New CEO to lead change microloan non-profit

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.