capability on most smart phones, you can now walk around the land a farmer owns and see what the exact acreage is. Once you have records of acreage, things like insurance become an option.


Right, and insurance is an increasingly popular product in the suite of services that Opportunity offers.

A few years back, Opportunity International started a microinsurance company called MicroEnsure, and today we offer life insurance, some health insurance, and property insurance.

I met a young girl recently in the Philippines, who had lost her mom and dad and both of her siblings as a result of the typhoon that hit about five months ago. Because her family had taken out a dollar’s worth of insurance with us and had it for about 18 months, we were able to provide her with a $7,000 benefit.

I am not suggesting that you can replace parents. The point is that the financial services we offer can be a life changing safety net. In the face of hardship, this young woman can now afford to finish school and actually finish college, so really life changing.


What you often see in many of the countries in which Opportunity operates is that women are the breadwinners. And so, education, particularly keeping young girls in school, is so important in terms of being able to fight persistent poverty.


Speaking about education, there’s a great story about one of our proprietors, Comfort Appiah, in Ghana. Comfort started a school five years ago with three students. Today, she has around 800 students and employs more than 50 people. She originally rented the property that the school was on, but she now owns it.

So, just an amazing success story both in terms of Comfort’s success as an entrepreneur and the education she is now able to provide to her 800 students.

It’s also a great example of being able to start with a baseline and then return to the site and measure impact directly related to OI loans.


I will say that one of the things that has always been very important to me is making sure that the money that I share with others is invested properly. I am always looking for how a not-for-profit measures their effectiveness and their return on investment. That’s one of the things that initially attracted me to Opportunity.


And that’s a thing that we do take pride in—and it shows where there’s room for overlap in the private sector and the nonprofit sector—that we can keep scores and accounts of everything we do.

We know we are on track with our repayment rates, the number of clients who we are serving, and the amount of money in our portfolio, but we also measure things like, how much money are our proprietors earning? Are they employing other people? Are their children going to school? Are they drinking clean water? Do they have a decent house? Are they viewed as being leaders in their communities?

This kind of data and record keeping is really important. It provides the baseline that Vicki is talking about that allows us in the future to go back and look at those individuals one by one and know if their lives are changing and if they are moving out of poverty.

The Social Enterprise Initiative at Chicago Booth supports the aspirations of students and alumni to impact societal issues and furthers research on how institutions solve social problems. Building on the university’s commitment to rigorous analysis and a discipline-based approach, SEI joins a long tradition of Booth research centers that have made a lasting impact across business.

SEI’s Social Impact Leadership Series brings six prominent speakers to campus each year to talk to students, alumni, and the community about issues in the social sector. The series has covered issues of corporate social responsibility, impact investing, social entrepreneurship, education, research, environmental sustainability, and others.