Value for Women (VfW) is a social enterprise that operates globally to help SGBs, investors, and other SGB ecosystem actors in different regions bring gender inclusion into their operations in a very practical and concrete way.
We spoke to Rebecca Fries, Managing Director and Founder, and Luis Marquez, Business and Gender Expert about their new guide on gender lens investing, and what that might look like particularly in the current business environment around COVID-19.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Tell us about the role that Value for Women plays in the SGB sector.
We work with partners to devise gender strategies, and create tools to help these different entities build gender and inclusion into their core operations. We were formed out of an identified gap — that ANDE largely fills — among the private sector, entrepreneurship, and development. Development people do gender really well and the private sector does entrepreneurship really well, but there is a disconnect between the two. How do we translate gender inclusion into something attractive, tangible, and practical for SGB ecosystem actors? How do we create a narrative that builds a business case and showcases the opportunity in taking a gender lens into SGB work more broadly? We saw an opportunity to develop those narratives, and to make an actionable effort to help the SGB community think about gender in a deep, nuanced, and practical way.
In July, you published the report How to Invest with a Gender Lens: A Guide for Investors in Emerging Markets. Tell us how the report came to be and the motivation behind writing it?
We advise impact investors and SGBs on what gender lens investing is and how to do it, and over the course of our existence, we have seen an evolution in the sector. People are now more committed and motivated to be gender inclusive, and they understand why gender lens investing is important, but they want to know how to do it or what it looks like in practice.
This report was developed for Investing in Women– an initiative of the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In this report, we speak to that “why” — the justification of why gender lens investing is important — but we really wanted to address the “how” and create what we are calling a roadmap, or a menu of options. Bringing a gender lens into your work is non-prescriptive. It is not like you have to do exactly ABCD to incorporate a gender lens. Rather, we wanted to focus on the multiple entry points to gender lens investing, so that investors in particular can see what might work for them individually based on their work. We wanted to create simple ways for investors to engage with gender lens investing by developing a starting point for them.
This guide is a follow -up to the 2019 Landscape Report: Impact Investing with a Gender Lens in Latin America we wrote with support from the ANDE Catalyst Fund.
We recognize there are many partners working in this space that focus on different parts of the puzzle. Our work is driven by the idea of adding value. Through the report, we wanted to focus specifically in the impact investing space — what is going on and what investors and relevant intermediaries can do.
We also recognize that the viewpoint from women entrepreneurs themselves is often missing within the SGB sector at large. The guide tells the investors what they can do, and we still need to hear more about what women entrepreneurs need, what their paths to success are, and how that could influence intermediaries in the region. As an AWEF grantee, this complementary project is two-fold: gaining a better understanding of women entrepreneurs’ paths to success and how intermediaries support them, and applying the guide from an investor perspective to the intermediary level.
The guide mentions there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to gender lens investing. What are some of the barriers investors face and what do you suggest to work around them?
One of the key areas is to invest in women-led businesses, and there are a series of suggestions for how investors might go about finding women, because we often hear “there are no investable women-led businesses in my context.” We offer actionable suggestions for how investors can overcome those barriers, or perceived barriers, to actually reach and find more women-led businesses. Our suggestions range from very specific recommendations, like seeking out the local business women’s association or searching for opportunities outside of your usual pipelines. We want to address the biases that exist in traditional investing, which has been set up to be exclusionary.
The guide targets a specific audience, while painting a more holistic and complete picture of the barriers that women face. We aim to increase women-led businesses in investment portfolios and seek gender forward businesses which may or may not be led by women but that have gender considerations built into their value chain, operations, leadership, market analysis, among other aspects of their work.
By offering a variety of options, we encourage investors to identify what they care about — whether they want to start internally by evaluating their policies and practices as a firm or analyzing the businesses in their portfolio and helping them become more gender inclusive. Or, they might choose to start by targeting more women-led businesses or supporting women-led businesses in their pipeline to become investment ready.
It is hard to ignore the current context that we are living in, and the impact of COVID-19 on the SGB sector. How do you think that the guide can be used to encourage investors to apply a gender lens to their work under these new conditions?
Over the last few months, we had a lot of moments of pause while drafting this publication. I think the one key message that we try to convey is that society has a massive opportunity to embed inclusion as part of our recovery narrative. When we think about resilience to future economic and social shocks, inclusion is a key aspect of that. While the situation is dire for SMEs and SGBs globally, it is a huge opportunity to ensure that impact investors and funds are building in an inclusive focus in rebuilding businesses and the workforce, and placing gender and inclusive at the core of those efforts.
That being said, we are seeing a lot of nuance — for example, the importance of digital upskilling. Women have generally had less access to training on digital platforms, or are less likely to use them, and right now digital marketing and digital sales are incredibly important to businesses’ viability. There are ways to direct support to have an impact on all SGBs, but that might have a disproportionate impact on women-led SGBS. Within the context of COVID-19, donors are revisiting their strategies, so we are using this moment to help them see this as an opportunity to build inclusion into their businesses.
What are some takeaways that might be helpful to the ANDE community?
We want to show people there is not only one right way to incorporate gender lens into investing. It is important to just start somewhere; you do not have to have a perfect strategy. Just try something that fits with your appetite, your risk level, and your motivation, and then build off that starting point. Find a community and talk to people about your experiences — ANDE is clearly such an important and key hub for people to share stories and ideas, get feedback, and hear from their peers on what they are trying and what might be working or failing.
People have this idea that they need to get funding and generate a lot of resources before they can do anything, and they may be immobilized by that. The guide outlines many ideas that are no or low cost.
Lastly, we encourage people to consider intention, and making your intentions explicit. We seek, as part of our work, that intentionality to strive for gender equality and inclusion and for women’s empowerment.
Rebecca Fries leads Value for Women in its efforts to design innovation for gender inclusion with investors, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), banks, financial institutions, development organizations and corporate foundations. Under Rebecca’s leadership, the Value for Women team works globally in a collaborative, multidisciplinary manner, applying practical, hands-on approaches to solve business and investment challenges with a gender and inclusion lens.
Luis Marquez has over 12 years of experience in the design and implementation of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment projects, advisory services, evaluations, studies, institutional strategies, and strategic partnerships. At Value for Women, Luis leads global and regional landscape reporting on women’s STEM employment in the infrastructure sector, gender-lens investing, and women-led businesses’ access to finance.