I owe it all to Richard Nixon

It was the Spring of 1971, and President Richard Nixon held a lottery.   In this lottery, if you won, you lost.   He put all the birthdays of people finishing University into a bin, and if yours was among the first 100 drawn, you got drafted and sent to Vietnam.    I “won”.   July 25th was the 67th number drawn.

In 1971, the Vietnam War was in that stage where, as John Kerry put it, “No one wanted to be the last man to die for a mistake.”   Some of my classmates in a similar dilemma went to Canada.  Some went to jail.   I thought to myself, ‘There must be another option.”

Someone told me about the Peace Corps, where I would be eligible for a two year deferment from military service.   Anything could happen in two years, right?   I interviewed, and the Peace Corps said “You’ll do.  What country do you want to serve in.   I thought a minute.   “Jamaica?”   “No, we’re going to send you to Guatemala, where you will be a extension agent for an agricultural cooperative.”   I hesitated.   “You do realize I was born in New York City?”.

For two years, I lived and worked in an idyllic little pueblo in the highlands of Guatemala, a tropical paradise.  The members of the coop were Mayan farmers who eked out a living farming small plots of corn and beans. They knew more than I ever would about farming, but their land, after generations, was severely depleted and required fertilizers to restore productivity. Fertilizers which the coop members could not afford.

This is where I was able to help, making small loans of $50, in the form of fertilizer. The farmers were able to double and triple their yields. They were able to better feed and care for their families. And, of the 800 farmers we made loans to, 799 of them paid their loans on time and in full. The one guy who defaulted was named Apollinario Atz.   I’m still looking for him.

When it came time to leave, I went to say goodbye to all the farmers I had worked with.   I was amazed at their reaction.   “You can’t go, Don Ruperto!” they begged.   Some even wept and held my hand, as if to physically restrain me.   I thought:  “Wow, for the first time in my life, I made a difference.”

After the Peace Corps, I went on to work a variety of what felt like dead-end jobs. None made me feel as useful as I did when I worked as a credit officer job in Guatemala.   My lack of passion for them usually resulted in my getting fired.

My life would come full circle when, years later, I met John Hatch, who shared a similar passion for helping peasant farmers escape poverty. John hired me, sight unseen, with no interview, at a time when I had just finished grad school, owed a lot of money in loans, and had a baby on the way.   Together, we founded and built FINCA International, a global microfinance network providing financial services to over a million low-income entrepreneurs from 23 countries on four continents.   It’s been an incredible adventure in which I’ve been privileged to know some of the most heroic people on earth.   I haven’t been bored for a single hour for the past 40 years.

When I meet young people just embarking on their careers, I encourage them to leave some room in their lives for destiny to work its magic.  Sometimes what seems like a disaster is an opportunity in disguise.  I am humbled to be able to work for people whose every day comes down to a precarious struggle to put food on the table, clothes on their children’s backs, schoolbooks in their hands, and all the other things necessary to ensure that their grandchildren will not grow up in poverty.

Rupert Scofield, FINCA International’s President and Chief Executive Officer, is an agricultural economist with 40 years of experience in the developing countries of Africa, Latin America, Eurasia, the Middle East and South Asia. As the author of The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook: How to Start, Build and Run a Business that Improves the World, Mr. Scofield seeks to inspire the next generation of microfinance leaders and social entrepreneurs. To learn more, visit http://rupertscofield.com/ or follow him @RupertScofield

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