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Why 2018 Is the Year of Gender Lens Investing

Suzanne Biegel, a pioneer of gender lens investing, is on a mission to show that focusing on women makes for good financial and social returns. She speaks with News Deeply about the language challenge, the trouble with data, and the importance of connecting people.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Female tea workers on the Unilever tea estate plantation in Nairobi, Kenya. Biegel says one way to look at gender lens investing is to focus on where women are in a company’s value chain, from producing raw materials all the way through the supply chain.Brent Stirton/Getty Images

DAVOS, Switzerland – Just 20 years ago, few people had heard the term “gender lens investing.” Today, interest in the concept is picking up pace, with growing numbers of investors and companies looking for ways to close the gender gap in areas such as finance, health and education.

Suzanne Biegel has been working in the field almost since the beginning – she remembers a time when much of her day was spent simply trying to convince people that women were worth investing in. Now, as founder of the consultancy Catalyst At Large and as senior gender lens investing adviser at the Wharton Business School, she is at the forefront of the quest to find ways to make money work harder for women and girls.

In 2015, Biegel founded the pilot initiative Women Effect, a hub for information and strategy around gender lens investing that is now part of the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. Along with her work at Catalyst and Wharton, her alma mater, she also acts as investment director for SPRING Accelerator, which partners with businesses to develop innovations that improve the lives of adolescent girls in the developing world, and is the founder of Women in Social Finance, a closed group of high-level women working in impact and responsible finance in the UK.

“2018 is the year of gender lens investing, it’s the year of so many things around gender equality – women’s economic advancement, looking at women as powerhouse markets, women coming to the floor as investors, using their voice,” she says.

On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting at Davos, News Deeply spoke to Biegel about the language challenge, the trouble with data, and the importance of connecting people.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What’s the best definition of ‘gender lens investing’ for someone who hasn’t heard the term?

Suzanne Biegel: It is about integrating a financial analysis and a gender analysis to get to a better outcome.

That can mean starting with a gender agenda: “I want to fund women entrepreneurs because I understand there’s a lack of access to capital for women entrepreneurs.” And whether that’s Silicon Valley, high-tech, high-growth, or whether that’s a social entrepreneur, solving [issues of] women’s safety in Egypt.

The second starting point is products and services that benefit women and girls. That can be male- or female-led, but who’s got that product? Who’s got that ecommerce company in Rwanda that’s giving women and girls access to sexual health products?

The third is, where are women in the value chain of a company? Where are women producing raw materials all the way up through the whole supply chain? And where are women showing up as distributors?

We use investment as a tool and a way to spot opportunities.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What are some of the challenges that have been holding back progress in the field?

Biegel: One of them is language. If you’re coming from a women’s economic empowerment place, you think that is the frame.

Somebody who’s coming from an institution investor or a pension fund is thinking about the power of women’s markets, or about the shifting nature of work, or economic development, but they’re not necessarily starting the conversation from women’s economic empowerment.

We have so many more vehicles for investment now, there’s so much more capital moving. And yet there are all these holes. And the holes are different levels of capital, they’re different geographies, they’re around different themes.

Number two is about data. We have a huge data gap, and so people are starting to say, “We think we understand the problem areas and the issue areas and the opportunity areas, but we don’t have segregated data, and we don’t have data in a form that is analyzable.”

The third is that different actors are siloed, so they don’t necessarily run into each other.

If you’re an investor starting with, “I want to solve for access to reproductive health. I have this tool, which is debt,” and somebody else is saying, “I have these constraints because the limited partners who came into my fund can only invest in disruptive tech” – that connecting point isn’t always obvious. So we need more vehicles and people who can really structure those things.

The good news is, on everything I just named, there are brilliant people who are ready, willing and able to be working on these things and they want to collaborate with each other.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: How does investing in women and girls in a private capacity sit alongside international aid policies such as Canada’s feminist approach?

Biegel: Organizations who are doing aid and development can provide solutions that use capital and don’t seek a financial return but are absolutely seeking a social return.

The development finance institutions, which are next in line, are the investors in that picture who are using the same development agenda, but they’re using the tools of finance. So, they’re investing in funds, [they] direct big projects. They’re working through banks, but they have a development impact agenda as well as a financial return agenda.

Then there is gender budgeting and having people look at things like purchasing. There’s billions of dollars in purchasing that women entrepreneurs especially are left out of. Because you’ve got to be big, you’ve got to have been in business for X amount of time. And it’s very much about who knows who. So, how do you open that up?

And there is blended finance, development impact bonds, where the public sector is the payer.

You can use these different tools together to say, “This will help us achieve a development agenda.”

Women’s Advancement Deeply: You’ve called 2018 the year of gender lens investing. What are you looking forward to in the year ahead?

Biegel: One of the most exciting things to me that’s brewing is the Global Gender Lens Investing Summit. It will be on November 1 and 2 in the U.K., by invitation only. It will bring together 300 people from a cross-section of players who are influencing the movement of capital.

We’re looking at using the summit as a way to have people come out of their silos. Over here, someone is working on women’s economic advancement; over here, on women in climate change; over there, women in energy. Bringing people together who can really solve problems together.

And we’ve identified some of the top obstacles that are in the way of more capital moving. The summit is supposed to celebrate the collaborations, but also to get people working through the challenges.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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