Q&A with UVU Commencement Speaker Robert C. Gay
For those of you hoping to better acquaint yourselves with UVU’s 70th Commencement speaker before the big day arrives, we had a Q&A with Robert C. Gay, CEO of Huntsman Gay Global Capital Partners. In particular, Gay shares his fascinating experiences with micro-finance in foreign countries. Here’s what he had to say:
1. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in and grew up in Los Angeles, Calif. After high school I attended BYU, then served an LDS mission to Spain. Six months after returning from Spain, I married my wife. (We celebrate our 37th wedding anniversary this month.) I returned to BYU but started a small business to earn money to put myself through school. The business was located in Salt Lake City, so I moved to SLC with my wife and then finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Utah.
2. What led you to a career in finance/investing?
I studied finance — particularly capital markets and international finance — with the intent of teaching or working at a place like the World Bank, specializing on the problems or challenges of economic development in developing nations.
3. How did you get involved with micro-financing, and what is your vision for it?
I traveled with my family to Kenya many years ago to do some village work. While there, we taught the local villagers how to make bricks to build better quality homes instead of mud huts. Another person and I lent a few workers some money to start a brick-making business to help continue this work after we left; this was my first micro business. During that same trip, I also met a man from Orem — Louis Pope — who had started a small micro-finance bank in this village. He only had about 20 woman clients at the time, and we all met under a hut and they explained the businesses they were doing with their loans. I was very impressed and helped fund some of the operations of what became known as the Yehu bank. Louis and his wife continued to build that operation in Kenya and it now serves thousands through its proprams.
In the year 2000-2001, Louis, myself and several others then co-founded a not-for-profit charity called Unitus. It probably was the world’s first micro-finance bank accelerator. Our purpose was simple: we asked ourselves, “Could we help lift 1,000,000 people out of poverty?”
Our strategy was to use our money, business skills and contacts to help mid-level and emerging micro-loan banks around the world to grow faster and reach more people, and possibly accelerate their reach. We organized ourselves and then invested capital, debt and equity, and grants to largely unknown but very promising banks. We also helped them with operational skills and expertise. Over the last decade we entered into over 20 partnerships around the impoverished regions of the world and through those partnerships helped lift not 1,000,000, but 15,000,000 people, into hopefully better incomes and lives.
Today my associates and I are not as focused on micro-lending banks because the larger, more standard financial institutions now provide the needed capital — something that has just occurred over the past few years, and they can do this better than Unitus ever could. Instead, my focus is on investing in industries, businesses who do not have access to bank capital but whose businesses — if funded and run well — can impact the livelihood of thousands and thousands of families and individuals. I am also very concerned with building greater self-reliance among the poor and have started working on a major initiative in South America to that end.
4. Tell us about a specific success story of micro-finance
The most impactful story for me in micro-finance happened in India after we first brought Unitus there. During a field trip, the team asked one of the women who had built a small, profitable business with our loan, what she was going do with the profit. She answered to the effect, “I am going to buy my son back from slavery.” It was the first time in my life I realized that some people are so poor that they sell their children as indentured servants in order to get food for the remaining family. It staggered me, and made me want to do so much more.
5. What is your favorite country to visit, and why? Favorite foreign food?
I have traveled all around the world and lived abroad for many years of my life in multiple locations. Much of my heart remains in Ghana. The nation of Ghana is a beacon of hope for all of Africa. The people are good and kind—we have many friends there which we consider to be family. We have a home, a foundation, businesses, schools and clinics there. We are just beginning the process of building a school of public health there. The University of Utah has agreed to work with us on this exciting project.
My favorite foreign food? That’s easy — homemade gelatto and pasta in Tuscany
6. What are your hobbies?
I read and study a lot. I love to be with our children and grandchildren. I enjoy baseball. Our family – for better or worse — are avid New York Yankee fans. I also love Real Salt Lake soccer (but I am also a minority owner of the team). Our family has been involved for years in horse show jumping. We are currently building a horse farm as a family gathering place.
7. What’s next? Is there something you’d like to get involved in that you’ve never done before?
I am doing what I feel I should be doing. All my life I have just tried to listen to my conscience and make changes whenever I felt it was right. I never planned to go to Wall Street; I never planned to be in business; but I followed my conscience to leave the university and do those things, and then business made everything else I wanted to do possible. So I plan to just keep doing what I am currently doing until the voice within me tells me to do something else, and then I will do that — whatever it may be.
8. What was your reaction when you were invited to speak at UVU’s commencement? What do you hope to accomplish with your speech? I was very surprised by the invitation. I mean, I am no one special. I have just tried to do things with what I have been given that could make a little difference out there. I want everyone to know that no matter who they are and what talents they have, they can do something to astonish this world. Think about it — a few very ordinary people sitting around a conference table just a few miles from this university dared to wonder if they could help lift 1,000,000 people out of poverty, and ten years later, they had touched the lives of 15,000,000 impoverished people, either directly or indirectly — mindboggling. So I have come to believe all who so desire can have a profound impact.
— Robert C. Gay