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Gender Lens Investing and Inclusive Business

I’m pleased to participate in the Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business this month, with a focus on SDG #5, to address impact investing with a gender lens. The flows of finance will ultimately shape the opportunities for business to tackle gender issues, and thus it is so important now to get gender thinking into investment thinking. 
 
The focus and point of influence in my work is on finance and investment. I and many others believe that considering how we deploy capital can get us towards a gender equitable world. This includes but is also broader than increasing the visibility and quantity of women founders and entrepreneurs who get funded. We can also use our roles as investors and board members to drive shifts much more intentionally and strategically to reflect the social, environmental and gender equitable world we want to see, with positive financial outcomes, in a host of other investment areas.
 
I see at least three ‘re-sets’ of thinking and action required to help us get more capital flowing in the right direction.
 
Re-set 1: Awareness of and action on hidden biases impacting women entrepreneurs and co-founders beyond access to capital
 
Considering where women have been undercapitalised is certainly a huge starting point.
 
We know that many (but not all) have found it harder to access capital because of social, cultural, and regulatory or legal barriers. There are early signs of shifts here with new funds, new structures and new capital being allocated with a gender lens. But those barriers still remain. 
 
Beyond this, however, we know that access to technological innovation is not gender neutral. Various sources including Sharron McPherson at the Center for Disruptive Technology in South Africa point out that men are learning about using disruptive tech faster — a key driver of growth and competitive advantage. If women are less in the flow of information, does that create a competitive disadvantage? Similarly, new products and services often contain the biases of their engineering and design teams. If tomorrow’s technology benefits one half of the population disproportionately, then we have a serious problem.
 
We must get capital to women entrepreneurs, those on senior management team, and co-founders at every level, from micro and SME to SGB (small and growing businesses) to much larger businesses that play a role in inclusive business. This can be an intentional strategy to address gender equity. And its not enough. 
 
Re-set 2: A new framework for investing in gender equity beyond women entrepreneurs and co-founders
 
Most people are not going to be entrepreneurs, they’re going to work in companies, supply chains, or the gig economy, so there’s impact to be considered beyond the entrepreneur.
 
One of our learnings from a pilot community of practice I led called Women Effect was how many frames investors use in thinking about gender in addition to backing women founders/owners, such as:
  • Using capital to advance women’s leadership or economic participation overall
  • Seeing the role of companies whatever their leadership composition is around gender, through their hiring, their workplace practices, their supply chains and distribution channels, their products and services and their marketing.  
  • Seeing gender as a way of addressing broader social inequities and issues — Drawdown author Paul Hawken has identified the combo of girls’ education and family planning as the number one strategy for combating climate change
  • Investing in untapped ‘women’s markets’
  • Using gender as a factor of analysis in making better investment decisions across an entire portfolio — Criterion Institute brought forward this frame and teaches it phenomenally
Some investors are vocal about paying attention to gender and some just want to do the work without discussion. Language varies. Framing varies. Where do you identify?
 
Re-set 3: Put men and boys directly in the picture
 
We need to speak consciously about where men and boys are in this picture. These are not “women’s issues.” Whether we’re talking about the shifting roles for men at work and home, men’s roles as allies or obstacles, how we’re educating boys, violence against women, men and boys are also negatively affected by traditional gender roles. When men want to become more active fathers and social stigma (from both sides) gets in the way, when men are expected to be the main earners in a household, how are we all perpetuating the status quo? From an inclusive business standpoint – where are male entrepreneurs and leaders also in this picture, able to address gender equality through their business practices, and where are men and boys inhibiting women to participate to their full potential or positively, showing up as extraordinary allies?
 
SPRING Accelerator 
 
In my role as Investment Director on the SPRING Accelerator, I have gotten to work with 55 male and female led businesses, so far, that see addressing adolescent girls as customers, users, and beneficiaries in East Africa and South Asia as an incredible opportunity.  We’re out to build a demonstration pipeline of investable businesses that have a positive effect on girls ability to learn, earn, save and protect themselves. We aim to help also to inspire the investment community to pay attention to girl-focused inclusive businesses as both a financial opportunity and a way to achieve social impact in hard places. 
 
Uncertainty and massive opportunity
 
When any system shifts, it presents opportunity as well as uncertainty. Uncertainty makes people cling to the past and what felt stable, holding onto old beliefs and ways. This does not bode well for gender equality. We need a massive shift and we’ll only get this using the most powerful tools at our disposal. Investment can be one of those tools.
 
There is also a growing body of research that shows that the very best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is not its level of wealth, its level of democracy, or its ethno-religious identity; the best predictor of a state’s peacefulness is how well its women are treated.
 
As we are thinking about inclusive business with an SDG #5 lens, we need to make, and keep making, these connections between gender and investment and everything else that matters — in climate change, food security, economic growth, political stability, and more. I’m excited to be part of this conversation with others. 
 

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This blog is a part of the September 2017 series on Empowering women, in partnership with SPRING.

Read the full series for insights on business models that empower girls and women, a new analysis of gender impacts of value chain interventions, tips on gender-lens investing and many inspiring personal stories from women.

 
 
Suzanne Biegel
Suzanne Biegel
I'm global Investment Director for SPRING. I'm also founder of Catalyst at Large and Senior Gender Lens Investing Adviser at Wharton Social Impact Initiative, at Wharton Bisiness School. My focus is on investing with a gender lens.

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