“Social Impact Investors” with Atul Tandon

Our work today is to ensure that clients can survive this current crisis and be ready to start rebuilding when it winds down. That means extending loan moratoria to clients, ensuring savers can access their funds electronically, providing emergency cash support, helping schools stay open virtually, but it also means training, financial resources, and access […]

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Our work today is to ensure that clients can survive this current crisis and be ready to start rebuilding when it winds down. That means extending loan moratoria to clients, ensuring savers can access their funds electronically, providing emergency cash support, helping schools stay open virtually, but it also means training, financial resources, and access to local support networks moving forward.

We are addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges — extreme poverty, access to education, food security — at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Projects that can make a dent in these enormous problems require clear thinking, relentless innovation, superb execution, and flexibility, all done in a spirit of collaboration and partnership.

As a part of our series about “Social Impact Investors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Atul Tandon, CEO of Opportunity International, an organization that designs, delivers, and scales innovative financial solutions that help families living in poverty build sustainable livelihoods and access quality education for their children. Tandon built a successful career with Citibank, launching consumer banking in India and scaling consumer networks around the world, before transitioning to the nonprofit sector. Prior to his role at Opportunity, he served in senior leadership roles at World Vision and United Way.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Igrew up in India and started my career there — first with a financial start-up and then with Citibank. I helped bring state-of-the-art consumer banking like ATMs, credit cards, mortgages, consumer loans, and remote banking to the Indian market — then made my way to the U.S. to help turn around Citibank’s businesses impacted by the S&L crisis of the early 90s, and eventually led the bank’s worldwide branch banking network.

After several decades on Wall Street, a mid-life crisis led to me to question what I was called to do. What would bring my heart the deepest satisfaction — and was that what I was doing? My answer, as a person of faith, came from the biblical story of the Good Samaritan — to stop my “business” and give a hand to the person left hurting on the side of the road so that they could stand up and walk again! That realization, in the fall of 1999, led to career change. I decided to take my skills and apply them to helping humanitarian organizations — those serving the world’s extreme poor — scale their operations and impact.

I have been very fortunate! Over the years, I’ve been able to work with amazing people on exciting projects, both in the world’s richest and the poorest communities, which in turn have impacted the lives of millions of customers, clients, and beneficiaries. For that, I have to thank my family, friends, and the many colleagues in dozens of countries over the past four decades.

Can you share a story with us about a humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

Soon after starting at World Vision, an international humanitarian organization, my boss invited me to accompany him on a trip to see our programs in Mozambique. I remember showing up at the airport dressed as I would for a trip with a Wall Street CEO, and with a suitcase packed for a 10-day trip to Africa, only to find him decked out in jeans and a backpack. I still remember how hard we laughed at the irony of the situation. Needless to say, I pack differently these days!

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I think first you have to decide how you define success. And then to follow that decision through with, in Jim Collins’ words, “Disciplined People, Disciplined Thought, Disciplined Action.”

For me, my deepest satisfaction came when I changed my definition of success to serving others — those who have been left out and left behind — the world’s extremely poor. That decision led me to evaluate my values, gifts, talents, and skills, which in turn led to a deep search for the right place to serve out my call. Getting on the right bus, in the right seat, with the right passengers usually leads to the right destination.

What I also learned in the process was that success comes from a combination of knowing what to do and how to do it. Applying my business analytical skills to the question of distributing small-ticket, high-volume loans to the poor was the easy part; getting our women clients to believe that they could stand on their own two feet, run micro businesses, and be successful was the hard part. The former takes a lot of head knowledge, but the latter requires heart knowledge.

My business school training taught me to identify problems and gave me the tools to solve them. My village marketplace training taught me to look at solutions and use business tools to help people realize them. What I discovered was human beings achieve more when we use our strengths to pursue our goals, instead of trying to tackle our weaknesses. In the words of Peter Drucker, “The task of organizational leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that makes a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.” Building up an organization and its people is all about tapping into their strengths and then adding what is missing.

And what has been remarkable is that using these principles, we as a global community have seen success, and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of it. Over the last 30 years, we’ve cut extreme poverty by 65% — from nearly 2 billion people living on less than $1.90/day to about 700 million people today. Fewer children are going to bed hungry. Fewer families are wishing for a roof over their heads. More girls are getting educated. Smallholder farmers are making ends meet. Playing my part in this story has been the greatest success of my career.

The lessons are simple: Define success for yourself. Know who you are. Choose your ‘bus’ carefully. Be disciplined. Believe in those around you. Work to unleash their and your strengths to pursue your goals. Make friends and keep them. Leave when they still want you to stay.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or mentor to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There is one person who can take a great amount of credit for where I am today: my mother.

I grew up in India in a family with limited means. It was my mother’s dedication to her children, her aspirations for us, and her willing sacrifice that made me stay in school, continue learning, and be committed to excellence. At the start of every school year, she would give me not fancy toys or presents, but a box of yellow #2 lead pencils. That was it. Simple pencils, a pencil sharpener, and an eraser — reminders of her expectation that I would be successful at schoolwork that year. It worked!

You have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but are afraid of the prospect of failure?

Failure is a great teacher. Every leader I know, however successful, has failed numerous times. The process of failing is unavoidable; it’s what you do with those failures that matters.

A famous line in the entrepreneurial world is “fail fast and fail forward,” and there’s a lot of truth there. If you are able to continue your forward momentum even as you stumble, you are already ahead of most people. Remember to not repeat your mistakes; make new ones. And the really smart people learn not to repeat the mistakes of others, as well!

I believe that forward momentum comes from focusing on our successes, not dwelling on our failures. Start by searching for what has made us successful in the past. When were we most effective, most capable at adding economic, social, or relational value? This is usually the place where you are pursuing a worthy goal–for yourself, your team, or your community.

It’s easy to get hung up on failures when you are chasing a vision that is not actually your life’s work. That’s why you quit — not because it’s gotten hard, but because the goal isn’t worth it. For me, giving up isn’t an option because hundreds of millions of people are still desperately trying to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. My work is for them. So regardless of how many times I fail in the process, their livelihoods and flourishing keep me motivated.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand leadership opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?

When I think about this question, I return to the famous words of Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

This, I believe, is where we run into so many issues. We believe that things will get better if we let them run their course. We want inclusion to simply happen, instead of doing the hard, daily work to make it happen.

The nature of Opportunity International’s work is to create opportunities for those who have historically been left out or left behind. In communities around the world and right here at home, this includes women, people in low castes, racial minorities, those with disabilities, and more. The people we work with every day are those who have spent their whole lives on the margins.

And what is incredible is that these same people who have been excluded and discriminated against are actually powerful change agents. Women, for example, are one of the best investments in the world. Not only are they strong organizational leaders, they also reinvest their success in their families — creating long-lasting societal change. It’s why 95% of Opportunity’s loan clients are women — because we know just how much a woman can do when given the opportunity.

But women face a disproportionate number of hurdles, especially in a place like India, for example, where they have historically had little decision-making power, low literacy, and limited opportunities. We noticed that the women we were serving didn’t just have trouble accessing economic resources and leadership positions — they were up against cultural, educational, and psychological challenges, too. Now, the resources we provide come with training so that women have the confidence and skills to use them. They learn step-by-step instructions on how to complete transactions using digital devices. They receive training from a trusted female peer. They meet in groups to encourage one another.

This is how we fight for inclusion — investing in the people left behind; giving them the resources, training, and support they need to stand up; believing in them and their dreams; removing the barriers that stand in their way; and, in all this, holding them accountable to results. It requires asking hard questions, a commitment to lifelong learning, and tireless work — but it’s critical for our mutual success.

You are a leader who is focused on making a positive social impact. Can you share with us a bit about the projects you have focused on, and look to focus on in the future?

One of the initiatives I am most focused on right now at Opportunity International is helping our clients, some of the world’s poorest people, “Survive to Thrive.” With the pandemic and associated lockdowns, these families face a set of mutually exacerbating catastrophes — health, economic, social, and educational, just to name a few. All in, we are in the middle of one of the biggest humanitarian disasters of all time. It is turning back our progress by more than a decade, and 100 million people could find themselves back in extreme poverty.

Our work today is to ensure that clients can survive this current crisis and be ready to start rebuilding when it winds down. That means extending loan moratoria to clients, ensuring savers can access their funds electronically, providing emergency cash support, helping schools stay open virtually, but it also means training, financial resources, and access to local support networks moving forward.

We are addressing some of the world’s biggest challenges — extreme poverty, access to education, food security — at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Projects that can make a dent in these enormous problems require clear thinking, relentless innovation, superb execution, and flexibility, all done in a spirit of collaboration and partnership.

What you are doing is not very common. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to focus on social impact? Can you share the story with us?

In 1999, after decades on Wall Street, I found myself asking a question: “Where do I go from here?”

I had two things in mind: first, my childhood. I kept thinking about my parents, my grandparents, my neighbors back in India. The families I had known as a young man who struggled to send their kids to school or save for their futures. I had found a path out, but so many others had not. How could I serve those who had been left behind? How could I help more young men and women be successful?

The second was my faith. What would God have me do? The answer I found came from the biblical story of the Good Samaritan. I chose to stop and focus on the person on the side of the road — to help him get up and walk again. That decision led me to a complete career change — and has changed the rest of my life.

Can you share a story with us about your most successful initiative as a leader? Or one that you are most proud of? What was its lesson?

There are so many projects from my Wall Street career that were incredibly successful initiatives that impacted millions of people, earned millions of dollars, and were major global deals.

But I think the project I am most proud of is happening right now. Opportunity’s response to COVID-19 has been a challenge unlike anything we have ever faced. For the first time, the entire world was dealing with the same problem at the same time. And there was no script to follow. No rulebook. The situation in front of us was unimaginable.

Our response was swift and sure. First, we made sure our staff was secure. Here in the U.S., we went fully virtual, and in the field, we went virtual where we could and equipped any in-person staff with PPE. Then we turned our attention to our clients — making sure that they were secure. And finally, to our donors, re-engineering our entire engagement and communication model to fit this new reality.

We built a Rapid Response Fund to serve the many ever-changing needs of our clients, and now, as we begin to understand that we’ll be in this new reality for many more months, we are ready. We are prepared. And we are able to continue our work, even in the midst of a global catastrophe.

I’ve learned countless lessons from our pandemic response. First, when you face a giant problem, understand who is most impacted and start there. Determine what your key drivers are and figure out what difference you want to make. Face the facts, build a plan, and then put that plan into action. Be ready to monitor and change as you go along, and never lose sight of the end goal. Finally, believe in yourself and your team.

I find myself thinking about this quote attributed to Helen Keller often: “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”If there is anything that summarizes what I’ve learned about success, it is that.

Can you share a story of a leadership failure of yours? What was its lesson?

When I first made the move to the nonprofit world, I was bringing decades of corporate experience with me. The core operations — budgets, plans, scorecards, goals — looked the same in both places, so I made the mistake of assuming the work was the same.

What I didn’t realize was just how powerful the deepest motivations of my new team were.The people I was working with didn’t just get a job, they felt called and committed to the work they were doing. They drew meaning for their lives from their work.

It took me almost a year to realize that I was leading them ineffectively because I didn’t appreciate their motivations. It led to almost a complete overhaul in how I manage people. Looking back, I can only ask forgiveness from the team that experienced my leadership at that time! And it wasn’t that they were wrong, or that my old teams in the corporate world were wrong. Both were right for their own place. It was my responsibility to modify my leadership. I had to change.

Is there a project that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?

A number of years ago, a friend of mine was starting a small nonprofit in India. He had a big idea — to help poor laborers and farmers live better lives by giving them loans. At the time, I was working at World Vision and I told him his project was too small for me. I turned down the opportunity to invest in his initiative.

As it turns out, Opportunity International didn’t make the same mistake I did. They partnered on this project — ESAF — to deliver microfinance services to people in India. In 2018, ESAF became one of only a handful of scheduled banks in India.

Early on, I underestimated the power of the concept and the potential of the people involved. Thankfully, my friend and I are still close — and ESAF serves over three million people at the bottom the pyramid in India.

Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before launching a project” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

When we evaluate projects, our standards are relatively straightforward.

1. Does the project meet a clear need?
When working in international development, it can be dangerously easy to start building solutions before ever identifying the real problems. We want to ensure that everything we are building is meeting a real need — one that has been expressed by the communities we are serving.

One example of this is our agent banker network in India. We knew that women were often excluded from the formal economy, and we knew that we want to get our financial services into their hands. But traditional methods weren’t working. It turns out that women didn’t feel confident using mobile banking — and they rarely trusted men to teach them how to do it. So we began employing agent bankers — a team of women who travel to communities to teach women how to conduct transactions.

The problem was one of training, not talent, and by identifying the real need, we were then able to build a project to solve it.

2. Is there a clear solution (or we can build one)?
Once we know the problem, the next question we ask is: what is the solution (or what could the solution be)? When the challenges we are attempting to tackle are things like global hunger, global education, and extreme poverty, so much feels impossible. Condensing problems into solvable pieces is the only way to make progress.

A great example of this is our Agriculture Finance program. Farmers make up a huge percentage of those living in extreme poverty, but our traditional micro banking services weren’t designed to serve their unique needs. Farmers needed financing that wasn’t due back until harvest; they needed access to buyers and suppliers; they needed insight into how to increase their yields with modern farming practices.

By breaking a big problem like hunger into smaller pieces, we were able to identify clear and actionable solutions.

3. Is there a pathway from testing to stability to scale?
If our ultimate goal is to impact as many people as possible, then we are constantly looking for projects that have the potential to scale. Equally important, we are looking for projects that have a path to scale. We want to know that there is a way to get from point A to point B.

Opportunity’s Education Finance initiative is the perfect example of a program that has gone from pilot to the global market in a matter of a few short years. When we first developed EduFinance, we were testing brand new theories — but even from the beginning, the bigger vision was there. We were testing with scale in mind, because we knew that the scale of the problem was enormous. Hundreds of millions of children were out of school, and we were attempting to build solutions that not only worked, but could keep working, over and over again.

Now, EduFinance is in 14,000 schools in 24 countries, with 60 partner financial institutions, and serves over seven million children.

4. Do I have (or can get) the people to work on it?
Great projects don’t go anywhere unless you have great people to work on them. Having the right leadership in place (or knowing that you can access the right leadership) is crucial to a project’s success.

Just look around the team at Opportunity and you’ll see what I mean! It’s an incredible group of people who are motivated by the mission, committed to the work, and absolute experts in their fields. These are the kinds of people who are able to move the needle on things like extreme poverty. These are the people who empower me to say yes to bold, audacious projects.

5. Will it enable us to further our mission and impact on the population we serve?
In many ways, this is really the first question we ask. If the project isn’t mission-aligned and designed to serve our target market, then we don’t pursue it. For us, that means people on the margins, the extremely poor, the vulnerable, the excluded.

We are working toward the end of extreme poverty, and everything we do — every project we choose — ladders up to this ultimate goal.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

That’s easy. Ending extreme poverty. My purpose in life is to do everything I can to ensure that families can go to bed with full bellies and roofs over their heads. It’s how I’m spending my career, and it’s what I get most excited about sharing with others.

The best part is that we know what needs to be done — and prior to the pandemic, we were making steady, significant progress toward this goal. Now, with this current humanitarian disaster, we need more smart, creative people to devote their time and attention to this challenge. How do we ensure that families can feed themselves? How do we get more kids in better schools? How do we help small business owners to build sustainable livelihoods? How do we connect and equip farmers? These are the questions that keep me up at night — and these are the questions that I invite everyone to consider.

You’re right — you never know where the next great idea might come from. And I can think of no better issue to strive for than ending extreme poverty in our lifetimes. That we will live to see the first day in human history when no one will go to bed hungry, and everyone will have a bed to sleep on and a roof over their head.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

I would tell them that this work isdifficult, exhausting, and often frustrating, but it matters. Devoting yourself to something bigger than yourself — something that serves our neighbors who are struggling to simply survive — is the most fulfilling way I could imagine spending my life. It will not be easy; few good things are. But it will undoubtedly be worth it.

We are very blessed that a lot of amazing founders and social impact organizations read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂

I would love to sit down with Bill Gates. In addition to being a remarkably successful leader, innovator, and humanitarian, Gates operates from a clear set of values, principles, and perspectives. I admire how he has narrowed his focus and is unrelenting in pursuing his goals: global health and education. I would love the opportunity to hear what he has learned and find out what wisdom he would give me as I continue my work.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can follow Opportunity International’s work at or connect with me personally on LinkedIn. I look forward to staying in touch with your readers and working together to fight extreme poverty!

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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