Good morning, and welcome to you all.  I mean it genuinely when I say what an honor it is for me to speak to you.  In many ways, this morning feels as though I’ve come full circle in my relationship with SAIS and the MIPP program.

I especially want to thank Dr. Leeds for this invitation.  I reconnected with him at an MIPP reception right here, back in February – my first time back since graduation.  I had no idea that it would lead to this chance to talk about what the program has meant to me, but I was deeply flattered to be asked.

In truth, one of the main reasons I came to the reception was in the hope of seeing him again after 20 years.  You can imagine my delight when he remembered me immediately.

Having said that, I’m keenly aware that a teacher’s instant recognition of a pupil after two decades might, in fact, mean something else entirely.

“Ah yes… I remember you…  You were the one who… “  Fill in the blank here.  Fortunately, I don’t think that was the case in this situation.  So, thank you, Dr. Leeds, for this opportunity.

I have a small confession to make here.  Among my other tasks, I write speeches for a living.

Actually, that’s not the confession.  The confession is, I write them for other people.  My boss, the CEO, primarily.  I almost never actually give them myself.

So, in the event that you find this talk less than perfect this morning, I’m going to give you the pay-off right now, up-front, so you can let your mind wander onto other subjects while I talk.

My SAIS MIPP degree was responsible, in no small measure, for helping me to secure the two most compelling and meaningful positions I’ve ever held in my professional life, including the one I hold now.  If that’s not an endorsement for the program you’re about to embark on, I’m not sure what is.

I came to SAIS and the MIPP program back in 1988 because I was interested in studying Islam and African political economy.  I wasn’t precisely sure where I was going afterwards, or precisely how I was going to get there.  But I knew it was time for some kind of life turn, and I thought the MIPP program would help get me there.   To give me a chance to try new ideas, take time out to think, make new connections.

In retrospect, I believe I tried NOT to set too many specific demands for what I expected the program to provide me.  I extend that small piece of advice to you this morning.

I chose SAIS largely because I wanted to study under Fouad Ajami, one of the nation’s leading thinkers on Islam and the Middle East.  Ajami promptly decided to take a year’s sabbatical.  I never, in fact, met him.

Actually, I don’t think there was any connection between my arrival and his sabbatical, though there are moments in my life when I wonder about these sorts of coincidences.

One of the first things we were required to do as new students was to meet with the MIPP advisor, who shall remain nameless, for reasons that will become obvious.  I hasten to add that it was NOT Roger Leeds in those days, although it certainly should have been, as it is today.

By the way, did you know that establishment of the entire MIPP program was Dr. Leeds’ idea?

Anyway, I remember that meeting very, very distinctly.

My advisor began:  “These M.A. candidates you’ll be in class with – they’re really smart kids.”

You know that moment when you’re certain that things can only start going downhill?  Fast?

“Yup.  Really, really smart.  Great academic records.  Great schools.  Great background.  First-rate minds.  Don’t kill yourself trying to keep up with them.”

I’m going to be really charitable here and say that he was so perceptive that he said the one, single thing that would motivate me for an entire academic year.

But, you decide.

It did motivate me – to the extent that one of my professors assumed I was an M.A. candidate before I corrected him.   Anyway, my advice here:  Kick butt.  Take no prisoners.  Thanks to your background and your work, you bring far, far more perspective and experience into the classroom than almost any of the younger students.

As one of my colleagues likes to say, “I hire young people for their potential, middle-aged people for their experience, and older people for their wisdom.”   I’ve always liked that.

How did my year at SAIS add value to my life?  Both directly, and indirectly.  Perhaps ‘more intangibly’ would be a better way to put it.

Directly, it led my then-employer, Honeywell, to send me to Paris for four years to run marketing communications for their European operations.  How much of it was directly related to my degree from SAIS is hard to determine.  But I know, through discussions with them as we negotiated the role, that my course work here definitely resonated with them.  In fact, they made me the offer halfway through my time at SAIS, and were willing to wait another six months for me to finish the degree before shipping me overseas.

More recently, and more relevantly, perhaps, it led to my work at Accion.  I mentioned that when I arrived here as an eager MIPP candidate, I was interested in Africa, the Middle East and international development.  In fact, I was pretty sure that, post-SAIS, I was going to apply to the State Department – or something similar, if there is indeed anything similar.  The job offer in Paris proved too appealing to resist, however.

That urge to do something more meaningful, however, traveled with me throughout those years.  In retrospect, I think that the desire was only barely articulated in my head, but it sat there and nibbled away.  Then, just over six years ago, I came across the opportunity to manage communications and marketing at Accion.

Let me frame this by saying that I had never heard of Accion – despite the fact that they were headquartered practically in my backyard in Boston.

I didn’t know anything about nonprofits.

Worse yet, I had never even heard of microfinance, and didn’t have the faintest clue about what it was, or where it was done.  To say I was clueless about it would have been an understatement.

Remarkably, this didn’t seem to deter them.

I remember very distinctly the morning I came across the Accion ad.  My wife was home that day, and I took it downstairs and waved it around in her face.  “Honey, look – this is EXACTLY what I should be doing!”

Fortunately, Accion agreed.  I appeared to have most of the skills and experiences they were looking for.  Years as a journalist, agency management experience, nearly a dozen years’ working  abroad.  (I skipped over those other years and jobs so as not to bore you.)

I had lots of travel in developing countries, fluency in a foreign language…  And a degree from SAIS.  I found out later, after I’d started, that Accion’s then- CEO, Maria Otero, was a SAIS graduate, as were a number of other senior managers.  Some of them even teach here.  Dr. Leeds sits on the board of our Frontier Investment Group.

It’s a small world.

Remarkably, Accion celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.  The organization was created in 1961 by a Californian named Joe Blatchford, a Stanford grad who, while on a goodwill tennis tour of South America, was so shocked by the poverty he encountered that he came back determined to do something about it.

He worked with friends to set up a volunteer organization – a private Peace Corps – that would send idealistic young college graduates to the barrios of Caracas, and later the cities of Brazil, to work on community infrastructure projects and job-development schemes.  Blatchford eventually turned out to be a success at many different things – in fact, at one point he ran the Peace Corps under Nixon.

The concept of microlending – small, working-capital loans of a few hundred dollars for the entrepreneurial poor – came later, in 1973, from an Accion staff member stationed in Recife, Brazil.

If you’ve heard of Grameen Bank’s Muhammad Yunus as the ‘father of microfinance,’ let me just point out here that he didn’t make that first $27 loan to a poor Bangladeshi woman until a few years later – 1976.

There, I have that off my chest.

Microfinance today collectively reaches about 150 million people worldwide.  Those are noble, hard-won gains, provided by something like 10,000 individual microfinance institutions, or MFIs, around the globe.

But it’s early days, and we still have a lot of work to do.  We estimate that something like 2 billion people could benefit from financial services, provided they had access.  We need to expand the product range, well beyond credit, to savings, remittances and micro-insurance.

We need to lower delivery costs through the use of improved technology, in order to reach more of the poor in rural, remote, and unserved regions.

We need to address such critical issues as transparency, consumer protection, overheating, over-indebtedness, and the fundamental question of impact.

And we need to ensure that microfinance institutions, almost all of which begin life as non-profit NGOs dependent upon philanthropy, can mature, expand and eventually become self-sustainable – in order to reach more of the poor who need their services.  Of the 10,000 MFIs operating today, only about 400 are self-sustainable.  Ninety percent of the world’s 150 million microfinance clients are being served by fewer than 70 institutions.  So you can see that only a handful of MFIs have reached scale.

But, we are getting there.  I’m proud to say that, over time, Accion alone has helped build 63 microfinance institutions in 31 countries on four continents, which today serve almost 5 million clients.  Some of those MFIs are considered to be among the world’s most effective and efficient, including BancoSol in Bolivia, Mibanco in Peru, and Compartamos in Mexico.  Today, we’re working further afield to replicate that success – in West Africa, in Inner Mongolia, in Mumbai and Bihar, and in the heart of the Amazon.

And I know, unequivocally, and personally, that microfinance works.  I have met first-hand with clients in the arid towns of northern Peru, in the Mumbai slums of Dharavi; in the markets of Accra; on the foothills of Kilimanjaro. They have told me how microfinance has created steady income streams for their families, made possible new concrete floors and tin roofs for their homes, allowed their children to go on to  university, and greatly reduced their overall risk and vulnerability.  In other words, lives changed irrevocably for the better.

I credit my time at SAIS, in no small measure, with helping to give me the perspective, the analytical skills and the empathy to recognize the value of this work and my role within it, and, directly or indirectly, with opening the door to its possibilities.

But, heaven forbid that you think that I view an MIPP degree as a mere ticket to employment.  It may, in fact, well be.  Your seat cushion may, indeed, also be used as a flotation device.

SAIS and the MIPP program provide many intangibles as well, whose value, I find, prove themselves sporadically at odd moments. 

Here are just a few direct quotes picked up during SAIS classes that have stuck with me with for more than 20 years.   These aphorisms won’t ever appear in Bartletts’ Quotations, but I find them resonating with me repeatedly.

  1. Data are elusive.  Note the ‘are’.  I am assured by Dr. William Zartman, SAIS professor emeritus, that ‘data’ is – are? – a collective noun.
  2. Clear writing is indicative of clear thinking.
  3. When we think of public policy and diplomacy, we must continually ask:  What are America’s interests?  Fill in your own country’s name here.  And finally…
  4. Where you stand depends on where you sit.   If memory serves, this last one comes from Dr. Leeds’ International Financial Markets’ course.

Finally, a year at SAIS is, if nothing else, a year for re-tuning analytical abilities, as well as for building relationships with one of the most interesting and talented collection of people you’re likely to find gathered in one place.  And of course, it offers significant time for reflection about your work and what it means.

To be honest, while I was here studying, I made the highly worthwhile discovery that one does not, in fact, need to be gainfully employed in order to live an extremely rich and fulfilling life.  That was a useful eye-opener.

Sadly, I haven’t yet been able to repeat the experiment.

If I could impart one piece of advice this morning about the program and your participation, I would ask that , above all, and regardless of your commitments, you remain flexible about your choice of profession and mission.   I use that second word deliberately.

I fully appreciate that many of you will go directly back to the roles from which you’re taking a sabbatical.  That many of you are compelled to do so, with responsibilities and commitments that require certain levels of obligation – not to say, remuneration.

As I said, that happened to me while I was studying here.  Although I had hoped that my MIPP year would enable me to make a sharp career turn, in the end – at the end of the school year – that wasn’t the case.  Honeywell made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.  And in retrospect, I would have been foolish to decline it, and with it, so many of the things that grew out of it and made my life that much richer – my wife, my children, among other things.

Fortunately, I was subsequently able to find what I needed at Accion.

So I would ask you to continue to keep an open mind, and to consider opportunities that may arise later on.  The nonprofit and mission-driven world – the world of NGOs – needs your skills, and the skills and wisdom that you’ll be augmenting this year at SAIS.

Let me quote from a recent blog entry that I like.

“Not all nonprofits need the highest, most sophisticated levels of governance; not all nonprofits need federal and state tax experts– attorneys and accountants – to serve as either advisors or board members.  Not all nonprofits need the most accomplished executive directors.  But all nonprofits – because they were formed to serve the public good in a way that neither business can nor government will – must do their best to run themselves in a businesslike manner.  At least to a point – and, as important, run themselves as stewards of the public trust.’

A recent study by the Meyer Foundation, “Daring to Lead,” reports that fully two-thirds of all nonprofit executive directors are planning to leave their jobs within the next five years.   Their replacements will need solid training to prepare them to deal with issues that, quite frankly, most of them probably don’t think they should have to anticipate.  But today’s daily headlines should be a forewarning to them, as well as a warning to executive directors and board members who are on the job today.

All of you here are, or no doubt will be, well-positioned for those roles, and I ask you to give them due consideration.

Enjoy your year.  With the benefit of hindsight, I am confident in telling you that it will repay you dividends far beyond either your investment or your expectations.

Thank you.

Keynote speech written for the incoming class of Johns Hopkins University’s SAIS MIPP candidates, August 2011.

 

 

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