FACILITYCalgary publisher Mark Kolke, in conversation with Doris Olafsen
October 7, 2014
Helping the poor help themselves.
Have you heard of micro-credit? Third world. Default ratios near zero. Women buying supplies or a sewing machine, men manufacturing things – and often what they need to start is insurmountable. They might need less than the cash in your pocket to get started.
What is this all about … this helping the poor help themselves?
I admit to knowing the term, but having not much understanding of how it works. More than a year ago I was directed by a friend to learn more about Doris Olafsen. We swapped a few emails over that time but never met until recently.
She isn’t a resident Calgarian but she is certainly here often – and to say she is an influencer making a difference, is probably severe understatement – helping generous Calgarians help others.
On a recent board meeting day, she took some time to meet with me. I should explain that meeting with Doris is not so much a meeting as it is an engagement with high energy. Her passion is clear, easy to read, and she demonstrated it with a packet of information – and she brought along one of her board members. Not just any board member, but the founder of Opportunity International Canada. I got the standard packet of print information, link to the website … but to meet and discuss the history of the organization (founded in Australia in the early 70s) with the man who established the Canadian branch of the organization in 1999 was an unexpected treat. His turning-point in life was in 1987, after the death of his eighteen year old daughter Jill – saying to himself, “you gotta count for something”. That conversation could be another interview in itself – but served to reinforce dramatically what Doris was telling me. Their stories could easily fill many pages – of how they are making a difference all over the world where small amounts of money are making a huge difference in people’s lives, transforming families and communities in places where, as they describe it: “where the broken people are”.
Born in Manville, Alberta … near Vermilion. Eldest of three. Two brothers. Dad was an entrepreneur. He left when she was nine. Mom was a farmer. Doris was educated in Prince George and at Trinity Western University. She earned a Masters Degree in Leadership where she then worked for 13 years – VP of many things, until a trip to Asia in 2002 changed her life. In 2005 she was recruited to join Opportunity International where she is Executive Vice President.
Her grandmother was a prospector staking claims. She has seen poverty from both ends of the telescope. She has led the hippy live. Lived on a homestead. Lived on a barge in the Queen Charlotte Islands.
She describes herself as being in the family business …
I am often asked to interview people who are shilling for a cause, raising money for some good works. I try to support events, promote things and recognize efforts. Our community is full of so many good people doing so many good things. But for these interviews I am more focused on the individuals than their job titles, more focused on what makes them tick than promoting their company.
Some people stand out more than others – not because their cause is more worthy than any other good one, but because of who they are. When I first learned of Doris Olafsen it was just another of those names, another of those organizations we hear great success stories from. Efforts to connect didn’t work out – but we got connected and information began to flow. Then we met …
I am a skeptic – not easily impressed by people with a cause. Some are different. Words like dynamo, pistol and relentless might be used. Shoots from the hip. I would add ‘on purpose’. Helping people help themselves.
What has contributed most to your success? “People believing in me, education and engagement.”
What has held you back? “People – ones I didn’t have the courage to stand up to. Education – I didn’t get a post-graduate degree. Travel – I haven’t been able to live in other countries.”
You might say she is a small piece of a very large puzzle; 17,000 people working around the world doesn’t strike me as small - 4 million customers is, by my standards, huge!
After spending a couple of hours visiting with Doris Olafsen I came to realize – huge as serving 4 million borrowers might seem, is still but a small dent in a very large problem.
She seems to be making that dent a lot larger every year.
I asked Doris how she sees her business – agents for change/social enterprise – generally. ‘How’s business?’ over the next quarter?
… we are in the ‘family business’, we have 17,000 people working around the world helping four million borrowers.
And over the next five years?
… more. To transform lives domestically and internationally. Unlocking potential, raising more money, raising more awareness of people living in financial poverty.
What qualities distinguish your preferred colleagues, collaborators and suppliers?
… quality, authenticity, value, excellence.
What distinguishes you that causes people to choose Doris Olafsen and Opportunity International, why do they do business with you, why have they chosen you, over your competitors?
… my passion. That is contagious. I live dangerously, though I am married to the most risk-averse person on the planet! I don’t settle.
How would you describe your leadership style?
… hands off. I empower people.
What do you lose sleep over, what do you worry about?
… about wasting time, life. Not being intentional.
Who or what influenced you most – that has made a difference in your life, or that was a major turning point?
… our son was attacked by a dog at age four, lost part of his face. I learned about vulnerability, the health care system. And, when he was a teenager, he was abducted. That changed all of us. Taught us to re-invent ourselves, re-defined us as a family. Pulled together and pulled apart.
Work life balance, do you have it?
… probably not. I walk 6-10 km. every day. My Shi Tzu ‘Chester #2’ is my personal trainer. We live in Vancouver but it seems I spend a third of my life someplace else. Married to a renaissance guy/old hippy, two children, four grandchildren.
… walk, travel, red wine, community things – time spent at our place in Mexico, and in Kelowna.
What do you read?
… anything and everything. Business. Biographies. Your Musing columns. David Arthur. Nova Gratz. Kotler.
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