Esther Benjamin is a Global Senior Executive, currently serving as SVP for Global Public Affairs and Chief Benefit Officer at Laureate International Universities. Laureate is the largest global network of higher education institutions and is committed to expanding access to quality higher education, delivering strong academic outcomes, and finding ways to positively contribute to the communities it serves. Laureate is also the first Public Benefit Corporation to be traded on any stock exchange in the world and, at the time of its certification, was the largest B Corp in the world.
As you’ll learn from our interview, based on her resume alone, Esther’s social impact career is impressive. However, in getting to know her personally, what strikes me most about Esther is her passion and humility. She truly embodies what it means to be a servant leader. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more about her journey to becoming an Arc Bender, the obstacles she’s had to overcome, and her advice for people who want to change the world.
What initially inspired you to make a difference and what career path did you follow?
I’ve been a part of many organizations over the years. I spent the past 25 years working in a variety of roles with an opportunity to have social impact. I’ve worked with organizations across public and private sectors, and with civil society organizations. I intentionally sought out to have a career that cut across sectors. All my experiences have been with international organizations, and the work I’ve taken on has had a social impact component. My international work has taken me to over 100 countries with the opportunity to work in many cultural, political, socio-economic contexts.
To answer your question more specifically, I was born and raised in Sri Lanka and first came to the United States in the late 1970s. My family returned to Sri Lanka, then came back to the U.S. when I was 13 years old and in high school. We left Sri Lanka at the start of the civil war, when the situation was very volatile. Conditions there worsened in the years that followed with thousands killed in the war. My family left everything behind, seeking safety and freedom, and opportunities for education. My father pursued his PhD, and my sister and I had the opportunity to be educated in the U.S. with the strong support of our parents.
When you begin your American journey departing a civil war – a brutal civil war which lasted over 30 years – your sense of responsibility is firm. That was the moment of obligation for me. I realized that I was one of the fortunate ones who could have a chance at a successful education and a career in America. It shaped my sense of responsibility to give back and to have a positive legacy in the world. I wanted to lend a helping hand in all the ways possible throughout my career.
Being the daughter of a Methodist minister also informed my path, given the emphasis of social justice and community in my family and in our faith tradition.
My career has been shaped by my childhood experience of leaving civil war. I felt a strong sense of responsibility, and a desire to help other parts of the world and people who are similarly affected.
Blessings of an Intentional, Mission-Driven Career Path
What have been the highlights in that 25-year journey?
I think one of the highlights was being part of President Barack Obama’s Administration. I served on the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team. I was part of a small group that developed the President’s plan for Foreign Assistance, as part of a broader National Security strategy.
I then joined the Obama Administration as the Associate Director of Peace Corps for Global Operations. This was a position created by the White House and the new Peace Corps Director. I was a Presidential appointee beginning in 2009. This will always be a career highlight.
Another highlight was in 1999, 10-years prior to working in the Obama Administration. I was appointed a White House fellow by President Clinton. This was within a year of becoming a U.S. citizen. As a Fellow, I worked with the Secretary of Labor on global programs to improve labor conditions.
Going back further, I served as a United Nations Humanitarian Officer in 1994. A U.N. Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs was receiving his honorary doctorate at my graduate school commencement ceremony, where I was a speaker. He heard my speech, and in the months that followed, I became a UN official and diplomat at the age of 24. I worked in Somalia during the humanitarian crisis, providing various forms of assistance.
Most recently, I joined Laureate as its founding CEO for Africa. I moved with my family to Johannesburg to lead Laureate’s first higher education partnership in sub-Saharan Africa. My experience included leading a university with nearly 4,000 students from nearly every country on the African continent.
It’s hard to choose a single career highlight because I have been blessed with many meaningful chapters. Each experience built on the previous one, they were interconnected to create a personal and professional journey focused on making a difference globally.
Striving for a More Economically-Inclusive World
You have such robust experience working on global change. What’s working in driving global change, and what’s not working?
There is interesting and important work happening in every country, and in every region. There are interesting partnerships, there are innovative initiatives, and individuals are making extraordinary contributions in important, interesting, and significant ways.
What is not working is developing, in systematic ways, a more inclusive global economy.
I’ve seen so much around the world from government, business, and civil society perspectives, and I’ve been a part of many global, regional, and local initiatives. I’ve been inspired and motivated by what I’ve seen. Yet in the 25 years that I’ve been working, I don’t see the kind of progress we need to see towards a more economically inclusive world.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this. In my next 15 years of working, I wonder about where I need to be to make the most substantial contributions in this arena. Do I need to do work that is focused on alleviating poverty? Do I need to do work that focuses on education, youth development, and workforce development? Do I need to be engaged in work that reduces unemployment and improves livelihoods for the most marginalized communities and the people most under-represented in the global economy? How can I contribute to improving shared prosperity?
Leveraging Capital Markets and Education to Break Cycles of Poverty
The work that I have been part of that I felt most directly had an impact in that arena has been in higher education.
While leading a university in South Africa, I saw thousands of young people march across the stage earning their undergraduate and graduate degrees. A vast majority of these graduates were first in family, and most were from historically disadvantaged populations.
I watched them complete their education, secure jobs, and break the cycle of poverty for themselves, their families, and their communities. I saw families move out of informal settlements, into middle class communities. I saw first in family graduates become part of the middle class and beyond.
This is why my work at Laureate has been so rewarding. We have 1 million students across the globe, and 46% are from under-represented populations. Our work contributes to the social mobility of thousands worldwide. That’s the kind of change we need to continue to support and strengthen.
If a young person wanted to work in international development, given your experience at Laureate, would you recommend they focus on education?
I think education is an important area of focus. Other areas such as economic development, workforce development, enterprise development, and small business development are also key areas of work in which one could make key contributions to building more inclusive economies.
I had a chance at Laureate to be a part of our Initial Public Offering (IPO) in 2017. We went public on NASDAQ and became the first Public Benefit Corporation to complete an IPO on any stock exchange in the world. Laureate demonstrated that a company with a social impact mission could also leverage major investors.
This experience has made me question whether I ought to work on programs that alleviate poverty, or whether is it equally important to understand capital markets. I think both are crucial. It’s important to understand how you can leverage private sector approaches, capital markets, and the world’s largest investors for social impact.
I welcome opportunities to interact with young people to share the lessons of my experience, as well as to understand their interests and goals. I encourage them to seek out a broad set of experiences to build a variety of skillsets and networks.
My training in international affairs and economics was instrumental for me, and my goal to work cross-sector has helped me have a career that has included a full spectrum of experiences. I encourage multi-sector careers, global / multi-region careers, and experience across functions is also valuable. I’ve been a CEO, COO, CFO, and led Business Development and Communications / External Relation. It’s this full range of experiences that allowed me to make a difference at each stage of my professional journey.
Key Ingredient to Making an Impact? Persistence
Have there been major obstacles that have taught you valuable lessons?
There have been obstacles during every single chapter of my professional life. The challenges and obstacles have been different at each stage. I think the key is persistence and tenacity: the unwillingness to give up, the unwillingness to be broken. And just when it all seems too difficult or impossible, you must either figure it out where you are, or figure out where to go next to get to the next level of contribution.
Some people think that I’ve transitioned from one chapter to another seamlessly to have a great set of professional experiences. There have been challenges every step of the way. But I have been persistent, and I have tried to contribute optimally at every stage, and when it’s time for the next chapter, I’ve charted the course in a thoughtful way.
This has been guided by careful consideration and judgement, advice of great mentors, support of my family, and the foundation of my faith.
Above all, I would point to a commitment to contribution. Not a commitment to personal ambition, title, or position, but a commitment to optimal contribution.
I encourage young people not to strive for success, that’s the wrong focus. Whenever a young person asks me ‘what’s your secret to success?’ I consistently say that success shouldn’t be the focus, it should be about contribution. It should be about positive impact.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I think in our country and in the world, we’re at a crucial moment. It’s about inclusion. Inclusion has become a buzzword, so it’s important to be intentional about what we mean. For me, it’s inclusion from an economic perspective, it’s inclusion from a race, and gender perspective. How are we shaping our work and our careers to support the building of a more inclusive world? I think we all need to be asking this question.
I’m so moved by what I’m seeing from young people today. The Parkland students and the young people who have been leading the Black Lives Matter movement are truly inspiring. I’m impressed by their tenacity. They’re savvy in so many ways. I’m even more excited about how inclusive they are. It comes naturally to them – 44% of millennials are diverse and they are the most diverse generation in U.S. history. They give me hope and I aspire to work side by side with young people to build a more inclusive world and a more inclusive economy.