The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day this year is “Invest in women: Accelerate progress,” in recognition of the need to build solutions that empower women as global challenges like rising poverty, conflict, and climate change put pressure on underserved communities. “By investing in women, we can spark change and speed the transition towards a healthier, safer, and more equal world for all.”

In our annual blog series featuring women leaders of Accion and our partners, we’re highlighting inspiring leaders who bring passion and creativity to their vision of building a better world for all people.

Meet some of the women we’re proud to work with:

Nataša Goronja, Managing Director, Center for Financial Inclusion

Natasa Goronja, Managing Director of the Center for Financial Inclusion

Nataša Goronja was a college student in the United States when war broke out in her native Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s. “Worried for my family and friends and unable to fathom the sheer magnitude of loss many of us would experience over the years to come, I spent a lot of time thinking about human security issues,” she remembers. After taking a class on development economics, and drawing inspiration from studying the work of Muhammad Yunus, she started her career in economic development and took a job replicating the Grameen Bank model in Bosnia.

Today, Nataša serves as Managing Director of the Center for Financial Inclusion (CFI), an independent think tank housed at Accion that uses rigorous research and advocacy to advance inclusive financial systems for underserved people around the world — including a strategic priority on women’s financial inclusion.

Reflecting on how inclusive, responsible financial solutions close gaps for women, particularly low-income women, Nataša says: “We know from the latest Global Findex update that the gender gap in access to finance has narrowed to 6 percent as of 2021, down from 9 percent in 2011. But when we look at that global 6 percent number, we often neglect the stark regional and country differences. We need to consider how women on the margins interact with the world of financial services differently.” As an example, Nataša recalls a time working overseas a few years ago. “I met a woman who told me that in her local bank, the remittance recipients such as herself were asked to go to a separate, external window outside the marble halls. I often think about issues of race, caste, and other marginalized female identities and how they affect women’s ability to access financial services. Much work has been done, but we still have progress to make!”

To others who want to make an impact, she offers advice: “Start noticing how often problems that seem to have obvious solutions, or are even perceived as resolved, are actually still persistent issues. For example, in this industry, we have often spoken about low-income clients needing credit card-like products with flexible repayment schedules and options. It took two decades from when I first heard this idea until I saw it implemented in reality. You can work to make a difference at any level and in any role where you want to make an impact as long as you show up authentically and continue to learn.”

Kiran Sharma, Senior Investment Analyst, Accion Emerge

As a senior investment analyst on the Accion Emerge team based in Bangalore, Kiran Sharma supports the growth of innovative companies in financial services and other relevant industries that are unlocking opportunities for underserved people globally. Kiran’s desire to improve the lives of underserved people was instilled in her during childhood when she witnessed her mother’s charitable work, participation in donation drives, and inclination for small acts of kindness. “It fueled my passion for giving back and led me to a career supporting low-income communities. Now, working at the crossroads of social development and investments, I am empowered to generate impactful change on a larger scale. Being part of an impact investments team is immensely gratifying and fulfilling for me.”

Reflecting on challenges holding women back from seizing economic opportunities, especially those in low-income communities, Kiran says, “I believe the most significant barriers women facing currently are gender bias and discrimination, limited education and training, unpaid care work, and lack of access to financial services. We need to address these challenges in a targeted and holistic manner.”

For Kiran, the International Women’s Day theme of “Invest in women: Accelerate progress” strongly resonates with her beliefs and aligns with her role at Accion. “From my work as an investment officer, I know that empowering women through financial tools — including savings, lending, insurance, and wealth management tools — has a multiplier effect on the growth of communities and countries, leading to sustainable and inclusive growth. I believe if a woman marches forward, the whole country goes forward.” When Kiran reflects on her career path and personal journey, she says, “My advice to fellow women who want to make a difference is to have faith in themselves and never hesitate to seek help. Support is always available.”

Valentina Rogacheva, Co-Founder and COO of Verqor

As an inclusive fintech founder, Valentina Rogacheva combines her international economics and social business background with a passion for driving positive societal change, especially for underserved communities. “With hard work and the right tools, all people should have a chance for economic mobility,” she says.

Valentina is co-founder and COO of Verqor, an Accion Venture Lab portfolio company focused on reaching smallholder farmers in Mexico. Millions of farmers across Mexico can’t access the formal financing they need to invest in their farms. Verqor provides data-based cashless credits to financially excluded smallholder farmers, which they can use to buy agricultural supplies on Verqor’s platform. “Smallholder farmers provide 30 percent of the global food supply. We need to put all our effort into providing growth opportunities for them,” says Valentina.

Valentina notes further disparities for women, including women farmers: “In developing economies, few women own land or other assets. They do not have access to financial resources and lack information, and men usually take charge of economic activities and decision-making in households.” Valentina believes inclusive, responsible financial solutions close gaps for women. “Access to capital and advisory resources can close gaps for low-income women. Bringing women into the formal economy and supporting them in their economic endeavors increases the incomes of their families and provides them financial independence.” She also feels optimistic that tech is changing the game for women, saying, “Technology is rapidly closing these gaps by democratizing access to financial and informational resources, making women more autonomous and capable of reaching their full potential.”

Valentina was selected as a fellow of the Cartier Women’s Initiative, an annual international entrepreneurship program that aims to drive change by empowering women impact entrepreneurs. To aspiring founders and entrepreneurs, she offers advice on building an impactful business, saying, “It’s essential to choose your team carefully, for everyone to share your goals and values, and to demonstrate your commitment to them. We need to have clear systems of evaluation that include both social and financial KPIs in order to make impact models scalable.” 

Roma Vasudevan, Senior Director, Risk Management & Digital Lending, Accion Advisory

“Growing up in India, you just have to look around to know that access and opportunity make a huge impact on people’s lives,” says Roma Vasudevan, Senior Director of Risk Management & Digital Lending on the Accion Advisory team. “Knowing people, especially women, who worked so hard to provide a better life and opportunities for their family and children is what led me to work in this space,” she says. “Living a life that allows you to learn and grow is not always a function of ability, but often more connected to access and affordability — something that many of us take for granted.”

In her current role, Roma leads the transformation of financial services, driving sustainable growth for our clients and enabling Accion’s work to ensure people have affordable, responsible financial tools needed to improve their lives. She has nearly 20 years of experience in credit and risk management, product management, and analytics across a variety of institutions.

In her work, Roma has often seen the transformative role that financial products and services can play in the lives of women in low-income communities. “While financial tools can’t solve all gender issues and inequalities, I strongly believe that having access to responsibly designed financial products unlocks opportunities for women to participate in the economy, ultimately leading to a better future for themselves and their families.”

However, reaching underserved women goes beyond designing a financial tool. “We all know that women, especially those with limited opportunities, manage and navigate complex and often tough choices on a daily basis,” says Roma. “We need to equip them with the knowledge and confidence to manage their finances and make discerning choices so they can access opportunities when they come their way.”

To other women who want to make an impact, Roma says, “I encourage you to just go for it. Don’t be afraid to take a chance and believe in your ability to make the choices that allow you to grow personally and contribute to your community in whatever way you choose.” 

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