Scholarship, sustained effort, an entrepreneurial mindset, and a genuine commitment to making a lasting positive difference are good building blocks upon which to construct a meaningful career. Gregory F. Casagrande prepared long and hard for what he has become.
His scholastic achievements began as he fulfilled his undergraduate degree at Colgate University in upstate New York. He graduated with honors, earning his bachelor’s degree in Economics. Prior to graduation, Gregory spent six months in the UK working for a member of the British Parliament – the first step on a very international career. After graduation, Gregory went straight to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City. By night he earned his master’s degree in Accounting from New York University’s Stern School of Business and became a CPA. Gregory then continued his education at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Chicago. There he earned his MBA in Finance and Marketing, while also interning with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation in Washington D.C. It was then that Gregory also qualified to be a member of MENSA.
With his training and formal education complete, Gregory joined the Ford Motor Company. He achieved multiple objectives for the company in product development, manufacturing, marketing, and treasury. While working at Ford’s World Headquarters in Dearborn, MI, he worked on the transaction where Ford purchased a controlling interest in Mazda. Shortly afterwards, Gregory was promoted to a senior management position within Mazda while also reporting back to Ford management in Europe.
In Japan, Gregory took on the role as the Head of Finance for what became the world’s largest engine development program with a cost of 3.2 billion dollars. The program provided funding to develop a new line of cost- and fuel-efficient engines and to build engine manufacturing facilities in five different countries. He later led the market equation division, setting pricing for all Mazda vehicles worldwide.
After the birth of his youngest daughter, Gregory left Ford/Mazda to pursue new ventures. He relocated to Auckland, New Zealand with his young family and launched both South Pacific Business Development (SPBD) Microfinance and the Ice Angels, an angel investing group.
The Ice Angels pioneered the concept of angel investing in New Zealand and have since become the largest and most active angel group in all of Australasia. Through the Ice Angels, Gregory became involved in the fledging hi-tech, start-up culture of Auckland. Among other notable initiatives, he became the founding chairman of Biomatter Ltd, an innovator and leader in the bio-informatics industry. After 15 years at the helm of Biomatters, the company achieved an excellent exit and was sold in 2019, to San Diego-based Insightful Sciences.
SPBD Microfinance, under Gregory’s leadership, grew into the first successful and financially self-sufficient microfinance/ micro-enterprise development organization in the region. Today SPBD operates in five Pacific Island countries and has brought meaningful economic opportunity to over 80,000 poor but aspiring women micro-entrepreneurs. SPBD provides these women with small business training, unsecured credit and ongoing guidance and motivation to help them start, grow, and maintain small income generating businesses so that they can work their way up and permanently out of poverty. With SPBD’s support and guidance the women are empowered to increase their income, build their assets, secure their families, improve their living conditions, and provide their children with a complete education. Related to SPBD, Gregory also founded the MicroDreams Foundation. MicroDreams is a charitable wholesale finance organization that provides a range of financing solutions to innovative microfinance and micro-enterprise development organizations.
Most recently Gregory has further expanded his portfolio by taking his international business and social impact skills and deploying them in his new role as Executive Chairman of Water Health International. Water Health is a leading provider of affordable clean drinking water to poor rural communities throughout India, Nigeria, and Ghana.
Gregory has taken his considerable education and global business experience and has focused those skills with his passion for building entrepreneurial impactful organizations to launch, develop and lead a range of high impact companies and organizations. SPBD Microfinance, the Ice Angels, MicroDreams Foundation, Biomatters Ltd and Water Health International are all organizations with altruistic missions that have grown, succeeded and made a positive impact on their communities under the leadership of Gregory.
Where did the idea for South Pacific Business Development Microfinance Network come from?
I have always been interested in third world economic development. During my Kellogg MBA, I interned with the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. There I learned how to make sustainable impacts in very poor countries while still generating a reasonable financial investment return. While with Ford and Mazda, I was very proud of the economic impact that we made building automotive facilities around the world. I am a true believer in the positive power of capitalism, free markets, entrepreneurialism, and the inspiration of the American Dream. In my mind, the key to prosperity is in giving people meaningful opportunities so they can grab a rung somewhere on the economic ladder and work their way up.
When I left Ford and Mazda, my brother was working at the World Bank. He is the one that put Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh on to my radar screen. Yunus and Grameen won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in directly empowering poor families with microfinance services to women to start and grow tiny income-generating businesses. After attending a microfinance conference in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, I was invited to spend time at Grameen. In 1999, I spent a few weeks at their headquarters in Dhaka and in a branch office in Chittagong and became inspired by the work that they do. Upon leaving Bangladesh, I decided to replicate the Grameen model and to take it to the poor countries of the South Pacific where there was plenty of economic need but not much meaningful opportunity for poor families – and hence was born SPBD Microfinance.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
As the leader of both SPBD and WaterHealth, my role is to set the direction of the organizations and to consistently build the capacity of the companies – whether that is the financial capacity or the human resources capacity. My role is also to ensure that the major processes driving the company are robust and well-functioning. I get especially involved with product development, financial planning, operations management, and human resource development. All the above requires tremendous amounts of ongoing communication. I have teams spread out over 11 countries and have colleagues, and critical partners in several other global markets. For me, email communications are extremely important. I appreciate staff who can write crystal clear and concise communications.
I also do a lot of face-to-face Zoom meetings. Zoom enables me to get important messages out to my senior leadership teams. Our operations are global, which means there is always something going on. I have an endless stream of emails 24/7. I have learned to set some time-limits as to when I will engage with email or Zoom. Generally, I am shut down on Sundays and after 10:00pm the rest of the week. I am a jogger and I find it helpful to get out for walks during the day. When I am walking, I find that ideas flow nicely, decisions I am considering can be resolved and that upcoming priorities can be set. I am also an avid reader of the Wall Street Journal. It is extremely important for me to stay reasonably fit and to be engaged in the world news of the day.
How do you bring ideas to life?
Ideas come to me at all times of the day. And so, I have note pads all over the place. They are next to my bed, in the car, in the kitchen, in my office, in coat pockets and on various sidetables. I scribble notes down as they come to me. I later evaluate them with fresh eyes the next day or so. I let good ideas rattle around in my head for a while and then bounce them off a few key team members. That may result in an idea being agreed on as conceived or perhaps tweaked or rejected as many ideas are simply too early for execution. Once an idea becomes a “go”, I will set a very clear vision of what we are trying to achieve and select a small team to execute the early stages. We will develop an action plan that will include early-stage deliverables and milestones. Then I will work the plan forward as the idea comes to life.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The rise of impact investing is very exciting. The idea of making commercial capital available for financially-sustainable, operationally-scalable enterprises that deliver positive societal impact is transformative. These social-impact enterprises will generally have thoughtfully-designed, innovative business models that make them both impactful and scalable. It can create an enormous amount of societal benefit.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I believe you can’t be truly productive without a terrific team. It is important to regularly and specifically appreciate and acknowledge the efforts of your teams and your colleagues.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell my younger self to think a lot about your core-values and direction. Second, I would implore that you do not need to pretend that you know more than you do. It is okay to acknowledge at a young age that there are many unknowns in your world. Related to that, I would suggest working hard at formulating good questions so that you can learn more quickly.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Despite the TV show, the Jersey Shore is a beautiful and wonderful place.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I always ask myself, does this make sense for our customers? New products and services need to make sense and provide clear, easy-to-identify benefits to our customers. I also ask, how can the process of delivering this service be simplified so that it is less likely to go wrong.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Whenever I get involved in something new, I have to have a true passion for what I am doing. I only join new projects that have people that I like and respect. I do that because everything runs into unexpected problems. If you are ever going to get through the big bumps in the road, you’re going to need to believe deep-down in the vision and you need to believe and trust in your colleagues.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
With SPBD we wanted to work with itinerant migrant families that were living in temporary shanty towns in Suva, Fiji. We thought that we could implement our normal solidarity-group-lending practices and serve these needy families. If successful, it would make an enormous positive impact. But it did not work. We lost a lot of money. The women in the shanty towns did not have the strong communal ties to one another that the women living in rural villages for decades had. Most of the families living in temporary shanty towns just took the money, disappeared, and defaulted on the loans. The families who had guaranteed those loans were unwilling to honor those commitments given their weak links to their short-term neighbor. Going forward we made a conscious decision to not blindly apply our model to just anyone in need.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
For those who are interested in social impact, I see an opportunity to provide affordable basic medical check-up services to the poor residents of rural villages in third world countries. It can be achieved through a well-equipped knapsack, smart device, and a motorcycle delivery system. Basic needed medical services can be provided on the spot and major issues can be identified and referred to a specialist at a major facility in the city.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I was in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands recently. I bought a very old empty Coke bottle found in the jungle and left there by an American G.I. soldier from World War II. I gifted the bottle to one of our social investors whose older brother fought in Guadalcanal. I had purchased the bottle for about eight bucks. Despite the low cost, it was unique, genuine and something that he truly appreciated. It was also a nice little way to demonstrate gratitude to an important colleague.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
I use Dashlane which keeps track of my endless quantity of passwords and Evernote which keeps my many strands of thoughts and ideas together.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Banker to the Poor,” by Muhammad Yunus. It lays-out the principles of the microfinance revolution to empower the world’s poor.
What is your favorite quote?
By Teddy Roosevelt: It is called “the Man in the Arena.” “It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
● Anyone starting out on an ambitious career, should take the time to think about their core-values and desired direction.
● Before engaging in any significant new venture, you need to believe deep-down in the vision and you need to trust and respect your colleagues.
● It is important to regularly and specifically appreciate the efforts of your teams and colleagues.
● Impact investing together with thoughtfully-designed, financially-sustainable, operationally-scalable, social-impact enterprises can yield an enormous amount of good.
Steve (Stefan) Junge hails from Germany and helps with the day-to-day publishing of interviews on IdeaMensch. While he and Mario don’t share a favorite soccer club, their enthusiasm to help entrepreneurs is a shared passion.