For financial inclusion to benefit women equally, we need women leading and bringing perspective at every level. At Accion, we’re proud to have many driven women leading the charge as we work to tackle the problem of financial exclusion around the world.
We’re highlighting some of these leaders who are working to build a more inclusive world in our annual International Women’s Day blog series on the women of Accion and our partners. You can learn about more inspiring women in our previous article for this series.
Here are a few of the leaders we’re proud to work with:
Tharasree Amarnath, Head of Technology, Prayaan Capital
Growing up, Tharasree Amarnath was always acutely aware of how much potential is lost when women aren’t economically empowered and how much everyone can benefit when women are financially included. “Every woman either works for her family or to contribute to the financial needs of her family,” she says. “I grew up in a scenario watching women who had the zeal to do more but lacked the next push towards financial independency. This trait grew within and motivated me to do something which could fulfill my commitments and as well as fuel my passion to do something for those financially deprived women. This led me into fintech for inclusion.”
To make sure more women are empowered to take control of their finances, Tharasree advocates for a grassroots approach to educating women about financial services and how to use technology to access services. Tharasree looks to technology as a solution because she’s seen firsthand what an impact it can have. She’s spent 20 years working in IT, and today she’s the head of technology for Prayaan Capital, a fintech company serving India’s small business owners — and one of our newest portfolio companies at Accion Venture Lab.
Being a woman in tech, Tharasree knows how to break barriers and advocate for herself. She advises other women to “voice your opinion and ensure that your opinion makes a substantial impact. Unleash the power in you.” And she believes that businesses will benefit from listening to and including women’s voices. Tharasree says that more gender-balanced companies benefit from better and more egalitarian decision-making, a common environment where all workers can contribute and thrive, increased productivity, and a better future. After all, she says, “a woman empowered at work also emanates the same exuberance with those in her family leading to build a future generation which believes gender equality, love, and humanity, thus contributing as a whole to mankind.”
Mayada El-Zoghbi, Managing Director, Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion
Mayada El-Zoghbi wants to be clear: the gender gap in financial inclusion is not a niche issue. “How can the financial system not prioritize 50 percent of the population?” she asks. Globally, women are less likely than men to own an account, but Mayada is quick to point out that having an account is just the beginning of the conversation. “If we only focus on access, then we are missing the big picture,” she says. “Women are not participating in the formal financial system for many reasons — demand-side, supply-side, and regulatory. If we think the solution is to solve the access problem by opening up accounts for women, then we will only be introducing yet more inactive accounts in the system, like India has done.”
With 20 years of experience in development and financial inclusion, Mayada knows that making a real, sustainable impact is more than a numbers game. You have to address the root causes, which is tricky since many of these root causes extend well beyond the financial industry and are entangled in culture, religion, and other areas. But financial service companies don’t just have a social obligation to overcome these challenges and serve women — it’s a business imperative. “Any business would want to expand the users of their services if they want to focus on growth, and it should be the same for the financial sector.” In fact, Mayada looks at what other businesses have done to reach women for insights. “When Nike wanted to reach girls and women, they spoke directly to them in the way they marketed their products,” she says. “They were addressing the norms around girls and women’s bodies, and they were countering the millions of other societal messages that told women they were not on par with men when it came to sports. They focused a massive campaign that was about empowering women to be athletes and to push for equality through the lens of sports.”
So how do financial service providers serve women better? “We need to address the norms and discrimination that limit women’s participation in the financial system,” says Mayada. “This means addressing head-on the reasons why women do not perceive a need to participate in the first place or the many societal roadblocks that limit their engagement with the inclusive finance delivery channels. Things like messages on who can engage in paid and unpaid work, women’s ability to move in public space and engage with agents, and women’s ability to own a phone and a sim card.” By understanding and addressing these challenges in every market, we can make sure that women have financial tools that they can actually use.
Verónica Gavilanes Véjar, General Manager, Pichincha Microfinanzas, Banco Pichincha
For Verónica Gavilanes Véjar, financial inclusion is where her career and her life purpose meet. She’s deeply committed to serving people and believes in sustainable businesses that make a social impact. As she developed her career in the financial sector, she knew she wanted her work to benefit people. “Financial inclusion focuses on the most vulnerable population, therefore the population that is most in need of high-quality financial services delivered to them in a timely manner through the most appropriate channels, so that they can use them frequently in a way that allows them to improve their wellbeing,” she explains. “Working with this purpose is truly a great passion of mine.”
Verónica knows that there’s still much work to be done for financial inclusion to live up to its promise — especially for women: “While progress has been achieved, we must recognize that there are millions of women worldwide who are still underserved, partially served, or dissatisfied with financial services.” She’s proud of the work Banco Pichincha has done to prioritize gender intelligence and equality both internally and with clients. She challenges the industry as a whole to develop equitable business models to close the gap in financial services. These models should incorporate a deep understanding of the needs, behaviors, and challenges women face — and this doesn’t just mean adding a pink banner to rebrand an existing product. “Women do not need feminized products; they need products with conditions that meet their real needs and contribute to their growth,” she says. By creating products that allow women to reach their full potential, we can transform communities: “When women acquire full financial independence, they transform their household in areas such as health, education, investments, and assets, and can, therefore, improve the quality of life of their entire families.”
Making this sustainable impact will require women in leadership across the financial services and social impact sectors. After all, Verónica points out, companies perform better when they prioritize diversity and inclusion. For women who are looking to grow in their careers to become leaders, Verónica says we should “take ownership of our personal power. We women have a great transformative ability, but many times we are not very aware of this.” By believing in our ability to make a change and approaching our work with passion and practicality, Verónica is hopeful about what we can accomplish: ” Each of us has the capacity to transform ourselves and others. Go after your most ambitious dreams — the results will surprise you.”
Liza Guzman, Vice President, Customer Strategy, Global Advisory Solutions, Accion
Before coming to Accion, Liza Guzman founded an organization focused on empowering children in impoverished areas of Bogotá. Working in these neighborhoods, she saw time and again that too many people running mom-and-pop shops dream big, work hard, and still fall short of escaping poverty. That gap is insurmountable without the right tools. “To grow a business and make it not only a “cash flow” generation source but a way out of poverty requires capital to invest in it and take it to the next level,” says Liza. When businesses have the finance they need to grow, Liza explains, there are “opportunities for the family to have access to better living conditions and be able to dream about a better future.” Seeing this potential for impact led Liza to work in financial inclusion.
“Our work is really not only about enabling credit or payment mechanisms; it is about lifting lives,” says Liza. This focus on social impact is particularly apt as we address the persistent gender gap in financial inclusion — women deserve the same opportunities, too. To solve this problem, Liza explains, “we need to recognize that women’s financial exclusion has different roots and nuances across the world, and many times, the problem is not even about access but other more complex barriers. Some women have access to financial services but don’t have the confidence to use them or prefer not to have their own money as such behavior can be culturally negatively perceived.” Creating inclusive tools means understanding and taking into account all of this context for each market and customer segment.
And the businesses best equipped to understand and serve all customers? Those that prioritize gender balance and inclusion internally. “Having gender balance in general means providing a safe place for everyone to feel confident and motivated to contribute with their best ideas, skills, and knowledge,” says Liza. This kind of environment is one where innovation thrives, she explains, so companies are better positioned to succeed in their goals. For all women, regardless of their role or leadership position, Liza shares this reminder: “Women and men have the same rights to pursue their goals and dreams, but the first step for gender balance is for us women to truly believe it.”