When I grow up, I want to be Vicki Escarra.
Escarra is the CEO of Chicago-based nonprofit Opportunity International, an organization dedicated to eradicating poverty by providing microloans. From my perspective, she’s a rock star not only for what she does but also for how she got there. As she recently told me, Escarra lives by Howard G. Buffett’s philosophy that “each of us has about 40 chances to accomplish our goals in life.”
“When you see the chances,” Escarra says, “you have to take them.”
For 30 years, Escarra worked for Delta Air Lines, serving in six different roles. Over her career at Delta, she took her chances and did her best, not always under ideal circumstances. She became chief marketing officer (in charge of “classic marketing and deciding where to put the airplanes”)—her last job with the company—only one week before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. During the years that followed, she “never worked harder in her life,” and she helped Delta navigate a very challenging times.
But even as the company started soaring, Escarra found herself at a low point. “Is this all there is?” she asked herself, and decided the answer was no. For years, she had dreamed of “becoming a better global citizen.” So rather than try to fit her dream around her busy corporate existence, she quit her high-flying job and chose to join the nonprofit Second Harvest and to accept a 50 percent pay cut. During her six-year tenure, Escarra and her team rebranded the company Feeding America. They fed 50 percent more hungry Americans and orchestrated a 300 percent increase in fundraising, repositioning the company from the 15th to the fourth-largest nonprofit in the U.S., as ranked by Forbes.
Escarra agrees with Bill Gates that it’s possible to eradicate poverty in our lifetime. Compelled to help realize this goal, she took another chance and joined Opportunity International in 2012. Opportunity International is “not an aid organization,” but rather “a bank under the umbrella of a non-profit” that “provides financial inclusion” to “empower people living in poverty to transform their lives,” she says. The company’s clever approach to loan approval and continuous reinvestment means that US$1 today will multiply to $6 in five years due to a payback rate of 98 percent, compared to traditional bank payback rates that are, according to Escarra, “south of 90 percent.”
Though there are several groups, like Kiva, that help provide microloans for people who need them, Opportunity International has a unique approach to reducing investment risk. The group funds “trust groups” made up of 15 to 25 women, who are responsible for repaying the loans they approve (the average loan size is $160). The trust groups determine who is invited to join the community and which loans to fund, “strengthening the sense of community and success for very poor women,” according to Escarra. Under her leadership, the company is working to double capital availability by 2020 by making changes in six areas, including governance around bank ownership, products and services, and operational standardization and efficiency.
Escarra is satisfied with the chances she is taking because she gets “to see real miracles happen every day,” such as a woman “who survived genocide now running a jewelry-making business that employs six people and developing into a community leader.” From a leadership standpoint, although much of her job remains the same, she has had to adjust to staffing limitations that are “much leaner” than in the corporate world but has been pleasantly surprised by the “unbelievable measure of enthusiasm” that exists and how easy it is to “attract gifted and talented people” to work for less money.
Reflecting on her years at Delta, she realizes that she missed a chance to help the company get “really focused on what they offered as a global citizen” by concentrating support on four or five nonprofits, rather than spreading resources broadly across hundreds of organizations. If she had, she says, she could have helped the company’s employees, as well as herself, to become more deeply connected to the company’s stated social mission, increasing its impact beyond Delta’s confines.
But despite her regrets, Escarra is a shining example of a talented and hard-working leader with the courage to ask, answer, and act on the question, “Is this all there is?” At 59 years old, she understands that she has only a few chances left and is working as hard as ever to make the most of them.
What about you: When you ask yourself if you could be doing more, do you find yourself at peace, perplexed, or panicked? Answer this question, and you will also know what you need to do with the chances you have left.