January 28, 2021
Member Spotlight: Villgro

From its global newsletter, to its major annual events, ANDE members have access to a multitude of platforms for promoting their work and co-creating knowledge with other members. The ANDE Member Spotlight is a series of short, interview-based blog posts highlighting an ANDE member organization and any new projects, recent investments, or ongoing research with interesting learnings that add value to the ANDE community.

ANDE sat down with CEO Priya Thachadi to learn more about Villgro Philippines and WE Rise’s first cohort of 20 women-led startups.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about Villgro and the role it plays in the SGB ecosystem.

Villgro is a global organization, but originally started out in India. We are an impact incubator, and we just turned 20 in 2020. We are very proud to be an incubator that has grown out of a developing market and scaled our work in supporting entrepreneurs.

Our specialty is to really ‘walk the walk’ with entrepreneurs as they go through challenges at the early stages of testing and validating the model, all while figuring out how to impact as many lives as possible. We provide funding and hands-on support to take them across the valley of death and into the global stage.

We expanded outside of India about seven years ago with an office in Kenya, and our Philippines office has been operating for the last four years. It’s a very different market from India. We wanted to bring those hard-earned learnings of growing a developing market ecosystem to the Philippines.

Despite its challenges, 2020 really was a year of growth for us. We have a portfolio of 35 enterprises and the majority of them are women-led. We are focused on helping these entrepreneurs build resilient businesses in these difficult times, while also launching a regional program.

Tell us about WE Rise and your cohort of women entrepreneurs. How did it come to be, and what stage are you in?

WE Rise has been quite a personal journey. In the Southeast Asia ecosystem, which is very young, there is a growing trend of focusing on women-led businesses. However, I noticed that even though more and more gender lens capital was starting to get set aside, many women-led businesses were not making the cut.

We discovered two big issues from which the WE Rise program was born. The first is the perception that women-led businesses are not high growth — they are not ambitious enough or they are not ready for capital. Second, there are not enough suitable financial products available at the early stages to help women entrepreneurs move into that investment-ready stage. Having spoken to many women entrepreneurs, we discovered that there is a huge gap for tailored support. WE Rise is a specifically designed program to accelerate and empower women entrepreneurs who want to scale their businesses.

We were also very fortunate that as we were thinking of this program, we were awarded funding under ANDE’s Advancing Women’s Empowerment Fund (AWEF) and partnered with Value for Women — these opportunities allowed us to make WE Rise into a reality. We were also recognized with a Women Empowerment Principles (WEP) Award by UN Women .

We started by focusing on building resilience and readjusting plans to address the impacts of COVID-19, but at the core, we are still strengthening the entrepreneurs’ business models to get them to a stage where they can access appropriate capital and break down barriers in financing.

How do you see WE Rise evolving over the next few years?

When we launched the WE Rise application in late 2020, we got an incredible response. We received close to 100 applications, but we were only able to select 20 businesses. These 20 entrepreneurs are currently a quarter of the way into the program.

Some lessons we have learned so far, even though we are very early into the program, have been that first, these women-led businesses need flexible working capital coming out of the pandemic. In the Philippines, if you have been in business for zero to three years, it is very difficult for you to access financing, and many women-led enterprises fall into that category. The next phase of WE Rise is working with a large local bank to set up a catalytic loss guarantee fund to unlock capital from existing financial institutions. Why do we need it? Financial products in the Philippines are quite traditional. Things are not going to change overnight, so we need to incentivize institutions.

We also noticed that many enterprises, especially those in retail and food, require very small ticket sizes, almost at a project level. These enterprises have customers ready and waiting, but they do not have the money circulating to get the product to the customer. Our next phase would be to set up a working capital facility ourselves that can provide small ticket sizes in the short term (three to six months).

Our third evolution is something that we never thought of doing. In March of this year, we are launching the WE Rise community, which will be a virtual platform where we can build a pipeline of women entrepreneurs. The current cohort of entrepreneurs felt that more women should benefit from the learnings that they have obtained. This community will be focused on access to finance; we hope to bring women entrepreneurs, investors, financing partners, technical assistance partners, accounting, and legal firms onto this virtual platform to share and interact with each other. On our end, Villgro will be working on providing access to a finance-focused curriculum in virtual modules that people can learn at their own pace.

What are some takeaways that might be helpful to the rest of the ANDE community? What are some best practices they could incorporate into their strategic initiatives?

Villgro started out thinking that we should focus on getting women entrepreneurs ready for whatever is out there, but I think the big learning for us has been that there also needs to be more innovation in the existing financing structures — more working capital loans, innovative debt financing, mezzanine products, etc.

Many other ANDE members are at the forefront of this, but for Villgro, our learning has been to build this pipeline of investment-ready women entrepreneurs to access gender lens capital that is already available in the market. One of my favorite people is the CEO of Beacon Fund — she says that “women entrepreneurs should not have to change themselves to fit into the definition of financial products, it’s the other way around. The market needs to respond to the needs of women entrepreneurs.”

WE Rise really stands for community, and the belief in women entrepreneurs learning from each other. In our incubation program, typically, we work very one-on-one, but working with a group of women entrepreneurs and developing that larger community has been truly invaluable. These relationships and connections we have fostered and watched grow have been organic. Now we are trying to create more facilitated networking, the type that ANDE is so great at, by creating spaces for women to learn from and support each other.

As you are building out this new strategy, are there any calls to the ANDE network?

As my New Year’s resolution is to be bold, we are definitely looking for support to set up the loan guarantee fund. We also hope that members in the Southeast Asia region will take a look at the WE Rise community platform, as it is a great place to learn and share. There are so many incredible projects in the region right now around gender lens investing, and I look forward to seeing the ANDE community be the voice of gender equality in the region.