The definition of extreme poverty is living on less than US $1.90 a day. Around 660 million people, or 8.6% of the world’s population, barely subsist this way, according to new data from the World Bank. The promising news, though, is that those figures have been rapidly declining over the past 50 years, from nearly 2 billion people, due to efforts of organizations such as Opportunity International, whose vision is for “a world in which all people have the opportunity to achieve a life free from poverty.”
Amber Shumard ’10 BA is manager of annual giving with the Chicago-based non-profit organization, which she describes as providing “a sustainable solution to ending extreme poverty through microfinance and education. It provides families a sustainable livelihood.”
Opportunity currently serves 17 million people in 30 countries, and it has been transforming lives and livelihoods since 1970.
“We provide microloans from $50 to $1,000, and teach people how to save,” she explained. “Groups in these communities are also formed to support each other. If one person is having a hard time, the others will often cover their loan payment, so it’s a system to lift each other, and their village, up. It’s really cultural training.”
Shumard said that 85-95% of their loan clients are women, and their empowerment is contagious. “To see a woman who goes from nothing to owning a restaurant is inspiring. Then that woman is matched with other groups of women doing the same thing. It creates generational success.”
She spoke of a female client in Colombia who lived in a hut with four walls, a dirt floor and eight children. She had a very rustic restaurant under a tarp off the side of her house. She received a microloan through Opportunity International, which enabled her to improve and expand it. “Now her daughters have a chain of restaurants,” Shumard said. “It’s just amazing.”
In another example, she pointed to entrepreneurial training that was provided to a woman in Uganda who was making loaves of bread and giving them away to help her neighbors. She now owns a bakery and employs 15 people. During the pandemic she was able to provide sustenance to her employees.
“Right now we’re doing a lot with Venezualan refugees in Colombia,” Shumard said. “Most nonprofits give out food and supplies. We’re piloting a trust group focusing on savings.”
Simply “finding a job” is frequently not an option for those in extreme poverty. In fact, 61% of the world’s employed population works in the informal economy. “Without sufficient education, social capital, or geographic proximity, people cannot find jobs in the traditional economy,” according to Opportunity.org. “And without resources or training, entrepreneurs struggle to make their small businesses sustainable and successful. They work tirelessly to secure a reliable income, but their options are remarkably limited.”
Helping to fund such projects is a major part of Shumard’s job, where she works with donors to support initiatives that are near and dear to their hearts. Opportunity leverages over $100 million in donations and investments to not only provide microloans and training to support entrepreneurs, but increase access to education, vocational training and graduation and uplift small farms. She added that “we did a lot of rapid response funding during the pandemic. Sending money so people could just stay alive. We provided thousands of oxygen tanks.”
“We work with digital finance,” she explained. “In Africa, and many developing countries, they may not have running water, but most have smart phones.” This helps ensure access to capital in rural areas. She noted that digital banking has other benefits as well, such as in India, a male-dominated country, where female entrepreneurs are better able to secure and access their loans with digital fingerprints.
Opportunity not only forms partnerships with digital banks, other NGOs and nonprofits to leverage assets and accessibility, Shumard said, “We also hire a lot of local people to work with these banks and teach financial literacy.” They used to build banks in rural areas to manage loans, but much of the funding was going to infrastructure, which could be better spent on lending.
Although she didn’t know it at the time, Shumard’s training for this career began at Northern Michigan University, when she worked in the Call Center for the NMU Foundation, phoning alumni to ask about their student experience, where they are now and if there is a program they would like to support. As a Spanish and French major—who also studied Russian, German, Latin, Portuguese and Italian—and had an international studies minor, she studied abroad twice with Professor Michael Joy in the south of Spain and Gaunajuato, Mexico, and right after graduation, taught English in Lyon, France. It was something she had never considered until Professor Nell Kupper suggested it and wrote a recommendation letter.
“I had such a good relationship with the professors that I don’t think you get at some of the bigger schools. To this day, we’re still in contact,” said Shumard. “Teaching in France opened up so many doors. I loved working in another country. And now my fluency in multiple languages helps me build relationships.”
She also credits her grandmother’s neighbor, who was from Mexico. “She would visit in the kitchen and speak Spanish and taught me names of colors and foods. Once I started learning and being able to communicate with her, and different people all over, it was just so amazing, I couldn’t stop!”
Shumard has also traveled extensively, to 39 countries and counting. “It means so much when I am talking with a client, or someone I have just met, in their language, to also say I have been to their hometown.”
Part of that extensive, and often intensive, travel came from her previous positions, first with an executive search firm, where she arranged and attended international meetings and conferences; then with the American College of Surgeons, where she organized conferences full time, with up to 10,000 surgeons around the world in attendance, and 50 host city hotels booked solely for the guests. “Being able to speak to them in their native language was extremely helpful.” But after a while, she said, “I felt like I was just making rich guys richer.” She transitioned to Lions Club International, where she worked on grants with such agencies as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and World Health Organization, to provide funds for vision and diabetes access programs, mostly in India, Pakistan and Nepal.
When she learned of and applied to Opportunity International, it was the NMU Calling Center experience that got her the job. Now that Chicago, and the world, is springing back from COVID, Shumard finds time to volunteer in the city through Fight to Feed, which includes fundraising cookoffs, cooking hot meals at the old McCormick Place kitchen and food dispersal to communities in the north and south side of the city. Amber completed the Chicago Conservation Corps program and loves the fact the extra food (which would normally end up in a landfill) from grocery stores is rescued and handed out at tent communities and pantries.
When asked where her helping spirit comes from, she replied, “It’s always been a drive and passion. Being at NMU, surrounded by beauty, has driven my desire for sustainability: How can I help the land and the people? How can I help the most people live better lives, today?”
Learn more about the impact of Opportunity International in this video.
Written by Rebecca Taverini '11 MA