Financial Inclusion of women has been one of the key development priorities to ensure gender equality and empowerment. Amy Duffuor from IIX speaks to Michaela Walsh from Women’s World Banking to understand the status of financial inclusion for women.

Michaela Walsh is an activist, scholar, mentor, educator, and author. She was a pioneer woman manager with Merrill Lynch in Beirut, Lebanon, in the ’60s, first woman Partner of Boettcher in the ’70s, and in 1980, Founding President of Women’s World Banking.

You are one of the founders of Women’s World Banking (WWB). Could you share with us your story and how the organization started?

My concern has always been making the economy as ‘just’ as it can be for more people. My background came from Wall Street, and I became frustrated because I was always just making money for people who simply wanted to make more money. That’s why I left and went to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund; because I was searching for something more meaningful. I ultimately found that in Women’s World Banking.

WWB started in Mexico City in 1979. I had been invited to attend the first international UN conference for women. I was blown away by the role of women in their local economies. They had no recognition, no support and were not integrated into the formal economy. Several of us spent the next four years speaking to everyone we could to understand women’s needs and how to change the situation. That’s how WWB started.

WWB wasn’t a bank but it provided banking and financial services for women. One of the reasons it was successful was because we brought 50 women together from about 20 countries and thought very carefully and collaboratively about how we could create a movement for women to gain access to the global economy. I had a vision of women owning their own banking services and owning their own businesses. What WWB has done was to create access for women in the formal economy at a time when so few women were engaged in it. I led the bus, but I couldn’t have created WWB alone – it truly was a movement created by women, for women.

How was WWB able to keep its mission intact?

Transparency has always been my motivation in life. One of the reasons I’m alive today is because I don’t hide things and I tried to instill that culture in WWB. We made sure that WWB had an annual statement at the end of the brochures so the public knew how much money came in and out of the organization. We wanted to make ourselves accountable to our beneficiaries and the general public, so we put it all out there. This wasn’t always popular with people in the organization but I felt that it ultimately added credibility for us.

What role do you see (and would like to see) donors playing in the Impact Investing space?

In the case of microfinance, projects received money from donors before the financial markets came in. Impact Investing is the opposite – the financial markets came in first and now we are starting to see donor funding.

I think that Impact Investing should access donor funding for training and to help people better understand the process. However, the process must continue to focus on being profitable for local business owners, women, owners, women entrepreneurs, and their local communities. I think we need to be careful that its profits don’t only go to foreign or corporate investors unless it’s a true partnership for enriching local economies. Donor money should be used for local empowerment.

Over the past 40 years of your experience at WWB, what would you have done differently?

Real leaders are those who want to empower other people instead of themselves. Which is what WWB and I tried to do, but sometimes the media came into play too much. The media likes to create “stars,” and they tried to do that with me. I wish things were handled differently so I wasn’t always a “star” and people were more focused on the work of WWB.

Have there been any positive outcomes in terms of empowerment to women that were completely unexpected?

I think WWB did a great job of combining the local and global. When we were creating the organization, I didn’t want it to be the type of organization where all of the decisions for women around the world were made in a U.S. or Europe head office. I wanted to make sure local affiliates of WWB had an equal seat at the table. To ensure that, we insisted on having a global meeting every two years where everyone from the organization came together and shared what they were doing. These meetings were very powerful and became the basis on which we were able to build a trusting global network. Local affiliates didn’t rely on the U.S or European offices – they functioned under their own name, and rules and regulations for their country. This was very empowering because it promoted inclusion for local women. ]

Do you believe the wider financial system has changed its approach in addressing financial inclusion for women? What role do you think WWB had (if any) in bringing about that change?

I do believe that the wider financial system has changed its approach to addressing financial inclusion for women. We as women have made great strides but it’s up to this generation to keep pushing for more inclusion. One of the ways that WWB has brought about this change in the financial system was how we opened up the system by using the system. For example, WWB acted as a guarantor to banks that thought our entrepreneurs were high-risk borrowers. As a result the women who really needed loans were able to get them because WWB was able to use the financial system. I think moving forward we need to focus on creating new things within the Impact Investing space. Our energy should be directed at new products and innovations that have the potential to create greater financial inclusion for women.

Where do you see Impact Investing going forward?

Impact Investing has to keep a number of things in mind if it’s going to be a successful movement. The first is ensuring that impact investing organizations aren’t just being absorbed by big banks and corporations. They need to have the autonomy to do their own work. The second is around training the entrepreneurs and social enterprises. Time, effort and experience needs to come together to ensure that entrepreneurs understand the investments they are receiving (whether equity etc) and the best way to run an effective enterprise. Third is always keeping the entrepreneurs at the heart of the space. Impact Investing is about helping people, and we shouldn’t forget that.

By Amy Duffuor
Business Development, IIX