Vicki Escarra - Opening Windows of Opportunity

Knowing what it feels like to be really poor and not fit in drives me to try and help other people. I'm not arrogant enough to think that I know everything women in the developing world are dealing with, but some of the psychological things we go through are exactly the same.
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Paradigm Shifters is a series of interviews with a select group of women from eclectic walks of life. It will highlight real life insight on how women have been able to turn weakness into strength. Each interview is the naked truth about breakdowns that inspired breakthroughs. These women have experienced internal changes, which make them quintessential Paradigm Shifters.

Everything I have ever done has been focused on this underlying theme of shifting the paradigm because "what we think determines what we feel, and what we feel determines what we do." Hence whySeven Bar FoundationandEmpowered by Youtakes lingerie, which has traditionally been seen merely as a tool of seduction and makes it a tool of empowerment.

I hope after reading these stories you will look at your own situations, struggles and accomplishments through a different lens and, at the very least, be better equipped to change your own paradigm. At the end of the day, we are our own alchemists turning the silver we were born with into the gold we are destined to become.

Vicki Escarra

vicki escarra

Vicki Escarra, Chief Executive Officer of Opportunity International

Renata: What was it like shifting from the nonprofit sector at Feeding America to Opportunity International?

Vicki: I was with Delta for a long time before I worked for Feeding America and Opportunity. I ran most of the operations for the company around the world. A week before Sept. 11, I was promoted to Chief Marketing Officer. Then, everything fell apart in the industry, and I spent all of my time working to rebuild the company. With the long hours and high stress, it was a physically and emotionally challenging time. After Delta's redesign and rebirth, I decided to take a year off. Then, Shirley Franklin, a good friend and mayor of Atlanta at the time, called and asked me to come work with her. A part of her agenda was finding ways to help more seniors graduate from Atlanta public schools. In prior years, less than 40 percent of seniors were graduating in many schools. With her help, 90 percent of seniors in public schools graduated that year. This work led us to a really intimate discussion around what one person can do if you really put your mind to it. She said, "Vicki, I think you've got great skills around how to run a business, why don't you take that, and do something great with your life?" I started looking at jobs in the nonprofit sector and became very interested in poverty in America. I ended up taking the job of CEO at Feeding America, which at the time was called America's Second Harvest.

Did the events of Sept. 11 inspire you to work for a business focused on social change?

Sept. 11 made me think about what I was doing with my life. I was at this point in my life where I was making a great living, but Shirley said to me, "How much money is enough?" That was a great question. If I used the money and assets I had, I wouldn't have to worry about working again and could do whatever I wanted. How many people, particularly women, actually have the freedom to make that decision? I don't take that for granted and work hard to try and repay that gift to others every day.

Tell me about joining Opportunity International.

I really wasn't looking to make another career change but a former board member called me about Opportunity. She said she knew that I cared very deeply about women, especially women in the developing world. But I liked the job that I had at the time, so I said I wasn't interested. She called me the next week inviting me to dinner with a few staff from Opportunity and a female client from Rwanda. This woman spoke about how her whole life changed thanks to a $150 loan from Opportunity that enabled her to launch a small business. I said I'd start the interview process and, when I did, I really just fell in love with the organization. It was not just because of the client from Rwanda. I also liked the intersection of business. Feeding America is a great organization, but it has a different mission. At Opportunity, we are about creating jobs. We have a goal of creating 20 million jobs by 2020 and we're currently 12 million into it. I don't know another organization in the entire world that can do that.

Is there a way in which you have shifted the paradigm in your business career?

When I was hired to oversee the U.S. portion of Opportunity, I went on a listening tour to learn how we could reach more clients. We figured we could triple the amount of dollars we were raising. If we could pull together operations, we could reduce expenses by 30 to 40 percent just by using volume and reducing waste. I grew up in a corporate environment, and I am good at taking a corporate model and infusing it throughout a nonprofit organization. In both Feeding America and Opportunity, I've blended the corporate model with very mission-oriented organizations to make them more effective. You've got to have the energy and the discipline to maintain a command and control structure in order to utilize resources most effectively. Nonprofits don't necessarily think that way.

What is Opportunity International currently working on?

We've started measuring the social impact we're making on client's lives. We're working with researchers at the University of Chicago and looking at four quadrants of change: financial, social, personal and spiritual. So, if Vicki took a $150 loan from us a year ago, we want to know if she is still working today. Does she have a stable income? Is she creating jobs for people in her community? Are her children in school? Does she live in a house with a decent floor and roof? Does she have access to clean water and nutritious food? Ultimately, we're trying to see if and how her life is changing. Then we're looking at her relationships with others in her family and whether she's perceived as a leader in her community. There are 21 questions we ask to get to the heart of how effectively she's moving out of poverty and transforming her life and family.

Have you ever had a breakdown in your life that has led to a breakthrough?

I grew up in a fairly impoverished environment. My family was in and out of poverty, especially during the first 12 years of my life. My mother was struggling with depression, which in the 1950s was not easily diagnosed or treatable. My dad had these two small children that he was trying to raise, and my mother was suffering probably from postpartum depression, who knows. There were weeks when we didn't know what we would eat. Until I was 12, it was a really touch and go situation.

Knowing what it feels like to be really poor and not fit in drives me to try and help other people. I'm not arrogant enough to think that I know everything women in the developing world are dealing with, but some of the psychological things we go through are exactly the same. I have a real heart, genuinely, for where they are.

What makes Opportunity International stand apart from other microfinance organizations?

Our services are not handouts. We're giving people the financial support and training to create sustainable businesses that help them break the cycle of poverty and transform their family for generations, hopefully. Another way we're different is that we're actually on the ground in 22 countries. Other organizations do great work, but we have 17,500 Opportunity employees -- 99 percent of whom are nationals -- actually living and working in impoverished communities. This allows our staff to become trusted advisors and ensure our programs are effective on a day-to-day basis. It's an amazing experience to travel to Africa or the Philippines and see the faces and hear the voices of clients we're helping. You see the powerful impact firsthand, and it changes the way you see the world.

Vicki is a true testament to experiencing adversity and preventing it for others. It is safe to say that she shifts this world to a better version of itself. I am excited to highlight her as a Paradigm Shifter.

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