FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Aly Bandali
October 23, 2018
We met over lunch. A long one – he’d just come back from a trip to east Africa, India and many other places, 37,000 km. by air in 28 days, checking on work in the field, networking with staff, vision centres, hospitals, NGOs and funders …
Describing his organization’s accomplishments (he’s joined them as CEO this year), goes like this: “this year we’ve only given 3.4 million people eye examinations, we’ve only done 210,000 surgeries, we’ve only dispensed 266,000 pairs of glasses, we’ve dispensed 200,000 doses of antibiotics – and still, there are 250 million people with avoidable blindness”. Aly Bandali is new there. Operation Eyesight, founded in 1963 by Art Jenkins – a Calgary founded and headquartered charity, an international NGO. With a staff of 50 (15 in Canada), a board of 12. Annual budget $5.5 – 6.0 million, all of if fundraised. He asked me to include a link to their ‘donation page’ … click here.
Lets start at the beginning – born in Mengo (just outside Kampala, Uganda), mom was a homemaker, dad an entrepreneur (coffee, and a convenience store), the family was prosperous – but Idi Amin began a purge of Asians. It was leave with two suitcase and your skin or risk death. Aly at 2 1/2, his younger brother, parents and grand-parents were air-lifted to safety. For a year it was a refugee camp in Austria – then, thanks to the Aga Khan’s influence on Canada, many Ugandan refugees were airlifted to Canada. Aly’s family were sponsored by an Edmonton family in 1973. The family settled in. Aly’s school days were “good academically” but focused more on being social – and his ‘hairy legs contest’ victory at Queen Elizabeth High is well behind him now. As for smarts, Class Historian, so ‘good’ was a modest understatement.
He earned a B.Comm at University of Alberta where non academic pursuits were debate club, ball hockey and Toastmasters. After graduation, a job at Canadian Red Cross – a promotion to Diversity Coordinator brought him to Calgary, then Diversity Coordinator for Western Canada; then COO at Canadian Cancers Society, to co-founder/CEO of a talent management software company which he describes as “an opportunity of a lifetime”, involvement in seven HR associations, then a fellowship, then Director of HR at STEP Energy, then founder/CEO of Professional Contractor Solutions Inc. – a service company to independent contractors and then perhaps fate came calling. A lunch with one of his HR mentors, Brian Foster who was Executive Director of Operation Eyesight, an invitation to compete for that job. Aly applied, as did 70 others. He prevailed, winning the job and starting his tenure as CEO in May, 2018. Along the way he married (Farah - they met at 13, he chased her for five years before clinching the sale; they’ve been married 25 years, have two children) - he’s done a lot, and yet he seems to be just beginning …
And he made sure I came away with a better understanding of both the magnitude of the problem his organization is focused on – because, of 7.5 billion people on earth, 253 million have blindness or vision impairment, 80% of which is avoidable. Yes, avoidable.
Why are you successful? “I’m fortunate in so many ways. A country took me in. I feel more confident today than ever – my self-esteem and ego are in check. I no longer take the safe route – I take risks.”
What has held you back? “Me. I’ve been ‘in my own way’. Only in the last 10-15 yrs. have I put myself in situations where I got my butt kicked or my ego attacked. Before that, I wasn’t ready. Being in executive positions at age 27 was great, and it wasn’t.”
I’d been invited to interview Aly and admit to having not done a lot of research ahead of time, and I’m so glad I didn’t. Uncovering what makes a person tick, what their personality is like – and the journey a conversation might take is something I always look forward to with somewhat nervous anticipation, I’m curious what kind of person will show up, what they will reveal, what I will learn and whether the journey will be pleasant. In this case, an expected 90 minutes took 2 ½ hours, and it was every bit as entertaining as it was informative.Nice boy from Edmonton, doing well. Doing much good. Meet him, you’ll like him.
Oh, one other thing, Aly's grandmother and two of her siblings - blind. Avoidable blindness. Some things in life seem to come full-circle ...
How do you see your business – ‘international NGO in the business of eliminating avoidable blindness’ – going forward over the next quarter?
… while ‘business is terrible’ in that we are only doing what we are doing – we do only one thing – nobody is doing it as well as we are. There are still 250 million people we’ve not served who have avoidable blindness.
And over the next five years?
… I see 1,000 villages being blindness free. Our donors will be different, and some large organizations will support us because we can do more and do better work in our field than they can. There will be fewer players – consolidation, but it will be a good thing. We need to focus on mobility, with mind and heart.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… I’m always looking for value, quality and ethics. Quality in relationships leads to longevity. And yes, I’ll shop for a bargain and in our business every dollar we stretch contributes to doing more …
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Aly Bandali, and why do they do business with you, why have they hired you, over your competitors?
… Trust. When you meet people they hand you some trust – and then they see what you do with it.
How would you describe your leadership/management style?
… I try to be self-aware, but I’m unfinished! Able to be vulnerable, understanding. I can’t possibly know it all, so I surround myself with right people and try to stay out of their way …
… um … yes, I do.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… I worry, am I making a difference? I’ve always felt a lot of influence and pressure from our parents – to make a difference in the world. In our culture we are encouraged to be ambitious in order to be successful so we can make a difference.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… first, being a refugee – seeing what my parents went through; marriage/family/Farah – the kids part changes your life – living up to the expectations you want to see in them. Community – being part of the Ismaili community, the social structure as well as the spiritual side – and I’m still friends with a core group I grew up with.
… I love spending time with my family, golf (14 handicap).
What do you read?
… mostly leadership books, lots of Twitter … and many online news sources.
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