While one might say that Deborah has reached the pinnacle of her career as the Executive Director of Opportunity International, listening as she shares her story radiating a calming energy makes clear that what she does is not a job – it’s her vocation.
But let’s start at the beginning. Two decades ago, having just done a degree in economics, Deborah landed in Honduras and met the Director of a microfinance organisation working with marginalised women, helping them to establish a business and have livelihood support for their families. Immediately infatuated, Deborah “absolutely fell in love with it” – perhaps marking the point of departure leading her to Opportunity International and her lifelong drive to help those living at the economic and social margins to have access to the tools they need to pave a pathway out of poverty.
Leaving Honduras behind with new doors being opened, she returned to the UK to do a master’s in International Development. While she thought of working for an international organisation before, her main motivation has always been to help and serve young people have economic choices and opportunities: “That was what I was really passionate about”. Yet, considering microfinance was not a particularly well-known sector 20 years back, Deborah fortuitously stumbled over an internship position at Opportunity International in 2002 and stayed with them ever since: 19 years and counting.
“It’s exciting to be part of a Network that is so innovative in its approach to helping the world’s poorest families to build sustainable and resilient livelihoods. We constantly look for where the gaps are, concentrating our creativity on populations, areas or sectors where more is needed to level up opportunity, unlock talent and fulfil potential.”
In the years thereafter Deborah was based in Bogota, Colombia, for a couple of years. There she worked on implementing programmes in the region and helped build capacity to foster collaboration across the organizations that Opportunity International worked with in about seven Latin American countries and “absolutely loved that”. Having lived with a loan officer and joining in to directly work with internally displaced people in the field, and communities in urban slums “was really impactful for me. I think that set the course for me, and really engaged and inspired me. When I came back to the UK, I carried on and looked for further opportunities”.
The passion for programmes and direct contact with clients to really serve their needs persisted. Along her journey at Opportunity International Deborah was engaged in project design, monitoring and evaluation, and eventually became Executive Director “which is really about supporting collaboration across our affiliation to maximise our ability to achieve our mission”. In practice that means spotting opportunities for people to connect to organisations, to develop communities of practice and learn from each other, share knowledge and insights”.
“It’s a role that’s given me the opportunity to work alongside some amazing colleagues. They really emulate our clients’ resolve, determination and spirit. I admire their entrepreneurial mind-set of thinking imaginatively and creatively about how to serve the most excluded.”
WHAT IS DEBORAH UP TO
As the Executive Director, Deborah facilitates and helps coordinate a variety of forums to share and follow up on actions of Opportunity International’s affiliates, programme development and partner support, and engaging and connecting with their supporter base. Momentarily, Deborah is busy with supporting the Global Board of Opportunity International to spot areas to maximise collaboration across the network, “whether that be in knowledge management, philanthropy, or impact assessment”.
“I’m passionate about microfinance, but I’ve also learnt that access to finance is just one part of the solution. Poverty is complex and dynamic. If you don’t have a systemic approach, in partnership with others, then you’re not going to have achieve lasting and widespread change.”
Being appreciative of the time she got to spend in the field and having had the “experience of living in Colombia and in a few other places, having travelled very widely, and given my longevity with the network, I think that’s all been really helpful to support me in my current role”. At the core, the concept of servant leadership and the recognition that if she can add value to other people in her role, feeling that the connections or collaborations she can forge for people to pursue opportunities together, serves as the read thread throughout her work and she will “continue to do what I do and absolutely love it”.
With that being said, a standout moment for Deborah happened on a micro level with an internally displaced family with seven children she met in Colombia. Living on a subsistence farm, guerrilla groups were threatening the couple to take their two eldest boys away to join the ranks of the guerrilla army or else they’d be killed. Ridden with angst and having to leave overnight they arrived in Bogota’s sprawling urban slums and were connected to a local partner to access a loan to start a small business. By being a member of one of Opportunity International’s trust groups they got the ability to interact, make friends and have solidarity with the people in their community.
“That access to finance and to an opportunity was what changed the path of the family and enable them to pave their own way out of poverty. It’s really special and you don’t forget it when you meet a family like that.”
DEBORAH AND THE HUB
One of the reasons why Opportunity International wanted to set up camp in the Netherlands was because the Netherlands are “such a powerhouse when it comes to microfinance”, financial inclusion and helping people living in poverty to access the tools they need to have a sustainable livelihood. Opportunity International already partners with some Dutch entities and The Hague “just seems to be a very enticing place to be”.
It was not until January 2019 on a ‘fact-finding mission’ in the Netherlands, hosted by The Hague Business Agency, that the connection to the Humanity Hub was established. Opportunity International ended up having their office in the Humanity Hub, “which was exciting”. One might already guess it, but COVID hampered Opportunity International’s ability to come over, meet people, and network, “so that has been very frustrating. But hopefully, there is light at the end of the tunnel”.
Nonetheless, Deborah appreciates the spirit of community, “the diversity of ideas and representation and voices that can really add value and enable you to be a learning organization”. Recognising that while one might get stuck in hearing the same voices, being part of a community of like-minded organizations whose missions align, organizations that are passionate about international development and about finding solutions to help people, is the “most exciting thing for me, because it enables us to lift our head up a bit, challenges us, helps us to think farther, be more creative, and expand our horizon in terms of what’s achievable”.
And while Deborah, her dedication to serving others, and Opportunity International continue their work throughout, there also is light in sight to finally take up the opportunity to come to The Hague and dive deeper into our community and connect.
Many thanks, Deborah, for taking the time out of your schedule to tell us more about yourself and the amazing work you do! Please do feel free to reach out to Deborah if you want to learn more, connect, or simply to say hi! You can do so via LinkedIn or Slack.