A first-of-its-kind initiative from IFC and Goldman Sachs is delivering much-needed financing for tens of thousands of women entrepreneurs and proving the wider business case for investing in women.
Women own or run a little more than a third of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in emerging markets. For those businesses, one of the biggest barriers to their growth is lack of finance—IFC’s research points to an estimated unmet credit need of $1.48 trillion for women-owned SMEs in developing countries.
When women have access to finance, it has many positive ripple effects. Research shows that SMEs run by women are better at reinvesting profits in the business, investing in their families’ health and education, and strengthening local communities. Improving women’s access to finance could boost global economic output by up to $28 trillion by 2025, according to some estimates.
Prospects for women entrepreneurs—despite the gaps— are improving. While recent attention has focused on several announcements of initiatives to support women entrepreneurs, observers now point to a program, which started four years ago, as paving the way for what would come.
The program is the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility (WEOF), a joint initiative established by IFC and the Goldman Sachs Foundation. Its goal is to provide access to capital for 100,000 women, stimulating economic growth, and building stronger, more prosperous communities.
WEOF itself built on earlier pioneering initiatives from IFC’s Banking on Women business and the Goldman Sachs Foundation’s 10,000 Women initiative.
“We know that investing in women entrepreneurs is good for financial institutions, communities, and countries. Goldman Sachs shared our commitment and, through WEOF, we joined forces to demonstrate the commercial viability of investing in women to banks and investors around the world,” says Jessica Schnabel, Global Head of IFC’s Banking on Women program.
John F.W. Rogers, Chairman of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, explains that the Foundation decided to partner with IFC “because we wanted to create profound change on a local, national and global scale. We were confident our partnership would enable us to help women entrepreneurs obtain the external capital they so desperately need. We hope the success of WEOF demonstrates to others around the world that investing in women is good business.”
“These efforts are successful because of the women entrepreneurs who work tirelessly all around the world every day to change their circumstances and their communities.”
—John F. W. Rogers, Chairman, Goldman Sachs Foundation
Although WEOF still has six years to run, to date, it has made over $990 million in investments in 26 financial intermediaries in 26 countries— far surpassing its original target of $600 million. It has also funded 10 advisory projects in nine countries with total project value of $4.3 million.
The Facility’s geographical footprint extends from the steppes of Mongolia to the foothills of the Andes, and is providing finance to trailblazing women entrepreneurs from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Lebanon and—most recently—Sri Lanka. Its success is due to the support of partner financial institutions in emerging markets.
So far, the Facility has reached 50,000 women entrepreneurs around the world. This includes women like Berta Souri, a customer of BHD Leon in the Dominican Republic. Souri started out making dresses at her sister’s apartment, and now runs a major clothing company, Souri Industrial, which employs more than 50 people.
“The Bank has given me more than money,” she says. “It has given me confidence.”
In Lebanon, Zeina Khoury Daoud had a similar experience. She grew up pressing olives to produce oil for family and friends. She transformed that into a small business called Le Potager Bio, adding spices and teas to the offering. With help from BLC Bank, Daoud has been able to grow her business. She has recently acquired the franchise of a French organic grocery in Beirut.
“Nothing is more rewarding than working for what you believe in,” Daoud says.
These stories, says IFC’s Schnabel, are just two of tens of thousands. They come as no surprise to her.
“Women are the next emerging market,” she says.
But reaching those entrepreneurs is not a simple process. It involves working closely with financial institutions to help them expand their programs for women-owned and run SMEs.
“We invest in and provide expertise to financial institutions, so they can provide value to and improve their bottom-line by expanding their services to women customers, especially women-owned businesses,” Schnabel says. Since the Banking on Women program launched in 2010, IFC has invested and mobilized investment in and provided expertise to over 50 financial institutions in 34 countries worldwide.
“The experience from WEOF gave the market confidence that other similar initiatives could also work.”
—Henriette Kolb, Head, Gender Secretariat, IFC
Rogers says that Goldman Sachs launched 10,000 Women about a decade ago, a global initiative that provides women entrepreneurs with a business and management education, mentoring and networking, and access to capital. He says that research at that time was increasingly clear that “the economic advancement of women drives profound economic and social benefits around the world.”
The WEOF program’s achievements have had a significant impact in proving that investing in women was good business, says Henriette Kolb, the Head of the Gender Secretariat at the IFC. She says it has helped to inspire several other initiatives.
“The experience from WEOF gave the market confidence that other similar initiatives could also work,” Kolb says.
These include: the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), which was launched last year, funded by G20 countries and managed by the World Bank, with a goal to mobilize more than $1 billion; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s global 2X Women’s Initiative, launched last month with a goal to mobilize more than $1 billion; and the African Development Bank’s Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa, which has a goal of mobilizing $300 million for women entrepreneurs in Africa.
“We are thrilled that we are approaching $1 billion in capital committed and the first public private partnership to attain that level of commitment to women entrepreneurs,” says Rogers. “But it is imperative that we and others continue to work to ensure that more women are able access the capital they need to grow their businesses and invest in their communities.”
Still, Kolb cautions that these new initiatives shouldn’t obscure the need for other support for women.
“It’s very positive to see this emphasis on economic participation of women, but we need to be careful not to crowd out attention to basic access to services such as healthcare and education,” she says. “We need to work to make sure women in the workplace have access to child care as well. Without improvement in childcare access, many women entrepreneurs will not be able to fully grow their businesses.”
Efforts to meet these needs are evolving, and as they do it will give added momentum to initiatives such as WEOF. The founders of WEOF believe that the resulting inclusion of women in the economic sphere will have exponential development impact in emerging market countries around the world.
“It is crucial to remember that, first and foremost, these efforts are successful because of the women entrepreneurs who work tirelessly all around the world every day to change their circumstances and their communities,” Rogers says. “These women have defied expectations, rejected limitations, and held steadfastly to their aspirations.”
Lloyd Blankfein is Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs. In this exclusive interview, he talks about the Goldman Sachs Foundation’s groundbreaking 10,000 Women initiative and the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility (WEOF), a first-of-its-kind partnership with IFC, to improve access to finance for SMEs owned or run by women.
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