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50 for 50: Origin Stories - Eastern Europe

By Linda Vander Weele

Our Family’s History

In the mid-1980s, our family’s global interest was growing. We had recently adopted two Japanese daughters when former board chair Dave Hardin introduced us to microfinance and Opportunity International in 1987.

That year, we took an Opportunity Insight Trip to Guatemala and Costa Rica—and I was invited to join the U.S. board. I suggested a “2-for-1 deal” that would also include my husband, Ken. In 1990, we organized and led our own Insight Trip to Guatemala and Costa Rica. This trip inspired us to live and work overseas, and we approached over 50 NGOs, including Opportunity, about a possible volunteer assignment.


Ken, Linda, and their four children in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Ken, Linda, and their four children in Sofia, Bulgaria.

In 1991, however, the Opportunity International CEO resigned unexpectedly, and instead of giving us a volunteer assignment, the board asked Ken to serve as the interim CEO. Since Ken was in the process of a career transition, he agreed. At the time, Opportunity was a small NGO with about $4 million of total assets. 

When Eric Thurman, the new CEO, was hired, we decided to once again pursue an international volunteer position with Opportunity and moved our four children to Costa Rica in November 1991. During that time, Ken also began his Ph.D. in microfinance.

Meanwhile, in Europe…

As our family was getting increasingly involved in microfinance, major socio-political changes were happening in Europe. The Revolutions of 1989 led to the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe, eventually resulting in the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

By 1992, eleven new countries had emerged from the former Soviet Union, the Baltic states had regained their independence, and the former Yugoslavia had split into five countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Serbia and Montenegro (which later became two separate countries).

In addition to navigating independence and new political structures, these new countries also faced economic challenges post-communism. All of the state-owned companies and institutions were closing down and shedding employees after the communist state’s fall.

Opening ceremony in Serbia.
Opening ceremony in Serbia.

Bringing Opportunity’s Expertise to Eastern Europe

In August 1992, Opportunity approached Ken regarding the need for a feasibility study in Bulgaria for the Bulgarian-American Enterprise Fund (BAEF), which had just set up shop, following the fall of communism. No organization had yet attempted to do microfinance lending in post-communist Europe.

While I remained in Costa Rica with the four kids, Ken spent September 1992 traveling Bulgaria and thinking about how we could create a microfinance program there. Ken proposed a joint venture plan between Opportunity and BAEF that was accepted in October, and Ken received the job of creating and running the first Opportunity International entity in Eastern Europe.

Linda Vander Weele with one of our first Opportunity clients in Bulgaria, a Romani family that had a brick-making business.
Linda Vander Weele with one of our first Opportunity clients in Bulgaria, a Romani family that had a brick-making business.

In January 1993, we packed up two suitcases each and headed from Costa Rica to Bulgaria, arriving as the sole representatives of Opportunity International!

Life for our family would be quite difficult in Bulgaria for the following 3 years, but we both strongly felt that God was calling us to be part of this historic post-communist transition. It was an intense period with numerous adversities, including: two stolen cars, intermittent water and electricity, language learning, and adapting to the strange and rapidly evolving semi-capitalist-communist culture.

Because of the early success of the Bulgaria microfinance project, Ken became the post-communist Eastern European microfinance expert. Nobody else had tried it before, much less succeeded. This led to countless opportunities to explore microfinance in other countries of post-communist Europe.

Opening ceremony in Serbia.
Opening ceremony in Serbia.

Early success in Bulgaria also led to significant additional funding for Opportunity to start new microfinance programs in Russia, Romania, and Macedonia. Ken hired several very talented young individuals from America and Britain who moved into these countries to launch Opportunity’s microfinance programs. Most of these young stars, like Rodger Voorhies, Stacie Schrader, Rick Halmekangas, and Nicholas Colloff, continued to work for Opportunity for another 10-15 years and moved around the globe to start and manage a number of country programs for Opportunity.

Opportunity continued to expand its presence in Eastern Europe throughout the 1990s. We launched operations in Poland, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, and Serbia in rapid succession. By 1997, Opportunity decided that these Eastern European entities would need to become part of the formal financial system to survive, grow, and become sustainable. Between 1997 and 2001, Ken and his team spent much of their time converting as many of these programs as possible into regulated, deposit-taking financial institutions. Even with limited regulatory options available, Opportunity was eventually able to convert all of them into sustainable operating models, including full banking licenses in Russia, Montenegro, and Serbia, and limited deposit licenses in Macedonia, Croatia, and Bulgaria. 

Opportunity entrepreneurs in the former Soviet Union.
Opportunity entrepreneurs in the former Soviet Union.

Lessons Learned from Eastern Europe

In 2000, Opportunity reorganized its structure and management, and Ken was offered a global role to convert as many of Opportunity’s programs as possible across the entire global network into formal financial institutions to make sure they would have long term access to deposits and other funding.

Ken Vander Weele in Russia, purchasing bread from an Opportunity International client.
Ken Vander Weele in Russia, purchasing bread from an Opportunity International client.

Ken traveled extensively to India, the Philippines, and all over Africa on this quest. This involved creating a new holding company called Opportunity Transformation Investments, getting a private letter ruling from the IRS to make this legally viable, and building relationships with regulators and other networks across the world. Some of the young, expat Opportunity staff from Eastern Europe even moved to Africa to help with these transitions and run the newly formed microfinance banks.

By the time our family moved back to the U.S. at the start of 2007, Opportunity owned banks in more African countries than any other organization in the world, and its total assets under management had grown to more than $1 billion, of which about 70% were held by the microfinance banks that Ken and his team had built in Eastern Europe. 

Opportunity International has always gone where the needs are greatest. In 1993, that meant Eastern Europe—and today it means reaching increasingly rural and impoverished communities around the world. Each new initiative helps us grow and improve the programs and services we deliver to clients. For example, the lessons learned in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and 2000s informed much of Opportunity’s strategy in Africa in the subsequent decades. Linda and Ken Vander Weele and their family boldly charted a new path for Opportunity, and we are grateful for their lifelong leadership, legacy, and impact.

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