The following speech was delivered by IIX Founder and CEO Professor Durreen Shahnaz on October 24th at Wharton San Francisco, for IIX and Knowledge@Wharton’s event “Women, Peace and Parity: Using Finance as a Tool For Progress.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, Welcome to Knowledge@Wharton and IIX’s joint event, ‘Women, Peace and Parity’. Thank you all for joining us today to celebrate the United Nations – so Happy United Nations Day. Today is a celebration of women — the Sustainable Development Goals #5 – Gender Equality, a celebration of Peace – SDG goal # 16, and a celebration of partnerships – SDG #17, because as we know, to undertake the mammoth task of creating a peaceful and equitable society – it takes women and it takes a village.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank my alma mater the Wharton School of Business,  and in particular Knowledge@Wharton for being an amazing partner in our journey of connecting the Back Streets of underserved communities with the Wall Streets of the world. And, thank you to all of you for joining us in this important discussion on women, peace and parity.

I stand before you today as a woman whose life has been has been a journey of defiance and optimism. My defiance came from being born as a woman in a poor country where decisions regarding my life and body was dictated by my society, religion and government. My optimism comes from being an entrepreneur who refuses to accept any limitations or boundaries put on me and holding an incredible belief that I can be part of creating a society where women and men both have equal voice, representation and ‘sense of entitlement’ to prosper. I knew that if I could create this equitable society it would not only unleash the unstoppable power of doing good in all of us but it would also result in sustainable peace – peace in our soul, peace in our society and peace in our world.

I came to America alone at the age of 17, breaking all my family and societal rules with a suitcase and a heart full of optimism. I dreamed America would let me be who I am and it did. For four years in college, I learned that women can do anything, women have a voice and women have power over their own body. Then, when I graduated and went to work at my first job in Wall Street, I realized that I was not in real America for the past four years but I was in the ivory tower of Smith College, a top women’s college, where women could do anything and be anybody. Sadly, that was the not case for American society as a whole and, in terms of women’s rights, my adoptive country had similar inequities to my birth country.

While Wall Street lived up to its reputation of sexism, discrimination and insatiable thirst for money, what it did teach me was that finance was the most powerful force in the planet. With the help of financial markets over the last hundred years, the global GDP grew more than 70 times; there has been incredible advancements in technology, medicine, and agriculture. The markets resulted in incredible growth. Interestingly, while the markets created all this good, the markets also created massive inequalities — enormous gaps between the haves and have-nots. A gap so large that it festered ill will and conflict – a far cry from the common belief that money can take care of everything.

Peace is not just the absence of war. Peace is the outcome of an equitable society. Peace is not something that is handed to us or created by someone else.  Peace is something we build. We have to evolve from thinking of peace purely as a product of policy, to peace as a product of our systems. Systems that acknowledge and embrace women as an equal part of the society, systems that give value to societal and environment equity and systems that promote inclusion.

As a result, today we are advocating for sustainable peace – addressing at their very roots the inequalities and injustices within today’s world that can lead to conflict. We need to build peace in a new way by changing existing systems — including the financial system — within which every being operates. We have to empower women to participate in this peace building.

I started my first company, oneNest twenty years ago. It was the early days of the internet and my company was one of the first online marketplaces. My idea was to empower women entrepreneurs by giving them access to the global market. Women produce 60% of the world’s food and household goods and invest 90% of earning back into their families and communities, but earn only 10% of the income.

For me it made complete business and economic sense to work with this untapped group, who can help me grow my business and also create ripple effects in the global economies.

However, the VC world in Silicon Valley did not think so. I could not even get meetings let alone money from these firms. I remember I tried every way possible to get meetings with VCs and could not. Then I just cold called a dozen investors saying, ‘remember we met at so and so conference? Well, I will be in town can I meet you’. After that little false act I did get the meetings but I knew the minute I walked into each of those board rooms that I was not going to be asked to come back again let alone be given a cheque.

I did raise some money to start my company – from a women-focused VC and a minority focused VC. I did grow my company, survived 9/11 and eventually sold the company. However, the entire experience left me with a great sense of despair – because I could not do more for the half a million women I helped bring to the market and because I could not make them a part of the global financial system. And on a personal level, I felt despair because I saw groups of men copy my idea – but with a focus on male-led SMEs, get financed by Silicon Valley and one of them even having a billion dollar IPO.

The whole experience made me defiant about changing a system. A system that values women and a system that creates parity and societal peace.

Today, there is no escaping that we live in a globalized world where everything is interconnected – ideas through the internet, people through travel, and capital through the global financial markets. However, the connections are not always smooth or obvious, and not everyone has a ticket to travel in this interconnected global highway. Globalization opens doors to new opportunity – but only to some. The divide between the winners and losers of globalization exaggerates inequalities on a global scale – creating social and economic unrest. If we can promote inclusion and close inequality gaps in our financial and economic systems, we can tackle a crucial source of conflict.

A decade ago, I started on an audacious, optimistic and quixotic journey to use finance to create peace. I founded IIX, a pioneer in the impact investing movement in Asia, and now having expanded to the US. This is a movement that harnesses the power of finance to benefit society and the environment, and puts women front and center of it all. IIX’s work in this space transforms markets to promote sustainable peace by innovating solutions for a more inclusive and just world.

To date, our work has spanned 40 countries, successfully impacted the lives of over 23 million disadvantaged people, and used innovative finance to bring in over $75 million of investment from the private sector to build a more equal, resilient and peaceful world. Across all of our work, IIX seeks to bring women front and center of capital markets. This focus on women is amplified by the fact that IIX is a women-led and majority-women organization.

Having built more inclusive financial systems in Asia for a decade, recently embarking on a $100 million Women’s Livelihood Bond series in Asia, we have now taken on Women’s Health in the US. Why? Because it unacceptable that the healthcare figures among the underserved women in the US are at par with many developing countries. In a wealth society like ours, every woman in spite of her color and socio-economic background deserves affordable, accessible and equitable healthcare. Every woman deserves to have control over her body and every woman deserves to be valued in the health care she receives. They can take the court from us but in turn we can take on financial markets and make it work for us.

This is the result of defiant optimism – the result of defiantly identifying the flaws in the existing system and optimistically setting out to change this system.

We have a shared responsibility to build peace. We have a shared responsibility to promote inclusion. We have a shared responsibility to create a sense of belonging and especially for women. Not only do we each have this responsibility, but we have the capacity… especially when we work together.

In order to tap into the vast capital market of $210 trillion to promote sustainable peace, I present to you today the Innovative Finance for Sustainable Peace Initiative and Women’s Health Initiative in the US. Both these initiatives effectively use the financial markets for sustainable peace while putting women at the forefront of change. I hope you will join us in this journey and endorse our work on and give peace a chance.

The journey of sustainable peace is not an easy one but we cannot rest. We cannot rest until we have created a more inclusive, equitable and environmentally sustainable system that allows —

  • Every child – girl or boy – to have access not only to education but eventually a sustainable livelihood
  • Every woman to have access not only to a microloan and quality healthcare but a voice in the financial markets
  • Every man and woman to think not only about making the next dollar but also the next positive impact

And then we can dare to achieve sustainable peace…