Celebrating International Women’s Day by Making Gender Lens Investing the Status Quo
To celebrate International Women’s Day, USAID INVEST hosted a panel conversation on gender lens investing (GLI) with three leaders in women’s economic empowerment: Maria Cavalcanti, President and CEO of Pro Mujer; Evelyne Dioh, Managing Director of WIC Capital; and Shuyin Tang, CEO and Co-Founder of the Beacon Fund. The panelists discussed their careers, current work in promoting more inclusive investment, and the future of gender lens investing. The panel was moderated by INVEST Senior Investment Advisor Noemi Danao-Schroeder.
The panel will reconvene for a special encore conversation on GLI at the 2021 Women in Global Development Leadership Forum on May 4, 2021, at 7:30 am EDT
By Lauren Zinser, INVEST Activity Manager
Gender lens investing (GLI) is an investment strategy focused on generating financial returns and benefits for women. To celebrate International Women’s Day, USAID’s INVEST initiative invited Maria Cavalcanti of Pro Mujer, Evelyne Dioh of WIC Capital, and Shuyin Tang of the Beacon Fund to discuss the paths that led them to their prominent positions in GLI, how their organizations are working to fill gaps in the field, and their predictions about the future of GLI.
Although their journeys differ vastly, these women have one thing in common — they were driven by the desire to do something tangible to better the lives of women economically.
Becoming a Capital Provider to Drive Change
Evelyne Dioh followed a winding path to her current role as Managing Director at WIC Capital. “I didn’t have finance in mind at all,” she says.
Born and raised in Senegal, Dioh initially studied literature. Then, she attended business school, completing internships in corporate finance. After graduating, Dioh joined the Société Générale, a French multinational investment bank in Paris, where she “realized that finance is a powerful tool for impact . . . and made the very important decision to become a capital provider.”
With this realization, Dioh returned to Africa to harness the power of finance for her community. While working as investment officer at Senegal’s sovereign wealth fund FONSIS, Dioh noticed she preferred working with local entrepreneurs and helping them to bring their vision to life. Consequently, she joined the Women’s Investment Club, a group of 80 Senegalese women who pool their resources to bring capital, technical assistance, and their networks to women entrepreneurs in the region, to offer her expertise to local women entrepreneurs.
On International Women’s Day in 2019, the four founders of the Women’s Investment Club (WIC Senegal) launched WIC Capital, a $20-million investment fund and the first to exclusively target women-led, early-stage businesses in West Africa. Their goal was “to set up a fund by women, for women, leveraging the resources that we had as Senegalese women,” Dioh says.
When the managing director position at WIC Capital became available, WIC’s founders approached Dioh, asking her to consider making her “extracurricular activity” a full-time commitment. Dioh admits she “was a little bit scared by the challenge” and worried that the role might be “too limiting because I was in my career as an investment professional but not necessarily with a gender lens.”
However, she ultimately accepted the position. “It has been the best decision in my career so far,” she says.
“[I] realized that finance is a powerful tool for impact…and made the very important decision to become a capital provider.”
— Evelyne Dioh, Managing Director, WIC Capital
At WIC Capital, Dioh has had the opportunity to “impact my community and my country, and most of all, to build the private sector. . ..”
WIC Capital addresses the critical financing needs of women-led businesses in Senegal and the region. From a market study, Dioh learned that most women-led businesses in Senegal operate at a very small scale, generating less than $200,000 in revenue per year. “Their needs to scale are too big for microfinance institutions, but they are too risky and too small for banks or other funds in the region,” she says. WIC Capital is developing a pipeline of, and providing financing to, small, women-led businesses in the “missing middle,” creating jobs, and helping develop value chains.
From an investment of $500,000, WIC Capital helped four entrepreneurs to access $1.5 million in financing, creating 200 jobs. WIC Senegal also set up an in-house technical assistance facility to be able to provide comprehensive support to WIC Capital’s portfolio companies.
Combining Idealism with Impact Investing
A self-described idealist, Beacon Fund’s Shuyin Tang dreamed of becoming the UN Secretary-General and studied international development and international relations in pursuit of this goal. However, unexpected life turns resulted in her landing a job at Bain & Company, a management consulting firm. Although Tang loved the work, she still had her mind set on having a greater social impact. When the concept of impact investing took off, she was determined to work in the sector. “That is what I’ve been doing ever since,” she says, “and that’s what took me to Vietnam.”
Patamar Capital, an active impact investor in Southeast Asia that focuses on entrepreneurs serving the mass market in areas like healthcare, education, and financial inclusion, adopted a more intentional gender lens investing approach with the support of the Australian Government’s Investing in Women program. This support culminated in the launch of the Beacon Fund in 2020. The $50-million Fund is “focused on female entrepreneurs in the region, who don’t necessarily fit that typical venture capital profile, and as a result, remain very underserved when it comes to accessing capital,” Tang explains. Beacon applies GLI as a lever to both enhance the impact as well as the return for the fund’s investments.
“We apply a gender lens at many different levels. It’s not just about investing in female entrepreneurs, but also really applying gender analysis to see what it means for the way a company looks at its customer base, the way it does its product design or its marketing campaigns, the way that it does the supply chain or sourcing,” says Tang. “It also made us turn the mirror on ourselves to look at the way we’re building our own firm, and ask, are we actually also applying a gender lens to that?”
Reflecting on the process of building a portfolio of companies for the Beacon Fund, Tang says, “I started my investment career looking for ‘unicorns,’ because I was taking a more venture capital style approach… But at the same time, there are a lot of businesses that we were meeting and are meeting today which do not fit that profile. Some people call them ‘zebras,’ . . . they come in all kinds of different stripes and patterns, and you can’t just put them all into the same herding pen as the unicorns.”
The Beacon Fund is addressing that gap in the GLI space, seeking to fund businesses that are generating revenue and are profitable, yet are being overlooked by most of the capital sources available in the market. Many of these businesses fall in the “missing middle” — too big for microfinance but too small for private equity. “I think that’s where we really saw the opportunity to launch Beacon and make it a debt fund, . . . recognizing that debt actually could be a better fit for companies,” says Tang.
Using Multi-Sector Experience to Create Opportunities for Women
Maria Cavalcanti, like Tang, pivoted her career to focus on impact investing because she wanted to explore “how we can do more with what we have, how we can do better with what we have, and how we can do good.”
Today Cavalcanti leads Pro Mujer, a nonprofit women’s development organization that provides financial inclusion, health, skills training, and education programs as well as microfinancing to underserved women in Latin America. The organization applies a gender lens across all its work, including supply chains, partnerships, and its own staffing, and it aims to reach new businesses and instill gender-smart practices early on in companies’ lives to create lasting impact and advance gender equality.
“Everything in my life prepared me to be in the position that I am today,” says Cavalcanti, who gained experience working in multiple industries, including art, technology, and science, before joining Pro Mujer. “This is a very exciting moment in my career because it’s putting everything that I had together.
In 2019, Pro Mujer jointly launched the Ilu Women’s Empowerment Fund with Deetken Impact, an impact asset manager. Cavalcanti describes the Fund as a “. . . different way of multiplying our impact throughout the region.” The Ilu Fund is taking an innovative approach to impact investing by engaging companies that don’t necessarily have a gender lens structure or strategy but demonstrate a commitment to Ilu’s four lenses of gender equality. “We’re looking into companies in all sectors, and we’re really looking into companies in certain sectors that are more male-dominated so we can actually start changing that perspective there,” she says.
Ilu bundles investments with technical support for gender-smart practices and field building. In some cases, it must go even further. Sometimes, to empower women it is necessary to improve the enabling environment, which can require changing local laws or local perspectives. “There’s a lot that needs to be done. I think that we have to learn how to be good investors but also good influencers in terms of changing that environment,” says Cavalcanti.
“There’s a lot that needs to be done. I think that we have to learn how to be good investors but also good influencers in terms of changing that environment.”
— Maria Cavalcanti, CEO, Pro Mujer
Because of high demand, Ilu’s target fund raise has increased from $25 million to $35 million. To date, Ilu has deployed $30 million, invested in 22 companies over 18 months, and reached 4,500 employees and 150,000 clients of those companies.
Transforming Gender Lens Investing into the Status Quo
To create a future in which women have equal opportunities, GLI needs to become the rule for companies rather than the exception.
“What we must do is really make sure that gender lens investing is becoming mainstream instead of niche,” Dioh says. She explains that GLI needs to be generalized and scaled. This year, WIC Capital will commission a study to learn how to best scale its model in other countries in the region.
Cavalcanti likewise believes that the key to successfully scaling GLI is to ensure it is considered the status quo rather than a niche strategy. She also says that using data to debunk myths about investing in women will be critical to ensuring a more equal future for women
Although numerous studies show that investing in women benefits communities and economies, there is a persistent misconception that investing in women is riskier than investing in men.
Working with development banks and other entities in Latin America, Pro Mujer has taken on the important mission of making data more easily accessible so that it can be used to challenge these preconceived ideas about GLI. “Otherwise,” Cavalcanti warns, “it’s going to always be niche.”
Tang similarly believes that having mainstream investors see the value in GLI as essential for advancing the field. She describes the “aha moment” in which the concept of GLI clicks for commercial investors as a gamechanger. Scaling GLI requires the investment community to understand that “it’s not just a women’s issue, or it’s not just something impact investors do, but it’s something you should do as an investor.” She adds that limited partners are beginning to ask their general partners these types of questions, inquiring about the gender-disaggregated data of the management team, which she thinks has the potential to be a crucial driver of change. “I think, for me, that is real progress in the space,” she says.