Project Sage 2.0: Social impact funds with a gender lens

suzanne biegel

In January, Wharton Social Impact Initiative and my firm, Catalyst at Large, released Project Sage 2.0, a global scan of 87 private equity, venture capital, and private debt funds that explicitly incorporate a gender lens in their investment strategy.

Over the coming weeks I’ll be sharing with you what I believe are some of the most interesting themes to emerge from the study. (Read the previous article in this series here.)

While all of the funds included in the scan have an impact via their focus on gender, as a committed social impact investor, I am particularly excited by the funds that combine their gender lens with an explicit focus on investing for social impact.

Sage 2.0 didn’t categorize the funds we surveyed by social impact, and it is not the role of our research to say whether a fund is impactful or not. But applying my own personal analysis, I believe about 30% of the funds in our study could be classified as impact funds — whether because they intentionally prioritize social or environmental impact and publicly articulate that intention, or because they are working in areas that disproportionately affect either gender equality or other social issues faced by women and girls.

Not all impact funds self-identify as such — whether because of stigma from investors or from entrepreneurs, some of whom believe that being invested in by an impact fund means that they will be taken less seriously.

But if you, like I do, want to use your limited capital to make an impact on the social and environmental challenges facing our world, impact funds are a great way to do this.

Sage 2.0 saw a growth in the number of existing social impact funds incorporating a gender lens into their decision-making and analysis. In some cases, they moved from seeing a positive impact on gender equality as a given, to something they explicitly measure as part of their social and financial impact.

These funds don’t just focus on traditionally “gendered” areas like health, education, and retail, but also the environment, climate change, and deep technology solutions.

They are making the shift to think more explicitly about gender because they understand that doing so allows them to spot opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise see: whether that’s about who is leading or running a company, identifying products and services that will really improve women’s lives, or identifying businesses that are making innovations at the level of the value chain that will contribute to gender equality and improve the status of women.

There are too many of these funds in Sage 2.0 to highlight all of their good work in a single article. But I wanted to draw your attention to these six below, listed from A to Z, to illustrate some of the exciting work that is being done at the intersection of impact investing and gender-smart investing.

Alante Capital is focused on sustainable apparel, backing companies that radically improve social and environmental sustainability in the fashion industry through new fabrics and technologies.

Impact Engine is a women-led team focused on identifying entrepreneurs with the potential to drive by attractive financial returns and positive social impact.

Next Wave Impact is a North America-based all-woman fund that seeks to narrow the gender gap in angel investing. They invest in woman founded or co-founded companies that have a social or environmental remit and strong commercial potential.

SocialAlpha Investment Fund — Bastion is a Swiss-based impact fund from AlphaMundi that focuses on sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and financial inclusion in Latin America and Africa. They embed gender analysis in their investment process and invest in businesses that provide goods and services that benefit women.

SEAF’s Women’s Economic Empowerment Fund focuses on entrepreneurs in south-east Asia and the GP was founded in 1989 — making it one of the longest running social impact fund managers. Over the past year, they have made gender a more integral part of their investment thesis, and have created a tool to evaluate how a business is performing on gender equality and to work with portfolio companies to increase their gender and business outcomes.

Women’s World Banking Capital Partners LP is the fund from Women’s World Banking, which has been helping women in emerging markets who are disproportionately left out of access to finance, for more than 35 years. They, too, have developed tools and scorecards to not only assess investments but to work with investees to increase their outcomes from a gender and business perspective.

There are many others — this is just a flavor of funds in the scan, and within the scan one can find funds targeting more developed markets as well as developing markets — impact can be found in Detroit and East London just as much as it can be found in East Africa or Southeast Asia.

For a copy of Project Sage 2.0, go to https://socialimpact.wharton.upenn.edu/research-reports/reports-2/project-sage-2/. For a spreadsheet of the funds included in the scan, email catalystatlargepa@gmail.com.

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