Women leaders open opportunity through inclusive finance, part one

Part of Accion’s annual series highlighting women working in financial inclusion

All around the world, financial services like bank accounts, insurance, and credit products, can enable people to open their own businesses, educate their children, and provide for their families. But these basic financial tools aren’t within reach for everyone, including 980 million women who don’t have a bank account or even the ability to send and receive money on their phones. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequalities that women face and exposed how the gender gap in financial inclusion continues to hold women back.

This year, the UN Women theme for International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” We’re highlighting women leaders who are working to open opportunity for women and men through inclusive finance, and to rebuild a more equitable world for all.

Meet some of the women we’re inspired by: 

Maria Otero, Former Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, and Former President and CEO of Accion

Maria Otero

“I believe that all women are leaders and that all women can make an impact. And that impact operates not just at their family level, but at their community level, and in some cases, as their national level and internationally.” Maria Otero is adamant in her belief that all women can make a difference, and her own career has been a testament to what a determined and passionate woman can accomplish. Born in La Paz, Bolivia, Maria started her career working in women’s health. As she traveled around the world, she saw how women were held back by a lack of economic empowerment, and she pivoted towards a career in financial inclusion. “I learned a great deal about the women’s movement, about how it is that women were addressed throughout the world, the inequities that existed overall, the inability for women to be treated as citizens like men.”

When she later became President and CEO of Accion, she shifted the focus from microcredit to microfinance to financial inclusion and oversaw the creation of the Center for Financial Inclusion. During her time at Accion, Maria witnessed the remarkable difference that financial services can make in the lives of women: “Financial tools have been the gate through which women have been able to work, to expand their own opportunities, and to become more self-sufficient. There’s just absolutely no question that financial inclusion is one way to truly integrate women into society. It is also one way to help [women] educate their children so that they can grow into a different generation – especially their daughters. You can see this wherever you go.”

Maria believes that women have all around the world tenacity and determination to succeed. “I learned so much about being a confident and fearless woman from my mother who at 94 is still going strong,” she says. With the right tools, women open businesses, provide for their families, and build better futures. “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Brooklyn, New York, or Bangkok, Thailand, across the world you see that being able to believe in women and trust in women and give them opportunity allows them to demonstrate that they can pay all their loans back, they can manage their resources, and they can also take on other financial products.”

She brought her passion for social change and her global perspective into her work at the US State Department as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. In this role and her many other leadership positions, she’s fought to build an equitable world that creates opportunities for all people, including women.

Maria encourages younger generations to understand the work that has come before them as they continue striving towards gender equality. As digital tools and social media continue to change how we influence thinking, “it is really important to understand that even though we have different means of communicating [across different generations], we are building on the shoulders of much that came before us.”

Ashley Lewis, Senior Investment Officer, Africa, Accion Venture Lab

Ashley LewisFrom her early start interning in a bank at the young age of sixteen, Ashley Lewis witnessed how financial services improve lives. She met families who walked into her bank looking for support while they struggled with their financial health. “I saw how personal and important it is to have access not only to financial services, but also to have a financially prosperous life.” Ashley has now lived on four different continents since her beginnings in California, widening her perspective on the challenges that hold people back — and the resilience that financial tools can provide. Today, she’s based in Nigeria, investing in and supporting inclusive fintech startups throughout Africa as a Senior Investment Officer with Accion Venture Lab.

As Ashley has helped social ventures around the world reach more people, she’s seen how inclusive fintech can change the lives of women and their families. “Most of the time, women have the greatest ambitions for their families and for themselves. By creating inclusive financial services for women, I’ve seen them invest in their businesses, invest in their children, invest in their households, and prosper.” When women have the right financial tools to build businesses and improve their financial health, their success creates a ripple effect in their families and their communities.

Ashley looks ahead to a future where more women have opportunities to lead and thrive. “What I’m really excited about is seeing so many women globally being put into places of power and leadership. We’re now starting to see this tide turn where more women’s voices are at the table. When women have a voice, we can ensure that women don’t get left behind.” As more and more women step into leadership roles, Ashley believes they should lean into their unique capabilities and strengths. “As women, we have our own superpowers deeply embedded in us, whether that’s our intuition, our creativity, our collaboration. It’s important for women to identify those unique skill sets in themselves and bring that into the environments where they operate. Instead of trying to mirror what we see as successful leadership — often from a masculine perspective — we should dive into our unique abilities as women and bring that forward because that’s really what the world needs right now.”

Luz Urrutia, Chief Executive Officer, Accion Opportunity Fund

Luz UrrutiaLuz Urrutia’s passion for inclusive finance comes directly from her own personal experience. “When I moved to the United States to finish my undergraduate degree, I worked at a bank. I applied for a $500 credit card from the very bank I worked at and was turned down because, as an immigrant, I had no credit history. I realized that if I was having this problem, as a bank employee, there was a wider problem. I decided that one day I would build a company that provides financial services to folks that don’t have access to them. Folks like me.”

Luz went on to found El Banco de Nuestra Comunidad, a community bank in Atlanta, Georgia, that focused on serving the Hispanic population with little or no credit history. She’s since become CEO of Accion Opportunity Fund, Accion’s partner in the U.S., which provides loans to low and moderate-income immigrants, women, and other underserved small business owners.

While there’s still work to be done to make financial systems open to more people, Luz and her team at Accion Opportunity Fund are excited by the possibilities that tech opens up for connecting more women and people of color to the capital needed to grow their businesses. “Despite the advancements made to accelerate financial inclusion, women, and especially women of color, are still excluded from access to financial tools around the world. To bridge this gap, fintech has played a considerable role in opening opportunities for women globally, by providing digital solutions that cater to the constraints women face. Fintech provides women with the flexibility to access the resources they need, allowing them to conveniently gain access to resources to effectively run their businesses.”

That ability to run businesses effectively is crucial as entrepreneurship is a particularly powerful tool for women to build better futures. As Luz points out, “Of the 140,000 jobs lost in the U.S. last December, all of these jobs were held by women, and mostly women of color. In order to ensure women aren’t left further behind, we must focus on giving women the tools they need to start and run their own businesses. Entrepreneurship is a way for women to build wealth. Indeed, entrepreneurship is second only to homeownership in building wealth. What’s more, Americans are starting businesses at a faster rate now than in years, and women of color are starting businesses faster than any other group. Thus, women need access to the capital and support needed to start and run their businesses, especially during this particularly challenging time.” This belief in entrepreneurship and inclusive finance is what drives Luz in her work every day as she opens up more opportunities for women to thrive.

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