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SEAF at the 2019 AVPN Conference – Part 1: Empowering Entrepreneurship to Advance the Lives of Women

SEAF at the 2019 AVPN Conference – Part 1: Empowering Entrepreneurship to Advance the Lives of Women

This week, the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network Limited (AVPN) held its annual conference in Singapore.  Now in its seventh year, the 2019 AVPN Conference brings together a diverse group of investors and resource providers from around the globe to take part in the largest gathering of social investors in Asia. The goal of the conference is to ensure social investors are best equipped to address key social challenges facing Asia today and in the future. SEAF CEO Bert van der Vaart and Senior Managing Director Jennifer Buckley were both invited to speak on their experiences as impact investors. This post will discuss the panel Bert participated in titled, “Empowering Entrepreneurship to Advance the Lives of Women.”

The session was created to bring together leading voices on gender equality and empowerment from around the region to discuss how entrepreneurship and innovation can serve as tools to address women’s issues, for example, through financial products customized for women’s needs, or by offering maternal health solutions. Bert was joined by Dayoung Lee (Dalberg Global Development Pte. Ltd), Bonnie Chiu (The Social Investment Consultancy), Dr. Jeanette Gurung (WOCAN), and Anshu Bhartia (UnLtd India) to tackle the question of “what is the role of entrepreneurs in empowering the lives of women?”

The workshop coincided with the launch of the research report “A Gender-Inclusive Southeast Asia through Entrepreneurship” commissioned by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation as part of the Gender 50 project, where they also asked SEAF’s Jennifer Buckley to act as an advisor.

The session began with a brief discussion on the role of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs seek solutions to needs or challenges in a market, with the aim of monetizing those solutions to ensure they become sustainable. The issues that are important to women and children are a large part of that market, and yet, are often overlooked. The panelists agreed on two key solutions to this issue.

The first is that decision-making is a key factor in women’s empowerment. Female entrepreneurs understand the needs of fellow women and children. A lack of women in decision-making roles has and will continue to lead to missed opportunities in the market. Moreover, this lack of decision-making authority makes it difficult for women to voice their concerns on issues such as pay or to negotiate the sharing of household responsibilities with their partner.

The second aspect the panelists agreed on was that men must be part of these solutions. Men need to help initiate and participate in these discussions. Indeed, some have taken a positive step forward to become entrepreneurial champions by creating solutions that address women’s needs. At times, women’s issues have resonated with these men through the experiences of their mothers and sisters. Despite this incremental progress, there is more work to be done on this front.  The panelists also debated issues around the importance of time poverty issues as women often have to balance their work responsibilities with care commitments.

The session then touched on the challenges the various panelists have faced in their work developing women’s economic empowerment. Fundraising was identified as one of the key roadblocks in this effort. Panelists noted that even some female investment managers have been lukewarm to a gender-focused fund, most frequently citing a lack of pipeline. It was agreed that it is imperative to change the messaging to the investor community by focusing on the role that women’s economic empowerment issues have in managing portfolio risk exposure.

The logic is straightforward and provides a persuasive argument: Women entrepreneurs and those supporting businesses focused on women as employees and consumers will be best able to meet unmet needs. Supporting these entrepreneurs and businesses not only enhances returns but also mitigates the risk of missing out on significant market opportunities. These benefits are in addition to addressing underlying business risks as gender equality issues are considered.  To address this last type of risk, SEAF uses its Gender Equality Scorecard© as a framework across its investments to analyze, track and monitor improvements in women’s economic empowerment and gender equality. Perhaps most importantly, the panelists suggested that social impact investing today in itself is not inclusive and that more work needs to be done.

Finally, a challenge was then posed to the panelists on how to amplify this discussion. The consensus was that gender equality ought to be considered no matter the industry, market or company. Entrepreneurs and investors who are addressing critical issues through entrepreneurship should either be undertaking an analysis of gender equality or employing a gender lens. Accelerators should not work on issues such as poverty without ensuring that entrepreneurs are looking at the gender dynamics in how they are addressing poverty, sustainable agriculture, or the climate. Bert spoke to how SEAF was reframing its impact strategies by considering gender analysis across various sustainable development goals and communicating the role of women’s economic empowerment and gender in enhancing returns and mitigating risks.

Society has a shared responsibility to fulfill the needs and tackle the challenges women face. A first step is to proactively continue this conversation around the power of women leaders and how businesses focusing on the needs of women and children both enhance returns and mitigate risks.