Andrew with School Leaders in the EduQuality Program
I was a lucky kid. I grew up in Geelong, a thriving port city just outside Melbourne, Australia, with a loving family and plenty of opportunities around me. I also went to a great school despite not really appreciating this at the time. My friends and I were more interested in playing sports outside than sitting inside the classroom. Of course, we were lucky we didn’t have the option to simply sit school out. I often think about my own experience with school when I’m sharing startling global education statistics with someone. Unlike me, 617 million children globally are outside of quality classrooms where they can learn, grow and be safe.1
The global education deficit is a genuine crisis. School-aged populations are growing rapidly and aid and government spending on education is not nearly enough to bridge the gap. Throughout school I wasn’t aware of the scale of the crisis, nor did I consider a job working to increase education access -- or outside of corporate finance for that matter. Early on in secondary school I wanted to go on to work in financial markets. I was drawn to the fast pace of the industry, and the opportunity to work alongside smart and driven individuals.
I interned with US-based investment banks Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan before landing a job with Goldman’s Investment Research division just as the global financial crisis was kicking off in February 2008. During that time, there was a lot of cost-saving through firing senior people and replacing them with fresh grads like me. This was a real learning curve, providing me with many take-aways from working within a very competitive bank. There was a huge focus on performance and results. Strong performers were well rewarded whereas “weak” performers were out. This results-based culture has shaped my leadership style today and is something I strive to embed into our work culture at Opportunity EduFinance. I think the work we do to help increase access to quality education is too important to not recruit and leverage our best performers.
The Global Education Gap Up-Close
However, over the 8 years I spent in my role at Goldman Sachs, I began to value the excitement of financial markets less and less and became disillusioned with working for income alone. So, I did what every 30-year-old Aussie in the same position always does - I left the bank and hit the road for some travel. I headed to East and Central Africa for the first time in 2015, camping for 4 months across 9 countries. In almost every village I camped in, there were so many kids out of school. Even when they were in school, classrooms seemed hectic and under-resourced.
Andrew visiting schools in Malawi, 2015
One particular school stands out in my memory. I visited a primary school in central Malawi where 150 pre-school kids were in one classroom with no desks, chairs or books. It was completely empty. Despite this, every single kid wanted to be inside that empty room learning. It made me think back to my school days and how I couldn’t wait to leave the classroom for cricket or soccer. At this point I started to suspect my own story -- grounded in finance, markets and leverage -- and the stories of these kids, without functional classrooms but a desire to learn, could merge together. I wanted to use my financial training to encourage more capital into the education sector to increase access to learning. This is where my involvement in the independent low-fee school sector began.
Pivoting to EduFinance
I moved to Nairobi to work for Bridge International Academies (a fellow GSF member) as part of the Global Corporate Finance team where I learned the capital requirements and economics of low-fee schools. I was able to use my experience to build a company-wide financial model for cash-flow budgeting alongside setting up budgeting processes and impact analyses. Then two years ago, I was recruited by Opportunity International to my current role as Head of EduFinance.
began as a small pilot project led by Nathan Byrd within Opportunity International, a global non-profit organization focused on alleviating poverty through financial inclusion. The ambition was to support the rapidly growing low-fee school sector in low-income regions -- ensuring school entrepreneurs had the right access to capital to invest in their schools, and parents had access to school fee loans to keep their kids enrolled.
With early success in the pilot and increasing demand for assistance from partner financial institutions to design and refine EduFinance loan products, the program transitioned from pilot to growth stage around 2013.
The team worked to provide technical assistance to Opportunity’s network of partner financial institutions across Africa, Latin America and Asia. With the technical assistance model of EduFinance well-established and focusing on increasing education access,
the team launched of a new pilot in 2016 focused on improving education quality
in affordable schools.
When Nathan Byrd recruited me to take over his role, EduFinance was well-positioned to transition from growth stage to global scale,
engaging new financial institution partners outside of Opportunity’s legacy network in new low-income countries.
Vivian, Principal at a local affordable private school in Ghana
Scaling to reach 16 Million Kids
Since 2017, my role has involved attracting investment and sustainably scaling our model from 12 partners in 10 countries to where we are now -- with 45 partners in 20 countries.
The ultimate goal is to get as many kids as we can into better schools given the finite level of capacity in our team. Our current target
is to set up our tailored EduFinance loan products in 90 financial institutions across 25 countries over the next several years, ensuring around 16 million kids are learning in quality schools.
To meet these targets, we need to do two things.
- First, we have to create a financially sustainable model so that financial institutions continue to lend to schools and to grow without reliance on grant capital.
- Second, we have to refine our operating model by driving down unit costs in working with schools and partners.
After doing this job for two years, I’m still amazed that I get to use my background in investment and financial modelling to contribute to something as important as kids’ access to education.
A few reflections
- There will of course be challenges along the way. As a team made up of a unique mix of finance, education and operations staff with expertise across markets and regions, it certainly creates a cool and dynamic mix, but it does have the potential for conflicting aims. However, it is those big days in EduFinance when we finalize an agreement with a microfinance institution to launch our education products in a high-need, under-resourced market that keep myself and the team passionate and motivated.
- An industry-wide challenge is creating quality changes at the school gate. Part of the issue seems to be an information asymmetry with parents unable to discern real quality without perfect information. Achieving quality improvement over time while student numbers are growing is part of this challenge. Joining networks like Global Schools Forum, combining founders and implementers in the low-fee school space, allows us to share both challenges and learnings.
- Taking on the global fight to close the learning gap can be daunting, yet I am constantly inspired by the success and development of our partner schools, the passionate individuals in our team and those within the financial institutions we work alongside.
- On a lighter note, I have caught a few movies recently about the power of education. ‘On the Way to School’, currently on Netflix, highlights the lengths that kids go to be at school in the markets we work in. Then there is the story of the potential in one kid, “The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.” It shows us how, when we allow more kids the chance, the benefits of education can be massive.