Passing the Torch of Leadership

May 14, 2015 by Alex Counts

A little more than 18 years ago, I began my journey as the founding President and CEO of Grameen Foundation (GF). Professor Muhammad Yunus provided me with $6,000 in seed funding and enormous amounts of his time and wisdom, and of course the Grameen brand.  Since then, thousands of people and organizations joined me on this journey to contribute to the global movement to eliminate poverty.  Grameen Foundation became a daring and caring community of practical idealists that applies the values embodied by Professor Yunus and his team at the global level.

All journeys that begin at some point come to an end. I am announcing today that my time as the President and CEO of Grameen Foundation will be concluding this year.

In early March I informed our Chairman, Bob Eichfeld, that I wanted to set in motion the transition process that we had discussed in September 2014. Working with Bob and our Vice-Chairs, Peter Cowhey and Ricki Tigert Helfer, that transition process – which I hope will be seen as a model for a long-serving founder’s transition – is unfolding as planned. My decision and this plan were announced to the GF Board, Board members emeritus, and our global staff during the last few weeks. Today I am sharing this news publicly for the first time.

This is clearly a big step for the organization, and for me. It is also an exciting and important one, and something that I hope and expect will prompt all of us associated with Grameen Foundation to pause to celebrate what we have accomplished together these last 18 years, and also to recommit ourselves to the organization so as to ensure that its best days are ahead of it, which I believe they are.  We are uniquely positioned to ensure that the financial services and information revolutions – revolutions that have already transformed the lives of those not living in poverty – become the most powerful forces for poverty reduction the world has ever known. The strength of our management team allows me to make this decision while feeling confident about the future of the organization during this transition period and beyond.

On November 5, we will have a big party/gala/celebration/fund-raiser in Washington, DC to mark the end of an era and to proceed boldly into a new one. I hope everyone associated with Grameen Foundation will consider joining us and making this our most successful and enjoyable event ever. There will be live music, tributes, and, naturally, roasts.  Many former staff and Board members from our early years have already indicated they plan to come, from places as far as Southeast Asia. It will be the largest reunion of current and past Grameen Foundation staff, board members, volunteers, partners and friends in our history. Whatever your connection to the organization, mark this date on your calendar and plan on joining us. (Watch our website for details in the weeks ahead.)

I will remain actively involved in Grameen Foundation through the end of the calendar year, focusing on fund-raising, thought leadership, and participation in the transition process. And I will remain supportive of Grameen Foundation far into the future. In fact, this transition process is rooted in my strong loyalty to and belief in Grameen Foundation’s strategy and team. I will attempt to follow the positive examples of our past Board Chairs Reed Oppenheimer, the late, great Jim Sams, Susan Davis, and Paul Maritz, who each has continued contributing to the organization long after stepping down from a position of leadership.

The next step in this year-long process will be for David Edelstein, our Executive Vice-President of Global Programs, to assume the title of Interim President and CEO later this month. He has my full confidence to lead the organization during the period until a permanent successor is named later this year. David will join me at Social Business Day in Dhaka in late May, where we will huddle with our Nobel Laureate Director emeritus Professor Yunus to discuss the exciting possibilities in store for Grameen Foundation in the years ahead.

The search process is being led by Peter Cowhey, the Dean of the just-renamed School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, San Diego. Both internal and external candidates will be considered.

As one might expect, since making this decision I have had a range of emotions. They have included relief from carrying such an awesome and inescapable responsibility, excitement about the possibilities for GF, and for me, in this new era, satisfaction about what our team has created together over the last 18 years, and of course some sadness about the ending of an era, and about those things we failed to accomplish during it.

Building on the many positive trends in order to advance our mission the farthest will require a full effort by each and every person connected to Grameen Foundation to work together, under new leadership, to build on all that is strong and unique about GF. Everyone who is involved with GF is in a position to help make this transition one of the best things to ever happen to GF, and I hope everyone will rise to the occasion. I see that happening already.

I would like to thank my family, especially my wife Emily and my parents, and also my friends – whether they be Horace Mann high school buddies, Carter Brothers groupies, members of Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church, basically the entire population of Key West, my tireless dance partners Karen O’Malley, Joan Robbins and Gail Hardy (who helped me, on countless occasions, to literally and figuratively shake off the tension that comes with this work), all the Bangladeshis who have showered me with kindness, patience and wisdom these past decades, my “band of brothers” from Cornell, or Michael Rigby, who first suggested I pursue a career with Grameen and, as such, set all this in motion – for their moral and material support of me and of Grameen Foundation during this incredible journey.

Grameen Foundation’s track record of impact goes well beyond its own accomplishments. We launched two high impact joint ventures, Grameen-Jameel Microfinance Ltd and Grameen Capital India, which have played unique and leading roles in poverty reduction innovation in the Arab World and India, respectively. So has our wholly-owned subsidiary, Grameen Foundation India. The social entrepreneurs who lead these organizations – Fatina Abu Okab, Royston Braganza and Chandni Ohri – are people for whom I have deep respect and affinity.

Our foresighted decision to place a big bet on information and mobile technology as poverty reduction accelerators, with early and visionary support from Craig and Susan McCaw, has helped make Grameen Foundation and these affiliated organizations highly relevant to the work that remains to defeat global poverty.

Likewise, our investees – organizations in which we have a minority ownership stake, such as Cashpor and Musoni – and those we provided our highly successful Growth Guarantees to, have done us proud while benefitting from our capital and talent. In addition, the growing number of institutions we have incubated and then enabled to thrive on their own, including the Mifos Initiative, RUMA and Taroworks™, speak to our values and our willingness to shift our role over time for the benefit of the innovations we champion and the impact they can have. International organizations like GF don’t have to have ultimate control over our ideas or partners in order to have long-term influence and impact.  In fact, I believe that in many cases, the opposite is true.

During the period 2004-2008, we helped four dozen leading microfinance institutions increase their client outreach by more than 7 million (40% more than our goal). I am especially proud of our work with, and the overall performance of, the locally-owned and led microfinance institutions we counted as our partners during that period, including CARD, Grameen Koota, ESAF, Activists for Social Alternatives, LAPO, the Kashf Foundation, and AlSol, AC.

Our Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-supported partnerships with CARD, Cashpor and ACSI to promote micro-savings – which led to nearly one million new accounts with low dormancy rates – are also highlights, and tributes to hard-working and creative GF staff including Kate Griffin, Debbie Dean, Julie Peachey, Leo Tobias, and Kimberly Davies, among others. Supporting internal and external female leaders is something I have derived great satisfaction from over the years.

Our more recent work to reinvent agricultural extension and rural health care using mobile technology, also supported generously by the Gates Foundation, has immense long-term potential and dovetails well with social business initiatives underway in Bangladesh.

Finally, I am heartened by the impact of the organizations I served in a governance capacity, such as Fonkoze, Haiti’s leading holistic microfinance institution, Project Enterprise, the PLAN Fund (today a part of PeopleFund), and also those industry initiatives that I helped start or advise, such as the Microfinance CEO Working Group, Truelift, the Microcredit Summit Campaign, and the Center for Financial Inclusion.  Michael Schlein of Accion has been a particularly valued peer, friend, adviser and collaborator. I have also enjoyed weighing in on how practitioners and researchers can most effectively collaborate, and in the process have developed great respect for the clarity, rigor, integrity and constructiveness of people like David Roodman, Tim Ogden, Amy Smith, Kim Wilson and Kathleen Odell, among others.

One of my most talented and diligent colleagues, Camilla Nestor, chairs the Board of the leading industry association SEEP and helped organize a Bankers without Borders® team to help that essential organization launch a new strategy under Sharon D’Onofrio’s inspired leadership. Many of my senior colleagues have represented us in or led important associations, working groups, boards, and task forces. I am as proud of their contributions to the collective effort to reduce poverty as I am my own.

Our generous donors, whether they be institutions contributing millions, our amazing allies in Dallas who work under the banner of Chiapas International, or an elementary school in Wyoming that recently raised $300 for our annual fund, and our 20,000 passionate and talented Bankers without Borders (BwB) volunteers, have made all of these alliances and accomplishments possible. Their innumerable votes of confidence were more than enough to motivate the staff to give their best, every day, to advance our poverty-fighting mission. Our corporate supporters are many, but Capital Group, Cisco, Citi, Deutsche Bank, eBay, Google, the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, JP Morgan, MasterCard World Wide, Microsoft, MTN, and Qualcomm stand out for the breadth and the depth of their engagement over the years.

Betty Sams and Shannon Maynard have been humble and highly effective champions of our annual fund (which we call the Jim and Betty Sams Fund) and BwB, respectively.  These are the two efforts that have engaged the largest number of people in our work and made them feel like the “shareholders” they are in our poverty-fighting enterprise. They are also two of the people I have most enjoyed working with these past 18 years. I encourage everyone wanting to signal their support of me and the organization now to contribute to the Sams Fund and join the BwB reserve corps.

As the first Grameen-branded organization outside of Bangladesh, we have always tried to help advance of our master brand (“Grameen”) and the organizations that are authorized to use it. Recently we published the most complete summary of all the Grameen and Yunus branded organizations, which we think of as a loose family of poverty-fighting institutions rooted in the values and philosophy of Professor Yunus and his colleagues in Bangladesh. I have been particularly impressed by the accomplishments and collaborative spirit of Yunus Social Business and Grameen America and their dynamic leaders, Saskia Bruysten and Andrea Jung.

Could we have done more or done better over these last 18 years? Absolutely, we could have. But we also could have done much less, or nothing at all if we had not boldly set out, starting in 1997, to create and nourish Grameen Foundation on a shoe-string (and barely that!) amidst an already crowded sector.

So the torch, or the baton if you will, is being passed. I know David Edelstein, supported by our leadership team and our Board, will effectively lead the organization during this interim period. We are fortunate to have our unflappable, long-serving and effective Chief Financial Officer Joshua Tripp in place as well at this important time in our history.

I have found this baton that I am now passing to others to be heavy at times, but unbelievably light at others.

More than anything, it has been a privilege to have been entrusted with for so long.

Now it is time for others to carry the baton and demonstrate their passion, their intellect, and their gritty determination to advance the cause of poverty reduction.

I expect that they will rise to the challenge of boldly advancing what long-serving Board member Dick Gunther always called our “noble cause” in the most creative, humble and enjoyable ways possible. I expect Grameen Foundation to soon surpass anything it was able to achieve to date. Nothing would make me happier.

The emerging leadership team at Grameen Foundation will have my support and most of all, my encouragement and confidence, in the years ahead.

And finally, let me thank the entire Grameen Foundation community for the opportunity to serve in a leadership capacity these last 18 years.

It’s been a blast!