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Irene Pritzker

IDP Foundation, Inc.
Purpose Prize Fellow 2013

Pritzker invests in the poorest of Ghana’s private schools through microfinance and financial training.

Visiting Africa, IDP Foundation president Irene Pritzker witnessed firsthand the deplorable conditions of Ghana’s poor, low-cost private schools – no books, no ventilation, open sewage. When she learned they rarely qualified for government funding or international aid, she knew she had found a higher purpose and an encore career.

“I knew from the beginning that my passion was education, specifically targeting the very poor and marginalized,” says Pritzker, who was trained as a schoolteacher but spent decades managing her family investments.

In 2009 Pritzker launched the IDP Rising Schools Program to invest in the poorest of poor Ghanaian schools, which could not qualify for microfinance loans. This venture capitalist approach aims to shift schools away from aid-based programs and towards long-term sustainability – a model that Pritzker believes could be used in other developing nations.

Partnering with the Ghanaian microfinance institution Sinapi Aba Trust, IDP Rising Schools commenced a pilot study which extended microfinance loans to 105 private schools serving 27,000 of Ghana’s poorest children.
School administrators were trained in financial literacy and school management, and through a unique partnership with Sesame Workshop, teachers were trained in educational best practices.

Four years later, the schools’ bottom lines are improving, and they’re investing the profits in classroom enhancements. Ninety percent of loans are paid back on time. Within four years, IDP hopes to scale up to 1,200 schools.

Pritzker points out that 72 million children worldwide attend no school at all. “While I don’t argue for the privatization of education, I believe that with existing policies, it’s a myth to believe that all children will ever have access to educational opportunities unless the contribution made by the poor themselves through the schools they start are factored into global educational policies and funding,” she says. “The IDP Rising School Program is replicable and scalable and its high degree of sustainability makes it both innovative and entrepreneurial.”