BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
The eighth in our “All in a Day’s Work” series profiles Allison Kooser, who works with Opportunity International’s microfinance clients to help turn around extreme poverty in 23 countries in Latin America, Africa, and India. She is one of our finest examples of young people taking a daydream and turning it into a dream job. She proves that optimism, enthusiasm, and a foundation of training can open the world to you.
Based in Chicago and founded by two business leaders in 1979, Opportunity International has set a goal to create 20 million jobs by 2020. To date, they have created or sustained nearly 17 million jobs for global entrepreneurs and partner with business leaders and foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Caterpillar, John Deere, the Master Card Foundation, and Credit Suisse.
Allison described how she got started:
“I am a native Chicagoan but have been fortunate that my family has lived internationally. When in college, I realized what I really wanted to do was to work in forgotten-about places in a sustainable and uplifting way. I am very passionate about my work and advise those with a love of travel—and a desire to make a difference—to start building their skill sets.”
Right out of college Allison was hired to manage the Young Ambassadors for Opportunity founded by Liesel Pritzker Simmons. She was responsible for educating, involving, and inspiring young professionals and entrepreneurs in and about the power of microfinance as a tool to alleviate global poverty.
Atul Tandon, CEO of Opportunity International, explained how her job quickly evolved due to her determination to take action on a global basis:
“Through our Young Ambassadors Program, Allison managed a national network of young leaders to raise awareness and funds for Opportunity’s work around the world. She has traveled to Colombia, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and India on behalf of Opportunity International to interview incredible microfinance clients and share their remarkable stories with our key stakeholders.
“She coordinated with field staff to arrange four months of meetings throughout Opportunity partner countries. She conducted over 400 interviews, wrote hundreds of stories for giving partners, and took photographs to be used in our annual report and other publications.
“Allison is a great representative of Opportunity because she has seen the work up close and experienced the process by which donor’s dollars are put to work breaking cycles of poverty, building cycles of financial security. As a second-generation donor, she can also speak to how we are in the business of creating opportunities: both for people to work their way out of poverty and for those who are passionate about making that happen.
“Bottom line is: There’s nothing better than helping renew the human spirit of a nation and bringing hope and happiness to families and communities that lack things most of us take for granted. That’s the life-changing opportunity that Allison has experienced and can convey to you first hand.”
Allison is now a storyteller: in meeting Opportunity clients and befriending them, she is able to convey their personal stories. She works with staff in each place she visits, 95 percent of whom are nationals of those countries. She has also led “insight trips” in which donors and others interested in learning more can go along.
“I have met incredible people just by listening and being friendly. Mary, a woman I met in Malawi in Southeast Africa, goes to the heart of our story. She was living in extreme poverty, having dropped out of school early because of the need to work and then had five children to raise with only proceeds from sales of dried fish.
“With the Opportunity loan, she expanded her food business, added juices and fabrics to the items she sold, and now has empowered her whole village. A woman with a wonderfully big personality, she started volunteering at the local orphanage and also recruited other women—many new moms—to Opportunity. There are now 1,200 women and their families who are part of her legacy.”
Allison told us that an Opportunity book club is now reading Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: 10 Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things are Better than You Think and recommends it to those interested in a career in international aid.
“I enjoy finding every piece of the puzzle. I think it’s important to realize that we are moving the needle. As a global community, we are on the path to eradicating extreme poverty in our lifetimes. It is an honor to work with Opportunity and their partner foundations and businesses to address ecosystems, water, and agriculture as well as health and primary skills. In my career I want to do this in more places and for more people.”
Photo credit: Opportunity International