As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrée Simon, President and CEO of FINCA Impact Finance (FIF), a global network of 20 microfinance banks and institutions offering responsible and affordable financial services to more than two million low-income individuals.
Previously, Andrée served as VP and COO, returning to the organization after serving for several years as President and COO of Women for Women International, a humanitarian organization dedicated to financial, educational, and interpersonal support of women survivors of war, poverty and injustice.
Prior to this, she was Deputy to the President & CEO of FINCA for more than seven years, where she was pivotal in redesigning the organization’s business model from donor-based non-profit to a for-profit operating structure. Andrée has significant experience in corporate strategy and she has held various business and advisory roles in other organizations, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Andrée has been a board member of Women Advancing Microfinance International and is currently a member of the Board of Directors for the FINCA Microfinance Holding Company.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started? Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
There is a long list to draw from, though I’m sad to report that most of my mistakes aren’t very funny! I still have nightmares about something that happened to me a very long time ago. I intended to send a — let’s admit it — snarky critique of a project assignment to only one person, but of course I blasted it out to a broad distribution list. The experience taught me a lesson that I still hold fast: if you have a visceral reaction to something, give yourself time to settle your thoughts, and if you’re going to react, do so constructively.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I get fired up when I’m inspired to think about things in new ways. During the pandemic, I’ve really appreciated Brene Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us as well as The Happiness Lab. Both of them offer really interesting and practical ideas on how we can bring out the best in ourselves and others.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you joined your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I chose to pursue a career in finance because I wanted to make an impact. In the right hands, finance can do a tremendous amount of good. Financial inclusion is essential for economic development, especially in places where access to a bank account or mobile wallet can dramatically change someone’s life. I joined FINCA Impact Finance specifically because I believe in the organization’s purpose: to profitably and responsibly provide innovative and impactful financial services to low-income people.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Never stop learning. I believe FINCA Impact has to be a teaching and learning organization. We are teaching and learning across diverse cultures working with people who frequently have no formal banking experience. Frankly, the only way to make progress in our markets is to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Furthermore, the leaders I admire most are always learning and improving to become the best versions of themselves, and they strive to create cultures that mirror that.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I am the mother of two teenagers, which is a challenge in non-pandemic times. 😊 But at the outset, obviously I was focused on transitioning our lives to remote — from school to work to social interactions. One of the important things to do to cope is actually one of the easiest: put the phone down and go for a walk. I live in DC very close to Rock Creek Park, so getting some air and literally stopping and smelling the flowers, does a world of good. Having reset time and fresh air pays creative dividends.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced professionally over the past year has been restricted travel, as I typically spend much of my time around the world visiting our various subsidiaries. Being so far removed from our 9,000+ employees drove me to rethink our internal communication, increasing the frequency of meetings and regularly sharing updates, thoughts and insights via our in-house podcast. During a time of uncertainty and anxiety, it was crucial for me to remain visible across the network, provide the information my colleagues needed, and reassure the entire network that I had their back and that we were going to get through this crisis together.
Another challenge is the extremely varied situations in countries around the world, with each of our subsidiaries impacted differently. From the start of the pandemic, our primary goal was to make sure we took all necessary and urgent actions possible to support and protect our customers. At the outset of the crisis we established a coronavirus task force, made up of one person from each subsidiary plus an HQ liaison, to collect detailed situation updates and lead planning and communications.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I went down the anxiety rabbit hole myself for a while. I found myself refreshing the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus page multiple times a day to check on our country operations, until I realized that most of what I was reading across the various feeds I subscribed to was not helping to inform my perspective, just reinforcing and reverberating it. In the end, I got most of the people in my family (including myself) to turn off a lot of our social media and focus our consumption times. In turn that freed up time to do more things that build our skills and feed our spirits — which has become a choice mantra for me.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Especially in the emerging markets FINCA Impact works in, post-COVID recovery and growth present a unique opportunity to address the lack of access to financial services and bring more individuals into the economy. Microfinance can (and will) be a crucial piece of this — an institution like FINCA Impact that helps micro-entrepreneurs get businesses off the ground and takes people in who don’t have much experience on the business front or with financial services is an essential actor to helping people and economies rebuild post-COVID. This is a real moment in time to expand financial access — especially to loans, credit, and savings — and set individuals up for success as economies begin to recover.
In particular, there is an opportunity for individuals who have not started a business or had access to financial services before to join the economy in this new way. Many individuals in emerging markets lost their steady income as many of their jobs were more informal or tied to tourism, so now is an important time for organizations like FINCA Impact to support them in building a new livelihood.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think Covid validated the work that development organizations are making on digitization. FINCA Impact has invested in branchless channels to communicate and transact with millions of clients at the bottom of the pyramid, knowing that financial services are increasingly accessed on a phone. But the fact is, change takes time, patience and education, so we know an all-digital play won’t work, so while Covid may accelerate microfinance’s uptake of mobile and online banking, agent networks, biometrics, digital marketing, and other changes, the human touch will continue to be a critical part of our model. While we won’t have loan officers serving as human calculators or walking billboards, we still need a touch aspect to ensure we advocate for our customers and educate them on the right products and services. Technology will make us more efficient and nimble and enhance our ability to scale. People will ensure our clients get the services they really need and that we don’t leave anyone behind.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
My priority remains helping our customers around the world and increasing both financial inclusion and financial health in emerging markets. We will continue to move forward with our customers at the heart of everything we do, ensuring we’re giving them the support and resources they need the rebuild their businesses and thrive in their rebuilding local and regional economies.
I’m similarly focused on our employees around the world, and am continuing to stay in regular communication with our management teams in all of our subsidiaries to make sure we’re taking the best and most effective approach in each location, and that our employees feel safe and supported wherever they are. Our staff is the main reason FINCA Impact has remained strong through the turbulence of the past year, and their unparalleled work for and dedication to our customers will continue to be the key to our stability and growth in the coming months.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage other business leaders to think outside the box in their respective industries. How can we use this as an opportunity to rebuild better and have even more of an impact than before?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of the first big work assignments I was ever given was to build an integration plan for a company we had recently acquired. I had spent all day locked in a room with a group of people who were worried and unclear about the future, and not terribly enthusiastic about the plan. I went outside to catch a breath and I was standing in the parking lot with a wonderful technology expert who had generously volunteered his time and knowledge to help us, whining about how difficult it was. He looked at me and said, “You have to stand in people’s shoes before you can convince them to stand somewhere else.” I think it’s probably the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten, and something every aspiring leader should internalize.
How can our readers further follow your work?