The greater good

Former New York financier now helps Georgians escape poverty

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The greater good

GREG SKOWRONSKI

Photo by: Peter Frey

Greg Skowronski’s vacation to Tanzania in 2007 included a safari and climbing Mt. Kilamanjaro. Along the way, it turned into a much deeper experience, one that would change the course of his career.

“The unanticipated part of the trip was the firsthand experience with poverty,” says Skowronski (BBA ’99). “It just became very real to me.”

After seven years of investment banking on Wall Street he had recently returned to his hometown of Atlanta and taken a job in finance for an Atlanta real estate company. Following the Tanzania trip, his plans changed.

He began looking for an opportunity to help the African people improve their situation. He began learning about microfinance, small loans to help people start or grow a business.

“I saw how microfinance was being used to improve poverty,” he says. “It was a light bulb moment. Someone with a business background could help alleviate poverty. I always thought it had to be a doctor or a teacher.”

He found an organization launching a pilot program that partnered with churches in South Africa to teach business skills to the local people. In 2009, he went to South Africa to head the organization’s microcredit division.

“It was amazing,” he says, “to live in Johannesburg where you could go from a (nice) restaurant to what they call an informal settlement—what we would call a slum.”

For the next two years he visited with local businesses and people living in the informal settlements to talk about small business training. The organization offered a business program to teach the potential entrepreneurs about record keeping, pricing, market research and advertising. Those who participated in the program were eligible for small loans to grow their businesses.

Hairdressing, sewing and “tuck” shops, business that sold dry goods and served as convenience stores, were popular.

The training, Skowronski says, empowered the South Africans to take their businesses to the next level. That helped bridge the cultural divide between the business professionals who volunteered with the program and the entrepreneurs from the settlements.

“It was more of a peer relationship,” he says.

After two years, the program was running well and local volunteers had been trained to teach the business practices. Skowronski weighed the idea of staying in Africa but decided to return to the U.S. to look at the underlying causes of poverty and ways to make systemic changes.

Upon his return to Atlanta he found work at Habitat for Humanity International, managing the organization’s Flexible Capital Access Program. Through FlexCAP, banks, insurance companies and foundations make loans to Habitat so that the organization can build affordable homes at a faster rate. FlexCAP loans are repaid with the mortgages from previously sold Habitat houses. With a foreclosure rate of less than 2 percent, Habitat is a better investment for banks than the general market.

“We have a 100 percent on time repayment rate to investors,” Skowronski says.

He says he doesn’t miss Wall Street. “For me this is the perfect blend,” Skowronski says. “Dealing with Wall Street banks but doing it for a social purpose.”