Atul Tandon Reflects on His Career and HKS Executive Education Experience
Atul Tandon is of CEO, Opportunity International, a global nonprofit organization that creates opportunities to end help end the cycle of generational poverty. Atul attended the Mobilizing Your Nonprofit Board online executive education program in 2016.
HKS Exec Ed: What drove you to pursue your career path and goal of ending poverty?
Atul: Growing up in a family of limited means—my father’s only mode of transportation, throughout his lifetime, was a bicycle—meant few resources, but a lot of love, hope, and faith. My parents invested all they had in their children. They had great hope for our future and faith that we would succeed. To whom much is given, much is expected!
Seeing our extended family pull together to help us succeed meant that we understood, early on, the power of teamwork, individual accountability, consultative decision-making, clear goals, shared values, and a celebratory attitude.
Growing up, I must have had a bit of a spirit of adventure, because I decided to pursue an MBA—a choice I made against the wishes of my parents—becoming the first person in my family to have a career in the marketplace.
Graduation led to launching a financial services company—until I quickly realized no one was doing start-ups in India at that time. But I didn’t know any better! The start-ups led me to join Citibank’s foray into consumer banking in India, a program that turned out to be amongst its most successful worldwide. Those were heady days—introducing essential consumer banking services like ATMs, credit cards, mortgages, consumer loans, and remote banking to India’s emerging middle class in the 1980s. Citi brought me to the United States in the 90s to help turn around its businesses impacted by the S&L crisis. Eventually, I ended up at the bank’s headquarters in New York City, helping lead their worldwide branch banking network.
This smooth career trajectory was brought to a rather jarring halt with a serious health crisis as I entered my 40s. While recovering, I faced a question that I couldn’t shake: What brought me deep joy and satisfaction?
The answer, after much prayer and thought, became obvious. My heart was with people I left behind. I wanted to use the skills and networks I had gained after 20 years of working in the world’s financial capitals to help the poor in this world find a way up and out, just like I had. That realization, that sense of a call, led to my leaving Wall Street to serve in the “mean streets” of the world, instead—villages, farms, mud huts, slums, and refugee camps.
I’ve spent my entire career moving ideas from inception to reality—first through financial markets and institutions; then by driving major social initiatives like tackling hunger and HIV/AIDS, responding to famines, floods, war, and conflict; and, finally, by taking on one of the greatest challenges of our lifetime: extreme poverty. It’s been a path I never could have imagined, but one for which I am so grateful.
I have been blessed to work with exceptional colleagues, be encouraged by my family and friends, and achieve some notoriety. Through it all, I’ve found that when we focus our skills and talents, whatever they may be, to help others do well, we achieve great success and find deep fulfillment and joy.
What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment in your current role?
At Opportunity International, a global nonprofit I lead, our focus has been shining a clear light on the lives of those living in extreme poverty and doing our part to end it systemically.
Over the years, I have seen the conversation shifting. We are recognizing the despair of families living in horrific circumstances; but also acknowledging their God-given potential to live a life that sustains them, their families, and their communities and the inner hope they have for a better future. We are looking squarely at their challenges and asking, “What are we going to do about it? How are we going to help people stand on their own two feet?” And we are getting supporters rallied to the cause.
In the midst of this ongoing progress, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to shift our strategies. We learned that if we wanted our clients to thrive, they first had to survive this devastating crisis.
For the families we serve, the pandemic intensified their already precarious circumstances. Market shutdowns, movement restrictions, and ongoing health risks have led to “mutually exacerbating catastrophes” and severe increases in global poverty and hunger. Over 100 million people have been pushed back into extreme poverty, and the number of those at risk of starvation has doubled to 265 million.
In the midst of all of this, we faced countless questions that deserved responses immediately. What are we going to do? Where? With whom? When? How do we talk about it? How do we raise the necessary support? Crisis response is centrally driven and locally delivered, so as our partners went to work connecting with clients, our headquarters team was busy launching new initiatives.
We met weekly with our partners, launched a Rapid Response Fund, provided guarantees for our banks to secure loans, and helped banks keep our clients afloat. We extended loan moratoria to clients, ensured savers could access their funds electronically, provided emergency cash support, helped affordable schools navigate closures and provide virtual education to children, and more.
We focused on a few critical drivers and delivered relevant, timely solutions to our clients, partners, and donors. As a result, we are better placed now more than ever to carry out our mission. We are capable of delivering emergency financial services to the poor while continuing our time-honored work of giving our clients a hand up out of economic poverty. We better understand our clients’ context, we have learned more about what works and what doesn’t, and we have a much more defined focus.
We are approaching a season of increasing growth and impact— our job now is to keep up the momentum and get the job done.
What did you hope to gain by attending an HKS Exec Ed program?
About five years back, enrolling in Mobilizing Your Nonprofit Board with Professor William Ryan gave me a conceptual understanding of effective board leadership in the nonprofit world and the hands-on application of how to build a board that could govern meaningfully and effectively.
It was a fascinating experience. After many decades of work, I found myself loving the academic rigor, the classroom atmosphere of learning alongside fellow practitioners, the frameworks, case studies, and Prof. Ryan’s engaging way of teasing out deep learnings from all of us. The highlight of the program was that each of us walked away with a board engagement and activation plan for our respective nonprofits.
How have you implemented the lessons from your Mobilizing Your Nonprofit Board?
One of my biggest lessons learned is best summarized by Peter Drucker: “The task of organizational leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make the system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”
What I learned through Mobilizing Your Nonprofit Board was to distinguish between the board’s responsibility to steer the organizational “ship” and the management’s responsibility to row. This has transformed how I have considered the board’s role—both at my own organization and for those boards on which I serve. The board helps set the course, and the management does the work to make it happen.
At Opportunity International, that has led to a renewal of focus and energy in our 50th year. We are more focused than ever on helping the vulnerable and those living in extreme poverty build sustainable livelihoods and educate their children. We have an organization with strong financials, human resources, strategy, and execution, and we are all moving in the same direction. And we are leveraging a new asset-light, partner-heavy business model, which has allowed us to scale our impact and footprint rapidly.
We are all playing to our strengths and learning to be effective partners—both to each other and to the families we serve.
What’s a piece of advice you would give to other leaders?
To paraphrase Jim Collins, get on the right bus, find the right passengers, and choose the right destination. Set course and get started. And as you begin, cultivate discipline in everything. Again, to quote Jim Collins, you need disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action. But I would add a few more key building blocks for success: exuberance in celebration and graciousness in failure.
Most importantly, make friends and keep them. To go fast you can go alone, but the only way to go far is to do so together.
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