Women’s World Banking is not just financially empowering women – it is transforming entire communities, shares President and CEO Mary Ellen Iskenderian.

It has been a long, hard fight, but women have come a long way in terms of the equality, freedom and power they hold in society today. At present, there are more female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than ever before. Women are earning more bachelor’s degrees than men and more working mothers are the primary or sole earners in their households. But while there has been progress in a number of areas, research shows that financial well-being remains a final frontier.

A 2019 Women, Money and Power Study by financial media Kiplinger showed that women were progressively performing worse financially both at home and at work, with ‘lack of financial knowledge’ being one of the top reasons for the discrepancy. The lack of financial education, or even access to such education and resources is further compounded in lower income or poverty-stricken households, where women are also often excluded from any beneficial financial systems in place.

However, research also indicates that when a woman controls financial resources, the way she spends her money can have a long-term, intra-generational impact on her family, shares Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President and CEO of international non-profit organisation Women’s World Banking (WWB). Incorporated in 1979, WWB recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, with Mary at the helm. Having seen first-hand the impact and opportunity timely financial education can bring, Mary no longer needs research to know that empowering a woman can mean empowering an entire community.

An Illustrious Career

Mary’s illustrious career began in investment banking and included several significant appointments such as a short stint at Lehman Brothers, and becoming a senior manager at the private sector arm of the World Bank. Remarkably, she even witnessed the birth of an entire financial system at the end of communism during her decade working in the former Soviet Union. “I really got to see what it was like to create a financial system, and transform a finance sector,” Mary shares. “I did not understand the role that finance could play in people’s lives until then; a bank was not necessarily seen as something you went to as a partner to realise a dream.”

But despite her journey, joining the WWB was not an obvious next step for Mary, who was surprised when the WWB ‘took a chance’ on her, despite her never having looked at finance through a gendered lens before. As she humbly explains, “Through my banking career, I had never once asked a banker or fund manager or anyone providing financial services, what their women clients were like, whether they were lending to women or whether they had deposits taken from women. I often feel like I am now somehow atoning for my sins.”

Incorporated in 1979, Women’s World Banking recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, with Mary Ellen Iskenderian at the helm.

Transformative Beginnings

Despite being new to the application of financial education to female empowerment, Mary realised the impact of WWB’s work early into her appointment. To illustrate this, she often recalls the story of a woman named Joyce who she met in Kenya during her first business trip with the organisation. Joyce, like many underprivileged women in her community, was previously dependent on the limited earnings of her husband who worked in a neighbouring village. However, noticing that people were often repairing homes in her community, she started a hardware store that Mary describes as, “literally a shack at the side of the road.”

Joyce had ambition, but not the means to realise it. She eventually approached Kenya Women’s Trust, one of WWB’s network of partners who offered her a US$70 loan and basic bookkeeping and business management training. With this, she was able to grow her store into a sizeable business that employs 25 people and, more importantly, transforms her community at the same time. Besides sending all her children through secondary school, Joyce had also paid for her younger sister to go to graduate school and expanded her business to building classrooms and schools in her municipality. “It was so stark, how I as a banker was thinking about success and the way she was. It just had a tremendous impact on me. I feel like these women look at their role in the household, the community, and what they take on, very differently when they have the power to control their resources.”

Impactful Investing

WWB was conceived after the first UN World Conference on Women in 1975 and has made comparable strides ever since. The organisation’s mission is to design and invest in market-driven financial solutions, institutions, and policy environments in emerging markets in order to create greater economic stability and prosperity for women, their families and their communities. But Mary’s proudest achievement was only recently accomplished. “We do very important work with financial service providers, advising them on product development and offering a great deal of leadership training, particularly for high performing women,” she shares. “But we had never really put our money where our mouth was. Which is why I am very proud that we have now created a successful impact investment business.”

WWB recently raised and deployed a US$50 million fund named the Women’s World Banking Capital Partners Fund – the only women-focused and women-managed inclusive finance equity fund in the market today. Led by Mary, the fund made investments into micro-finance institutions and inclusive finance organisations around the world in support of women that have already resulted in several successful exits. “Not only were we able to prove our investments as viable, but the kind of influence we have had as investors has been so much more,” says Mary.

Currently in the process of raising its second fund, WWB hopes to double the size of investments as well as expand the scope of institutions covered. “There are some very interesting opportunities that are slightly different than traditional microfinance, and we are taking that to the next step,” she reveals, citing examples of a FinTech serving Indonesian women, and an affordable housing company for women in India. This second fund will be unique in its ‘blended finance’ approach, where government players such as the European Commission and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will provide risk mitigation to encourage more private investors and high net worth individuals (HNWIs) to enter the space. Mary hopes that this would bring more private money and visibility to the fact that investing in women is also a great business opportunity.

A Mission With A Vision

Having demonstrated the success of its asset management model, Mary is confident that WWB is on the right track, and with the right partners to help it through. One such illustrious partner is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose grants have supported a number of activities. “The first grant we received from them really changed our approach,” Mary recalls. “They were very interested in building saving capacities within micro-finance institutions which has traditionally only been lending institutions. We worked with the foundation in Pakistan, Kenya, the Dominican Republic and Colombia, which allowed us to build our capacity and our staff in the area of savings. It made us realise that women understand the value of credit – but what they really want is a safe place to save.”

The eventual goal for WWB, Mary explains, is to make sure that every woman in the world has a savings account, access to loan and backstop facilities, and a health insurance policy to safeguard herself and her family.

“Now that I have seen how we can strengthen our advisory business by sitting as investors on the board, I believe our asset management business will be the future of WWB. My vision is to continue bringing our agenda to institutions rather than just providing technical assistance without the investment.”

As CEO of Women’s World Banking, Mary Ellen hopes to drive greater economic stability and prosperity for women all around the world.

This article was first printed in MillionaireAsia Issue 54 - December 2019

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