Social Impact Heroes: How Irene Pritzker is helping to improve the educational infrastructure of Ghana

Yitzi Weiner
Sep 2 · 7 min read

One exceptional proprietor’s story that we love to share is that of Lily Baah, proprietor of Baah Memorial School in Apaaso, Ghana. She started her school in 2005 with just six nursery students. As the school became more successful, her enrollment grew significantly. She needed to add more classrooms and additional infrastructure, but her loan applications were rejected by local banks. Then Lily began participating in the IDPRSP and received access to helpful trainings and multiple loans to update her school. Today, Baah Memorial School has 11 classrooms, a three-story multipurpose building, gender-separate restrooms and a dormitory. Her enrollment has grown, and she has added more grade levels, providing access to education to many more children in the community. Baah Memorial is now a financially self-sufficient social enterprise with students from nursery through junior high.


As part of my series about individuals and organizations making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Irene Pritzker. Irene became a founding member, President and Chief Executive Officer of the IDP Foundation, Inc. in 2008. The foundation is dedicated to the development of innovative and sustainable solutions to complex global issues. Irene believes the combination of smart philanthropy and investment solutions can conquer the world’s greatest challenges. Exemplifying this is the IDPF Rising Schools Program, developed through a unique partnership with Ghanaian financial institution Sinapi Aba to improve the educational infrastructure of low-fee private schools through concessionary loans. In addition, Irene works with wealth advisors to ensure that IDPF’s endowment is invested to produce as much social impact as possible and conducts rigorous screenings of all portfolio holdings. In that way, IDPF is aligning its philanthropic activities with investments, establishing greater sustainability and moving away from aid.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

While in Ghana learning about microfinance as a tool for supporting low-cost private schools, I saw that access to education was very difficult for economically marginalized populations in developing markets. I met Paulina Nlando, a yam wholesaler and school owner and was struck by the irony that Paulina could get multiple loans for her yam business, but she couldn’t get a loan to improve and develop the school that she ran. And, by the way, those two decisions — one to grant the loans and one not to grant the loan — came from the same financial institution. I found this very puzzling given Paulina’s high credit rating. I learned that lending to a school as poor as Paulina’s was deemed so risky that the loan committee refused the loan applications.

What Paulina told me struck a nerve. Once I began to pursue answers in earnest, it became clear that Paulina’s story was not unique. The people who run these schools are not professionally trained in the management of educational institutions; they are local businesspeople who are trying to make a difference for their communities. I also discovered that their struggles to make improvements were compounded by the high cost of borrowing money in Ghana (if they could even qualify for a loan to begin with) and the fact that government and multilateral funding agencies offered little or no support to them because the schools were privately owned.

To properly address this issue, I had to learn a lot about the local economy, lending practices, and doing business in Ghana. Getting something done requires local knowledge. So, we partnered with a local Ghanaian microfinance institution, Sinapi Aba, to launch our keystone initiative, the IDP Rising Schools Program (IDPRSP).

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Meeting Paulina — and realizing that there are many more people just like her — opened my eyes to a global but neglected population of underserved children. After visiting more of these low-fee private schools, I was inspired by the passion and commitment of the school proprietors to provide quality education to the children in their community, getting by with whatever resources they had.

Irene with Paulina Nlando

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m not sure I have a “funniest mistake,” but I certainly have a broad perspective on lessons learned. When you pilot something that no one has done before, you are truly starting from scratch. There’s no whitepaper to show you what someone else did before you or tell you where they succeeded and where they tripped up so you can avoid repeating their mistakes. There are a few key requirements: Take a deliberate and thoughtful approach; consider as many of the contingencies as you can while being comfortable knowing you don’t have them all covered; and be disciplined in staying focused on your plan and your goal while accepting a fair amount of flexibility. Also, perhaps most important of all: Maintain your sense of humor!

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

We work primarily in the areas of education and education finance, from supporting critical medical research to increasing access to capital for owners of existing low-fee private schools in Ghana through the IDPRSP. The IDPRSP program provides loans and financial literacy and school management training to school proprietors who are who are accustomed to being ignored but are in desperate need of support and access to capital. The program has reached almost 600 schools and nearly 140,000 children and is a sustainable, replicable and scalable model which is now actively scaling in Ghana.

Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted this cause?

One exceptional proprietor’s story that we love to share is that of Lily Baah, proprietor of Baah Memorial School in Apaaso, Ghana. She started her school in 2005 with just six nursery students. As the school became more successful, her enrollment grew significantly. She needed to add more classrooms and additional infrastructure, but her loan applications were rejected by local banks. Then Lily began participating in the IDPRSP and received access to helpful trainings and multiple loans to update her school. Today, Baah Memorial School has 11 classrooms, a three-story multipurpose building, gender-separate restrooms and a dormitory. Her enrollment has grown, and she has added more grade levels, providing access to education to many more children in the community. Baah Memorial is now a financially self-sufficient social enterprise with students from nursery through junior high.

Lily Baah

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Recognize the complementary role of the low-fee private school sector in serving some of the world’s neediest families.
  2. Policymakers should understand that we agree with them that the government should be responsible for providing access to quality education for all children, but the reality is that they are not always able to. Until they do, policymakers should support the grassroots efforts of local community members who run schools that fill that gap.
  3. Acknowledge that low-fee private schools exist because of market-driven demand by economically challenged parents.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Effective leadership of a foundation depends upon truly understanding the space in which you want to work, taking time to listen and learn, assembling a talented and committed staff that is empowered, and forming strong alliances with partners to work together towards what may be the way forward.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I was lucky enough to have many people offer me helpful advice when I was first starting the foundation, and I will forever be grateful for their supportive words of wisdom. Here are a few things I heard:

  1. Thoroughly investigate the area of interest you wish to focus on.
  2. Spend a lot of time with the people you wish to serve, especially if you are working in the developing world.
  3. Look for effective partnerships to achieve your goals.
  4. Don’t duplicate efforts but rather support people and organizations that are working towards similar goals.
  5. Be prepared to embrace risk and be patient but persistent.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I’d like to accelerate the impact of the IDPRSP by encouraging others to duplicate the Ghana model around the world. I hope to inspire other financial institutions and policymakers to see this model as a market-driven solution that is easily scalable, replicable and largely sustainable wherever children remain unschooled.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve tried to recognize the incredible value of other people and the way in which humanity is connected. We should always be grateful for the many amazing people who surround us each day.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I think it would be great to meet with the head of the World Bank, Kristalina Georgieva, to discuss the IDPRSP and the incredible importance of the low-fee private school sector around the world.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @IDPFoundation

Facebook: IDP Foundation

LinkedIn: IDP Foundation, Inc.

Instagram: @IDPFoundation

Medium: IDP Foundation, Inc.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Yitzi Weiner

Written by

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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