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Breaking the Funding Bias

In conversation with Dr. Lisa Dacanay and Gail Wong on gender-lens investing

On March 22nd, Angels of Impact hosted a webinar to discuss gender lens investing in line with the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day: “break the bias”. “Imagine a gender equal world,” states the homepage of the now-global movement, the origins of which harken back to the women’s suffrage movement of the early twentieth century. “A world,” it continues, “free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination.” At Angels of Impact, we work to break the funding bias against women of color entrepreneurs in the “missing middle” — that is, enterprises too large for microfinance but too small for traditional financial institutions, or else unaligned with the scale desired by venture capitalists.

In conversation with Dr. Lisa Marie Dacanay, President at the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship in Asia (ISEA) and Gail Wong, gender-lens impact investor and financial wellness coach, our CEO, Laina Greene posed the question: how do personal experiences validate the funding bias against women of color and inform possible solutions?

International Women's Day Poster

One of the first posters advocating International Women’s Day posted and subsequently banned in Germany, 1914. It reads: “Until now, prejudice and reactionary attitudes have denied full civic rights to women, who as workers, mothers, and citizens wholly fulfill their duty, who must pay their taxes to the state as well as the municipality. Fighting for this natural human right must be the firm, unwavering intention of every woman, every female worker”. Courtesy of Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

Dr. Dacanay first entered the discourse on sustainable development in the 1990s as manager of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, an NGO that empowers women and men, often indigenous, in farming and fishing communities across the Philippines. It was there that she delved into the lived experiences of women in agriculture. The experience was as troubling as it was informative: not only were women overlooked, often seen as mere “extensions” of their husbands, but the community programming intended to support their operations was insufficient without direct attention to gender. “If we are to be generous, I’d say we were gender neutral”, recalls Dr. Dacanay, “but really, we were gender blind… Investing in women at the grassroots needs to actually address the gender inequality among women who are farmers or fishers, but they are not recognized, they are not provided equal opportunity to become stakeholders in economic activity.”

How do personal experiences validate the funding bias against women of color and inform possible solutions?

The proposition that women are not recognized is one many would dispute in the Philippines, provided its comparatively inclusive gender policies. In 2020, the World Economic Forum ranked the country 16th in the world for narrowing the gender gap and first in Asia, the only country in the region that even made the top twenty tier. “I was a middle-class woman,” Dr. Dacanay stated, “I didn’t feel exploited. I didn’t feel that I was denied any opportunity, but it was really when I started to look at the grassroots level that I discovered women’s empowerment is most critical among grassroots women. ” For those afforded opportunity, perhaps because of open-minded parents, geographical context, a particular elected government, or some other reason, gender inequality often manifests as microcosms of systemic flaw: teenage girls being relegated to domestic chores, for example, or mothers expected to cook family meals. But for women at the most basic level of production, particularly that of agriculture in low-income communities, the consequences are more than inconvenience: they mean sickness, poverty, and isolation.

Rural Asian Women

Women farmers harvest. Right: Helianti Hilman, Founder of Javara, a social enterprise in the Angels of Impact network.

Gender bias through the lens of class stratification also means something to Ms. Wong, whose father grew up in a kampong, or village, selling eggs after school, but whose dreams for his daughter catapulted her to higher education, Wall Street, and eventually rendered her a “poster child” of Singaporean success. And yet, Ms. Wong discovered that here, too, on the other end of a wealth spectrum, discrimination persisted. The observation that her few women colleagues in high finance seemed to go unseen disturbed Ms. Wong and made her question: “What are the conflicting ideas of success, of what it means to be a woman in the workforce, as a founder, as an entrepreneur, and then, as a capital allocator?” The root of the inequality, she decided, sits within “the ability to be ‘whole’ people, whether you are a man or a woman, in finance and the system of finance.” In other words, Ms. Wong identified the values we ascribe to people as thinkers, doers, creators. Does society truly recognize a woman as a valuable economic contributor? And, having established that the consequences of inequality may not bear the same weight for all women but that all women nonetheless experience gender inequality, how then can their shared experience become a catalyst for solutions?

For women at the most basic level of production, particularly that of agriculture in low-income communities, the consequences are more than inconvenience: they mean sickness, poverty, and isolation.

The answer, says Dr. Dacanay, lies in access. Or, to put it another way, women accessing connections and opportunities and opening that channel of access to other women. In her field work with rural farmers, one of the greatest takeaways women experience from ever-improving skills-building, she noted, is the recognition that they need to be active champions for other women. Embodying their gender is not enough: they must actively upskill themselves and leverage these skills to enable other women. It is no surprise, then, that both Dr. Dacanay and Ms. Wong are active in the network of Angels of Impact, where we invest in women entrepreneurs providing skills and access to other women. Ms. Wong has served (among several other roles) as an “activator” for SheEO, a global initiative to radically transform how to finance, support, and celebrate female entrepreneurs who are building new mindsets, models and new solutions that benefit humanity.

Gail Wong speaks at TEDx

Gail Wong, advisor to Angels of Impact, speaking about financial consciousness at TedX Singapore

And building new solutions they are: evidence that women entrepreneurs can positively change society abounds. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FOA) estimates that where women farmers have the same access to male farmers, they have been shown to produce agricultural yields 20- 30% and reduce hunger 17-20%. If they had the same access to resources as men everywhere, they would bring 100-150 million people out of poverty. The women behind these efforts – who share wealth and spread the benefit of their business models – are precisely the women that Angels of Impact resources with funding and capacity building. To date, we have worked with more than 35 businesses which, in turn, reach some 64,000 people, of which 11,000 were indirect beneficiaries of technical assistance provided to 17 women-led, community-based enterprises spread across the region in 2021.

Through these funding and capacity-building efforts, we have hope that, together with a global conversation that amplifies gender equality, we might play our part in narrowing the 930 billion USD funding gap for “missing middle” enterprises in lower- and middle-income countries. Together with partners like the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship in Asia and inspirations like SheEO, we are hopeful to achieve a world without poverty in unity with women and indigenous communities.

Madi Lommen is the Global Teams and Partnership Manager at Angels of Impact. After founding Madibanani Co. to champion refugee youth from Myanmar, Madi translated her passion for entrepreneurship to grassroots development along the Jordan-Syrian border, with emergency responders in Ecuador, and now resources women-led SMEs tackling poverty across Southeast ... Read more
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