Can you imagine what it would have been like to take on a senior management position with a domestic airline in America a week before September 11 in 2001? Vicki Escarra can. She took on the third most senior role at Delta Airlines, as chief marketing officer, a week before the terrorist attack that grounded air travel for weeks and changed the industry, and the country, almost permanently.
Even for Escarra, someone who had spent almost twenty years in the industry, trying to market, plan and sell plane tickets during this unprecedented period was tough. “Air traffic stopped completely for a time and then it slowed,” Escarra says. “I did ask myself ‘Is this what I want to do?’ I decided then and there I would do something different.”
She stuck at it for three years and then in 2004, for the first time in her working life, the diminutive and dynamic executive took a break from work. “I had a year off but I did some work with the Mayor of Atlanta, as chief of staff, and she urged me to really think about transferring my corporate skills into the not for profit sector,” she tells Women’s Agenda from a Sydney office.
It made sense so she started interviewing and soon after found herself at the helm of Feeding America, a large charitable organisation that aims to provide food for the 1 in 6 Americans who go hungry. As chief executive Escarra managed to grow the organisation’s funding from $28 million to $100 million in five years. “We doubled the number of people we were helping,” Escarra says. She attributes the growth, which is notable given the global financial crisis which occurred during this time, to a marketing focus and the right strategy.
“I engaged consultants early on to help us develop a more strategic approach and we then set about achieving it,” she explains.
In May 2012 Escarra was approached about a job with Opportunity International, a global non-profit providing access to small business loans, savings, insurance, and training to more than five million people working their way out of poverty in the developing world. (She was visiting Opportunity International Australia earlier this month.)
Initially Escarra said she wasn’t interested but agreed to meet with one of the board members for dinner. At dinner she “fell in love” and decided to take on the role as chief executive. “I had been an ambassador for OI so I was familiar with its work,” she says. “I love that it allows you to invest in clients and like a bank we can recycle the money – one dollar invested over five years becomes six dollars – so it’s not just aid.”
Her first task as leader was to engage the Boston Consulting Group to help develop a single cohesive strategy for the global group.
“Whether it’s not-for-profit or commercial, the role of a leader is similar. You have to assess the situation, listen to customers, clients and staff around the various issues and then do a deep dive on strategy,” Escarra explains. “You then have to get the right team in place and set goals and targets to bring the strategy to life.”
At OI the “deep dive” has included a significant organisational refresh, with a refined focus on empowering women around the world.
“Two billion people live on less than $2 per day and it’s estimated that 70% of those are women,” Escarra says. It makes sense on those figures alone to focus on women but it’s not the only explanation. “In the developing world women spend 90% of their earnings on their families and communities compared to men who spend between 30 and 40%,” Escarra explains. “Investing in one woman will see her reinvest in her family and community to drive real change.”
The Australian contingent of Opportunity International works in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Ghana and is currently helping more than 2.7 million families to start their own businesses through small loans.
“Of the 5 million people we have helped, more than half have been served in some capacity by the Australian arm of OI,” Escarra says.
For every 10 loans provided by OI, at least one job is created. “Since 1971 the organization has created 12 million jobs and my goal is to create 20 million jobs by 2020,” Escarra says.
As we wrap up she laughs that her two adult daughters, who are now building careers of their own, are amazed by how much she still moves around the world and how much she fits in. When we meet her energy and passion is practically palpable, despite the fact she’s flown around the world two days earlier, so I’m not surprised. It’s why I have no doubt she’ll help ensure the goal of creating 20 million jobs by 2020 is achieved. Possibly ahead of schedule.