Investing in Africa

Reeta Roy, CEO of Mastercard Foundation, defied critics and steered its $33 billion to help Africans solve the continent’s challenges
A woman meets with three female African mechanics in work clothes and hard hats. Reeta Roy, a Tufts Fletcher School alumna and president and CEO of the Mastercard Foundation, defied critics and steered its $33 billion to help Africans solve Africa’s problems.
“The brain power, drive, resilience, energy, and insight in Africa are phenomenal,” said Reeta Roy, second from left, shown listening to a mechanic at SolarTaxi in Ghana before the pandemic. Photo: Joan Ngiabi/Mastercard Foundation
September 16, 2020

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In 2007, a search firm contacted Reeta Roy, F89, with a surprising opportunity: Would she be interested in the top post at the year-old Mastercard Foundation? Roy, a corporate executive in Chicago, had never heard of the Toronto-based foundation, and its mission—to alleviate poverty by advancing education and microfinance—seemed unnervingly broad. Besides, finance wasn’t her specialty.

Still, she was intrigued. She would be the foundation’s fourth full-time employee. She would build the organization and its programs from the ground up.  

She took the job.

“I love, love, love inventing, thinking about what hasn’t been done before, and looking at problems afresh,” Roy said.

And that’s just what Mastercard Foundation allowed her to do. Established in 2006 with 10 percent of the proceeds from Mastercard International’s initial public offering, the organization when she joined it was little more than a large pool of money—some $1.2 billion—and a recently named board of directors that was independent of Mastercard itself. Roy, whose previous role as vice president of global citizenship and policy at health-care giant Abbott included leading its small corporate foundation, found herself faced with a daunting question: How could a fledgling foundation with outsized ambitions have the greatest and most sustainable impact?

She dove in, immersing herself in microfinance and logging thousands of miles of international travel. Leaders at long-established foundations, corporations, banks, and non-governmental organizations shared their knowledge. In 2009, a year after she arrived, she announced that the foundation would focus its efforts on Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.  

“Much of what we have done and become is because of our decision to focus on Africa,” said Reeta Roy. Photo: Shravan Vidyarthi/Mastercard FoundationThe continent has often been defined by deficits such as poverty, but Roy and her board saw enormous potential. The private economy was small but growing, and a cohort of entrepreneurs was emerging. And while other parts of the world were aging, Africa was getting more youthful.

“This is a young continent,” Roy said. “The International Monetary Fund estimates that within fifteen years, there will be more young people entering Africa’s workforce annually than in the rest of the world combined.”

According to the Brookings Institution, 70 percent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa are under the age of thirty, and the World Economic Forum projects that by 2050, the population of Africa as a whole will double to 2.5 billion.

Yet skeptics outside the organization argued that it lacked the staff and expertise needed to achieve its goals, and that it wouldn’t find enough suitable opportunities anyway. “Mostly,” Roy said, “they thought it would just be too hard.”

‘Brave, bold, and persistent’

Roy wasn’t intimidated by the challenge. Her parents had encouraged her strong work ethic, which she’d continued to cultivate. Her father, who died when she was fourteen, had been a refugee as a child, the 1947 partition of India having forced his family to flee from Dhaka to Calcutta. “He often spoke about the difficulty of resettling and starting all over,” she said.

He developed a powerful drive toward public service and went on to become a doctor, then met Roy’s mother, a nurse, while working in a Malaysian hospital. To marry, they had to break through cultural and religious barriers: He was Indian and Hindu, she was Taoist Chinese born in Thailand.

“My mother was a tremendous force,” Roy said. Despite her nurse’s training, Roy’s mother never went to college, but she was “constantly reading and learning,” and like her husband, she was strongly focused on public service. “She started me volunteering at age thirteen,” Roy remembered.

Even more significant, Roy’s mother championed education for both her son and daughter, even though she’d been raised with the idea that girls were to be married off and boys were to be educated. After Roy’s older brother won a scholarship to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, her mother took out a mortgage on their house in Ipoh, Malaysia, to send Roy to Winston-Salem for her last two years of high school. “My first scholarship was my mother’s,” she said.

Roy later won a full scholarship to St. Andrews Presbyterian College (now St. Andrews University), a small liberal arts school in rural North Carolina that was unusually accessible to students with physical disabilities. She worked as a caregiver for an undergraduate who was paralyzed from the neck down and met many other students who refused to be limited by their disabilities. “It taught me never to make assumptions about people,” she said.

St. Andrews also helped set the course for her career. Her political science professor there urged her to consider graduate school and showed her a brochure about The Fletcher School and Tufts. “I fell in love with that brochure and with the school,” Roy recalled. By the time she graduated, she was Tufts bound, but to earn tuition money, she first worked for a year at the program agency of the Presbyterian Church USA in New York City. There she met, and married, the international affairs scholar Jim Muldoon (who died in 2017).

Roy finally made it to Tufts in the fall of 1987 and thrived in her new environment, garnering a Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship the next year. Later, with her Fletcher degree in hand, she worked as a writer at the UN, and after that, she put her international affairs acumen and passion for public service to use at pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb, where travel to Senegal and South Africa inspired her interest in Africa, and then at Abbott.

“Even at twenty-six or twenty-seven, Reeta was a star,” said Margaret Maruschak, Roy’s boss at Bristol-Myers and long-time mentor. “I remember her first trip to Africa. She was on her own, and handled the assignment extremely well. She was always brave, bold, and persistent. At the same time, she had humility and a moral sensibility. From my perspective, she was perfect for Mastercard Foundation.”

‘The naysayers motivated us’

Roy’s decision to zero in on Africa seems prescient today. Six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in Africa, according to the World Economic Forum. A recent Brookings Institution report notes that more than four hundred companies there are earning annual revenues of $1 billion or greater. The 2019 African Continental Free Trade Agreement is projected to create a single market of a billion people, 93 percent of whom have access to mobile technology.  

“Much of what we have done and become is because of our decision to focus on Africa,” Roy said. “The naysayers motivated us.”

With assets that have climbed to $33.5 billion, Mastercard Foundation is now active in twenty-seven African countries, as well as Canada, and has provided financial services, scholarships, training, or other support to more than 45 million people, according to documentation from its 165 partner organizations, including Fletcher.

Those efforts are already changing lives. Among the beneficiaries is young Kenyan entrepreneur  Rahab Wangari, whose Mastercard Foundation Scholarship funded her undergraduate and graduate degrees in Ghana and Rwanda,  and in 2017 enabled her to cofound Hepta Analytics, which helps businesses all over Africa make smarter decisions by tapping their own company data. One proprietary app facilitates billing for merchants who lack a relationship with a bank; another tool enables human resources professionals to identify which employees need training.

“The thought of an organization believing in me when no one else did contributed a lot” to Wangari’s decision to start the company, she said, and knowledge gained as Foundation Scholars gave her and her cofounders confidence that they had identified a viable market gap and had the skills to fill it.

To stay closer to those it serves, Mastercard Foundation opened regional hubs in Accra, Kigali, and Nairobi, with Toronto remaining the center for Canadian programs, and recruited a predominantly African workforce based on the continent. In 2018, the foundation established Young Africa Works, which is collaborating with the private sector and the governments of specific countries to help 30 million young people throughout Africa secure steady employment by 2030.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the foundation launched a program to support communities in Africa and Indigenous communities in Canada, first by protecting and equipping front-line workers, delivering emergency funds for students in crisis, and providing a lifeline to struggling small and medium businesses. Longer-term, the program aims to build resilience in businesses, institutions, and communities, particularly by enabling use of digital technologies.

Young people in Mastercard’s programs responded innovatively too. Coders in Kenya pivoted to building a digital, contactless food distribution system, and young scientists in Ghana began developing a rapid, low-cost COVID-19 test.

“The brainpower, drive, resilience, energy, and insight in Africa are phenomenal,” Roy said. “The best way to learn is to listen.” Indeed, her Zen-like ability to tune in to others has helped the foundation continue to address countries’ real needs rather than merely importing well-intentioned ideas from the outside. While she has earned numerous honors, including a Tufts Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award, it’s the conversations she’s had on the ground that keep her going.

One of the most memorable occurred in Nairobi in early 2009, not long after she joined the foundation. “There were seven or eight of us crowded in a small room in a very poor neighborhood,” Roy said. “It was very hot. After we had talked, a young man asked me a question to which I had no good answer: ‘You see us and you see our lives. I want to know, what will you do?’ That question still drives me.”

In deciding how to respond, she constantly challenges herself to balance her compassionate vision with tough-minded analysis. To be an effective leader, she said, you must “keep your feet grounded on earth and your head in the stars.”