“Essentially all of the income gains that middle-class American families have experienced since 1970 are due to the rise in women’s earnings.”
-Economic Report of the President (US), 20151
I always took pride in my work for human development. The fact that my vocation and passion makes tangible lasting impact on the lives of the vulnerable poor, steered my growth and does so even today. Ten years ago, I was having a cup of tea one foggy winter morning in Dhaka, contemplating how SMEs are the driving force for the economic growth of a country such as Bangladesh. It dawned on me then that much of that growth has left vulnerable marginalized groups including youth and women behind. There is still so much left to do – and with this thought I finished my breakfast, which includes a pair of samosas made lovingly by my mother – a housewife in an upper middle class family of four.
My mother has always been regarded as an amazing cook in the family with her knowledge and expertise of many mouth watering dishes. We would often joke that if my father’s business was making a loss we could always make it up by opening a restaurant led by mother. So, it did not come as any surprise when one morning in December my mother approached my father and I for seed money to start a business. She required $200 to start a frozen snacks operation using high quality ingredients in hygienic conditions. She planned to hire two people to help her with the cooking. She would then market the products at the local malls and stores. My father funded her right away while I designed the logo and product packaging. Within seven days, her products were on store shelves. Within a month, the demand for her products doubled.
Regrettably, when my father and I supported my mother’s ‘start up’, we looked at it from a philanthropic point of view -a doting husband and son supporting an effort from a woman who has always been there for them. Coming from an established businessman and a private sector development ‘expert’, there was no thinking regarding a business case or incentives to drive the establishment of the business. Nor did we consider her employing two people full-time to this job any different from the help employed for the household. We were indifferent to the nature of this small household enterprise. So, when my mother recognized the possibility of growth of business and looked for more financing to expand her business, she looked outside of her family and faced the myriads of difficulties all small household businesses face. She eventually exited the market.
It is relatively easy to consider her ‘failure’ as just another woman led start-up ‘failing to live up to potential’ story. But now in hindsight, it occurs to me that it is us and the system that have let her down. The concept of using a gender lens in investing for income and growth is not new – but the way we frame the questions around them needs to change to bring light to the potential entrepreneurs offer to a developing nation, both in production and in employment. Quiet often we view the gender lens from a finance industry perspective. However, I believe it is important to shift towards a more household centric view as well as a systemic one. The perception needs to change -socially and in systems. An interesting way to reframe gender lens was presented in a workshop hosted by the Criterion Institute:
- First: We should consider women as an opportunity, not a screen to meet due diligence/portfolio requirements
- Second: We need to scrutinize opportunities based on gendered assessments across i) Access to Capital, ii) Workplace Equity and iii) Products and Services that benefit women and girls
- Third: Move away from ‘counting’ women to valuing gender in Finance
- Fourth: Recognize Finance as a tool that can bring about gender equitable social change
In the real-life example cited from my family, we clearly fell short of recognizing the opportunity. If we had reframed our view and understood the potential benefit the enterprise could bring to the family and to those it employs, our decisions may have been different and much more enabling. It is not only a finance industry question – but a personal one that each household should acknowledge. This reframing at an individual, household societal level can pave the way for the industry to improve their take on gender lens investing.
1 Economic Report of the President, Chapter 4, Pg. 157. Feb 2015