All around the world, basic 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 who are 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 third article in this series.
Meet some of the women we’re inspired by:
Luz Borchardt, Co-founder of Henry
Luz Borchardt sees her work in Latin America’s education sector as a revolution. “The traditional education system is broken. At Henry, we are disrupting and kicking the paradigm of education as we know it. We challenge the status quo of education. We open opportunity by giving access to people who do not have the material resources, but do have the talent, by allowing them to defer the payment of the cost of their education until the person gets a job and becomes productive.” Luz and her co-founders started Henry, an Accion Venture Lab portfolio company, to make software development training more accessible to people in Latin America by embedding financial services into their education platform. Luz’s passion lies in unlocking the talent of Latin American women by bringing them into the booming tech industry. “Having more women in STEM would bring benefits for their professional development and economic autonomy, but also their communities and countries urgently require women’s contribution to find new solutions to the problems we face as a society,” she says. “Likewise, it is essential that every user finds their vision of the world represented at each table where a digital product is thought [of], designed, and developed. More women in technology is synonymous with a more egalitarian and inclusive society.”
Despite growing demand for technical skills, coding and software development are still not considered appealing careers for women in the region. “We have the great challenge of breaking down the stereotypes that we consume and creating a horizon of possibilities about what is expected of each gender to reduce the gap between men and women. These stereotypical representations operate from an early age and condition the future of many girls and women who do not believe they are ready to [become developers] in the tech sector.” When women in Latin America embrace tech as a career, more opportunities for jobs and financial stability open up to them. “When women become financially empowered, they invest most likely in education, food, and health, which has an impact on society in general and helps reduce social inequalities and boost economic growth.”
Luz is energized by the impact that she makes through Henry’s work. “I love it, it makes me feel well, we change the lives of a lot of people. And this fills us with pride and encourages us to continue working with great intensity, to be able to invest in more and more people.” She encourages more women to pursue entrepreneurship like she has. “I want to encourage every woman that wants to make an impact to act, to be the protagonist of this world that surrounds us. Entrepreneurship is a matter of attitude. If you find a problem you are passionate about, investigate it in-depth, prototype a solution, talk to many people to validate your idea, and execute it — and the show begins! The best way to start is to implement and navigate your idea. I deeply encourage women to start by doing, even if the idea or solution is not perfect. I also encourage women to find their own voice in this conversation, too — whether that’s in your home, in your workplace, or in your community. We need to expand women’s power and influence all over the world!”
Mona Kapoor, Senior Director, Digital Strategy and Transformation, Accion
When asked about the power of financial inclusion, Mona Kapoor says, “I believe that financial freedom comes from two aspects: the first is when you are really able to earn, and the second is when you really understand beyond just earning — it is about being able to invest, to transact, to understand.” While she believes that giving women digital financial tools can improve their lives, Mona wants digital products and services to go one step further and provide the education needed to make them more effective for women. As more and more women become breadwinners in their families, they need to be able to understand how financial products can meet their needs and help them reach new opportunities. “Women today are aspiring, they’re willing to commit, and to evolve,” she says.
Mona merges her deep experience in digital payments and transformation with her passion for microfinance — and the opportunities it can create for women — in her work at Accion. As Senior Director of Digital Strategy and Transformation for Accion Global Advisory Solutions, she supports Accion partners as they develop digital financial products that help people to build better futures and small businesses to grow.
From her own personal experience, Mona knows that strong support systems can help women overcome challenges and thrive. “Women can really succeed when they get support from their mothers, sisters, daughters, the other women around them because that’s where they’re able to correlate and find strength. If she can do it, I can do it too. And let’s do it together. Women can and will find strength amongst women.” And with that support system, women can make an impact in whatever path they choose: “Women shouldn’t be held back in our ideation and thinking. Today’s world is such that if you can think it, you can do it. We should fearlessly go out there, express ourselves, make suggestions, and just jump into execution knowing and believing in ourselves, that we can do it.”
Laura Hemrika, Global Head of Corporate Citizenship & Foundations, Credit Suisse
“From an early age, I felt a responsibility to have a career that had a positive impact on others, that enabled, at least, opportunity and agency for those who didn’t have it. But I also knew that whatever it was, it had to make business sense. Financial inclusion is all that – and more. The younger, quietly rebellious me secretly also loved the smart, disruptive character of microfinance in the early days. I was hooked, but my commitment to financial inclusion was really cemented by clients early on in my financial inclusion career at Accion.” Laura Hemrika’s early drive to make a difference in the lives of other people has carried on throughout her career. She now leads Credit Suisse’s global social commitments to financial inclusion, financial education, future skills, and disaster relief. Credit Suisse is a longtime partner of Accion, and Laura’s team also leads Credit Suisse’s volunteer program where Credit Suisse employees can volunteer with organizations like Accion.
Laura believes that we must always focus first on the individual people that benefit from inclusive financial tools. “It is easy to lose sight of the fact that every transaction — every account — is a person, a life, a hope, a dream, but often, also a necessity. I remember meeting a female client who owned a small shop in the foothills of the Kilimanjaro and provided for her children and those of her brother who had died of AIDS several years before. Before starting her business, she had had to risk her life and her health to earn money for her family. Not out of ignorance — out of a lack of choice. Too often, millions of women and girls are still in situations or contexts where they are denied choice or opportunity. Access to well-designed financial services and financial education for them and their families can be such an important mechanism to overcome that. This is why Credit Suisse is committed to these two topics through our Financial Inclusion Initiative and our Financial Education for Girls Initiative.”
Laura is passionate about creating opportunities for other women, both through inclusive financial products and diversity in the workplace. “As women in leadership positions, we have a responsibility to continue creating opportunities for other women — whether our clients around the world or those in the organizations and sectors in which we work. Products and services, including technology, that specifically address the needs and interests of women are key, whether in crisis or not. Similarly, understanding the experience of women in companies and institutions is also key to ensure we develop and maintain a diverse employee base which in turn leads to better business decision-making.”
She encourages other women to be bold as they gain experience and grow in their careers. “To other women, I would say: dare to have an impact. Outside your comfort zone is where you will learn the most, so go for it. Strong professional skills are transferable, and our sector and our clients will only benefit from strong, talented female leaders.”