How to Make a Meaningful Career Pivot with Randy Kurtz
Your purpose is to make a difference
Randy Kurtz is Executive Vice President at Opportunity International where he is focused on improvements to agriculture and education for those living in poverty around the world. In today’s show, Randy shares how he pivoted from a successful career in the restaurant industry to investment banking to leading institutional, government and impact investing efforts for a global organization focused on ending extreme poverty.
“We’re going where nobody else goes and doing really hard work. But that’s why we’re here.”
Randy Kurtz is Executive Vice President, International Programs and Capital Solutions at Opportunity International, a leading international NGO that provides scalable, competitive, and high-impact economic development to families living in poverty around the world. In 2013, Randy traded in a three-decade career in investment banking to serve those in need – first by serving as CEO of the Cristo Rey Network, then as Deputy Directory and CFO of the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority. As COO of Opportunity International, Randy played a pivotal role in helping the organization reach 19.4 million people living in poverty in 2020 and remains excited to play a part in furthering Opportunity’s mission of ending extreme poverty for good.
“When I made that pivot, it was use my skills, my capabilities, and my energy to this bigger purpose.”
Hello. I’m Michael Kurland, CEO and co-founder of Branded Group, an award winning facility maintenance and construction management company that services multi-site commercial properties such as retail restaurants, health care facilities and educational institutions. Welcome to the BeBetter podcast. Each week, I interview thought leaders from a variety of industries who will share their stories and the lessons they learn as they strive to be better for their clients, partners, employees and their community. Are you ready to be better? Hello and welcome to another episode of the BeBetter podcast. I’m your host, Michael Kurland, and joining me today is Randy Kurtz, Executive Vice President of International Programs and Capital Solutions for Opportunity International. Randy, welcome to the show. Tell the audience a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Randy: Thanks, Michael. Glad to be here at BeBetter. Opportunity International is a 50 year old NGO that helps families in extreme poverty build sustainable livelihoods and send their children to school. And we do that by working in microbanking, education finance and agriculture finance, sub-Saharan Africa, India and Latin America. I’m, as Michael said, Executive Vice President here at OI. I’d like to tell you a little bit about my personal journey. If that’s okay, Michael. I’ll just get into it.
Michael: Yeah, I’d really love for you to talk about, you know, what you did growing up and all the way up until you went to college. So let’s start that right there.
Randy: So I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, just about 100 miles from where I sit right now in Chicago, where Opportunity International is headquartered. And that was hard work. Milking cows twice a day. Exactly 12 hours apart. I didn’t know any other life existed, and that’s how I grew up. When I was 18, I was prepared to go to college at the University of Wisconsin, but I was also in my senior year of high school and in the summer between high school and college, I was working at the local IHOP, International House of Pancakes for those of you that don’t know that acronym. And at the end of the summer, they offered me a job to be a manager of an IHOP restaurant. And I thought that was pretty substantial, and so I put off my plans to go to college and went into the restaurant business. I stayed in that business for several years, eventually reaching a position of regional operations director running a business of 60 restaurants that probably would have a revenue today of about $150 million. So at the time in my 20s I was focused on someday, maybe becoming the CEO of IHOP or some other restaurant chain. But as I continued in that business, I began to feel like I was called in a different direction and eventually went to business school.
Michael: Yeah, so let’s pause there for a second cause I think that’s pretty awesome that you shunned going to the University of Wisconsin to go to IHOP, which nowadays people would be like, what are you doing, why would you do that? But that was the move back then. And you worked your way from 18 to you said, I think 27 yesterday, to running 60 stores being this regional operations guy. And, you know, at 27, I just want to, you know, refresh the audience’s memory. I was probably like drinking Bud Lights at the local bar, and I think it was making, you know, $30,000 a year as an entry level position at Nine West. So you were well ahead of your curve, you know?
Randy: Well, thanks. Thanks for that, Michael. It was a fair bit of hard work. I relocated during that IHOP period 10 times. I even had a job for a period where I had no home. I had no apartment or house. I was literally on the road the entirety of the time and they put me up in hotels and I was sort of a troubleshooter across all of the restaurants in the Midwest. So I worked hard and moved up. The restaurant business is a business where young people can move up. And that was the exciting part about it.
Michael: Yeah, like we talked about yesterday, my father was very similar. He did it for KFC and I remember he would, I mean, when I was born, he was already in his mid-thirties and then when I can remember he was in his 40s, but he was a road warrior. He was out, you know, seven days a week sometimes. So I can definitely empathize with that lifestyle. So you get to 27, you’re running 60 stores and then you decide, I want something more out of life, right? I want to kind of change where I’m going. So let’s talk about this. You’re the only person I’ve ever met that has gone directly to graduate school without having an undergrad. So tell the audience about that and let’s get into that.
Randy: Thanks. I like talking about this because it’s a little bit different. It’s a story you haven’t heard of before, which is at the time I was reading The Wall Street Journal every day and I was talking with other people in my community at my church, and I felt like I had other types of work that would be more appealing to me, something that was a little bit more white collar, if you will, or, you know, strategic. And what I decided to do was to leave the restaurant business and go to school. Originally, that was going to be to go to undergrad because as we talked, I didn’t go to college, right out of high school. However, I met a guy who told me about somebody that had applied that he worked with, that was attending the University of Chicago without having business school, without having gone to undergrad. And I checked into that, got an application and basically at the back of the application, it said special eligibility. And what that meant, Michael, was if you could take a series of standardized tests and get 90 percent or higher on six of the seven tests and you had a business story, something you’d accomplished in business, you might be considered as a first year in the business school. So I had the business part right. I was running these IHOP restaurants and I’d been successful. I took standardized tests. I got the scores they were looking for and they offered me a position in the first year class of a business school and I graduated then a couple of years later.
Michael: So I just got to ask you, did you get above 90 on all seven other tests or only six of the seven?
Randy: I got 90 or higher on all seven.
Michael: All right. Good to know. So continue please.
Randy: So in business school, now I was in the place that I wanted to be, which was a broader horizon and I could talk to people from a variety of businesses. And the most exciting piece of it, and there were a number of people at the UC who had come out of investment banking. They had gone in after college, worked for a few years, then got an MBA and they were going back to Wall Street and that was an exciting career option. The Wall Street firms came to the university and eventually I started Goldman Sachs, and then I worked later at Salomon Brothers, which became Citigroup and Credit Suisse as well. So I got my launch into the investment banking career from the University of Chicago. Clearly, that was the launching pad, if you will.
Michael: Yeah, and so you didn’t just get into investment banking, you’ve brokered some of the biggest deals in the history of America, right? So let’s talk about some of those accomplishments. Let’s talk about some of your favorites.
Randy: Yeah, thank you. So I went to work as I said, initially with Goldman Sachs, then with Salomon Brothers and I was in a corporate finance unit, we were covering a variety of different industries. But after being in banking for about five years, I was asked to concentrate on capital goods companies or industrial companies. And that was really fun for me, what I was able to do was really drill down, so I understood the dynamics in machinery companies, manufacturing companies, and from that, I ended up working in some substantial transactions with companies like 3M, Ingersoll Rand, John Deere, Caterpillar. It was a big company. I did a couple of deals with Ingersoll Rand that made the cover of The Wall Street Journal, so that was some notoriety and I enjoyed learning a lot about a single industry. And then using that information and my own personal skills to become a trusted adviser, that was a term that was becoming popular, that is you want to be the trusted adviser to the CEO or CFO of a company and that’s what I aspired to do.
Michael: Well, that’s great, and you know, this is such an interesting path. And so then you started feeling like you had again, a higher calling, correct? You said you’ve become a man for others. So talk about where your head went when that happened.
Randy: So after I was in banking for a couple of decades, I began to think about my purpose, my long term, you know, business for being here on Earth and really through a few examples I saw how non-profits worked and how NGOs worked and how the government worked.
Michael: Let me pause you real quick, though, just for the audience. Can you just tell them what an NGO is?
Randy: It’s a non-governmental organization, really, it’s code for an international group that does work that governments could do, but don’t do in places outside the U.S.
Michael: OK, great.
Randy: So then I saw some examples out there in the world and I began to think about what I’m doing now to my full purpose. And so my calling really came to find a role where I could have the kind of impact I was having in investment banking. But to have it in a way that helped people who really needed the help, to help those in poverty in difficult situations. So that became a calling for me. We hear the term “giving back,” which is, I think, a perfectly fine word for people that have done well and want to contribute. But for me, this was a lot more than giving back. This was what I needed to do at this point. Several years ago when I made that pivot was to get into this work full time and really use my skills, my capabilities and my energy to this bigger purpose.
Michael: And so what was it, you know, that really made you start thinking that you needed to do this. Was it church, was it just you had a calling in your head, was it waking up, feeling empty in the morning?
Randy: Well, it’s definitely part and parcel of my faith, my Christian faith causes us to examine our purpose and our reason for being and that was really the thing that worked. And there was no epiphany or one moment, but it was something that built over time. I will tell you that I was offered a job when I started to talk to people. I was offered a job, there was a meaningful job in government. That position I turned down. But I continue to think this is something I need to do. And then I finally made the change in 2014.
Michael: Yeah, so you become a very successful investment banker, trusted adviser. You know, you’re at the pinnacle of your career and you say there’s something still not right. I have a higher purpose and I need to be giving back. Or, you know, putting more effort into other things. And you walked away from, you know, investment banking and you then started going to work for Opportunity International, correct?
Randy: Well, I did a couple of other things before Opportunity. I’ve been at Opportunity for three years, so I had a couple of other experiences in mission work. I worked in an education nonprofit and I worked in state government. But neither of those opportunities were as good a fit with what we’re doing here at Opportunity because we have quite a lot of scale. We’re across, as I mentioned before, Asia, Africa and Latin America, being around for 50 years and the kind of economic development, global development that we’re doing is a great fit with what I’m interested in and what I want to do. So that’s really why I’m at OI and so happy to be here.
Michael: Yeah, and I can relate to everything you’re saying with waking up one day. You know, when we opened Branded Group, we had this motto to be better. Back in 2014, and I did the first year of Branded Group being open and we turned a profit. And I woke up after that year and I’m like, great. I turned a profit and I still feel like I don’t feel like I’m doing anything. So that’s when we decided to start our One- for-One program, as I’ve talked about with the audience numerous times. And, you know, we started it off with we donated a minute of service time for every work order that we completed to Habitat for Humanity. So and that’s grown over the years now, we actually donate a meal for every work order completed to Feeding America now and some of their subsidiaries across the country. Because we’ve grown so substantially, we have 136 employees in like 13 different states. So I can totally empathize with how you felt there. It’s just, you know, money is not everything. And for some people, maybe that’s the end all be all but for you and I, it’s a vehicle to get you to where you want to be, right? So let’s talk now about where you’re at, at Opportunity International and what you’re doing because this is really the better stuff. This is what I’m excited to talk about.
Randy: So what Opportunity International does, it takes a minute to go through this, but it’s worth playing along. I mentioned education and agriculture. These are our two biggest platforms and one of them we call it education finance. And what we’re doing at OI is through boots on the ground, people in Africa, Latin America, working with small and medium banks to help them understand the education sector and how to lend to and be successful in affordable non-state schools. So that’s smaller schools that are private but working with low income kids. And then at the same time, we have an education quality unit working in the schools directly to help improve child learning outcomes. So over the last ten years, we’ve built up this practice where we have people working with small banks, helping them understand the education sector and working with the schools to make those schools borrowing money be more successful. So that’s in education. We have a parallel operation in agriculture that again goes around Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, meeting with small banks and medium sized banks to help them understand the agriculture sector, which is a difficult sector, especially when you’re talking about lending to small farmers because our work is all for the benefit of smallholder farmers. That’s farmers with 10 acres or less. Small agribusinesses and their rural towns and villages. And so we’re enabling the work through the banks. And we have farmers’ support agents. We have about 500 farmer support agents who are out in the field working literally in the field, working with farmers to help them improve their crop yields, their pricing and so on. So in both of these platforms, education and AG, we’re working with banks and we’re working with their borrowers, the farmers or the schools to create sustainable, successful capital inflows. We measure our success by total capital released, which is the amount of new loans each year that goes into these sectors. So, that’s our work, and we, as I said before, we’ve been at it for a long time and we really have in-country knowledge that’s pretty deep and our supporters include the federal government through the State Department’s USAID. Includes corporations and foundations, includes private donors, and all of those people are helping fund this work. It’s getting money and training and support into these two sectors, and we can really have a lot of impact. Intergenerational poverty, the amount of poverty that exists in rural areas I think everybody would agree that education and agriculture are places to have an impact. But we have these sustained long term models working and it’s pretty exciting.
Michael: Yeah, and I think the work you’re doing is amazing, and I really want to point out when you say rural, please go into a little bit more detail of where these places actually are, how desolate they may be, like how big these schools are so that everyone can wrap their heads around it because I think that’s important. We’re not talking about like, you know, somewhere in the country like West Virginia, we’re talking like the middle of nowhere, like Africa, right? So let’s talk about that. Let’s just give a good description of how big these schools are, acres, all that stuff, because you really are laying the foundation for these people for their lives in so many good ways. So let’s talk about it.
Randy: So in the countries we work in the AG sector in sub-Saharan Africa, Malawi, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana. Most of the work is quite a bit out there, you know, away from the main cities. And sometimes you can look at a map and it’s a hundred miles, but it may take a day to travel that distance because of the quality of the roads. Some of the travel in the Congo can only be done by riverboat. And so just to get to these places takes a while. And yet in Africa, a huge percentage of those in poverty and extreme poverty live in rural areas, and a lot of them are engaged in agriculture. One of the things that’s interesting about it is when we improve farmer incomes and they have a little bit more money and we ask them, well what will you do with the extra income? Virtually 100 percent of the time, the first answer is we’re going to send our kids to school, and then that’s our other major platform working with these small non-state schools. So what are those? It’s often husband and wife, sometimes sponsored by a local church, but sometimes it’s secular. But it’s a husband and wife that have a school for 75 kids in this rural area. But if they can get a $10,000 loan, they can build another classroom. If they can get another $10,000 loan and pay it off, they can provide running water. If they get another $10,000 loan, they can have separate bathroom facilities for boys and girls. They can add, you know, you can see the buildup. So what we call this really is graduation, where you take a very small school and build it up to where it’s bigger and thriving and then can access more traditional forms of financing and the same with the farmer. A lot of the farmers are, you know, just growing enough to feed their family. But often if there’s poor pricing in the market or a drought or some other kind of climate problem they can be food insecure, even though they’re farmers. So we’ll try to help them graduate to the point where they have a larger farm, maybe have a couple of employees and a bigger operation that can sustain more of the ups and downs. So we’re going where nobody else goes and doing really hard work. But that’s why we’re here.
Michael: You’re changing so many people’s lives that, like you said, a farmer that just grows enough to feed his family, if they have a drought that you’re then they’re hungry, right? And they’re not making money and they’re hungry. So now you’re giving them an opportunity to make money off of what they already do, feed their family and then send their kids to school and then you’re also helping the kids go to the school. And one other thing that I wanted to bring up is that 90% of your clients are women, so let’s talk about that.
Randy: Well as it turns out, in many of these developing countries, the borrower is a woman who is more responsible, more able to pay back, and that’s the nature of microfinance. And so our gender story is very strong. In education, one of the things that we find is as schools get bigger, they can then have more girl students. When family incomes are stretched, it’s the girls that don’t get to go to school. So the borrowers are women, the beneficiaries of a lot of the education work are women. And that’s a core part of what we’ve been doing for a long time.
Michael: Well that’s great work that you’re doing. So what’s the next five years look like? What’s the goal? Is there a bigger capital release? Are you trying to infiltrate other parts of the world that you haven’t been to yet? Tell, tell the audience a little bit about that.
Randy: Yeah. Thank you, Michael. What we really want to do is scale these two operations that I’ve talked about both the education and AG side and get them up to where their capital release might be five hundred million or more each. But also, we’re developing a concept called opportunity zones and where we try to concentrate in an area maybe the size of a county, if you use U.S. jurisdictions, and apply our education work, our AG work and other resources in a concentrated area because I think we’ve determined over time that it’s better to have more resources dedicated in one area that spread out too thin. So we’re working at that. But the main idea is just to get more and more capital released into AG and education because there’s a tremendous shortfall in both sectors. And we could just deal with that.
Michael: Just helping so many people all across the world. Well, Randy, I really appreciate you taking the time to come on the show today. If the audience wants to get a hold of you, how can they do so?
Randy: Sure. Thanks, Michael. It’s opportunity.org and just go under media contacts and you’ll be able to get to us.
Michael: Well, great and thank you for taking the time to become a man for others a couple of years ago and keep doing the good work that you’re doing. And audience until next time. Thank you for tuning in. I hope that today’s episode inspired you to become a purpose driven leader in your career or your community. There’s no doubt that when we lead with purpose, we can change lives.
If you enjoyed today’s show, I’d be grateful if you would take a moment to rate us on your preferred listening platform to learn more about Branded Group’s better experience and how we provide industry leading On-Demand facility maintenance, construction management and special project implementation. Visit us at www.branded-group.com. Be sure to follow us on social media, and you can also reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. Until next time, be better.