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50 for 50: Back to the Beginning: Al Whittaker

By Don Whittaker

This essay is a selection from the special edition of UnPoverty by Mark Lutz. The new edition has been released in celebration of Opportunity International’s 50th Anniversary, featuring new chapters from leaders throughout Opportunity’s history. To receive a copy, simply make a donation of any size to Opportunity and we’ll send it to you.

Dad told enough stories about his work with Opportunity International to fill an entire book.

What I want to share in the next few pages is the way God called him into this work.

In the mid-1960s, my dad was working for Bristol-Myers in New York. He had been the marketing director for several years when he was asked to become president of the new international division of the company. The job required him to travel globally, building business partnerships with pharmaceutical companies from countries in the emerging world economy. He agreed to take the position on the condition that my mom, Marion, would be able to travel with him. Bristol-Myers agreed, not knowing their decision would play a part in my family’s destiny, as well as the destinies of countless families throughout the world.

Al Whittaker (left) with his son Don (right)
Al Whittaker (left) with his son Don (right)

When my parents visited a developing city, Dad would conduct his business, and Mom would visit Christian organizations that were ministering to people living in poverty. If Dad had an afternoon or a day free, they would go sightseeing—and not the kind most people would choose. Mom would take him to the most destitute parts of the city or region they were visiting. Bringing relief to the hungry and downtrodden was her passion. Years earlier she would go by herself once a week to lead Bible studies in Lorton Prison. She was barely five feet tall but was filled with confidence and compassion. The trips across the world, and the encounters arranged by my mother, stirred up compassion in Dad’s heart, too. 

After many years with Bristol-Myers, Dad accepted a job as executive vice president with the Mennen Company. He remained with Mennen for only three years. During that time, he and my mother were actively involved with their church, attending services and retreats together. One summer Sunday morning in 1971, Dad couldn’t ignore a quiet, persistent call from God any longer. He was sitting next to Mom, listening to the preacher, teacher and writer, Paris Reidhead, talk about a desperate need in impoverished countries—a need that could only be met by people like Dad. It was clear to Reidhead that people living there needed the help and expertise of businesspeople to start and sustain businesses of their own. He extended an invitation for anyone to come talk to him if they had any ideas in that direction.

After the message was finished, Dad leaned over to Mom and said, “I think I’m going to go talk to that guy about his idea.”

Mom replied, “Good. I’m glad you said that because, if you hadn’t, I was going to tell you that you needed to.”

On their drive home, after a brief conversation with Reidhead, Dad told Mom about his feeling of being called by God to help poor people start businesses. My mom’s reply is still told and retold around the table at our family gatherings. She said, “It’s about time you stop making rich people richer and start doing something for the poor.” 

That afternoon Dad called Reidhead and asked him to join them in the evening. Their conversation, and Mom’s insistence, changed the course of Dad’s life.

A few months later, Dad resigned from the Mennen Company, where he had been working directly for George Mennen. He walked into Mr. Mennen’s office and said, “I’m turning in my resignation. I’m going to start helping create jobs for the poor.” 

Mr. Mennen was shocked. He asked Dad to take him through the decision point by point. The conversation went in circles, with Mr. Mennen continuing to offer Dad an increasingly higher salary: “Why do you want to leave? Is something wrong? Are we not serving you right? Do you want more money, more travel?”

Dad responded, “There is nothing you have or can give me that will be worth more than following what God has called me to do here.”

Shortly after, Dad walked out of the building, no longer an employee of the Mennen Company.

Dad learned later that, immediately after he left the office, Mr. Mennen called his assistant and said, “Cancel my afternoon meetings. I’m going to the airport.” Mr. Mennen had his pilot fly around in circles while he contemplated what Al had told him. What on earth would make a person give up the wealth and all that could be gained from an executive position at the Mennen Company?

Mr. Mennen’s acceptance letter to Dad reads in part:

It is with regret that I announce the resignation of Mr. Al Whittaker as Executive Vice President of the Mennen Company. Knowing Al’s deep-rooted commitment to the betterment of underprivileged people, I’m sure all of you will understand his decision to assume the post of Executive Director of the newly formed Institute for International Development, Inc. The purpose of this organization is to help establish indigenous businesses in underdeveloped countries and to help solve the critical problems of poverty and unemployment.

Despite Mr. Mennen’s line to his employees, “I’m sure all of you will understand,” Dad and Mom headed down a path that would have confused most people. Four months from the Sunday Dad had listened to Reidhead, my parents sold their new home on five acres in New Jersey and moved to a townhouse in Washington, D.C. They brought nothing more than their personal belongings and some Bristol-Myers stock. Dad traded a big title and corner office for a metal desk and file cabinet. For Dad, every bit of the downsizing was worth the opportunity to serve God and those in need.

In 1971, the Institute for International Development Inc. (IIDI)—the organization that would one day be named Opportunity International—was officially incorporated, taking a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to get started. Throughout the ‘70s, the program that Dad and his partners rolled out was a mentorship model. Individuals in the U.S. with a business background helped developing world entrepreneurs as business coaches. Clients receiving small loans used the money to start or upgrade their businesses, while also receiving support and advice from people like Dad.

A large part of Dad’s job was to knock on the door of other executives and high net worth individuals and ask for their help. He gave them the chance to use some of their time and money to help others. Dad shared his own story, giving hope to others by asking questions like, “How much is enough?” and “What is success really about?”

After a decade of this visionary work in micro-enterprise development, Dad stepped down from his position as executive director. He was always willing to let others lead and knew he worked best with an operator underneath him. He was never the spreadsheet guy. This was true when he was managing at Bristol-Myers and Mennen, too. He was the kind of leader who saw the big picture and welcomed changes along the way.

When it became clear that the name of the organization needed to change from IIDI to Opportunity International, Dad was enthusiastic. When he realized that Chicago would be a better base of operations than D.C., he moved headquarters. When introduced with the idea of starting an independent lending organization run by businesspeople in each country, he quickly shifted from a centrally managed American institution. Later when new innovations like group lending, banking and insurance were introduced, Dad was nothing but grateful. With humility and flexibility, he watched his original idea of lending change, always looking for better ways to serve those living in poverty.

Those around him would regularly hear him state, “Don’t tell me what we’re doing right! I want to know what we’re doing wrong.”

Dad loved talking about Opportunity. And he did it in a way that invited others to be a part of the journey. He had a gift for connecting with people. Over the course of a conversation, he planted seeds. Many who eventually became employees or members of the board at Opportunity heard about the organization first from Dad over a meal or a cup of coffee.

Each year, Dad would help host the Opportunity Conference in Oak Brook, Illinois. Mom and Dad would stay at our house, and Dad would bring conference attendees home with him for meals with us. We always attended the conference’s closing dinner, where Dad would give the invocation—until it was obvious that difficulties were developing with his memory.

Dad never discussed his decision to step down with my siblings or me. We don’t know if he sensed his memory was beginning to fail or not. Maybe he was following his strong conviction that there are two groups of people: the visionaries and those who carry out the vision. Dad was a visionary, and a humble one at that. He probably could sense it was time to turn over the reins to the doers, step back and serve as a mentor. When Dad was elected as lifetime board member, he didn’t suffer from founder’s syndrome. He never second guessed the leadership. He had lived a life full of lessons that he could use to encourage newcomers—about business, about service and about the real purpose of money.

When Dad was little, my grandmother gave him 20 cents to place in the offering plate at church, but he put in only 10 cents. Later that day, he spent the other 10 cents on candy, which he tucked in his shirt pocket. A few minutes later, a bird flew overhead and relieved itself. The results landed straight in his pocket, all over the candy. As an adult Dad would frequently tell that story, saying he learned at a very early age not to mess with God’s money. He later concluded that it was all God’s money.

In 1998, Mom and Dad celebrated their 80th birthdays in their retirement village in Florida. In June of that year, they flew to Chicago to attend our youngest child’s graduation from high school. Dad pulled me aside and motioned for me to come closer, as though he wanted to tell me something he didn’t want anyone else to hear. He said, “I figured out that had we held on to all of our Bristol-Myers stock, its current value would have been about 10 million dollars.” Then, with a big smile on his face, he said, “Our net worth today is only about one million dollars.”

I said to him, “So you and Mom have given away 90 percent of your estate to do God’s work?”

“That’s right,” he nodded.

Marion and Al Whittaker
Marion and Al Whittaker

I was never prouder to be my father’s son.

The next morning before breakfast, Dad walked out of the bedroom, took a couple of steps toward me and collapsed in my arms. He was having a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital where he underwent bypass surgery the next day. A month later, Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and was told she had about 90 days to live. Devastated, I flew back to Florida with my parents. My brother and I got them settled into the hospice wing of the little hospital on the grounds of their retirement village.

Dad survived Mom by eight years. When I went to visit him, I would ask, “So Dad, where do you want to go today? Ghana? The Philippines? South Africa?” Then, I would take him on a virtual journey so he could see what was going on in one of the Opportunity International locations. He would sit in his chair and marvel at everything he saw and heard. And he would say over and over, “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.” I often wonder if the little boy with the five loaves and two fish didn’t feel the same way after Jesus was finished feeding the five thousand.

In September of 2000, Opportunity asked me to represent Dad at the Opportunity International Global Conference in Oxford, England. They wanted to honor Dad as they celebrated the one millionth recipient of an Opportunity loan. The award, presented by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, read in part, “Over one million poor people have found a lasting solution to poverty through employment because you were faithful in sharing the vision God gave you.”

The next time I went to see Dad, I brought him the award. He was not very impressed that Princess Anne presented it; he was awed by the fact that over one million people had benefited from small loans.

Watching Dad’s life gave me a firsthand look at what God can do when He touches the hearts of individuals who respond to Him in simple faith. That’s the legacy of my parents. Five decades ago, Dad dreamed of serving people living in poverty. For 50 years, Opportunity has helped make those dreams come true for over 17 million people in 27 countries.

When asked about his vision for Opportunity, Dad would often say, “We set up self-funding credit organizations. We put money in and provide training, but after five or six years, they are able to do it on their own. My vision is that at some point we’ll have reached the last country we need to be in, and they’re self-sustaining.

“Then we go back to the office, we turn off the lights and we find something else to do.” 

This was never about Dad.

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