Twenty-one years ago, Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor Jr. T’88 founded Intercorp with a lofty mission in mind: to make Peru the best place in Latin America to live and raise a family. Today, business is thriving and the future of Peru’s emerging middle class has never been brighter. Here’s how Rodriguez-Pastor is doing well by doing good.
For the past 21 years, Rodriguez-Pastor has poured that hope into Intercorp, a collection of businesses—supermarkets, pharmacies, retail banks, shopping malls, movie theaters—that cater to his native Peru’s growing middle class. The company’s mission is “to build a brighter future, day by day, for all Peruvian families.” In 2010, Intercorp took that mission one step further by starting Innova Schools, a system of affordable, high-quality K-12 schools around the country. Now Intercorp not only sells goods and services to the middle class, but gives more kids the opportunity to move up the economic ladder. In 2015, Fortune put Intercorp on its “Change the World List,” a group of companies that are doing well by doing good.
“We focused on the emerging middle class, which has grown really rapidly over the last 15 years, and we’re trying to provide all the services they need and want, but within their constraints,” Rodriguez-Pastor said. “If we make these families stronger, I think we can have a longer-lasting democracy, where people own something and will thrive in a system that gives opportunity to all.”
Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor chooses his words carefully. So when he says he wants Peru to have a “longer lasting democracy,” he is referring to his country’s uneven history of representative government. For example, in Peru’s 194 years as an independent nation, it has had 109 presidents, meaning each president had an average term of 1.7 years. Only 22 of those presidents were elected, and just six were elected under a system of universal suffrage. In Peru, the coup has been a common way to change leadership. The most recent one, in 1992 by Alberto Fujimori, is considered the 28th successful coup since independence, and the sixth since World War II.
Like all Peruvians, Rodriguez-Pastor’s life has been disrupted by the high turnover of the country’s leadership, but his unique childhood gave him a more acute appreciation for stable government. In 1968, when Rodriguez-Pastor was nine years old, General Juan Velasco Alvarado led a military coup d’état, using Peru’s armed forces to seize power for himself, close Congress, and get rid of the democratically elected president and administration. At the time, Rodriguez-Pastor’s father was the general manager of Peru’s central bank, and he was considered a threat to the new regime. Velasco falsely accused Rodriguez-Pastor’s father of crimes against the state, and intended to put him in jail. Facing that hostile environment, Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor Sr. escaped from Peru and fled to California. Six months later, Rodriguez-Pastor and his mother and five siblings joined him there.
Once in California, the family had to start from scratch. “My father took a position with a bank, many rungs lower on the ladder than he’d been on in Peru,” Rodriguez-Pastor recalled. “I had to start a brand new school, forced to make new friends, convincing them the boy with the strange accent was someone worthy of acceptance.”
But Rodriguez-Pastor persevered. Hard-working and intelligent, he got accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, and paid for much of his tuition by working as a bank teller at a Wells Fargo branch. In the summer of 1986, Rodriguez-Pastor arrived at Tuck. He soon became friends with classmate and fellow sports enthusiast Peter Prophit T’88. “The thing that struck me is he was one of these guys that was competitive, but not in your face about it,” Prophit recalled. The following May, they went to San Francisco together to run in the annual Bay-To-Breakers race. They ran side by side for most of the 7.5-mile course, but near the end, Rodriguez-Pastor dropped back and disappeared into the crowd of other runners. “He used the group as a screen and then passed me,” Prophit said. “I chased him down and finished a half-step behind him. So out of about 10,000 people, we’re like 461 and 462, and Carlos had that trademark grin on.” They stayed at Rodriguez-Pastor’s parents’ house that night, and Prophit remembers waking up the next morning and hearing someone playing the piano beautifully. It was Rodriguez-Pastor. “He’s just a Renaissance man,” Prophit concluded.
Tuck had a lasting influence on Rodriguez-Pastor. The most profound impact came from the school’s focus on teamwork. “That was really important, because to do anything big you have to be able to work on teams, and not just lead them,” he said. “Sometimes you’re just the guy taking notes, other times you’re a big contributor, sometimes you’re a leader.” That lesson is evident in many facets of Rodriguez-Pastor’s leadership style today, where he delegates to his trusted leaders of Intercorp’s subsidiaries, and yet maintains close contact with them and is there to offer advice when needed.
Tuck taught him a few other lessons too. One was the power of communication. “There’s an emphasis on being a great communicator, and that’s key, because if you have a great idea and can’t communicate it, it’s not heard,” he said. Rodriguez-Pastor also absorbed the community-minded ethos of the Upper Valley, with its small towns and villages. “I think there was a shared value approach,” he said. “Everyone is kind of concerned about the well-being of the community. Coming from the Bay Area, I thought that was a great experience.” Rodriguez-Pastor uses the same language when he talks about his hopes for Peru, and how business can play a role in improving society. “I’m proud to be called a business person because I think we can be a good example of how to make the economic pie bigger, create a shared value, where everybody benefits,” he said.
While Rodriguez-Pastor grew up and was educated in the U.S., his home country continued to experience political convulsions and economic turmoil. After 10 years of military rule, under Velasco and others, Peru returned to democracy in 1980 with the election of Fernando Belaunde Terry. Belaunde was deposed by Velasco in 1968 and, now that he was back in power, he faced two main challenges: a failing economy and the rise of an armed insurgency. Peru’s per capita gross domestic product had fallen 12 percent since 1975, and inflation had risen from 24 to 70 percent. These trends continued throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, with inflation reaching four-digit levels and GDP declining at the same time. As if those problems were not enough, 1980 witnessed the emergence of the Communist Party of Peru, also known as the Shining Path. Classified by the U.S. and other nations as a terrorist organization, the Shining Path began a revolutionary war against the Peruvian state, carrying out assassinations, detonating bombs in cities, and blowing up electric transmission facilities. By 1992, the war had led to more than 25,000 deaths. Peruvians lived in fear, and foreign investors stayed away.
Numerous administrations had failed to correct the country’s economic and security crises, but in 1990 an alternative party candidate named Alberto Fujimori came out of nowhere to win the presidential election. Although Fujimori ultimately left a legacy of human rights violations and corruption, he managed to disable the Shining Path and implement fiscal and free-market reforms that stabilized the economy and opened Peru to global commerce.
That same year, Rodriguez-Pastor’s father returned to Peru and, with a group of investors, acquired Bank of America’s Peruvian operations. It was the smallest bank in the country, but it was a start. Soon after, Carlos Sr. called Carlos Jr. in New York, where he was the co-head of emerging market trading at Citigroup. He wanted to know if Carlos wanted to come back to Peru and help him grow the bank. “I knew I wanted to, at some point, return to Peru and work alongside my father,” Rodriguez-Pastor recalled, “but on the smallest bank in the country? That didn’t sound like a great opportunity. My father, though, was never one to see adversity as simply a challenge. He saw it as an open door. He told me, ‘Carlos, don’t think of this bank as the smallest bank in Peru. Instead, think of it as the 25th largest bank in Peru!’”
In 1994, Carlos Sr. and his colleagues bought a bigger bank: the state-owned Banco Internacional del Peru, and Carlos Jr. finally came back home to work with his father. One year later, Carlos Sr. died suddenly of a heart attack, and Carlos Jr. became the head of the organization, which had changed its name to Interbank. With the economy improving, Rodriguez-Pastor made a critical strategic decision: to grow the bank by marketing to regular consumers, not the elite. In a deft move, Interbank put branches where its future customers already went everyday: the supermarkets. The new branches, replete with balloons and tellers who were not behind bulletproof glass, were a breath of fresh air for Peruvians. The banks were open every day of the week, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Interbank built a network of more than 3,000 ATMs and was one of the first banks in Peru to offer Internet banking.
Luis Felipe Castellanos T’98 is the CEO of Interbank today, which has become the fourth-largest bank in Peru, and also the most profitable bank in the country. Like Rodriguez-Pastor, Castellanos worked as an investment banker in New York before returning to Peru, where he was raised. When Castellanos decided to move back to Peru, he got many offers to do corporate finance at Peruvian companies. “Carlos was the only one who told me, ‘What you have done in New York is not going to help you in Peru, because it’s a tiny market. But you have the opportunity to learn new things and develop your leadership skills.’” Castellanos liked that Rodriguez-Pastor recognized his potential to grow in a different direction. He started out managing Intercorp’s mutual fund company, and worked his way up to the top office at Interbank, where he oversees about 7,000 employees.
With the profits from the retail banking business, Intercorp began assembling a portfolio of companies that would serve other needs of the middle class. In 1999, Intercorp opened its first non-financial business: a small movie theater company. Today, it’s the largest movie exhibition company in Peru. “That gave us the confidence to get involved in other businesses,” Rodriguez-Pastor said. Now Intercorp is an umbrella for at least 19 other separate businesses: a supermarket chain with 103 stores; a retail development firm with 20 shopping malls; a department store chain with 19 locations; a home-improvement chain with 17 stores; and the leading pharmacy chain in Peru, with 845 stores.
Rodriguez-Pastor’s idea to serve the emerging middle class was not only shrewd, it also dovetailed with a period of economic growth unprecedented in Peru’s history. Peru is a mining country, rich with silver, gold, copper, and tin. As China’s economy took off, it needed those raw materials to build its cities and factories, and the prices of minerals rose steadily through the late 1990s and well into the next decade. As a result, Peru’s GDP grew by six to eight percent every year, and its middle class doubled in size, going from 6 million to 12 million between the years 2000 and 2010. Mineral prices have since leveled off, but GDP growth in Peru is still strong, at 3-4 percent, and the country is on a stable platform for continued prosperity. In fact, it’s considered the darling of Latin America by investors and international economists.
With all the good news about Peru’s economy—the expansion of its middle class, increased life-expectancy, etc.—it’s easy to overlook the country’s persistent problems. The poverty rate, at 25 percent, is falling but still very high. Organized crime is rampant. But Peru’s most striking deficiency is in the quality of its education. Since the year 2000, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has evaluated the reading and math proficiency of 15-year-old students in dozens of countries through its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Peru has ranked at or near the bottom of PISA every time it has been administered—in 2000, 2003, 2006, 2009, and 2012.
Peru’s performance on the PISA bothered Rodriguez-Pastor. He is a firm believer in the growth mindset, where talent and intelligence are not static qualities but launch pads for personal achievement. Education plays a huge role in this philosophy, because it acts as a catalyst for betterment. Rodriguez-Pastor believes in meritocracies and runs Intercorp in accordance with that worldview: dedicated workers advance, regardless of their background, while lackluster performers are asked to leave. So when the sorry state of Peru’s education was brought up at conferences year after year, Rodriguez-Pastor found it frustrating and decided to see if Intercorp could help.
“As we got involved, to our surprise, we found that in Lima close to 50 percent of all kids were going to private schools,” Rodriguez-Pastor said, “but most of these private schools were really lousy, just as bad as the public schools.” In other words, the government wasn’t doing a good job with public education, and the private sector was charging for an inferior product. That gave Rodriguez-Pastor a new challenge to pursue: create high-quality schools with affordable tuition. Again, the demographics were calling him in this direction. Sixty percent of Peru’s population is 31 years old or younger, and this represents a huge opportunity for the country’s continued growth. But if that generation is stuck with poor schools and bad teachers, they could stop Peru’s upward trend in its tracks. “That should create a sense of urgency,” Rodriguez-Pastor said. “We really have to do it now.”
Rodriguez-Pastor and Intercorp started down this path carefully, consulting with the design firm IDEO to come up with a strategy for a big company to enter a field not accustomed to multi-billion-dollar private enterprises. In order to gain trust among educators and parents, Intercorp in 2007 created an award for the “teacher who leaves a footprint,” which gave a new car to the country’s best teacher.
Rodriguez-Pastor gave IDEO four mandates when designing the schools. They had to be affordable to the emerging middle class. Such families have a monthly income of about $1,500, so Innova set the tuition rate at around $100 per month. The schools had to offer high-quality instruction, and that meant good teachers and an effective curriculum. So the IDEO team developed a blended-learning model, where students spend 70 percent of their time in group-learning, and 30 percent self-learning with the aid of laptops and programs like Khan Academy. To populate the schools with qualified teachers, which are in short supply in Peru, IDEO developed a teacher training system and Innova worked with experts at the University of California, Berkeley. The schools also had to be scalable. Yzusqui and IDEO deliberately focused on creating an education system, not just a collection of schools. Today, there are 29 schools in nine cities with 19,000 students. The goal is to have 70 schools with 65,000 students by 2021, which would cover roughly one percent of Peru’s student population.
The last requirement was the most controversial, but perhaps the least surprising, given that a for-profit company was involved: the schools had to be profitable. Rodriguez-Pastor and Yzusqui joked that they should put that mandate in invisible ink, so it wouldn’t raise suspicion. But Rodriguez-Pastor saw profitability as essential. “Because if it’s not profitable, it’s not sustainable,” he said. “You may feel good about being a nonprofit, but then your donations run out and what will you do? If it’s profitable, you can have the returns to keep building more schools. It’s a virtuous cycle.”
In less than five years, Innova Schools has grown quickly and shown impressive results. On Peru’s annual test of second-graders, the average level of proficiency for public and private schools combined is 26 percent for math and 45 percent for reading comprehension. The proficiency level for students at Innova Schools is 71 percent for math, and 86.6 percent for reading comprehension. And last year, Innova received its international accreditation from AdvancEd, an American company that has accredited more than 30,000 schools around the world. “I think we are making a difference in private education in Peru,” Yzusqui said. “We are contributing to one of the most important areas of the country.”
If starting an education revolution seems like an unorthodox endeavor for a company like Intercorp, it helps to know that Rodriguez-Pastor runs the company according to his own values, and education just happened to be one of them. Another of Rodriguez-Pastor’s values is a sense of humor, and that too has become one of Intercorp’s values. The biggest example of that is Interbank’s annual costume party, where everybody, including Rodriguez-Pastor, dresses up and acts silly. The senior managers put on a show, and awards are given to employees who best represented the company’s values that year. It’s one of the highest honors among Interbank employees.
“What it does is remind us that, at the end of the day, no matter what your business card says, you’re just a regular person,” Rodriguez-Pastor said. “Because if you take yourself too seriously in a country that still has 25 percent poverty, I think you’re missing the boat a little.”