The United Nations theme for International Women’s Day this year is DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality, a celebration of women who are “championing the advancement of transformative technology and digital education.” With innovative digital tools, we can reach more women with the financial services they need to strengthen their livelihoods and build a better future. This year’s day of observance also recognizes the impact of the digital gender gaps and their potential to leave women further behind, both economically and socially.
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. You can learn about more inspiring women in our second article in this series.
Meet some of the women we’re proud to work with:
Erika Eurkus, Vice President, Resource Development at Accion
Erika Eurkus’ relationship with Accion goes back two decades, spanning both US and global work and several different programmatic efforts — from working with peer loan groups and developing individual loan products to raising loan funds and launching corporate partnerships. Now she works with Accion’s engaged and passionate donors who share our values and propel our mission forward.
Erika started her career in her hometown of Boston, Massachusetts. “In my heart, I always knew I would eventually have a career with a purpose, especially one focusing on social justice,” she says. “After graduating from college, I accepted a position as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for a domestic microcredit organization. And my career working to create economic opportunity was launched far sooner than I had expected — and right in my own backyard.” Erika worked as a loan officer and program manager for small business lenders Working Capital and then Accion USA (now Ascendus). “Working directly with small business owners opened my eyes to the vast disparities that exist in access to capital, and I knew I could have a great impact in harnessing increased resources for our clients.”
In her current role as Vice President for Accion’s Resource Development team, Erika Eurkus oversees individual philanthropy, helping Accion further our work to bring opportunity to low-income people worldwide. “We must keep building public-private partnerships locally and globally to impact maternal health, early childhood education, and a financial system that works for everyone,” she says.
While Erika is energized by the rapid pace of digitization in financial services, she recognizes the reality that profound inequalities in society have contributed to fewer opportunities for women and a resulting loss of economic productivity. “To reach equity, we must continuously generate bold ideas, creative thinking, and action. We can’t quiet any voice who has something to say. And, of course, partnerships – shared values and common goals – can achieve so much and are key to our work at Accion,” says Erika, reflecting on some of the partnerships she’s helped develop over the years. For example, the Brewing the American Dream partnership between Samuel Adams and Accion Opportunity Fund, a program designed to provide food and beverage entrepreneurs with the resources they need to succeed — including many businesses run by women and people of color who are often shut out of the formal financial system.
To others who are looking to make an impact, Erika says, “Opportunities to have an impact abound in today’s fast-moving economies. When I studied economics, the only mention of social impact was through optional reading, which happened to lead me to a short Economist piece on microfinance. Today, myriad non-profits, companies of all sizes, and hybrid organizations are focused on some element of impact. The key is to find a connection to a cause that is meaningful to you and seek out an opportunity within that field that provides learning, growth, and the chance to effect change.”
Jihan Abass, Founder and CEO of Lami
Jihan Abass comes from a family of entrepreneurs, setting her on a path to become an entrepreneur herself from an early age. After beginning her career in finance in London, she returned home to Kenya and launched Lami in 2018. Lami, an Accion Venture Lab portfolio company, is an embedded fintech company that provides affordable, accessible insurance products to underserved people across Africa through partner platforms.
On founding Lami, she says, “My main motivation is the fact that a lot of people don’t have access to insurance products in Africa. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a waiter who told me he didn’t have medical insurance, and that got me thinking about the insurance space.” She started researching and realized there was a lack of technological infrastructure to distribute insurance products widely and affordably. “I think insurance is one part of financial inclusion that has really been ignored. It brings about a lot of security because here in most of Africa, people rely on single sources of income,” she says. Lami leverages technology to close those gaps and give people access to the safety net that insurance can provide during illness, accidents, and other disruptions to their income.
Because many people distrust insurance, Jihan and her team stress the importance of building confidence and trust in their customer journey. They’ve found the best way to do that is to embed their services into apps and interfaces that people already use daily, so they can access Lami’s products through providers they already have a trusted relationship with, including banks, telcos, e-commerce platforms, and logistics companies.
“I think innovation is the backbone of what we’re doing here,” says Jihan. “We’re trying to transform how people get access to insurance products. We’ve digitized the entire value chain, something that hasn’t really been done in the past. We’re building the infrastructure and the rails for others to quickly launch products through their channels. To be able to overcome some of the hurdles in terms of how people view insurance, you need to have a product that is different, and that has a lot of impact and value.”
On her entrepreneurial journey, Jihan says, “I think being a female founder is unfortunately quite rare in most of Africa, and probably most of the world. It’s been an interesting experience being a female founder. In general, I would say that, despite the biases, a lot of people are really excited about seeing women leading companies, which has been very positive.” Lami’s team is 55, and Jihan is determined to attract and mentor young women and encourage them to grow within the company. “That’s a big indication of how we’re trying to support and cultivate young talent. Providing opportunities is one of the best ways that we can have a gender balance.”
“In the future, our goal is to be the leader in digital insurance. And not just in Africa but the rest of the developing world because we often face similar problems. We’re pushing the boundaries within the insurance space so we can have a transformative effect on the whole industry.”
Sandra Calderon, Director, Digital Strategy and Channels at Accion
Sandra Calderon is the Digital Strategy and Channels Director for Latin America, part of the Accion Global Advisory Solutions team. She supports microfinance institutions and banks across Latin America to help them design, implement, and manage their digital financial service channels. She brings many years of experience in the commercial banking sector to her role at Accion. “When I was offered this opportunity to do something really tangible for low-income people, it was very exciting for me, and I immediately identified with it.”
Since then, she has managed a wide range of projects, like supporting institutions in adopting new channels such as ATMs, mini-branches, mobile banking, and agent networks – bringing life-changing financial tools to people across Latin America, including Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Peru, and El Salvador. She’s passionate about building digital products and services that are easy to use, intuitive, and affordable so that all women can benefit from using them, no matter their level of experience using digital technologies.
Sandra emphasizes that innovation should always factor in an understanding of the realities that women face, and we must design tools from the perspective of women. “No one understands better the journey of a mother at home than another mother in charge of her home. Often, women must take care of their children while they are using digital products or services. For many, it’s also a great challenge to help their children with their homework using the internet or applications that schools use today. It’s necessary to provide learning spaces that make them feel proud of their achievements, build their confidence, empower them to become economically independent, and teach them to create new opportunities for themselves and their families.”
In many communities, women must divide their time between taking care of their family and earning a living, either because they are the heads of their household or because their economic dependence on their partner limits their autonomy. “The role of women in society is critical. We must facilitate their work by providing them with better tools to manage their households, start businesses, and earn a living for their families, including both financial and non-financial products and services,” says Sandra.