“Open the newspaper and find an opportunity.”
This is not something your average eight-year-old hears at the breakfast table, but for Elizabeth Berthe, Mercy Corps’ newest Social Innovations team member, these words were her father’s staple instruction.
“My dad was a serial entrepreneur,” she explains. “He taught us at a very young age to read the newspaper and find business opportunities. You know how some people flip houses? We flipped businesses.”
Long before Elizabeth started in international development, she and her five brothers and sisters grew up traveling with their father from town to town on the eastern side of the United States. Sometimes they lived in a place for just two weeks before moving on.
“We would look for different things in the newspaper, trailer parks … even cars,” she remembers. And if things were undervalued, they would buy and resell them for a profit. Elizabeth and her siblings worked for their dad on whatever his latest business project happened to be. Each of the six children specialized in a business area. Elizabeth’s specialty was sewage and septic systems.
Growing up, they were nomads of a sort. Elizabeth thinks she attended at least fifteen different high schools. “When we got to a place I really didn’t like, I was relieved to know I would probably only have to spend a few weeks there.”
In college, Elizabeth says she realized not everyone could uncover opportunities the way she could. She recalls sitting in business classes and learning that the only business experience her classmates had had was working at the mall or volunteering after school, whereas she had managed at least fifty businesses by the time she was 18.
After college, Elizabeth worked in France where she managed the opening of Euro Disney. It was there that she recognized the opportunity that would later define her career. The team she worked with in Paris represented 85 different nationalities, a majority of whom were from Africa. Most of the workers received minimum wage and regularly sent money home to their families.
“I looked at those employees sending all of their money back to their villages, and I saw how long it took to actually get there, and how only a small portion of their hard earned income actually arrived at the final destination. I wanted to change that.”
The workers paid numerous fees to transfer funds back to their home villages, and often, a majority of people in the villages lacked bank accounts or other safe places to keep the money once it arrived. Elizabeth knew there had to be a better way.
Before joining Mercy Corps earlier this year, Elizabeth spent seven years with the Grameen Foundation, working on the kinds of “last mile” technologies that would have helped her friends working at Euro Disney. Initially at Grameen she worked on projects that created microbusinesses in rural areas. As the number of mobile phones expanded worldwide, Elizabeth began exploring mobile money opportunities. In Kenya, Grameen enabled microfinance institutions to shift to cashless transactions—switching all cash transactions to mobile phones. From there, Elizabeth looked for partnership opportunities with mobile network operators and other private sector entities that could create additional financial services that would be relevant for the poor and other hard-to-reach rural customers.
Elizabeth learned about Mercy Corps while working in the Philippines on a project to solve a market gap that was preventing the poor from accessing capital. The Social Innovations team was also looking to resolve this challenge so the entities combined efforts.
After her tenure at Grameen, Elizabeth felt compelled to work for a larger organization, one that could attract a more diverse set of corporate and telecom partners. “I was excited about the ability to attack problems on a larger basis and leverage a greater footprint to work across geographies,” she says. “I started my work in Central Africa, so the francophone countries have a special place for me, and generally US NGOs do not work there.” At the end of 2012, Elizabeth officially joined Mercy Corps’ Social Innovations team as a senior director of financial services innovations.
Mercy Corps’ Social Innovations team is responsible for identifying and supporting breakthrough initiatives that are both financially viable and scalable, reaching at least one million people within five years. Both Mercy Corps and Elizabeth see scale as an important factor in having broad impact. With her extensive background in the mobile financial sector, Elizabeth’s specialty at Mercy Corps is scaling up existing initiatives by connecting the organization with new corporate partners in emerging markets, from Africa and India to Mexico.
Starting from a young age, Elizabeth was challenged to think creatively and critically about the world of possibility around her. Since then, she has honed those skills to see connections and opportunities that others might easily overlook, in order to reach the world’s bottom billion.
“People hear ‘entrepreneur’ and think you have money. All it means is that you have ideas,” she says. “There was one year my family made $3,000. We had no water, and I remember I had one outfit for the entire year… I know what it feels like to be poor, and it drives my passion for what I do.”
Elizabeth shared a photo of a woman she met in Rwanda. The woman had lost her husband in the genocide and was living with HIV/AIDS. “Marie-Claire was one of the first ladies we helped to establish a microbusiness. Running a business was new to her and she used her revenues from the microbusiness to build a restaurant to help provide an income for her children. I keep her photo for continued inspiration.”