There is daily media debate about the leadership qualities of the US President, Australian Prime Minister and leaders of ASX 100 companies and a plethora of league tables of the Top 10 leaders in various sectors and economies. However, I am privileged to have worked with two remarkable leaders who will probably never make it into a league table but who demonstrate what I believe are exceptional leadership qualities.
Praseeda Kuman left India as a university student to study in the US, where she built a successful corporate career. In her 30s she felt compelled to return to India to contribute to the growth of India’s microfinance sector – a sector that gives millions of families the tools they need to free themselves from the crippling cycle of poverty in which they have been trapped for generations.
I met Praseeda when she was pitching a business plan to members of the Opportunity International Australia Board in India several years ago. She was seeking funding to kick-start a microfinance organisation in a remote location in Madhya Pradesh, a location where no other microfinance organisation was present. It’s a challenging area. It’s a part of India where the people are so poor they keep goats because they can’t afford to buy cows. Thousands of families live in tiny pitch-black adobe huts and they struggle to survive from one day to the next on their meagre earnings.
At the meeting, a Board member asked: “Praseeda, why this part of Madhya Pradesh? There are other places that are less difficult.” And her memorable response totally humbled and flawed the Board members: “Well, if I don’t go and serve the families in this area, who will?” The Board was so compelled by her passion and commitment, they agreed to fund the establishment of the microfinance organisation and Opportunity’s partnership with it continues today. With Praseeda’s strong leadership, Samhita Microfinance grew rapidly and over the years has provided small loans to more than 150,000 families. Families who are building small businesses, earning regular incomes, eating nutritious food, sending their children to school, accessing health services and saving for emergencies. Such a different picture to the one that existed when Praseeda started her organisation.
Another very memorable leader I met in India is Rahul Mitra. He started his career working in development in Uttar Pradesh. Over the years, he became interested in weaving clusters – communities engaged in a part of the production of traditional silk weaving. It’s a highly-structured group, with different members playing specialised roles in various parts of the value chain. Rahul was interested in disrupting this value chain because many of the workers were being exploited. However, what he wasn’t to know was how much was invested in retaining the status quo and continuing this exploitation – until a passing motorist attempted to shoot him. Rahul was unharmed but his colleague was hit in the arm with a bullet.
These stories illustrate just how high the stakes are for leaders like Praseeda and Rahul. Leaders who want to bring about beneficial societal change. Change that helps families break free of the constraints of poverty. The lack of freedom. The lack of choices. The lack of opportunity. Praseeda and Rahul are devoting their lives to helping families free themselves from poverty. Their stories exemplify the leadership, strength of character and purpose Opportunity seeks in its program partners. That is the type of leadership Opportunity is privileged to support and which I most admire.
Chris Murdoch is Head of Global Strategy at Opportunity Australia International, which provides small loans to families in developing countries to help those families build businesses, earn regular incomes and free themselves from poverty. By helping a mother buy a sewing machine to start a tailoring business or a father buy seeds to plant a vegetable garden, small loans enable them to transform their lives, their children’s futures and their communities.