For my YPO Spotlight series, I had the amazing opportunity to sit down and interview: Willy Foote, Founder & CEO, Root Capital.
Willy Foote is founder and CEO of Root Capital, a global nonprofit that invests in the growth of agricultural enterprises so they can transform rural communities. Root Capital provides these businesses with the capital, training, and access to markets they need in order to create opportunities for millions of smallholder farmers. Foote is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), a Henry Crown Fellow of The Aspen Institute, Ashoka Global Fellow, recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, founding Board member of Tendrel, and served for nearly a decade on the Executive Committee of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE).
YPO is the premier global leadership organization for more than 28,000 chief executives in more than 130 countries and the global community for them to engage, learn and grow.
- Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thanks for having me! Well, it’s safe to say that I’ve had an unconventional career path. In the late 1990s, I traded a job on Wall Street for a business journalism fellowship in Mexico, where I spent lots of time bouncing around back roads in my truck, meeting rural families who lacked the very basics—clean water, electricity, education. While there, I visited an association of vanilla farmers toiling to improve livelihoods for dozens of indigenous families while drug traffickers operated in the jungle around them. In the end, the cooperative failed, but not because of violence from the drug trade. They failed because they couldn’t access the capital and basic business skills they needed to succeed—too big for microcredit, too small for the bank, they made up what we would come to call the “missing middle” of agricultural finance.
When I returned to the US in the late nineties, I passed up a spot at Harvard Business School to start Root Capital with the intent of closing that financing gap. We set out to help agricultural businesses succeed, especially ones that can connect hundreds or thousands of producers to markets where their crops might fetch a better price. We hoped this would create outsized impact not just for farmers and rural communities, but for entire regions. And our experience over the last 20 years has borne that out time and time again.
- Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Early on, I went to meet with a group of Kekchi Mayan indigenous farmers in the western highlands of Guatemala. These farmers were organized in a cooperative, one of our earliest clients. So, there I was at about 2 pm, with all of us sitting in a circle of wooden chairs beside a rustic warehouse full of coffee stocks. I thanked them for meeting with me and proceeded to explain what Root Capital was doing and how we might work with their cooperative. I was getting into my pitch with passionate conviction when I realized that all but two of the 15 were sound asleep. I had failed to recognize that these farmers woke up extremely early, worked hard until lunch, and rested in the early afternoon when the sun is hottest, before returning to the field until dinnertime. And therein lies an important lesson: Know your customer! It taught me the importance of proximity to the lived reality of those you serve—including, it turns out, understanding their sleep patterns!
- What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes our organization stand out is our unique ability to work year in and year out with businesses located in some of the world’s most vulnerable places. A typical example comes from a coffee farmer cooperative in South Kivu in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo—a region mired in political conflict, extreme poverty, multiple health crises (including Ebola well before COVID-19), and an epidemic of sexual violence that’s marked it as one of the most dangerous places in the world for women and girls. The business is called Rebuild Women’s Hope, and was founded by Marceline Budza, who was inspired to establish it in 2013 after witnessing up close the social and economic struggles that her mother and other women faced in their part of the eastern DRC.
Today, Rebuild Women’s Hope reaches more than 2,000 women coffee farmers across South Kivu—accounting for 80% of their supplier base. And get this: the business has given hundreds of cows and goats to their women farmers as part of an incentive program to meet targets for coffee quality and timely delivery. They’re also building a health clinic, to deliver critical care to farmers that can’t find it anywhere else, which is particularly important under the current circumstances. But most importantly, the business has put women at the center of the development of farming communities.
Businesses like Rebuild Women’s Hope have trouble accessing financing for a myriad of reasons. The political situation in the DRC means that many social and commercial lenders won’t make loans to “risky” agricultural businesses or have left the region entirely, preventing social entrepreneurs like Marceline from driving real change in their communities. Today, Root Capital offers finance and training to seven businesses in eastern DRC—businesses that create higher incomes and tangible opportunities for over 20,000 farmers. We’re really proud of that.
- Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit rural communities particularly hard. In the absence of sophisticated health systems, local governments have imposed strict, but necessary, restrictions on movement that jeopardize food security and business operations for our clients and the farming families they support. But at the same time, agricultural businesses are uniquely positioned to help rural communities survive throughout and beyond this pandemic. We’re modifying our credit and capacity-building services to ensure that our clients are equipped for the challenges of COVID-19 and the eventual reimagined post-pandemic world. We’re also working on grants to get essential supplies out to farmers in rural communities across Africa, Indonesia, and Latin America—especially in regions where the harvest is underway. Our client businesses will be a key part of ensuring the pandemic doesn’t strain under-resourced health systems in rural areas. They’re the key to helping farmers not just preserve their livelihoods during this health crisis, but also to save their lives.
As we work with rural communities to confront COVID-19, we remain focused on what will continue to be the defining issue of our generation: climate change. Before this pandemic, our client businesses were already feeling the impacts of climate change through depressed yields, rampant crop disease, and unpredictable harvests. These challenges will only grow in the years to come as they threaten livelihoods for farming families and our ability to feed our growing world. The key to adapting to this new reality is through resilient agricultural businesses, the heartbeat of thriving rural communities. Our climate resilience strategy centers the adaptation needs of rural businesses while also mitigating the causes of climate change posed by agriculture.
Particularly exciting, we’re leveraging digital business intelligence to allow each business to harness the power of their own data in real time. Working with our advisory team, our clients can compare their information with industry-leading research about the predicted impacts of climate change to create tailored adaptation strategies that build resilience for individual farmers and the business themselves.
- What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
First thing, build a wonderful family life. I’ve been happily married for 25 years to an amazing woman named Virginia “Gina” Foote, who’s a Harvard Business School graduate (she actually went back when I decided to take a different path and start Root Capital) and also works in impact investing, right here in New England where we live. And we have three happy, well-adjusted, and healthy children, and nothing, I repeat, nothing has been anywhere near as important to my life—and my career—as the decision to marry Gina.
Second thing, follow your passion and don’t sweat the career journey too much. My colleagues and I have a deep commitment to tackling gigantic social problems in the world: hunger, poverty, violence to others, gender inequity, and destruction of the environment, all of which are tied to the grinding rural poverty that affects billions of people in low- and middle-income countries. Yet my individual arrival to this fight—my summons to the vocation—was kind of a messy thing, as it often is. When I left Wall Street to work in journalism in Latin America, and again when I ditched Harvard Business School to launch a social enterprise, I definitely felt a little crazy (my parents agreed at the time!). Looking back, it’s only with 20/20 hindsight that I can connect all the steps together in some kind of coherent package. Yet along the way, I stressed too much worrying if it would really hang together at some point. In the end, for me, it hasn’t been so much about creating a career path per se, it’s been finding something that touched my deepest desires and gave me greatest satisfaction.
Third thing, empathy as a critical leadership skill. This one comes directly from observing my father, who died four years ago. Dad was an educator his whole career, including serving as dean of the law school at Washington University in St. Louis, and then as the long-time president of the University of Miami in South Florida. While his resume was impressive, I was most influenced by who my father was, not what he did. Dad had this remarkable ability to connect with, and express empathy for, everyone he met. While at the University of Miami, he oversaw roughly 5,000 faculty and 18,000 students, and what I remember most vividly about Dad’s leadership was how, almost without exception, members of the university’s custodial team would light up with smiles whenever he approached. He invariably knew the first names of janitors and groundskeepers, picking up on some ongoing conversational thread, expressing genuine curiosity and care, making them feel valued as people and professionals while he walked the campus. He set the tone for the entire community, for how people treat each other – what could be more beautiful? I try to emulate Dad’s ability to connect deeply with everyone I come across, whether they’re a donor or impact investor in California or a smallholder farmer growing macadamia nuts in Kenya.
Fourth, the importance of pursuing systems change. Running a social enterprise, you realize pretty quickly that the mission is simply way beyond any single organization’s ability to tackle alone. Hence the importance of systems change—let’s look deeply at a problem or issue and unearth the root causes, and focus on that, rather than the quick treatment of symptoms. Implementing a systems change approach is complex for many reasons. It requires us to understand what’s actually causing the problem, who is involved, and what are the possible solutions. And this last step—analyzing a set of possible solutions—requires us to understand where the gaps are and where there is leverage to act. Perhaps the most challenging part is that it doesn’t happen overnight and it is never the work of one single actor. So, you need to pathologically collaborate with lots of others, even your competitors. By working together with all of the relevant actors fulfilling their unique, synergistic role in the system, we can truly move the needle on big change in our lifetime.
Finally, focus on what you do best, while keeping an eye to innovation. We offered our first loan just over twenty years ago to a coffee cooperative in Guatemala. We slowly diversified with clients working with other exportable tree crops like macadamia and cocoa because we knew these were value chains where we could have impact. Then, as the organization got older, we went through a period of ambitious diversification and subsequent risk as we expanded to other value chains like local food crops, handicrafts, and livestock. The potential for impact here was great, but we weren’t equipped for the specific challenges of these new industries. The expansion was too much, too fast—and it put the organization, and the businesses we serve, at risk. We learned that we serve our mission and our clients best when we focus on our core work, while still looking for ways to responsibly innovate for the highest impact.
- What is the value of a professional network?
Root Capital’s first decade was energetic, inspiring, and a little bit scary. It was also exhausting. After the adrenaline rush of bootstrapping a new company began to wear off, I was—like many managers—often coping with stress and anxiety that I didn’t feel like I could share with my family or friends. Equally important, in the cut and thrust of leadership I needed a kitchen cabinet that I could turn to when neither my board, colleagues, nor the family were right for purpose. By the mid-2000s, I benefited hugely from networks like Ashoka and the Skoll Foundation, which showed me that these “growing pains” weren’t unique to me. Then I joined YPO, which was of course an amazing source of learning and resilience. I wanted to bring that kind of resource to others working as I do in more marginalized parts of the world. I wanted to democratize access, if you will, to the peer-to-peer forum experience, especially for social enterprise leaders often working in particularly harsh conditions.
As such, I joined two other fellows YPO-ers—Rodrigo Baggio (Recode, Brazil) and Taddy Blecher (Maharishi Institute, South Africa)—and teamed up with Jeroo Billimoria (Child Helpline International, India and The Netherlands) to launch Tendrel—a Tibetan word meaning mutuality and interdependence. This global professional association is for entrepreneurs committed to impact. As Tendrel has grown to over 400 members in 30 countries, I have found the sharing extremely valuable. Networks like Ashoka, The Skoll Foundation portfolio, YPO, and Tendrel aren’t just an asset to successful entrepreneurs, they’re a necessity.
- What advice do you have for working smarter, finding purpose and beating burnout?
My advice along all three lines is rooted in a quote from David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who writes a lot about work as a vocation. He says: “A vocation is not a career. A career is something you choose. A vocation is something that summons you.” For me, I feel the ultimate inoculation to burnout lies in having been summoned to a vocation, to the kind of work that every day, writes Brooks, “overshadows the self, and serves some central good.” And the truer I stay to that purpose, the smarter I work.