Opportunity International CEO Atul Tandon received the Life & News' 2019 Krach Transformational Leader of the Year Award. This article about Tandon's life and mission originally appeared on the Life & News website here.
Ending Extreme Poverty
Atul Tandon is fighting for one big goal: to end extreme poverty in his lifetime.
An Indian-born banker, entrepreneur, and philanthropist who is now one of the leading voices in the fight against extreme poverty, the percentage of the world’s population that is living on less than $1.90 a day, around the world, Tandon serves as the CEO of Opportunity International, where he leads a global team that is working to do just that.
It’s a lofty goal, to be sure, but not an impossible one. In the last 30 years, we have collectively cut extreme poverty in half — and for the first time in human history, zero is within reach. In 1990, one in three human beings, 36% of the world’s population, lived in extreme poverty. Today, that number is less than 1 in 10.
Tandon is leading his organization to play their part in what he calls “the greatest story our generation could write.”
Under Tandon’s leadership, Opportunity International has planted itself firmly in this story, too. Through innovative programs and services, Opportunity is reaching out to those that the economic juggernaut has left behind — working to help them build sustainable incomes, feed their families, educate their children and escape generational poverty.
His continued goal — the one that motivates his daily work — is for that bold, historic day when no one goes to bed hungry, and every person has a roof over his or her head to become a reality.
Opportunity for Today
Over the last 49 years, Opportunity International has developed best-in-class solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges — and today, under Tandon’s leadership, it is putting those solutions to work, and developing new ones, with the goal of ending extreme poverty.
Opportunity equips millions of very poor women and men with the financial resources, training, and support they need to start small businesses, earn sustainable incomes and stand on their own two feet. Additionally, Opportunity’s small business financing programs create jobs for low skilled and semi-literate workers in village economies. These jobs enable individuals to earn a living, support their families, send their children to school, and put food on the table.
Founded in 1971, Opportunity was one of the first organizations to recognize the power of a small loan given to an enterprising poor worker. With capital in-hand, they could invest in their own business and earn a living wage. Opportunity’s first client, Carlos Moreno, was a street vendor in Cali, Colombia, who went on to build a small business with multiple locations and over 50 employees.
In the 1970s, Opportunity started microfinance lending institutions; realized the power of small group lending, especially to women, in the 80s; launched full-service banks for those living in poverty in the 90s; and in the 2000s introduced the world’s first microinsurance product, designed to help families meet sudden emergencies. MicroEnsure, spun off by Opportunity in 2015, is the leading provider of microinsurance to the working poor worldwide.
Opportunity has not rested on its wins. Over the last decade, it developed and launched Education Finance and Agriculture Finance programs to better serve the unique needs of families wanting quality education for their children and smallholder farmers struggling to make ends meet.
The scale of their impact is enormous: last year, Opportunity served 17 million clients – over 7 million loan clients and over 12 million clients with savings accounts and payments services. They loaned over $3 billion — with loans that averaged only $270 – mostly to women earning less than $3 a day.
Recognizing that today extreme poverty is concentrated in rural communities, Opportunity is developing solutions to address these unique needs. Over 80% of extremely poor households in Africa live in rural areas and rely upon farming to support their families. Because of this, smallholder farmers remain central to Opportunity’s mission and model. Through customized loans that take into account seasonal cash flows, training from agricultural experts, better value chains from farm to market, and support through a farm agent network, Opportunity empowers farmers to move from subsistence to sustainable agriculture.
Best of all, these programs work. A study in Mozambique showed that 2/3 of farmers in Opportunity’s Agriculture Finance programs increased their harvest. A study in Zambia and Mozambique showed that 58% of women farmers increased their income.
More personally, they transform the lives of people like Mujawimana Maria Josée, a farmer in Muhanga, Rwanda. For years, she struggled to produce enough maize to cover her costs. She never finished school, and she never learned about productive farming practices.
Everything began to change when she connected to Opportunity’s team in Rwanda. She took out a loan and used the money to plant rice, diversifying her crops, and growing her income. After three seasons, Mujawimana is now growing about 800 pounds of rice each harvest—more than four times what she grew that first year. She has also purchased drying racks, a corn sheller, and other helpful tools. The financial resources she received, coupled with training on both how to manage money and improve her farming, have changed Mujawimana’s life and future.
Opportunity for Tomorrow
While investing in tiny household businesses and farmers address extreme poverty today, true change happens by equipping the next generation. Through its Education Finance initiatives, Opportunity works to fight tomorrow’s poverty, too.
Here is the crux of the problem: there are currently 263 million children not in school. These are children who are not learning, and who, therefore, will likely be trapped in the same poverty as their parents and grandparents. Children who need an opportunity to learn, discover, and break the cycle of poverty once and for all.
Opportunity’s EduFinance program addresses both access to and quality of education for those living in poverty. Parents get School Fee Loans to help cover tuition for their children, even when their income is unstable. School Proprietors get School Improvement Loans to help them expand their infrastructure and improve their facilities. In practice, this looks like more teachers, classrooms, science facilities, computer labs, school buses, and even bathrooms —especially to encourage girls to come to school.
During Tandon’s tenure at Opportunity, its Education Finance program has grown from 1,200 schools to 15,000 schools and has impacted an additional 4.7 million children. Additionally, they have dramatically expanded their work in education quality. Recognizing that getting children into the classroom was only half the problem, the EduFinance team began supporting schools through two programs: an education improvement curriculum and training called Pathways to Excellence and a collaborative peer learning model known as school clusters. Through these clusters, teachers and proprietors are connected to other educators in their region and encouraged to share challenges and best practices.
These clusters and the Pathways to Excellence curriculum program have been so successful that Opportunity is now sharing them with other organizations worldwide. By making these resources public and available, Opportunity is establishing itself as a leader and example in the global movement to improve education.
Best of all, these programs work. For school proprietor Charles Mugerwa in Uganda, EduFinance resources and training helped him grow the Top Care Junior School from 24 to 893 students. He built two classrooms, developed a system for identifying and serving struggling students, and can consistently pay his teachers.
As he said, “Without Opportunity, we would have been stuck. I couldn’t move forward. Opportunity has helped me put up more classrooms, and as a result, now the pupils sit comfortably. Now I’m happy. And the community appreciates what we do.”
Advocating for Women and Girls at the UN
In September 2019, Tandon took the stage at the United Nations to advocate on behalf of women and girls.
The problems he addressed are daunting: currently, there are 130 million girls who are not in school; women perform 66% of the world’s work, but only earn 10% of the world’s income; women earn, on average, 60-75% of men’s wages; 79 global economies have laws that restrict the types of work that women can do; 95% of the world’s economies have at least one law that impedes women’s economic opportunities.
But as Tandon shared at the UN, the potential is enormous. Investing in programs that improve income-generating activities for women can return $7 for every dollar spent. And as Sheryl WuDunn wrote, “When you educate a girl, there is a ripple effect that goes beyond what you would get from a normal investment…When you educate a girl, you educate a village.”
Girls’ education, in particular, has incredible potential for change. Every additional year of primary school boosts girls’ future wages by 10-20%; if all girls had a secondary school education, there would be two-thirds fewer teenage pregnancies and women would have fewer children overall; a child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past age five; and if all women completed primary education, maternal mortality would fall 66%.
And critically, when women have more influence over economic decisions, families allocate more income to food, health, education, children’s clothing, and children’s nutrition.
Through his role as CEO of Opportunity International, Tandon has devoted this season of his career to creating opportunities for those who have been excluded and oppressed because of poverty — today, tomorrow, and the day after that.
Awards and Honors
Because of this commitment, last fall Tandon received the Ideagen Global Leadership Award. The award honors global leaders and luminaries for their dedication to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals — a set of benchmarks defined by the United Nations to track our collective global progress.
The award — which honors the legacy of Ideagen’s founding chairman, Congressman Louis Stokes, and their chairman emeritus, former US Surgeon General Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu — is presented to leaders across industries who demonstrate extraordinary leadership and impact as they work to change the world.
During his acceptance speech, he said, “What I’m really here to celebrate is that you and I are a time of great wellbeing. We are living in a time when we can see the end of extreme poverty in our lifetimes.”
It is this dream that inspires Tandon’s daily work — and his dedication to Opportunity’s clients. It’s his unwavering belief that we have both the opportunity and responsibility to make the world better, and he has devoted his career to doing just that.
Today a prominent business and humanitarian executive — and the 2019 recipient of Life & News’ Krach Transformational Leader of the Year Award — Tandon’s path to leadership has been anything but easy. He knows what poverty looks like because, growing up in India, he has seen it close at hand. He also knows what an enterprising, determined, and committed person can accomplish, given the right resources, training, and support. For that, he doesn’t have to look any further than his own story.
As a student growing up in India, Tandon watched his home country fight endemic rural poverty, crippling foreign debt, and a struggling industrial sector to emerge as a nation with a burgeoning market economy, an unrivaled tech sector, an educated population, and a thriving middle class.
And it wasn’t just the context around him. Tandon himself grew up relying on his family’s small resources and his parents’, especially his mother’s, willing sacrifice to ensure that he could stay in school and continue learning. She knew the power of a good education. Tandon fondly remembers a box of #2 lead pencils he received as a gift at the start of every new school year. For Tandon, those pencils came with the expectation that he would achieve something extraordinary. They represented both a challenge and an opportunity.
And those pencils worked. They opened doors to his future.
With the tireless support of his parents, Tandon completed his education and was the first person in his family to obtain a business graduate degree. After receiving his MBA from the University of Delhi, Tandon later went on to receive a certificate in governance from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Financial Services in India and Beyond
Tandon began his career in India, where he launched a financial services start-up, introducing innovative financial leasing for Indian capital markets.
He then joined Citibank in India, where he helped bring state-of-the-art consumer banking to the country. Under his leadership and direction, Citibank introduced key consumer products and services in India, including ATMs, credit cards, mortgages, consumer loans, and remote banking.
These programs’ success led Tandon’s move to the U.S. to help turn around Citibank’s businesses in California during the S&L crisis of the early 90s. In the U.S., he pioneered customer-centered relationship banking and eventually became the Global Branch Distribution Director for Citibank’s worldwide operations. Over his career, the bank expanded its global consumer networks to more than 146 million accounts, grew billions in income, and developed a presence in 101 countries.
A Life of Impact
After decades of building a successful career on Wall Street, Tandon found himself asking a pivotal question: “Where do I go from here?”
He was inspired by the age-old biblical challenge: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
These three directives — acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God — have since shaped Tandon’s life decisions, leadership, and public involvement.
With his childhood and his personal faith in mind, Tandon decided to go back and serve the people he had “left behind” — the people facing the same challenges that his parents, grandparents, and neighbors in India had faced.
In 2000, Tandon joined World Vision, an international humanitarian organization based in Seattle, WA. He led the organization through a period of unprecedented expansion — tripling revenues in the United States and expanding fundraising in 25 countries. His strong acumen in donor stewardship and philanthropic programs made him a respected leader at World Vision and reaffirmed Tandon’s commitment to serving those living in poverty.
It was also at World Vision where Tandon first began his leadership in microfinance, serving on the board of VisionFund International. By leveraging financial tools and training to create jobs and serve the less fortunate’s needs, Tandon found the perfect intersection between his corporate experience and his heart for transformation — and this combination would continue to direct his career moving forward.
After nine years at World Vision, Tandon joined United Way’s 40-nation international network, overseeing the world’s most extensive matrix of community-based charities. He headed the organization’s international affiliate organization, with nearly 1,800 charities in 40 countries. He led its American donor engagement and fundraising functions, establishing himself as a noted global leader in nonprofit management, philanthropy, and donor engagement.
Promoting growth and development of social enterprises
Tandon recognized that the lessons he was learning about scaling and sustaining impact extended beyond the confines of any single organization. Motivated by his own experiences, he launched the Tandon Institute — a social sector accelerator — providing strategy, solutions, and staffing to enable social sector enterprises to grow their impact, revenues, public engagement, and organizational capacity.
Going Where Other's Don't
For Tandon, the future will be marked by an even deeper commitment to the work he has always done. At Opportunity, he is doubling down on the tools and services that have proven their efficacy — and going where others can’t or don’t.
Opportunity is laser-focused on reaching people that are all too often left behind. Women, children, refugees, farmers, people with disabilities, people living on the margins…these are the people that Opportunity exists to serve. And these are the people that keep Tandon awake at night.
“For the first time in human history, the end of extreme poverty is within reach,” he said. “But now we have reached the hard part. We are trying to serve the people who have historically been the most marginalized, the most oppressed. We have to iterate and extend our proven services to reach them, too. We can’t leave anyone behind.”
Now, that challenge has been made even more severe by the impact of COVID-19. According to estimates by the World Bank, “up to 60 million people will be pushed into extreme poverty – that erases all the progress made in poverty alleviation in the past three years.
This makes work like Tandon’s more difficult — and more important — than ever.
He keeps Bill and Melinda Gates’ words at the front of his mind: “As extreme poverty disappears from many places…it gets more and more concentrated in the most challenging places in the world. More and more, extreme poverty will be a feature of life only where people’s opportunities to overcome it are brutally limited.
“…The good thing about projections, though, is that they are based on the status quo. We don’t believe in the status quo. We believe that people, when given tools and opportunity, can defy the odds.”
And Tandon returns, again and again, to the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The honor of leading one of these small groups is not lost on Tandon. Ending extreme poverty is the mission of Opportunity — but it’s also the mission of Tandon’s life. And he doesn’t plan on stopping until the work is done.
Life & News was founded in 2013 with its own commitment to transformation. Life & News’ vision is to bring new voices and new approaches to the news business by creating a better and unbiased news source more committed to honesty than sensationalism. Life & News believes that news done right contributes to the wellbeing of people and society. With Life & News’ Krach Transformational Leader of the Year Award, we are recognizing leaders who share the commitment to a better future for all, and who are with us in the mission of transformation.