Keeping Small Businesses Competitive through Sharing Best Practices of Global Leaders

Michael Schlein’s BIO

Michael Schlein is the President and CEO of Accion, a global nonprofit dedicated to building a financially inclusive world. A world pioneer in microfinance, Accion has helped build 63 microfinance institutions in 32 countries which currently reach millions of clients providing them with the financial tools that can help improve their lives. Today, Accion has operations and investments throughout much of Latin America, Africa, India, China and the Philippines.

In addition, Accion provides early and seed stage venture capital to new companies that promote disruptive innovation in financial services at the base of the pyramid. Also, Accion created and supports the Center for Financial Inclusion, an outward-focused think tank dedicated to tackling industry-wide challenges. For example, the Smart Campaign is the first global consumer protection campaign focused on those living in poverty.

Mr. Schlein brings nearly 30 years of extensive international banking, management and public service experience to his role as President and CEO of Accion. As President of Citigroup’s International Franchise Management, Mr. Schlein managed the bank’s network of 100 Chief Country Officers. Before that, he ran communications, philanthropy, government relations, branding and human resources for Citigroup. He served as Chief of Staff at the US Securities and Exchange Commission in the Clinton Administration and in New York’s City Hall in the Dinkins and Koch Administrations. He began his career in investment banking.

In 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed Mr. Schlein to serve as the Chairman of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, which encourages economic growth throughout New York’s five boroughs and facilitates investments that build capacity, generate prosperity, and catalyze the economic vibrancy of city life as a whole.

Mr. Schlein has graduate and undergraduate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

In the Spotlight Interview

1. Please share with us how you began your career at Accion.

Michael: Before I began my career at Accion, I had spent twelve years in government and public service, and another twelve years on Wall Street. Accion seemed like the perfect combination of both of those worlds– an organization that wanted to make the world a better place by building banks and working as a venture capital investor.

I had been on Accion’s Board of Directors for several years already, and was even on the search committee to find a replacement for the previous CEO, Maria Otero. My wife read the job description and said “You need to apply for this.” I was honored to eventually be selected. I’ve served as CEO for nearly five years now.


2. Take us through a typical day, start to finish.

Michael: The job involves a great deal of travel and several conference calls every day. We have offices from Boston to Beijing, so there’s likely going to be two to three continents represented on every phone call. We’re a nimble organization, and to stay that way we need to involve people on the ground with local input to make decisions quickly.

Otherwise, apart from day-to-day management issues, I try to interact regularly with the Board of Directors, donors, and my senior staff. I also try to participate regularly in speaking opportunities where I can discuss Accion’s impact.

I balance all of that with raising a family with my wife, Jordan.


3. What was the best advice you received when became President & CEO at Accion?

Michael: I’ve had the chance to work with some great leaders throughout my career, including Arthur Levitt, Jamie Dimon, Chuck Prince, and Robert Rubin, to name a few. I learned so much from each of them – and what I learned impacts how I do my job every day.

There’s a meeting I had with Jamie Dimon that I’ll always remember: we were involved with a merger, and I came to Jamie with some complex personnel decisions. He told me: “If you know what you need to do, you should do it now.” It was such a simple statement, and I doubt he’d remember saying it, but I think about that often. When you’re managing a complex organization and if you know what you need to do, then do it now.

Another lesson I learned is from one of my predecessors, former Accion CEO Michael Chu. He told me that you have to put the mission above all else. It’s another very simple but powerful statement. Time and again, when I’m faced with tough decisions that won’t be popular, I find that it’s the right guiding principle – not only for me to make a decision, but for other people throughout the organization to understand as the perspective that I use. Accion needs to know that when I’m faced with a difficult decision, I’m going to put the mission first. I’ve come back to that advice many times.


4. What are your strategies for building awareness of Accion for the short term and the long term?

Michael: Accion has a great brand that we’ve built for more than fifty years. We’re well known in our field and I’m proud that we have a clear, well-articulated strategy both within the organization and outside in the broader industry. If you set achievable, ambitious goals and consistently find ways to push innovation, that strengthens the brand considerably.


5. What is your proudest achievement?

Michael: I believe we have a clear and well-understood strategy that is both audacious but achievable. That sounds obvious, but it’s not easy to have a well-defined strategy that people both inside and outside of the organization can understand. I’m very proud that my senior staff and Board of Directors have worked hard to accomplish something inspirational but still executable.


6. What are Your Top 3 book recommendations?


Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. This book is filled with stunning insights into the tunnel vision that narrows the scope of anyone’s thinking when they face scarcity.

The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers by Richard McGregor. This book reveals something that we know next to nothing about: how China’s ruling community government works. With so much of our daily lives tied up with China’s economic rise, this book was a real eye-opener for me.

Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins et al. This is a seminal contribution to the field of financial inclusion. It is an in-depth portrait of the complex financial lives of the poor. It’s a must read for anyone who cares about financial services for the poor.


7. What other charitable causes are most meaningful to you and why?

Michael: Accion! This cause was the most meaningful to me before I went to work here, and is even more so now. Accion embodies the idealism to inspire people to make the world a better place, but there’s still a deep-rooted pragmatism in everything that we do. It’s a very special organization.


8. Who has been most influential toward your accomplishments at Accion?

Michael: I’m very lucky to have Diana Taylor as Chairman of Accion’s Board of Directors. She’s a very dear friend and a great chairwoman for our organization: she’s so smart, hard-working, she’s traveled the world with us, is a terrific sounding-board, has excellent judgment, and is very engaged in everything that we do.

I’m also fortunate to have a deep bench of talented people on my senior staff. Together, we’ve created a strategy, and we’re executing on it.


9. What is your advice for entrepreneurs who are 1-3 months away from launching their business?

Michael: Set audacious goals that you can achieve – and beat.

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