Meredith Scott is the new chief executive officer of international development organisation Opportunity International Australia. The 53-year-old Sydney-based mother of two, who has previously had a 32 year career with global professional services company EY as well as serving in various roles in the not-for-profit sector, talks about what’s surprised her about the new job, the organisation’s new “tagline”, and how her faith inspires her to help others…

Congratulations on the job. What was it that appealed to you about working in this role for Opportunity International Australia?
“I think if I reflect back on my last two years at EY, I was working incredibly hard but didn’t really, at the bottom of my heart, feel as if I was making a difference in the world. So the appeal about working in the role for Opportunity was to work as hard and, in fact, make a difference in the world.”

Was the work of Opportunity something you’d come across a long time ago?
“Yes. I was a partner at EY when the founder of Opportunity [David Bussau] was crowned the Entrepreneur of the Year [under] an Ernst and Young program. He was not just crowned the Entrepreneur of the Year for the not-for-profit sector but the overall Entrepreneur of the Year for Australia at the time…It was very well publicised within EY in Australia, [the work] of David and of Opportunity back then.”

Meredith Scott with an entrepreneur

ON THE JOB: Meredith Scott meeting one of the entrepreneurs supported through donations made to Opportunity International Australia. PICTURE: Supplied.

You’ve only had a couple of months in the role but what for you, thus far, has been the most unexpected aspect of the work?
“I think if I reflect on what did surprise me, [it was] that I wasn’t fully aware of...the leverage that our donations can make. So if I step back a little – when we make a contribution into the balance sheet of a program partner that is providing microfinance, that, in fact, allows the program partner to access local capital markets. So the impact of a donation that we make in Australia into that program partner can then be multiplied. The average multiplication is about four-and-a-half times the level of the donation [and this ensures] that that microfinance borrowing pool can be expanded to make greater impact on those we’re trying to assist out of poverty…[There’s also] the fact that you then have a 98 per cent repayment rate and that then gets recycled through the systems after the initial loan is taken out.”

Do you think there is a good understanding of how microfinance works in that way among Australians?
“No. But do I think that’s my new job? Yes. Part of what I see as my role is making sure that message is clear and distinct and that we can present it in a way that is understandable by those Australians to whom we would be looking to donate…To be able to understand that it’s not just giving handouts but it is in fact creating viable economic development within a country or region.
      “So we’ve rehashed our tagline and currently, trademark pending, it's the tagline ‘Don’t fight poverty. End it.’ That has been a completely new positioning statement that we’ve created to explain how we actually go about ending poverty in areas including microfinance which continues to be core to what we’re doing. But then, because poverty is complex, you have to create community development projects that support that we are trying to alleviate the poverty of.
     “So the beauty of having program partners that are currently working with 5.8 million clients across Asia [is that] we then have a network, a supply chain, that can then be utilised to also create opportunities for us to be addressing health and nutrition and sanitation issues, and a program to try and mitigate child sex trafficking and to address domestic violence.”

"[F]rom a very young age, faith without works was very much drummed into me as not the way that we needed to go; that you actually had to be very practical in your outpouring of good works to others as part of your faith. And that is something that has stayed with me forever..."

So the idea of the new tagline – is that about addressing the misconception that addressing poverty around the world is simply about providing money in the short-term when it’s actually about longer term investment?
“Correct. It’s the difference between international aid and international development and we are clearly in the international development sector. It’s not about emergency aid, it’s about…allowing communities to develop themselves beyond where they are now and being able to access capital to do that.”

What about your faith – I understand you attend a Baptist church in Sydney; how does that inspire or fuel your work with Opportunity?
“For the first 22 years of my life, I spent most Sundays at Belvoir Street Baptist Church. Belvoir Street Baptist Church was basically an outreach to the homeless in the Redfern/Surrey Hills area and quite often my job on a Sunday was to work out how much cornflour to add to the stew [depending on] how many mouths we had to feed for the lunch. So from a very young age, faith without works was very much drummed into me as not the way that we needed to go; that you actually had to be very practical in your outpouring of good works to others as part of your faith. And that is something that has stayed with me forever and at the local Baptist church [I now go to], I’m on the lay leadership team, I am the treasurer and the outreach coordinator. And so about once a month I’m down at Hope Street delivering bits and pieces down there. That’s all part of me and who I am...And that, I think, is really important to my faith and my faith is important to my work.”

The international humanitarian sector has recently faced some difficult times with regard to the exposure of sex abuse scandals internationally involving other agencies. There has been a response among agencies in Australia and overseas. What’s your view on what’s been happening there and how is Opportunity participating in efforts to ensure it doesn’t happen again?
“It is important to say that we don’t tolerate any sexual abuse or exploitation of any kind and believe that is in direct opposition to what we stand for and what we are trying to achieve. We recognise that we work with people who are particularly vulnerable but it [would be an] absolutely gut-wrenching, abhorrent abuse of power if we or our partner workers or anyone associated with Opportunity were to take advantage of people who are often marginalised and vulnerable, particularly because they live in poverty.”
     “We set really high standards of professional conduct, both for our own employees and for our program partners…We have strict disciplinary consequences for any act of non-compliance with those standards and we are all over program partners…we physically go and kick the tyres and make sure that are in fact not only creating policies, procedures and practices that are in the interests of our donors, but have the capability and capacity to be able to monitor and engage around those issues. We’re a signatory to ACFID [Australian Council for International Development, the peak body for the international development sector in Australia]…[who] ensure that anyone that is a certified member has the appropriate procedures and practices in place…”

The world has recently marked Female Entrepreneurs’ Week and World Entrepreneurs’ Day. Why are entrepreneurs so important in helping to lift families out of poverty?
“It’s the difference between international aid and international development in that international aid is a once-off gift of something that will help a specific time-driven issue; international development is about creating an environment whereby those that are in poverty have a means of taking ownership of something to ensure that they can drive their own way out of poverty. And entrepreneurs [are] clearly that at a micro-level. Entrepreneurs [are] all about finding a need and market, developing a solution to that need and having access to capital to ensure that that can actually be addressed. So the piece that we play there is the access to capital and ensuring that those that are in poverty, the ones that the bank won’t touch, are actually able to get money…to get that solution out to market…”

"Entrepreneurs [are] all about finding a need and market, developing a solution to that need and having access to capital to ensure that that can actually be addressed. So the piece that we play there is the access to capital and ensuring that those that are in poverty, the ones that the bank won’t touch, are actually able to get money…to get that solution out to market…”

I gather that Opportunity predominantly works with female entrepreneurs. Why is that the case?
“Opportunity is about providing capital to those that would otherwise be unable to access capital. And in the countries that we predominantly focus on, women are excluded from financial markets to a larger degree than males. It’s also about ensuring that there is community development and, [with] a lot of businesses, the women are absolutely passionate, not just about creating wealth, but actually creating a better future for their children. And I think that creates the impetus for greater community development…"

Is there an entrepreneur you’ve come across in your work with Opportunity who has particularly inspired you?
“I have to go back to David Bussau and actually starting the thing and creating the opportunity for 45 years of amazing growth simply by…his act of ‘Well, don’t repay me, find someone else who needs the loan and just make sure it keeps being circulated’. That, to me, was fundamental with regard to [the fact that] it’s not just about creating your own wealth, it’s about creating a future for those who otherwise might not have it.”

How can people get involved in supporting the work of Opportunity?
“The best is to donate via https://opportunity.org.au/what-you-can-do/ but also if they wanted to see what impact they can be making…going on an Insight Trip is eye-opening to what is in fact being done.”

https://opportunity.org.au

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.