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Vicki Escarra, CEO, Opportunity International,

New CEO to lead change microloan non-profit

Vicki Escarra's career path shows why she's ideally suited to lead change at Opportunity International

By Erin Chan Ding, Special to the Tribune

April 15, 2013

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Inside the John Hancock Center, 13 floors up, Vicki Escarra gazes into a large camera lens.

She eschews a word-for-word script, speaking instead from an outline that allows for more spontaneity.

"You know, women are the largest untapped lever in the developing world," she says. "Opportunity International believes in the power of one woman — who's an entrepreneur, a provider and a leader."

The recording, to be used in promotional copies of the documentary "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," based on the book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, is designed to reach Opportunity's current and prospective donors — a base Escarra is eager to expand.

Seven months into her role as CEO of Opportunity International, Escarra has set an ambitious plan for what some supporters see as an underappreciated nonprofit.

Oak Brook-based Opportunity International was started in 1971 by Al Whittaker, former president of Bristol-Myers International Corp., now Bristol-Myers Squibb, and David Bussau, an entrepreneur from Australia. It provides microfinance loans to small businesses in the developing world in an effort to alleviate poverty.

Opportunity owns 18 banks that provide loans to individuals and small businesses, with the interest helping defray operating costs. In all, 56 banks in 23 countries, including Nicaragua, India, Malawi and Congo, hold membership in the Opportunity International Network. Assets under management by its global network total $836 million.

Investing in developing countries can carry inherent risk; though its banks helped the organization break even in 2012, economic factors like fluctuating agricultural prices in Malawi caused a $12 million operational loss for Opportunity the year before. 

Escarra spent six years as CEO of Feeding America and nearly 30 years at Delta Air Lines Inc., where she rose to chief marketing officer. She has initiated quick change at Opportunity International, hiring outside firms like the Boston Consulting Group to help set a strategic plan, expand fundraising and rebrand the organization.

Name recognition poses a huge challenge: "No one knows who we are," she said.

Dick Gochnauer, former CEO of United Stationers and a longtime donor to Opportunity International, said the organization is "really at a junction here."

"Vicki is critical and the right person. Her skill sets and her capabilities are absolutely spot on for what we need," he added.

Escarra has cut several positions while adding a chief marketing officer and public relations consultants. With ground-floor offices in a nondescript building, Opportunity International has 77 full-time U.S. employees, though its global reach stretches to 18,000 loan officers and field staff, and serves more than 5 million people.        

"The way we're operating right now reminds me of a startup," said Escarra, 58. "We're redesigning the organization, rethinking the strategy, rethinking marketing."

Escarra is well-suited to those tasks, said Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and global ambassador for Opportunity International.

"She is fearless, and when I say fearless, I don't mean she is unwise," said Fiorina, chairman and CEO of Carly Fiorina Enterprises, an umbrella organization for her advocacy and policy work. "But she is not afraid to make a decision and take an action. ... Vicki's experience with large, complicated companies will help her with Opportunity, which is large and complicated and competent. You have to set big goals and proceed step by step, loan by loan, woman by woman, dollar by dollar. That's the only way you'll get there." 

Opportunity gets $40 million in donations from about 4,500 donors. Escarra aims to increase both of those figures. Through its new partnership with the One Woman Initiative, which Fiorina co-founded, Opportunity has set a goal of raising an additional $50 million in the next two years to fund loans for 2 million women.

Working her way up

Since moving to Chicago nearly seven years ago to lead Feeding America, Escarra has lived 35 floors above the city, in a River North high-rise with a view of Lake Michigan.

But it was not always this way.

Born in Atlanta, Escarra grew up around Decatur, Ga. Her father worked for General Motors while her mother was hospitalized for extended periods with severe depression.

"If you think back to the '50s and emotional issues," Escarra said, "they really weren't understood at all."

At times, Escarra and her younger brother went to live with her grandmother in Athens, Ga. Before her grandmother intervened, Escarra said, her father struggled to pay her mother's medical expenses.

"We would go for days with just eating at school and not eating at home. Just lunch," Escarra said. "So it was pretty grim."

These formative experiences, she said, give her empathy for the people she serves.           

Maura Daly, chief communication and development officer at Feeding America, recalled a trip with Escarra to New York, where they helped at a soup kitchen. Escarra carried a pot of coffee to serve clients, some of whom had walked two hours to get a meal.

"This guy asked her where she lives, and she said Chicago," Daly said. "And the guy immediately started telling her a story where he was envisioning himself being an actor on the Millennium Park stage. ... Vicki put down her pot of coffee and sat on the floor by his chair and listened to him for 15 minutes. That's when I realized that she really is that CEO to whom it doesn't matter who's in the room. She treats every person she meets in life with that same level of dignity."

In February, Michele Sullivan, president of the Caterpillar Foundation, spent four days traveling with Escarra in Uganda, meeting with local loan officers and clients.

They had driven three hours outside of Kampala, the capital, to visit a school funded in part by a loan from Opportunity. Children surrounded Escarra, Sullivan said, and she told them, "'You can do whatever you want.' She looked right at them, and with all seriousness said, 'I'm sitting in front of the future president of Uganda. I'm not kidding you. I'm telling the truth.'"

Taking flight

For Escarra, the way forward came through work and education. At Georgia State University, she majored in business and psychology while working in retail, modeling, and answering phones and doing clerical work for Delta Air Lines.

After graduating in 1976, Escarra was interested in joining the Peace Corps but decided to defer those plans for a year to be a flight attendant.

A few weeks before finishing that year, she met Delta's then-CEO Dave Garrett on a charter flight.

When Garrett began chatting with the crew, she told him she was "going to go and do something really meaningful with my life."

"So he laughed, and said, 'Well, why don't you come by my office because I have a few jobs that might be of interest to you,'" Escarra said.

So began Escarra's ascendancy at Delta, first in human resources, then with a promotion every few years. She became director of in-flight service operations and later vice president of reservation sales. In 1996, then-CEO Ron Allen told Escarra that he would like her to oversee Delta's more than 200 airport operations around the world.

"I was like, I don't know how to run airports," she said. "But it was like, 'We're looking for leadership.'"

The move did not come without resistance from some colleagues. In addition to customer service and ticketing, Escarra led ground operations like baggage handling, fueling, catering and tower operations. The workforce she oversaw, she said, consisted of about 22,000 employees, a small percentage of whom were women.

Escarra recalls visiting Cincinnati for a meet-and-greet with about 100 ramp agents.

She said the head of Delta's operations at the airport introduced her to the crowd by saying: "I just want you to know that, as far as I'm concerned, you couldn't hold (the former supervisor's) jock strap."

"I wanted to throw up," Escarra said.

Instead she kept calm and replied that she had no interest in holding a jock strap.

"And all those guys started laughing," she said. "And I do think it endeared them to me and me to them. ... So that was instant respect."

Several years later, Escarra was named chief marketing officer. She started the job a week before 9/11.

"It was mayhem," Escarra said. "We've got these airplanes on the ground, all over the world."

In the days after the attacks, a core team of executives, including Escarra, began rethinking and rebuilding security amid plummeting revenue.

M. Michele Burns, chief financial officer at the time, recalled how the airline had to shed 13,000 of 70,000 employees through buyouts and layoffs in a matter of weeks.

"What I can remember is Vicki's ability to communicate to a broad audience with compassion for the situation, with love of the company and with respect for the business," said Burns, now executive director of the Marsh & McLennan Retirement Policy Center. "She was able to make her difficult messages heard and accepted by the workforce."

But in the midst of a yearlong series of 17-hour workdays, Escarra had an epiphany.

"I started thinking, 'I do not want to do this. You know, I want to get the company out of this, and I want to do my part, but I really don't want to do this for the rest of my life. There's got to be something more meaningful,'" she said.

She left Delta in 2004, intent on taking a year off, when Shirley Franklin, then mayor of Atlanta, asked for her help with the Brand Atlanta campaign.

One day, Escarra was sitting in a car with Franklin after she had visited kids in Atlanta public schools. Franklin talked with students regularly, often giving out her phone number, Escarra said.

She said she asked the mayor, "'Why are you doing this?' And she said, 'You know, Vicki, I'm doing this because I really believe in the power of what one person can do. ... I want to see these kids graduate.' And she said, 'You know, you have all these talents. When are you going to do something really great with your life?'"

After that conversation, Escarra began to look for positions in the nonprofit sector.

Taking chances

When America's Second Harvest called, interested in her, Escarra was perplexed.

"I couldn't figure out what they did," she said. "It sounded like a farming organization. So I said, I'm not really interested in that."

Her executive search consultant urged her to go to the interview anyway.

"We met, I didn't like them, and they didn't like me. It was horrible. It was the worst interview of my life," she said.

But Escarra visited her local food bank in Atlanta, a member of America's Second Harvest, and she changed her mind after seeing the operations. Subsequent interviews went much better, and, taking a roughly 50 percent cut from her Delta income of about $850,000 a year, Escarra began her nonprofit career.

Two years later, the organization changed its name to Feeding America. It boosted its profile through corporate and cause-marketing partnerships, including participation in ABC's "The Biggest Loser."

The renaming, Daly said, stands as one of the "biggest contributions that Vicki made in her tenure. It was the riskiest, best decision any leader in the nonprofit sector has made in the last 10 years. ... But she was making a decision rooted in fact with a lot of support of the people around her."

Kara Kennedy, executive director of Lumity, a nonprofit consultancy based in Chicago, said nonprofits often balk at what they consider risky investments in marketing or branding.

"Yes, you could lose money, and it is scary," she said. "But you're going to gain something important — in knowledge, experience, awareness. You just don't know at first how much in return you'll get."

In addition, Escarra said, Feeding America began measuring itself each month like a corporation. It beat its targets — tripling fundraising and food distribution — in three years instead of five.

Opportunity International, meanwhile, fulfilled her desire to do the type of work she might have done in the Peace Corps. The group was founded as a Christian faith-based organization but serves and gets donations from people of all faiths. The growth potential was also a lure.

"I don't like moving into organizations that are all fixed," Escarra said. "What's the fun of moving into an organization and everything is running well? There's no fun in that." 

Vicki Escarra, CEO, Opportunity International

Born in: Atlanta

Lives in: River North

Family: Daughters Emily, 28, and Kathryn, 22

Education: Bachelor's degree in business and psychology from Georgia State University

Attends: Fourth Presbyterian Church in Streeterville (the Sunday afternoon jazz service)

Travels for fun to: Cape Cod and Nantucket, Mass. "That's my happy place."

Fond memory: Running a leg of the Olympic torch relay in 1996 before the games in Atlanta. "It actually weighs 5 pounds. So think about carrying 5 pounds, and it was like, 'Please don't go out. And please don't drop it. And please don't light somebody, because there are kids all over you.' There are just children lined up and down the streets. I loved it."