Member Interview: Susan Davis uses social entrepreneurship to fight poverty

Illustration by Monica Garwood

From the July 2016 issue of The Rotarian

Susan Davis has devoted the past three decades to using social entrepreneurship and microfinance to address extreme poverty, particularly in Bangladesh. A Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship in the early 1980s allowed her to study international relations at the University of Oxford. A decade ago, she co-founded BRAC USA (previously the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee) to help the world’s poor through self-empowerment. She is co-author, with journalist David Bornstein, of the book Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know, and has served on numerous boards, including the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships and the Grameen Foundation. At the Rotary International Convention in May, Davis, who is a member of the Rotary E-Club of District 7210, received the 2015-16 Rotary Global Alumni Service to Humanity Award.

THE ROTARIAN: How did your Rotary Foundation Ambassadorial Scholarship influence your career?

DAVIS: Getting a chance to study at Oxford through the great gift of the Rotary scholarship was eye-opening. It’s one of the oldest universities in the world and a tremendous place to get perspective on international relations and politics. Without that scholarship, who knows what I would have done. It was the first time I had lived outside the country, and it helped to shape my deep sense of commitment to being a good global citizen and being of service. And I’m so touched to be honored by Rotary when I feel that it has already given me so much through the scholarship.

TR: Your time in Bangladesh, specifically when you first went in the mid-1980s for the Ford Foundation, was also life-changing. What did you see there and how did it affect your approach to addressing poverty?

DAVIS: Microfinance and social entrepreneurship were the best strategies I saw to respond to the daily question from women of, “How do I feed my family today?” I had never met people who hadn’t eaten something for days, so when I was confronted with extreme poverty – women who would feed their family grass or make mud cakes to fill their bellies – it’s extremely urgent. Microfinance as a solution, because it’s potentially sustainable, became a passion of mine. It empowers people to change their lives and their communities.

TR: Last year you left your post as president and chief executive officer at BRAC USA, and previously you served on the Grameen board, where you were chair when Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. What are you focusing your attention on now?

DAVIS: I will turn 60 in November, so I decided it was important to see what it feels like to pull back and reflect. I’ll continue to try to be of service, and support young people especially, through my work with New York University and Columbia coaching and teaching social entrepreneurship. I’m also studying racism, looking into other social justice movements, and thinking about gender liberation. I still serve on several boards, including a start-up board called Learn With All, which is a technology company focused on the joy of learning. I’m still working to end extreme poverty and am involved in the Rotarian Action Group for Microfinance and Community Development. If I hadn’t had these experiences of seeing women slowly starving perhaps I wouldn’t feel as strongly, but I know we are rich enough and smart enough to end extreme poverty and hunger. It’s just a matter of political will. 

The Rotarian