Coming out of Duke University in 1992, Eric Savage wanted to put his economics degree to use helping far-flung African villages get goods to the global market, but he found no one willing to hire an inexperienced college graduate for such an ambitious economic development job.
Instead, Mr. Savage, a Toledo native, embarked on a career as an investment banker on Wall Street. The job had long hours — he regularly started his day at 9 a.m. and often worked until 2 a.m. At one point when he came home for an uncle’s funeral, he realized it was the first day in six months he hadn’t spent his entire day at the office.
“I knew I wanted to do something else, but frankly you get so busy that you just get kind of caught up in it,” Mr. Savage said recently during a recent trip to Toledo. “It’s hard to look around and ‘OK, what do I want to do?’ And you get well-paid, so it makes it harder to jump to something.”
Now 44, Mr. Savage has come full circle. He’s left behind big banks and big paychecks for India, where he’s leading Unitus Capital, a relatively young social investment bank that tailors its services to companies whose products and services help alleviate poverty.
“I feel like I am in a fortunate position; I am doing what I want to do,” Mr. Savage said. “This is what makes me happy and fulfilled. I really enjoy the people I’m working with; I enjoy being able to help these companies, and you can see it making an impact.”
He was honored earlier this year as Expat Entrepreneur of the Year by India’s Expat Entrepreneurs Circle, an award he says he’s grateful for but is quick to say it’s a little embarrassing — he says Unitus isn’t just him, it’s also a highly skilled team.
How Mr. Savage went from the world’s financial capital to the country that’s home to one-third of the globe’s poorest people is a story of success, perseverance, and not giving up on one’s values.
Two years into his career with Salomon Brothers, the investment bank offered him the opportunity to transfer to any of its global offices. He chose Hong Kong.
Eventually Mr. Savage was running CitiGroup’s Asian investment banking for the power and infrastructure sectors, helping big companies in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and South Korea with initial public offerings, bond offering, and mergers and acquisitions.
He had become successful, but all along knew he didn’t want to spend his life in that capacity.
“Ten years ago, when our first kids were born I finally said enough is enough,” Mr. Savage recalled. “If I want my kids to be proud of me I need to do something my heart is in.”
He left what had become CitiGroup and in 2006 enrolled in a one-year master’s program at Harvard University as a sort of transitional move to prepare him for a career in something that would be socially beneficial. There, one of his professors introduced him to the founder of Unitus Labs, a Seattle-based nonprofit that has incubated a number of organizations that focus on innovative solutions to poverty.
Unitus was looking to to start a social-investment bank in India and needed someone to put a business plan together and raise capital. Mr. Savage was impressed by the drive of the people behind the idea. Most had been extremely successful in private equity, venture capital, or technology firms and were passionate about going out and changing the world for the better.
“It was the exact kind of people I wanted to align myself with,” Mr. Savage said.
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By 2007, he had taken a 90 percent pay cut, moved his family to Bangalore, India, and begun building a business plan for Unitus Capital. He was able to raise $5.5 million from five international investors and launched the bank in 2008, serving as its chief executive officer.
Many may wonder why someone would willingly go from such a lucrative career to fight poverty in a country they know very little about. For Mr. Savage, who credits his Christian upbringing to his education at St. Francis de Sales High School, it seemed obvious. Instead of asking why would you, he said he asks why wouldn’t you?
“It just seemed if you’re in a position where you can make an impact, you’d want to do that,” said Mr. Savage, the son of Bob Savage, Sr., who along with his brother John Savage started Savage and Associates in Toledo in 1957.
The idea behind Unitus Capital is that there are a significant number of companies doing solid work to help the poor, a large number of which also are financially attractive and could generate solid returns for investors. However, for a variety of reasons, those companies often have trouble connecting with people who have the capital to invest.
Unitus Capital bridges that gap, connecting the two groups. Unitus Capital works in five sectors: agriculture, renewable energy, education, affordable health care, and financial inclusion, which encompasses things such as micro finance, micro pensions, and affordable housing.
The bank isn’t a charity; if a business doesn’t have a plan that looks profitable, Unitus won’t take them on. That’s no different from a traditional investment bank. However, while a normal bank thinks only of profits and ensuring that taking on a client that won’t damage its reputation, Unitus goes a step further, working with companies that have a significant impact in poverty alleviation.
They also can work with smaller and earlier-stage firms than many traditional investment banks. At CitiGroup, Mr. Savage was working regularly on raising $500 million or more. At Unitus, most of their work is raising capital of $3 million to $15 million. The bank collects a fee for successfully raising the money.
Last year, Unitus Capital was named India’s investment bank of the year by Venture Intelligence, a group that tracks the Indian venture capital community.
“We certainly don’t do the biggest deals, but in terms of number of successfully completed transactions, we do more deals than anybody else does in India,” Mr. Savage said.
Though Unitus started in 2008, it wasn’t until 2012 that things really started picking up. The business is profitable now, something that many observers thought implausible if not impossible early on.
Mr. Savage also said they are making a difference.
“We’ve had a number of clients where frankly at the time we raised money for them they were in real trouble, they’d stopped paying their employees, or they were on the verge of collapsing, and we were able to raise money for them. On the back of that, through their hard work, they’ve scaled massively,” he said.
Unitus has leveraged its $6 million in initial investments to raise more than $1 billion for its clients.
Some of the projects Unitus has been involved with include a company that sells low-cost, high-quality drip irrigation systems to farmers, medical firms developing less expensive heart stents, or bringing technology that allows cost-effective screening for glaucoma, cataracts, and other causes of blindness.
Another firm, called Vindhya, employs only people who have disabilities, including many who are deaf. Mr. Savage said people with handicaps generally are ostracized in India and encouraged to stay at home.
In working for Vindhya, many of those people become the best-paid member of their family.
“This stuff really impacts people’s lives. certainly it’s not that you go to the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but these things incrementally really make a difference,” he said.