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Column: Atlantans helping world’s poorest at Opportunity International

By Maria Saporta

Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Friday, March 15, 2013

Atlanta native Vicki Escarra, formerly the highest-ranking woman executive at Delta Air Lines Inc. as its chief marketing officer, introduced her newest cause — Opportunity International — at a reception at the Buckhead Club on March 11.

Escarra is now CEO of Opportunity International, a nonprofit that provides microloans, insurance, savings and training in 20 countries around the world.

“It’s great to be back in Atlanta,” Escarra said. “It’s great to be home.”

Escarra left Atlanta for Chicago in 2006 to become CEO of America’s Second Harvest, the national organization of all food banks — an organization that she described as “dysfunctional.”

She asked Mike Diemler, the managing director of the Boston Consulting Group in Atlanta, to work on a strategic plan for the organization, which led to changing the name to Feeding America and to adopting best practices that led to an increase in the annual fundraising from $28 million to $100 million.

Escarra said she was “happy as a clam” at Feeding America when she was contacted about the possibility of leading Opportunity International, a nonprofit she didn’t even know existed.

“We are about the best-kept secret among nonprofits in the world, and I know that’s not a good thing,” Escarra said. With a background in marketing, Escarra said Opportunity International has a great story to tell. For every dollar donated, it has a return of nearly $600 because the money is reinvested as loans are repaid.

Last year, it loaned about $1.1 billion and served about 4.5 million loans serving about 5 million people — of which 90 percent are women. The nonprofit has a total of 20,000 employees and has majority ownership in 15 banks and minority ownership in another 30 enterprises.

But Opportunity International’s fundraising budget is only $40 million a year, a base that she believes can be increased.

Escarra also has been exploring Opportunity International’s Atlanta ties. When she joined the organization in September, she realized that David Allman, chairman of commercial real estate developer Regent Partners LLC, had been a longtime donor and had a special project in Nicaragua.

In a visit to Atlanta in October, she met with Allman and another donor, Karen Robinson Cope, a serial entrepreneur — both people she had not really known when she was living in Atlanta. A group of 10 ended up going to Nicaragua in December, and as a result of that trip, the Atlanta connections with Opportunity International have become even stronger.

Cope, executive vice president of business development for flexible digital screen-maker NanoLumens Inc., has now become chair of Opportunity International’s board of governors, the fundraising body for the organization.

Also, Escarra has once again turned to Boston Consulting’s Diemler to develop a strategic plan for the organization.

“I really have always wanted to help women and to work in the developing world. It’s magic investing,” Escarra said. But she also understands today’s reality. “None of these large nonprofits have the capital to solve this alone. We need to be strategically involved in partnerships.”

Urban Land Institute

Speaking of David Allman, chairman of Regent Partners … he’s everywhere.

Allman will be the next chair of ULI Atlanta, effective July 1. Allman currently serves on the Atlanta Advisory Board for the Urban Land Institute. He also chaired last year’s ULI Atlanta’s Awards for Excellence program and has been a speaker at several ULI programs.

But in addition to his upcoming role at ULI Atlanta, Allman is chairman of the Livable Communities Coalition and the Buckhead Community Improvement District.

Ironically, there is another common denominator between all three of those organizations. Jim Durrett, currently head of the Buckhead CID, has led ULI Atlanta and the Livable Communities Coalition.

Allman founded Regent Partners in 1988, and it has acquired and/or developed more than 10 million square feet across the Southeast. The portfolio is valued at more than $2 billion.

Our House

For 25 years Our House has been helping homeless children get a better education through pre-school offerings and parental support. To celebrate that milestone, Our House will hold a gala at the Commerce Club on March 16.

“We are proud to be celebrating 25 years of providing a place where homeless children can learn and get a great start on their lives and education,” said Tyese Lawyer, executive director of Our House.

During its 2012 fiscal year, Our House served 147 children from 98 families providing early childhood education programs as well as age-appropriate immunizations and well-care exams.

The nationally accredited pre-school is a center of excellence that nurtures a child’s development and helps children have a promising academic future through early-childhood education.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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