All around the world, financial services enable people to open their own businesses, educate their children, and provide for their families, but they 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 working to open opportunity for women and men through inclusive finance in our annual International Women’s Day blog series. You can learn about more inspiring women in our first and second article for this series.

Meet some of the women we’re inspired by:

Winnie Blatchford, Founding member of Accion

Winnie Blatchford in Venezuela
Winnie and her Accion colleagues ran a community center in Caracas, Venezuela, that offered classes in literacy, auto mechanics, sewing, and cooking.

When Winnie Blatchford (née Marich) was on the cusp of her graduation from UCLA in 1958, she read about volunteer opportunities in her community and around the world in her student paper. One of those opportunities struck a deep chord with her. It was a new, student-run volunteer group called Accion that aimed to improve U.S. relations in Latin America. Founded by Joseph Blatchford — who Winnie later married in 1967 — and other UCLA students, the group sought “people with the audacity to think they can make a difference.” They interviewed candidates and chose Winnie among the initial group of 30 volunteers who traveled to the barrios, or disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, in Caracas, Venezuela, where they had the novel idea to ask the people living there what they needed, and how Accion could help.

Winnie and Joe Blatchford with Bob Williams
Winnie and Joe Blatchford in Venezuela.

Winnie became interested in Latin America and passionate about fighting poverty from a young age after she visited Peru, where her parents were living at the time, and saw firsthand some of the real challenges that families living in poverty faced every day. Her commitment to making the world a better place was borne from that experience and inspired her to go to that interview, get on a plane to Caracas, and become one of the first women of Accion. From installing sewage pipes, to paving streets, to teaching women to sew and make bread, the early Accion team worked side-by-side with their new Venezuelan friends determined to make a difference in the community. Winnie remembers so many talented women who were smart, capable, and true leaders in their communities. “I can’t help but think of my two granddaughters when I think of the women and girls in the barrios of Caracas in the early 1960s, and how impressed they would be by all of the women I met all those years ago,” she says.

Winnie Blatchford with her granddaughter
Winnie with her granddaughter Elliette in 2019

From the beginning, Winnie and Joe were steadfast in their vision to give those less fortunate the tools they need to improve their lives. Those tools have evolved over the past 60 years since Accion’s founding, but the mission of the first generation of Accion remains the core of our work. And connecting women to the tools they need to grow businesses, provide for their families, and improve their communities, continues to be a crucial way that we drive impact.

Before Winnie left Caracas, she received the Amiga de Venezuela award from the First Lady of Venezuela for her contributions to community development. She treasures that recognition and hopes it inspires her granddaughters and other young women to get involved in doing good. “You don’t have to put your feet in the barrios to make a difference. There are opportunities everywhere, and it’s our job to create them if we can’t find them.”

Shannon Dwyer, Investment & Portfolio Associate, Accion Venture Lab

Shannon Dwyer, Accion Venture Lab

Shannon Dwyer first discovered the potential of inclusive fintech while working with microentrepreneurs in Cape Town, South Africa. “It became quickly apparent that while they had the hustle and dedication to start and grow their businesses, a lack of access to financial services constantly constrained their operations. Once I got that initial view into the limitations of the financial services industry, the other gaps on both the consumer and MSME sides became readily apparent. The direct link between access to financial tools and the overall livelihoods of these underserved populations made the potential impact of fintech services — and my related excitement around them — too big to ignore.”

Shannon now supports early-stage fintech startups that are reaching underserved populations in her role as Investment & Portfolio Associate at Accion Venture Lab. On her work with fintech founders, she says, “I continue to be struck and inspired by the downstream impact that investing in female founders at the earliest stages can have. We know that female founders create more diverse and inclusive workforces, which lead to more inclusive product designs, which lead to more women accessing and utilizing financial tools and services. And when women have access to these tools and services, they often extend the benefits to others as well — by increasing their family’s savings capacity, by using a loan to pay for a child’s education, or by accessing capital to start a business. The potential of supporting this vastly underestimated segment of the founder population — women — is huge, both for the VC industry, but also for the end customers it ultimately touches.”

Inclusive fintech startups can also give people the tools they need to build resilience during challenging times like the COVID-19 crisis, which has disproportionately affected the lives of women.  Shannon stresses how the pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities that women face. “The one that feels the most visible to me is the disproportionate rate at which at-home and informal work falls on the shoulders of women. In the US, where I am based, this is clearly shown in the most recent unemployment reports, where women, especially women of color, are more likely to have become unemployed in the last 12 months and more likely to state ‘family responsibilities’ as the primary reason. We need policymakers and employers to step up and provide support and flexibility so that people aren’t forced to choose between their family responsibilities and remaining in the workforce. From flexible working hours to more generous PTO to better childcare benefits, there is much more we can do to support working women.”

Shannon believes that the world will be better off with more women in leadership. “It’s important to remember that there are so many different areas and ways to make an impact, and that each is incredibly critical. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the community, national, or global level — we need more women in positions of power, pushing for change across the board.”

Julia Arnold, Senior Research Director, Women’s Financial Inclusion

Julia Arnold, CFI

Raised by a feminist mother, Julia Arnold knew from an early age that she wanted to work to improve the lives of women around the world. “I saw how powerful it could be to help women achieve what they want to achieve and found that was exactly what I wanted to do.” Julia was first introduced to the ways that microfinance can empower women while in high school when she listened to an NPR interview with Muhammad Yunus. From there, she decided to focus her studies and career on microfinance, and later inclusive finance for women. She now leads the Center for Financial Inclusion’s research on women’s financial inclusion.

In her research at CFI, Julia explores how financial services can better serve women and address the constraints that they still face. “Women are 50 percent of the world’s population, and they are never the first person on any policymakers’ mind when they think about ‘What do I do? For whom do I do it?’ If you can help make women’s lives easier, you’re going to make everybody’s lives easier.”

As global gains toward gender equality have reversed during the pandemic, Julia is thinking about how we can help women recover from this crisis. “What it will take is clear-eyed commitment at a global policy level and individual country policy level to better understand women’s needs, women’s roles in their community, the constraints on their time and their mobility — which have been exasperated by COVID-19 — and embedding direct solutions to those needs in government payments, in gender budgeting, in infrastructure development, in consumer protection laws, in debt forgiveness in some form for those under a certain threshold.”

Julia is passionate about building a more equitable world, noting that “those of us who have privilege and opportunity have a responsibility to make room for voices of those who aren’t in the room.” She encourages others to push for change in their own way: “Find a thing that you love and care about and figure out a way that’s most comfortable for you to move forward in that direction and don’t stop.”

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2023 Annual Report