Worku Gachou is the Head of North America Inclusive Impact & Sustainability at Visa, where he leads the company’s efforts to drive equitable economic growth in the United States and Canada.
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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I’m John Shegerian, and I’m so honored to have with us today, Worku Gachou. He’s the Head of North America Inclusive Impact & Sustainability at Visa. Welcome, Worku to the Impact Podcast.
Worku Gachou: John, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
John: Thank you for joining us today and spending the time and sharing your thoughts. Before we talk about all the important work that you and your colleagues are doing in Inclusive Impact & Sustainability at Visa, can you first share a little bit about your origin story? Where did you grow up? How did you even get on this journey? Who inspired you to do the important and great work that you and your colleagues are doing now at Visa?
Worku: I’m happy to, John. I have a very nonlinear path to where I ended up today. I guess it all starts in Alexandria, Virginia, outside Washington DC where I was born and raised. My folks are still there. My parents immigrated from Ethiopia about 40 years ago. They’re the epitome of the American success story, came with nothing, worked hard, and were able to provide for their family; and ended up where I am today. I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of politics and business, living outside the nation’s capital.
I’ve always found my career journey as how can you leverage the private sector to drive development and impact. I spent about a decade on Capitol Hill where I worked for members of Congress and for the Committee on Foreign Affairs where we tried to create laws and pass legislation that incentivized the businesses in the private sector to engage in Impact. When they did, they got certain tax benefits. With that, we saw an ability to utilize the scale innovation of the private sector, not relying solely on government resources to meet the impact and the development goals that we had in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
From my time, after Capitol Hill, I then went to a law firm, where I learned how we can leverage this idea of corporate impact to help advance broader business objectives. At the firm, I had the opportunity to work with some of the world’s most innovative and large companies to figure out what is their need, what is their impact story, and how we apply that to some of their business goals and objectives in tough markets. I then left the law firm and I joined an organization called the Development Finance Corporation which many people don’t know about, but it is essentially like the US government’s private equity firm.
It’s a brilliant structure. They have about $16 billion of capital and they invest that capital in private-sector enterprises. Again, going back to this theme of private sector-led development, investing in these private sector entities will spur job creation, innovation, and development around the world. And so I lead origination in Sub-Saharan Africa where we had about $6 billion of capital in the market and we provided equity and debt, and we were a limited partner to a number of general partners that are active in the continent.
That was me being exposed to seeing how we evaluate companies operating in this market, and how can we find synergies between their mission and the impact that we were trying to achieve. After my service at the Development Finance Corporation, I’ve always been on the periphery of private sector-led impact but never in-house anywhere. When the Visa opportunity came about, it was the perfect chance to marry up all my different skill sets into one role at one of the world’s most recognizable brands that is at the cutting-edge innovation of money movement.
John: How long have you been at Visa?
Worku: I’ve been on Visa for two and a half years. It feels like much longer, though, but two and a half.
John: You’re a very humble guy as well, Worku. You’re also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Talk a little bit about that.
Worku: Yeah. I studied international affairs and political science in school. You’re always told that there are certain paths when you take certain degrees and the assumption that you have to go into academia or research. For me, it is my unique path. I wanted to take that opportunity to show my students and other students that there are unique ways in which you can apply what you’re learning with a foreign policy and political science and international relations degree within the private sector.
I teach a course on Africa’s environmental policy and look at how you leverage the private sector to achieve some of the environmental goals that the continent and the countries on the continent have. This is my third year doing it. I’ve never appreciated teachers and professors as much as stepping into those shoes, the prep and the work that goes into it. Georgetown students are top caliber. They ask some hard-hitting questions. It’s been a fun experience. I’m learning a lot and enjoy it.
John: It’s great that you just mentioned the appreciation for teachers and our professors around the world. The responsibility that they shoulder as well to try to educate the next generation is not to be taken lightly.
Worku: No. I say continuously that I think it’s one of the most underpaid professions in the US. They are at the forefront of the next generation, and how you prepare them, how you ensure that they are ready for the challenges and the opportunities that they’ll face once they leave their respective institutions. I’m serious. I called up a few professors as I got this appointment and was like, “Oh, crap. What have I got myself into?” Advice and pointers, so, it’s been fun. I sometimes feel like I’m the student myself.
John: If we want to continue to evolve as good people, I think it’s a great place to stay in life as just a student. It’s just a great mindset to continue to have and hold at all times.
Worku: Of course.
John: Let’s switch topics a little bit over to what you’re doing in Visa. You joined about two and a half years ago. I love always to talk about the entry point. When you came on to the head of North America in terms of titles, inclusivity, impact, and sustainability, what was pre-existing and what was a blank sheet of paper for you to create and vision out and to execute upon? How much was historical? How much was going to be all you, just laying out a new path forward?
Worku: I came into a blank slate. My role did not exist previously. We didn’t have a team, we didn’t have a structure, we didn’t have a budget. We had various folks doing various aspects of the work. What our leaders have the foresight to do was recognize and establish my role within our corporate entity, Visa Inc. We’ve got a separate foundation that does a lot more philanthropic work with Visa Inc. side. It was a recognition that we can live out our purpose and mission by leveraging the products, services, and technologies that we have.
I tell folks, and not to begrudge my 26,000 colleagues around the world, but I think I have one of the coolest jobs at Visa. Where I sit, I get to think about. They’re these teams that are creating innovative technology at the center of the money movement. This is what makes economies work and businesses function. And we get to think about how we can leverage this technology or this product to achieve our social impact and our environmental impact objectives.
John: If I’ve learned anything, Worku, over the last 16 or so years hosting this show is that inclusivity, impact, sustainability, even now, some of these other alphabet terms, ESG, CSR, the shift from the linear to circular economy can mean different things at different organizations. Explain when you’re walking the high wire and trying to balance all the interests in terms of where you spend your time and energy and how Visa spends their time, energy, and resources in terms of the importance of inclusivity and sustainability and how to maximize the impact that you and your wonderful colleagues are making, how do you do that? How do you weigh all those very heavy and important topics that are going to determine the future of our planet in many ways? How do you do that at Visa? How did you start that balancing act? How has that evolved for you?
Worku: That’s a great question, John, and something that we thought about very carefully. The short answer, before we get into the long answer is ensuring that everything that we’re doing is aligned with Visa’s broader business objectives. We’ve seen throughout my experience in the CSR, corporate responsibility, and corporate impact world, that the function goes awry when teams try to embark on areas or issue sets that are outside the core of the business. So when we developed our strategy and tried to allocate resources and team members to the strategy, we looked at our core business and its functions.
Can we look at the periphery of that and identify opportunities where we can add value to drive the social impact and environmental impacts that we’re trying to achieve? So to your point about this can of alphabet soup of different initiatives, we have three main pillars. First is social equity, looking at the economic mobility of underserved populations. Then we have a pillar on financial inclusion and financial education, ensuring that people have the skills and the training they need to ensure that they’re harnessing the digital economy. Lastly, and also just as importantly, the small businesses.
I think you can appreciate the role that small businesses play in the economy in North America, in the US, in particular, so what are the tools, resources, assets, and funding that small businesses need to be successful when we think about job creation and economic development?
John: Under those three pillars that sounds like that adds up to your driving efforts to create equitable economic growth in the United States, using those three main pillars to bolster you, how do you then manage the success and impact in those three areas that you just outlined: social equity, financial inclusion, and small business success?
Worku: We have developed specific programming under each of those pillars to advance the goals that we outlined. Let me give you an example. One initiative under our social equity pillar is a program we have called MDI Accelerate. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the term MDIs, but it is a designation that’s given by the FDIC and the Federal Reserve. It stands for Minority Depository Institutions.
You get this designation if you are a minority, a minority-owned bank institution, or you serve a minority community, predominantly. For us, when I walked through these three pillars, our team took a step back. As we were thinking strategically, we’re like, “Where can we leverage our resources or partnerships to advance goals within these pillars?” So we identified the MDI segment as one of those areas. Many people don’t know, but MDIs play an integral role in providing capital and credit to communities that historically lacked that access.
Think of small business loans, consumer loans, mortgages, and affordable housing, they are the bedrock of it. And frankly, they’ve been overlooked over the years and have struggled because of that. We thought we’re in a unique place to inject resources both monetary, product, and solutions, all three, to support them and their growth so that they could acquire new customers and retain existing customers they have.
Through this program, we’ve deposited $100 million Visa Inc. in dozens of these institutions around the US. What’s exciting is that every dollar that we place in these institutions catalyzes $10 of additional lending. We’re scaling our impact in getting into the communities on the frontlines through MDIs.
John: I love it. It’s a 10 to 1 ratio on the impact, so you’re talking about $100 million, in Visa dollars, which then leads to $1 billion in impact.
Worku: That’s the goal. Over the course of the program, that is what we anticipate and this is not our estimate. These are estimates from scholars and others who’ve looked at the catalyzing impact of placing deposits in these institutions.
John: I love it. I’ve read about your digital empowerment program. Can you explain what that is? What’s the impact and success of that program? How has that evolved?
Worku: Yeah. Our digital impact work falls both under our SMB pillar and our financial inclusion pillar. Recognizing that there’s this idea now that financial inclusion has historically meant, have you been unbanked or underbanked, have you been excluded from the formal financial ecosystem? We have a different perception. We think, now, you are included or excluded from the digital economy.
It’s a different approach to understanding what you need to successfully use your phone as your bank or your computer. We saw the importance of addressing digital inequity. We think of digital inequity as three pillars. First, do you have the ecosystem? Do you have the access to benefit from the digital economy? If you have that access in place, the second piece is, do you have the products and the hardware to leverage that access?
The third piece is, do you have the knowledge and the training to benefit from the access and the products? Looking at the spectrum of digital equity, we recognize that the first bucket, the ecosystem access piece, we don’t have a place to play that. There are a lot of internet service providers or cable providers, others who are doing great work in this space to ensure low-cost, affordable access. But where we can play is within the hardware and with the training piece and so working cross-functionally where I get to work across our different functions.
We partnered with our IT team. Visa’s a tech company at heart. We have a lot of tech assets, a lot of computers, a lot of hardware that we go through. So I said, “Could we take a small segment of our end-of-life assets, refurbish them, work with nonprofit partners in the community to distribute them, and alongside that distribution, provide training?” Over this past fiscal year, we’ve trained over 5,000 individuals and small businesses on how to leverage the digital economy. But because we’re reusing end-of-life assets, we’ve also diverted 30,000 pounds of digital waste away from landfills. It’s a win-win both on the social impact side and the environmental impact side.
John: I love it. Talk a little bit about your latest digital empowerment event that was in the Navajo Nation. What was that event? What were you trying to achieve there? How did it break out and evolve?
Worku: Yeah, that was an exciting one. Visa has a robust ERG group, Employee Resource Group. We have our native ERG, which is an ERG and affinity group for Native Americans within Visa. We do these programs around the US and in Canada, we do urban and rural locations. And to credit our ERG leadership and native, they said, “Hey, this is a super cool program, but you haven’t done it on a reservation yet. Would you like to?” We said, “That’s a great idea.”
And so working in close collaboration with our native ERG, we work with a number of organizations, primarily CHOICE Humanitarian and entrepreneurs who live in the former Bennett Freeze area of the Navajo Nation to identify small business owners and entrepreneurs and provide them with the digital tools that they needed to be successful. I think you know the landscape of the tribal lands is quite harsh and quite vast, and so being connected to the digital economy and digital ecosystem is key for them in terms of productivity and time-saving. And so credit to our native ERG, but it was their idea.
John: Got it. For those listeners and viewers who just joined us, we’ve got Worku Gachou today with us. He’s the Head of North America Inclusive Impact & Sustainability at Visa. To find Worku and his colleagues and all the important work they’re doing in inclusivity, impact, and sustainability, please go to www.usa.visa.com. It’s early days yet still in your tenure, Worku, but do you start keeping formal track of your programs, the successes they’re having, and the vision that you have for the future? Do you wrap it up every year in impact report that then lives online or is distributed to your constituents, board members, employees, and other people who are excited to read that kind of stuff?
Worku: The end of our fiscal year is September 31, and so a lot of what I and our broader team have been doing this past week is aggregating and accumulating the impact that we’ve done over this past fiscal year. We produce an annual corporate impact and ESG report where a lot of our work and a lot of our impact is documented and published for the public. Part of our metrics and our evaluation is not to boast about the work that we’re doing, but it is to assess what works and what doesn’t work.
One of the things that I’ve seen in my career in the corporate impact space is folks being reluctant to stop programs that aren’t working. You have these nonprofit relationships, you have this work that you’re doing, but sometimes, you’re not achieving the intended impact that you sought out from the start. And so being comfortable with shutting something down or slowly walking back and being able to pivot is an area where a lot of impact professionals are hoping to spend more time, and we’re doing that self-reflection as well.
John: Wonderful. And that gets published when then?
Worku: That gets published at the end of the year.
John: And then that lives on usa.visa.com?
Worku: Yes, sir. Yes, it does.
John: We were talking a little bit a while ago about the Navajo Nation digital empowerment event and success there. Are you planning to expand digital empowerment programs in more cities and communities around the United States and North America specifically?
Worku: Yeah. We take a pretty strategic approach in terms of where we identify markets and communities looking at where the needs are. We have a number of resources and data abilities where we see that there is an ecosystem here and access, but people aren’t utilizing it. So is it because they don’t have the equipment, or they don’t have the training? If they have the equipment, then we know it’s a training problem.
Through some deductive reasoning, we tried to hone in on the areas where our impacts can drive the intended outcomes that we’re striving for at scale. Visa is ubiquitous and we try to be present in a lot of markets. The one thing that I always have to take a step back and think about is the scale and how we operate at the scale that we are known for and expected for.
John: That’s interesting. Your specialty is inclusivity of stakeholders, good government, NGOs, and good business, responsible business leadership. Talk a little bit about your thoughts on the critical nature of these types of partnerships working together to further DEI and CSR work and why when you get all the stakeholders involved, you can do more with less, you can go farther with less, and you can make bigger impacts in a shorter period? What are some of your thoughts on how you aggregate and enable the stakeholders to be less polarized and more collaborative?
Worku: It’s a great question, John. It’s something that I saw from my time in government. I was on the other side of the table, and recognizing that government resources, even though people think they’re plentiful, there’s a dearth focused on the development and impact that everyone anticipates or expects for their community. Recognizing this, we tried to bring in a lot of stakeholders, the private sector, nonprofits, and others, we’re doing this important work in government.
Now where I sit at Visa, I think about what resources we have around wage access so people who are in the gig economy can get paid for the work they’ve done that day or other solutions around Visa Direct, where we can help people with account to account transfers, this new approach to the economy and how money moves. We like to position ourselves in a way where we will bring our unique tools and offerings and sit with partners, nonprofits, and governments to help advance a collective goal. Let me give you another concrete example instead of speaking theoretically.
We partner with FEMA closely on disaster response. FEMA is the US government’s disaster response agency. When a disaster strikes, there is a real need to understand which places are operational so that FEMA and other first responders can know which stores to acquire goods, gasoline, and other products in their response. Visa can see which merchants are online and are offline, based on whether they’re processing transactions or not. We developed a model and a map where after disaster strikes, we call the Back to Business locator, where we’ll activate the tool and we can see which businesses are operational and we provide that data set to FEMA to help an orderly and extreme response to that disaster.
John: Wow. I love it. You’re still relatively young as a human being but also new in your tenure at Visa. This is a two-part question for you, Worku, A, what inspires you today to continue to do the great work you’re doing with your colleagues and B, what do you use as benchmarks? Do you look at the obvious benchmarks of competitive brands in the credit and debit space, or do you look outside of that and a wider breadth of benchmarks for different types of organizations and corporations around the world and what they’re doing in inclusivity, impact, and sustainability to further inform you and inspire you at the same time?
Worku: Yeah. There are a lot of folks that inspire me and guide me. What inspires me is my time early on in my career when I was on Capitol Hill and focused on African development issues. I saw the power of telling someone, “Hey, I don’t want to give you a handout but I want to invest in you because I see what opportunity lies ahead for you and your skills.” I think back to placing that confidence in that entrepreneur or that small business owner in Kenya, how they took that vote of confidence and supported not only their family but the broader community. It is always remember that there is a beneficiary at the end of the strategy documents, discussion with your finance team, and securing resources, not forgetting sight of that beneficiary that you’re trying to impact and improve the livelihood of themselves and their family.
John: There’s a real tangibility to your impacts.
Worku: Absolutely. In terms of looking at others and benchmarking, I try to look outside of the payments and financial services world. There sometimes can be this bubble effect, an echo chamber where everyone’s talking about the same issues, and everyone’s trying to bring forth the same resources. What I found is that if you take a more holistic approach to your benchmarking and through your learning, the space is still being defined. There’s still a lot of literature and scholarly journals that will be written about this past few years of corporate impact.
I tried to think holistically about what folks are doing in different sectors and how they’re looking at their impact. For example, Patagonia and the work they’ve done around sustainability and the environment. Varnan [?], some of the impressive stuff we’ve seen. The idea to invest in MDIs came from Netflix. They were one of the early pioneers. The CEO of Netflix said, “Hey, this is a segment. I think it’s important. We have some capital and let’s deposit that capital in the [inaudible].” I tried to think holistically with sectors outside of our traditional and vertical payments and financial services.
John: Understood. With regards to what’s next at Visa, what gets you out of bed? What makes you jump out of bed in the morning, that you’re allowed to talk about in terms of forthcoming projects and initiatives, that get you jazzed, that you’re allowed to talk about [crosstalk]?
Worku: I’d love to have a job tomorrow, John, so I don’t want to get ahead of my Skillshare [?]. We have a lot of interesting stuff cooking. For example, we talked about looking at Minority Depository Institutions as an important segment. We’ve placed assets in these institutions. We also want these assets to be working. We want these small community banks and credit unions to be underwriting loans and credit, leveraging their capital, but they’re using a lot of antiquated systems.
And so, is there a role for us to help them advance digitally in underwriting so that more capital can be deployed in the communities? Looking within our digital empowerment work, we focus squarely on the digital economy piece. That’s what Visa does, that’s Visa’s bread and butter. But there are a number of other industries that are leveraging the digital ecosystem. Think of workforce development, telehealth, and telemedicine.
We’re beginning to think about whether there are other partners that we should be collaborating with, other private sector entities that we should be collaborating with to loop in, to bring into the fold, into our broader efforts to address digital inequity across the US. We have this network of networks model. We have a lot of interesting partners and clients. It’s great because we get to look across the board and see who’s doing what and who’s doing something interesting and how we get them looped in and bought in.
John: I want to go back to the other hat that you wear, your adjunct professor hat, and we’re going to use Washington DC as an example.
Worku: It’s not a good example these days but we can let that slide.
John: No. But what I want to do is use something else in Washington as an example since you’re a product of that whole general area. At one point when you’re a young boy, your mom or dad or both of them brought you to see the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, and the Capitol Building. But now, as an adult with many experiences behind you, they’re the same iconic monuments, but you’re a different man.
The first day you walked into class as opposed to when you walk into class now or three years later, you wanted your students to come away with a message or a theme or take away something that you felt was inherently important to the future of this planet, that you wanted them to walk out of that class with, even though they all approached the materials differently. You’re a different man than you were three years ago, just like we all should be if we’re going to evolve as humans, but you’re teaching still a class of students. What do you want your students to come away with? How different is it from your original approach to when the first time teaching your students, the first year that you were an adjunct professor at Georgetown?
Worku: It’s a great question. It’s giving the students the encouragement and the space to challenge the status quo. I think when you look at the most successful entrepreneurs, the most successful innovators, business leaders, it’s always been their ability to see something and say, “Hey, just because we’ve been doing it this way, this long, doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or the best approach.”
I get extremely happy and proud when there are students who are out there challenging a policy, challenging the decision matrix for foreign policy cases. And they’re saying, “Hey, why don’t we try it this way? Why don’t we try it that way?” I think bringing that outside of the classroom into the professional world as they graduate and grow in their careers will pay dividends. There is this comfort in being like, “Okay, we’ve done it this way. Let’s keep it and let’s not rock the boat.” But in looking at what challenges we have ahead both from society and the environment, we can’t take the same approach. And so, you need people who challenge the status quo, who are out there thinking of new solutions for existing problems.
John: I wish I had you as a professor when I was in college because that would have been wonderful to walk out in one of my classes learning that lesson. I think that’s a beautiful, elegant, and important lesson for all of our next generation to learn. Thank gosh, you’re in that role as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Worku, as you and I know, sustainability, impact work, and inclusivity, there’s no finish line. It’s a journey. I just want you to know that you’re always welcome back on the Impact Podcast to share the continued journey that you and your colleagues are on at Visa. It’s an important journey.
As you say, “Visa’s a ubiquitous brand around the world”, so you have a tremendous and important platform that you and your colleagues get to work on. For our listeners and viewers, to find Worku and his colleagues and the important work they’re doing in inclusivity, impact, and sustainability, please go to www.usa.visa.com. Worku, thank you for your time today. Thank you for your vision. Thank you for your thoughts. And more importantly, thank you and your colleagues, for making the world a better place.
Worku: John, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
John: This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by Engage. Engage is a digital booking platform revolutionizing the talent booking industry. With thousands of athletes, celebrities, entrepreneurs, and business leaders, Engage is the go-to spot for booking talent, for speeches, custom experiences, livestreams, and much more. For more information on Engage or to book talent today, visit letsengage.com. This edition of the Impact Podcast is brought to you by ERI. ERI has a mission to protect people, the planet, and your privacy and is the largest fully integrated IT and electronics asset disposition provider and cybersecurity-focused hardware destruction company in the United States and maybe even the world. For more information on how ERI can help your business properly dispose of outdated electronic hardware devices, please visit eridirect.com.