Mastercard Foundation CEO and President Reeta Roy, sat down with The Discovery Pod podcast recently.
She spoke with Douglas Nelson about the work Mastercard Foundation is doing in areas of education and finances. Reeta explores the development of the Foundation and the strategies they employ in communities from Sub-Saharan Africa to across Canada. At the heart of it, she highlights the importance of co-creation, of understanding that you don’t have the answers, and, therefore, you must learn to listen. Reeta then talks about her journey as a leader, the people that helped her along the way, and the lessons she learned on what excellence looks like in leadership in the social profit sector.
Reeta shares her own journey as a leader, reflects on the mentorship that she has received, and paints a picture of what excellence looks like in the leadership of our social profit sector. If you are interested in developing your own leadership skills and the skills of those around you, you are going to want to tune in to this episode with Reeta Roy.
Thank you so much for having me.
It is so great to have you on the show. We have been looking forward to the conversation. For those who aren’t familiar, I suspect most of them are, could you tell us a little bit about the work of the Mastercard Foundation and what it means to seek a world where everyone has the opportunity to learn and prosper?
Thank you for opening up. First and foremost, the Mastercard Foundation is a Canadian foundation. It was created in 2006 when Mastercard, the company, became a public company. The company did something very unusual and it set up the foundation in Toronto in a very global multicultural city. It set out two areas of work for charitable purposes. One is to advance education and the other is to extend financial services to the poor.
The third most unusual thing they did was they made the foundation completely independent and separate from the corporation. Our foundation has its own board of governors, board of directors, and its own management team. We have our own policies and we make our own decisions. Early on, the foundation board at the time, and soon after I got there, we set out to define our purpose. We did set a vision of a world where all have the opportunity to learn and prosper.
When you ask what it means, it means many things. First and foremost, it means listening and understanding where communities are. If they are here in Canada, particularly around indigenous communities, where young people are. If we are walking somewhere in Rwanda or Ghana, understanding what people’s aspirations are, what their dreams are, the problems they live with, and what their ideas are for how to solve those problems.
It starts there. Listening, understanding, and then thinking about what tools and resources we have which could be brought to bear, but always asking first, “How could we create solutions together? What is the outcome we are seeking to achieve?” It’s a work which in many ways is not work but a labor of love. It’s a calling. Most of it is about building community and trusted partnerships.
With the capacity that the Mastercard Foundation has and the track record that you have built over the last number of years, I wonder how you balance that tension of moving into a community or working with a group and saying, “We are excited. We have momentum. Let’s get to work,” and holding back to listen as you are working with the new community or new groups around the world. As the CEO, how do you balance that urgency with the commitment to listening?
That’s a phenomenal question. It’s a tightrope you walk every single day. In many ways, it’s tempered by also looking at history and looking at the literature and understanding. We have to take stock. When we look at the world of philanthropy and particularly the world of development, there are many examples of what not to do.
One of the things not to do is to imagine that we know the answers, we got that solution, or we understand what the problem is. You have to temper yourself and discipline yourself on that. That said, the people we work with have a sense of urgency. They were not problems solved yesterday. Young women who want to be in school years ago have missed that opportunity. Parents who want their children to go to school. Somebody wants to start a business or grow their business and needs support. They have a sense of urgency, which we probably cannot even fully understand. It’s always a balancing act, but it has to start by understanding before we can run.
You said the mistake that we see, we see in the sector and the world of international development. We see it right across our sector in every area, assuming that we know the answer. I’m sure in your work, sometimes you show up and you don’t even know the question to ask. Your presence is the start of the conversation. How do you approach that and encourage your colleagues to approach those situations when you are entering a new area of work?
There are a couple of things we try to follow. We are not a perfect organization. We are an organization of people with different professions and different walks of life, but there are two things that we hold dear at the foundation. We have a number of values. I spoke about one already, which is about listening.
The second is in pursuit of impact. We have a word that we use. It’s called co-creation. When we enter a conversation in a country or a community, and we are discussing with elders here in Canada and indigenous communities. It could be with leaders or other kinds of community leaders if we are in different countries in Africa. Let’s say we are speaking about education. We have seen different models and ways of solving problems. We need to come into that conversation to understand where people are and how leaders perceive and understand problems. They have seen this before and we have to recognize that.
We use a term called co-creation, which means we come together. We understand problems together, but then we also try to start identifying problems together. It’s a process that brings better solutions where everyone feels ownership and therefore, we are jointly accountable for the outcomes we are pursuing. It also means that there’s a willingness to learn.
Sometimes even with the best research and the best set of assumptions, once you get going into implementation, you realize perhaps some of these assumptions weren’t well calibrated. We got to pivot and change. Something is not working. You build trust at the outset and you are able to have conversations to say, “We need some work here or we need some work there. We need to pivot, change, and adapt or we need to start again.” That’s part of what partnership looks like, particularly the co-creation approach.
I’m sure you have learned a lot of lessons along the way in developing that model of co-creation. You have got a radar for when you feel like the assumptions weren’t quite correct. Maybe we are on the right path but we have stepped off to the left or the right a little bit. How have you developed that sense over time both as a leader yourself, but also as a very significant foundation?
Early on in my career, I had a wonderful boss who became my mentor. I want to be like her one day. She instilled something in me when I joined as a young manager in a large corporation. She said, “I know you are smart. I know you went to school, but you are going to have to learn that you have a lot to learn.” The first thing you need to do when you enter a room, particularly a large meeting or in a different setting, is to just be quiet, listen, and watch. Learn to ask questions. Sometimes it’s the question that opens up a conversation.” I certainly learned everything she taught me over the years. I’m still learning how to refine that every single day. I don’t have it down all the time.
When you enter conversations and when you are trying to solve problems, some of these problems are difficult problems. Sometimes they are sensitive issues. The first job is to try and create an environment where all of us are coming to the table together so that the focus is not on each other. The focus is on the problem we are trying to solve and the opportunity. Create an environment where they can debate and discuss disagreements. I always tell our team, “As the foundation, we got to work extra hard to take the power dynamic out of the room. We are interested in solving problem A or problem B.”
As I was in Alberta visiting the Blackfoot Confederacy, we are on Team Blackfoot. We are here to focus on what it means to help young people transition from post-secondary education into work, but it’s engaging. You pick up very quickly when a conversation isn’t getting to the heart of the matter. Sometimes it’s up to us to say, “I don’t think we are touching in on the right things, or maybe we need to step back. Are we approaching this in the right spirit, or in some cases in the right way?”
What’s wonderful is when you listen, especially if you listen to young people, I don’t know whether it’s because there are no filters or what, but people tell you straight. They say, “I think you are looking at this the wrong way. What you think the real risk or the real problem is, you are not even close. The real issue is sitting over here.” We have had that in a number of ways.
I remember when we worked with an organization when I first began at the Mastercard Foundation. We were doing some work in Morocco. The focus was on enabling young people to access financial services, especially credit. In those days, microfinance was known as microcredit. Lots of research said, “Yes, people needed loans to start little businesses.” Six months into the whole thing, nobody wanted a loan. They all wanted savings accounts. That was when you thought, “Let’s change and pivot. Let’s listen more closely to what they need.”
Muhammad Yunus was right about a lot of things, but maybe just not that one thing in Morocco.
Perhaps. That ended up being a very fruitful program, but also rich in terms of learning and how to engage young people.
One of the things that’s fascinating to me in looking at the history of the Mastercard Foundation is starting with such a wide range of opportunities. You could take on any issue or any cause anywhere in the world as an organization. Anyone that has been watching the foundation has seen you narrow the focus over the last number of years. You described your process, which is to enter the room and listen, at the same time narrowing the focus. How have those two things worked together to change the outcomes and the impacts that the foundation is able to make in the world?
I think it’s well put. There were probably three early decisions that were made when the Foundation was just getting on its way. Those are the decisions that I look back on and I think, “They have kept us on the path.” Clearly from the outset, we had these two areas of focus around education and financial inclusion. The founding board at the time said, “We need to make sure that we truly realize the opportunity that we have at this foundation, and that’s going to require focus. Let’s think about where in the world we should focus.”
The data led us to Africa, more specifically Sub-Saharan Africa. We could see at that time that only 25% of the population has access to savings accounts, perhaps even less than that. It spoke volumes about the millions of people who were excluded from financial services, which is so important in order to participate in the economy and make a living.
We saw that at the time that a very small percentage of young people who should be in secondary school were in secondary school. Today, it’s better, but it’s only at 44%. When you get a higher education, 9% of young people who should be in higher education are even completing higher education. They daily spoke about where they could be a huge opportunity for impact.
The second thing the board said was that we could do many things, but if we want to understand the impact, change, and economic transformation, then we need to be prepared to go a long mile to walk that journey and make a long-term view. We are a private organization. We have that opportunity and ability.
The third thing they said was to think about scale. It’s not necessarily doing thousands and thousands of small pilots, but there’s a rule for that. We have a pool of resources that we could deploy and go deep and go long. When you see something working, take that next step and ask the question, “How do we expand education? How do we improve quality? How do we get from 1,000 people to 10,000? How do you go from 10,000 to 100,000?” Think in terms of design that enables access.
Those three conversations at the start of the foundation are ones that I would wish every foundation that we have the chance to work with here at the show took the time to think through their answers to those questions. The answers will be different for different organizations, but you have touched on what is at the heart of being an effective funder over time.
In that last answer, you talked a little bit about the work that Mastercard Foundation does in Sub-Saharan Africa. You are also a very significant funder of work in indigenous communities here in Canada. I’m hoping you could take a few minutes and walk us through some of the great work that you are undertaking in that area.
We began our work with indigenous communities in 2017. It was right at the time when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had published and issued its recommendations when there was a real moment for our country to reflect on how we go forward in a truly inclusive and empowering manner. We saw the opportunity with education.
The process began with listening. We did a lot of consultations with communities, but especially with young people. That’s how a program that we call EleV began. The name if you were to look at its logo, all of that was designed with the input of young people and they led the way. This is an initiative that started out somewhat modestly because we were learning and we were working out in the Yukon and British Columbia with two institutions that had strong ties with indigenous communities.
The focus was on post-secondary education and young people’s access to education and their transition from that. Since that time, we have expanded significantly. In the last five years, we have had partners across the country, from the east to the west and north and south and especially, and we’re very interested now in the northern part of the country.
The work starts by engaging communities to ask them, where are the young people? What would they like to see in terms of access to education? What we are hearing often very consistently is, “We’d love for young people to have opportunity.” Many young people speak about wanting to stay in their community. They speak about careers they’d like to see in agriculture, food systems, and addressing climate change. The creative sector, they are working on interesting ideas but they need support to expand that.
We also see a huge need for resonance when it comes to language and the revitalization of indigenous languages, and what it means to culture, self-esteem, and to moving forward. Whether we are working with the Blackfoot Confederacy, whether we are working with a university like Laval University, which is working with its communities, or whether it’s a partnership between Queen’s University and the Weeneebayko Health Authority in Northern Ontario, you see similar themes around development, skills, and education for young people, but being driven by their interests. Also, support for institutions, whether it’s a seven-generations institution. Focusing on what they need to be successful to enable their young people to succeed.
We think about the impact in three different ways on young people themselves and how they see their progress. It’s not just the numbers which we care about certainly, the numbers of young people completing education and so forth. It’s the young people. It’s also the institutions that serve them, that they have the resources, capabilities, and networks to be able to develop new programs, to be able to continue to meet the needs of their community.
What we are looking for is a transformation in our education system, in our ability to enable young people, especially young entrepreneurs from indigenous communities, to participate more fulsomely in the economy. We made an initial commitment of 10,000 young people. We are well past that and we have set a new goal of 100,000 young people from indigenous communities by 2030. We have made a significant financial commitment of $500 million towards that goal. We are pleased that we started modestly, and we are on our way to scale.
That’s a powerful journey you are sharing there and an incredible investment. It’s something that is so important. Listening to you talk and knowing the number of organizations that you have worked with over the course of the last number of years to get to this point, I’m interested in hearing your perspective.
As a relatively young foundation, we still here in our travels across the sector, particularly in post-secondary institutions, that the opportunity to work with or be funded by the Mastercard Foundation is something of a badge of honor. It shows credibility on the part of the institution that they are worthy or are able to be a partner with MasterCard. It’s a big deal. I’m interested in hearing what you have learned or what you have observed in working across the post-secondary sector in Canada and how those partnerships work best.
First of all, thank you for saying that. Credit goes to my colleagues and it goes to the people with whom we work at all of these institutions. When we enter a partnership, I will give you my bias. I look for certain things. I know there are so many organizations that are doing outstanding work or doing important work.
What I look for at the leadership level are leaders who are also listening and seeking to understand. Leaders who lean in that things aren’t going right when there are real challenges. You observe that in so many ways. In their interactions when they are in a community, how people are responding, and the kinds of things that they are willing to put on the table. It’s not about vulnerability when we haven’t worked well or we haven’t done as much or we haven’t done something to the best of our abilities, but it’s that sincerity of wanting to drive an outcome, and recognizing that outcome can only be achieved when others come on the journey. I see that.
Partnerships, like so many things, are really tested. It’s not just when times are good and it sounds great and we are announcing or launching some new initiative but it’s tested when things don’t go to plan. People are able to gather quickly. There may be disappointment and some venting, but then the focus is on how we get it back on track. What do we need to do? In some cases, what do we need to change about how we are working? I have learned so much from leaders who are like that. That’s the real staying power. That’s how trust is built and that’s the basis for long-term relationships between institutions and leaders.
You referenced encouraging your team to try and reduce the power dynamic as the funder when you are working in the community. Working with large institutions is a little different, and I would imagine those conversations are different. We can save that for the after-show conversation. As an organization that is committed to that concept of co-creation, working with large institutions where co-creations is a difficult thing for them to do sometimes or an underused muscle for a lot of leaders, what works in terms of encouraging those institutions to join you in that path of co-creation?
It does require several things. Number one, hopefully, we find the right champions within those large institutions. It helps mostly in most senior leadership levels or within those teams when you have people who are also looking for a different way of working that actually works and who are curious about that. They have the willingness as we do. The willingness, readiness, and openness to be influenced to try something.
I remember working with three universities here in Canada that were well-known, large, extremely accomplished, and highly respected. The first time we came together to work on and became members of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, we brought them into a room together and said, “You are going to be working together. You are going to help each other with your respective proposals and applications.” We want to make sure that we are bringing the best out of each institution.
There is a lot of sharing about what we are going to be learning, and this program was focused on the continent of Africa and identifying highly vulnerable but talented young people, and providing an opportunity to learn. The first meeting we had, we didn’t call it co-creation. We had some other word, collaboration. There were a lot of surprises.
In the second meeting, we were catching on. Now, I can’t remember not working with these three organizations, and how incredibly helpful they have been not to us but to each other. It comes back to people. Painting a vision in some parts about this is where we are headed. Achieving our goal is extremely important, but how we go about it is equally important.
There is something so critically important in the entire world of philanthropy, particularly as it relates to granting. It’s not just what you’re granted to. It’s how you do it and how you are meeting the community. If you can bring three prestigious universities and get them working together, you are doing something very right.
They were fortunately terrific universities but they did say, “This is an unusual way of work.”
Being a foundation acting across the globe or outside of Canadian borders, how does being based in Canada impact the work of the Mastercard Foundation?
In many ways, it’s been very helpful to us. Oftentimes, when people see the name, they think, “You must be an American foundation.” I walk through how we were founded, the genesis of the foundation, and that we are rooted in Canada. It’s been very helpful in several ways. One, it’s still a huge respect. Canada and around the world, people recognize that there’s a sensibility. There’s an understatement in terms of how we work. There’s kindness in how we engage. That always helps in any situation. That’s number one.
There’s also an understanding that we are a country which also is dealing with our own challenges and our own history. We are not here to impose, instruct, or pretend in any way that we have the answer. It’s very much in keeping with the sensibility of the foundation as well in terms of how we work. As a private organization, we are independent of any type of ideology or politics. We are just interested in that vision of opportunity for all to learn and prosper. The underscoring is on all, which means we look at who’s excluded. That has kept us on the straight and narrow as it were in terms of how we work.
As a leader of the organization, you are a person of prominence and you received a number of honorary degrees. Our audience who has joined us through our conversation will also hear a genuine humility in how you talk about both your own work and the work of the foundation. Accolades and accomplishments are not always the measure of what success looks like in people. Looking back over your career, what are you most proud of and what do you consider to be your own personal greatest achievement?
If somebody had asked me this as a young person, I would never have imagined that I’d be doing what I’m doing now. I would love to have been involved in something like this, but I would never have imagined my life leading an organization like this. For that, I’m extremely grateful. When I think about what I’m proudest of, it’s so hard to pinpoint.
I still see so much more work ahead and so much more to learn. I’m extremely grateful for the people who mentored me. I’m grateful for my mother who sacrificed for me. I’m grateful for leaders that I have met along the way who have taught me. They have taught me whether it was about how they perceive the world, how they ask questions, and how they engage with others. I am proud of the work of the foundation. I’m proud that there’s trust in us as a partner. I know that trust has to be earned every single day in terms of how we show up.
We are still a young organization. I would like to think that we are building the foundation of the foundation to do great things as we move forward. Also, to always recognize that we are an organization that is heavily dependent on our partnership. This is not about aiming for credit. If anything, credit goes to everybody else who does the hard work of implementing programs. I would leave it at that.
You have mentioned mentors a few times as we have gone through this conversation. As an organization committed to learning and asking questions and finding the right questions to ask, as CEO and President, when you need to turn to someone for advice, who do you turn to?
There are so many different people in moments. I’m very fortunate to have a tremendous relationship with my board and the leaders on my board. It’s also interesting. I have also mentored young people. Sometimes at a moment, I will call somebody. It might be a student or a young person. I’m thinking of one in particular who’s a physician, but I met her before she went to university. I will ask her and I will say, “What do you think about ABC? How would you approach this problem? What would you say?”
Sometimes I think about facing a particularly difficult conversation or difficult decision. I remember the words of one of my mentors, the woman I told you about. She would always say two things, “If you are about to make a decision and it’s going to be consequential, don’t rush. Wait.” The second thing she used to say and she still says it periodically to me. She said, “Try to make new mistakes. Make new mistakes every day. That’s how you are going to learn.” That’s something that I try to tell our team. People are so focused. I have a lot of high achievers in my organization and they said, “What do you mean to make new mistakes? Let’s try not to make mistakes.” I said, “Sometimes mistakes are quite helpful to us.” There are many people I can think of who have helped me.
Make new mistakes. That’s a good slogan. I appreciate you sharing that. As we come to the end of our conversation, I get to ask my favorite question. What are you looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to more impact. One of the things which encourages me every day like oxygen is the number of young people that I meet, who talk about where they are going, what they are doing, and what they have learned. I know they have overcome so much already. Whether they are at school here in Canada at one of those universities, whether they have won a prize or they have received some funding for a project, it never fails to give me energy and to give me a boost to say, “We are on the right track. We are doing something right.”
I look forward to seeing where they will end up and what they will do. That’s what I’m looking forward to. Knowing that there is a ripple effect and a ripple impact in the work that we are doing. I’m looking forward to seeing more of that in the future. I’m looking forward to continuing to learn. I don’t want to say I’m looking forward to making more new mistakes but to go and learn.
Reeta, it is such a pleasure to have the chance to speak with you as a leader in our sector. You are an example for others to follow in terms of managing so well the purpose of your organization, and the approach to how your organization does its work. It has been so incredible to watch Mastercard Foundation expand its reach and impact, and we are looking forward to what is to come. We will sit off on the sidelines and watch you continue to do your great work in the months and years to come. Thanks for being on the show.
Thank you so much.
Join Douglas Nelson as he talks with CEOs, Board Chairs, Founders, and other senior leaders about their observations of the sector, their personal career experiences and the opportunities and trials facing organizations. As social profits confront new challenges post-pandemic, we can collectively elevate the sector through the sharing of lived experiences and gained wisdom. Learn from the brightest and the best in the sector so you can reach your career goals and accomplish what is most important to you.
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