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Female voices leading the impact conversation

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Published: 8 March 2024

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Impact Investor spoke to leading figures in the industry about the role of impact investing in developing a more inclusive society and the lessons learnt as women building a career in the sector.

Is the impact investing industry doing enough to build a broader and more inclusive sector? What are some of the ways in which women and those from underrepresented groups can navigate their futures and their careers?

These are just some of the questions we posed to leading female voices from across the impact investing sector who spoke to us about leadership, mentorship, the importance of networks and building deep relationships, the need to develop resilience, sticking to your core values, and of placing diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) outcomes at the heart of investment decisions.

Impact investors can make a profound difference in the world of gender equity, as the women we talk to demonstrate.

Roberta Bosurgi, CEO, Impact Europe

We need to accept that, still today, we operate in a system that is not inclusive and that, as women, we have adapted to ways of working that have been built over time with different levels of conscious biases.

It requires an intentional focus to deprogramme those biases and to be brave enough to go outside our comfort zone and challenge the status quo. It’s only stepping into uncharted territory, trying different and unusual approaches, that we truly see the benefits and the added value of a diverse perspective.

Roberta Bosurgi, Impact Europe

For example, as a woman, I have often been the solo voice promoting a partnership instead of competitive behaviours. And, as a woman, I have learnt to trust my instincts and my emotional intelligence radar even when they go against what we are used to expect. This has unlocked some amazing outcomes.

Impact investing is by definition intentional in driving positive social and environmental outcomes, however while the risk/return profile of investments in environmental infrastructure and technology is straightforward, the social and inclusion outcomes require patient capital, are local by definition and difficult to scale.

Given these challenges, the inclusion and equity lens is often deprioritised. Impact investors can address these challenges by leading the way and by putting the inclusion and equity outcomes at the centre of any capital deployment, interlocking the social and the environmental outcomes for maximum impact and balanced risk/return profile.

Michele Giddens, co-founder and co-CEO, Bridges Fund Management

The first lesson is that while change can be slow, it does come – so stay the course! When we first created Bridges, the concept of impact investing didn’t even exist, and we faced a lot of scepticism.

It took years for mindsets to start shifting – but now it’s one of the fastest-growing areas of the investment world. I think the same will be true of diversity and inclusion.

Michele Giddens, Bridges Fund Management

The private equity world is gradually evolving: conferences are no longer the same sea of dark suits that I remember from my early days in the industry. There are still too few senior women, but it’s definitely getting more diverse at the junior levels. Over time – and building track records does take time – that will change the industry from the ground up.

The second is to see it as an opportunity, not an obstacle. Being different can be hard sometimes – but it also makes you stand out. Use that to your advantage.

Finally, it’s really important to find good role models and mentors. My own career has been strongly influenced by two senior individuals in the industry. As it happens, both were white men – but whoever it is, there’s a huge benefit in having someone in your corner who can be as supportive, wise and inspirational as these two have been for me over the years.

It continues to be essential to make impact investing more appealing and accessible to a broader range of gender and cultural backgrounds, to make the industry free from all bias. It is crucial to increase diverse representation especially in an industry that’s funding the companies of the future.

Dimple Sahni, managing director, impact portfolios, Anthos Fund & Asset Management

Lean into your diversity: After movements like #timesup and #blacklivesmatter, I realised that being a woman of colour had gone from being a disadvantage to being an advantage in having a bigger platform, a louder voice and ultimately more visibility to promote impact and diversity at the highest levels.

Use your cultural background as a competitive advantage: Growing bi-lingual and bi-cultural between the US and India allowed me to observe inequity first hand. I used this cultural arbitrage to demonstrate that investors who truly have a global perspective can use their western pedigree and eastern sensitivities to be more astute investors especially in the Global South where most of impact is needed.

Dimple Sahni, Anthos Fund & Asset Management

Help others along the way: As a former GP and Kauffman Fellow, I have formally mentored two other women of colour during their Fellowship to reach their potential. I am a jury member for the Cartier Women’s Initiative which supports female social entrepreneurs globally to receive coaching and funding.  I’m also a mentor for the Unreasonable Institute who, with Barclays, provides coaching to help scale social entrepreneurs globally.

Find other like-minded investors: Now as an LP, I joined a consortium of Institutional Allocators for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (IADEI) where we share best practices on how to integrate this into our thinking and investment selection process. In addition, I’m chairperson of the Investment Committee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation (NCF) who has a 100% mission aligned endowment goal which includes a focus on racial and social equity.

Finally, within my own firm, I have been an ambassador for DEI aiming to influence everything from our hiring practices to our due diligence process including KPIs. I’m proud to be part of what is now a team of three women managing the impact portfolios.

Willemijn Verloop, founding partner, Rubio Impact Ventures

Inequality is one of the greatest challenges of our time. The impact investing sector is a powerful force for progress, but does it bring enough power to advance diversity and inclusion?

I believe it does when it specifically targets positive change in underserved communities and marginalised groups. However, the sector has significant challenges to address as it is part of the investment industry which has a terrible DEI track record.

Willemijn Verloop, Rubio Impact Ventures

In Europe, only 1.8% of the total capital invested in venture-backed companies went to all-female founding teams last year. Moreover, the significant gender wage gap for early-stage startups signals deep systemic inequalities.

To address these challenges, impact investors should be at the forefront of the investment world in developing a course of action anchored in fairness and inclusivity. This entails championing fair compensation practices, cultivating diverse leadership pipelines, and fostering an environment where all voices are heard and valued. 

We also need to recognise the importance of diversifying investor teams to address the gender investment gap, particularly considering that 85% of all investors are male. Research by Diversity VC shows women in VC are almost twice as likely to be in non-investment positions such as platform or community-building roles compared to men, and thus less likely to have significant influence over investment decisions.

At Rubio, diversity has been integral from the beginning, with a female founding team and an investment team comprising 59% women across all levels, including the Investment Committee.

But it’s not just about gender, DEI should also include different races, ethnicities, religions, abilities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Research shows that more than 70% of VC partners are from affluent upper socioeconomic backgrounds. That is more than 1000% overrepresentation!

It continues to be essential to make impact investing more appealing and accessible to a broader range of gender and cultural backgrounds, to make the industry free from all bias. It is crucial to increase diverse representation especially in an industry that’s funding the companies of the future.

Audrey Obara, senior investment manager & head of regional office in Nairobi, Swedfund

In my job, I get to combine my investment skills with my interests in gender equality, sustainability, financial inclusion, and healthcare to work for positive impact.

Here are some lessons and tips I would like to share with other women in the impact sector:

Find mentors to support your career and life journey. People who can advise you and challenge you. You should also consider mentoring others. You can learn a lot from younger generations, junior colleagues, or new hires. There is no monopoly on knowledge.

Audrey Obara, Swedfund

Sit at the front. If I walk into a room, I’ll most likely choose to sit at the front. Put yourself out there. Challenge yourself. You’ll learn a lot more when you’re willing to take on different responsibilities. Raise your hand.

Stay curious. Read widely and stay informed about what’s happening around you. This information could be beneficial in your work. Pursue new hobbies or interests and meet new people. Ask questions. Asking questions is essential to learning and growing.

Network. Within your sector but also in broader circles. You can learn a great deal from other professionals, not just those in your industry or line of work.

Work smart. Find ways to complete tasks more efficiently by automating, leveraging technology, creating templates and lists, and simplifying what can be simplified. Find your flow!

Have a plan, but also give yourself some grace. Sometimes things unfold differently from what you hoped for, so adjust and keep moving forward.

Finally, life is about balance. Women, who often prioritise the needs of others over their own, should remember to take care of themselves. Everything should be done in moderation. It is important to maintain your own mental, physical, spiritual, and professional well-being.

Remember, by investing in yourself and other women, we can be a catalyst for change and accelerate the transition to a healthier, safer and more equitable world for all.

Laure Wessemius-Chibrac, managing director, Netherlands Advisory Board on impact investing

In my early days in banking, when women were a minority, I was eager to learn from my mostly male peers. Many of the lessons I’ve learned that ended up being useful in my career came quite late and I wish I had received some guidance earlier.

The first thing I’d tell my younger self would be to be herself. Maybe a cliche, but so true. I learned a lot from my banking peers but I also started adopting the general dominant behaviour and management style, mainly based on authority and performance. I didn’t follow my intuition and saw compassion and empathy to others as a sign of weakness. That was probably the biggest mistake I ever made. I was a good professional but, retrospectively, a bad manager. 

Laure Wessemius-Chibrac, Dutch NAB

Secondly, empowering others is key. I used to think that I had to control everything, triple checking my team’s work and always finding things that could be improved. Until at one point I was on the brink of burnout and had no choice but to delegate. And then, the magic happened! The team felt empowered by my trust, took responsibility, and, as a result, performed better.

Also, make sure you align your work with your values. If your job is not entirely satisfying or according to your values, you can try to change the status quo, but if this does not work, know when to stop trying. There are so many opportunities to use your talent on great causes, don’t waste it.

Generosity is also crucial. My grandmother was a great role model and, in hindsight, maybe my most important inspiration. She taught me that there is no higher purpose than to care for others: in my view, the essence of leadership.

Last but certainly not least, don’t forget self care: For many years I also thought that it would be selfish to take care of myself. It sounds silly when I write it but when you’ve taken care of others all your life it can be quite a challenge to put yourself first. My most recent lesson learned is that good leaders need to find their own balance to be able to help others better.

Christin ter Braak-Forstinger, founder and CEO, Chi Impact Capital

When I embarked on my entrepreneurial journey, it was everything but glamorous. I have heard 100 reasons why I shouldn’t raise an impact VC fund and I am happy to share some personal insights about why I love being an impact VC anyway.

When you are on the path towards putting your professional and personal mission (ideally, both are one and the same) into action, I strongly recommend you paddle your own canoe. Fearlessly go in the direction you wish to follow, set a clear intention, don’t compare yourself with others and be resilient.

Christin ter Braak-Forstinger, Chi Impact Capital

Sometimes, it may hurt and it may be lonely. Recharging your batteries with the advice of like-minded female mentors may work wonders. Should your canoe really get stuck, be flexible and continue your way on another arm of the river. But always keep going towards your goal.

Courage will always be rewarded. And even in a largely data-driven world, never underestimate the value of your own instincts. I am deeply convinced that impact investments have the power to heal our broken economic system. Let’s walk the talk. We urgently need systemic action, female leadership and courage to solve the most burning issues of our time.

Sapna Shah, president, Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN)

Think about the long term: One of the best pieces of advice I got was that you can have it all in work and in life, just not at the same time.

I try to make sure a job offers me meaning and learning, and then dive deep into what it has to offer and pick up as many skills and as much knowledge as possible. A single job will never offer me everything I want to learn and experience in my career, and owning that takes some pressure off of finding the “perfect” job.

Sapna Shah, president, the GIIN
Sapna Shah, GIIN

Listen to your inner voice: I’m a woman and also a woman of colour. It can be difficult personally to navigate the interplay of how these show up in a workplace — there are times when my ethnic identity is primary and times where my womanhood is primary, and it’s not always possible to know what part of your identity provoked a biased behaviour or statement.

What’s amazing is that over my career I’ve felt and seen a huge shift in expectations of treatment towards women and people of colour in the workplace. I feel much more empowered to act authentically and to give people the benefit of the doubt and talk to them about how a comment or action may have landed. Not only do I learn that way, but I form better relationships.

Contribute to change: The impact investing industry needs representation from diverse backgrounds beyond racial or gender identity, including different socioeconomic backgrounds, ways of thinking and prior work experience. Impact investing operates within the power dynamic of the financial industry with owners of wealth and recipients of how that wealth is used. We can use our roles to normalise that a woman of colour can work in this field on either side of that power dynamic, not just on the receiving end. You are a part of systemic change not just through your literal job but by the very fact that you hold that job.

Network: It’s old advice but it’s true. Seek connections especially with women and women of colour. Ask about what they experience in the workplace, for feedback on your work and about other topics like parental leave. For whatever reason there is pressure as women not to talk about our experiences and just fit in, but that’s never going to lift all boats.

Lisa Hehenberger, director, Esade Center for Social Impact 

My advice is targeted mainly at young women embarking on their careers and is based on my own experience, having reflected on the mistakes I have made in my own life and career.

Firstly, I would recommend young women to be strategic about their careers. That means conducting a thorough analysis of the different opportunities out there, identifying the skills and competences that you still need to build, and developing a network that you can leverage systematically. When you have done your homework, you will feel more confident and ready to take on any challenge.

Lisa Hehenberger
Lisa Hehenberger, Esade Center for Social Impact 

Secondly, I have always found it helpful to be able to reach out to more experienced women in the same field for support and advice. This is easier if there is a natural affinity in the form of an authentic friendship rather than a transactional relationship. It is important to invest time and effort into building deep relationships with a few people who might not offer you a job, but can help you through their wisdom. My mentors are all women who I admire and respect but also have great fun with.

Thirdly, I advise young women to be smarter about planning their family life. If you choose to have children, and are with a partner, make sure they share your values and aspirations and that you are clear from the beginning how you will distribute responsibilities. You might take turns in terms of whose career is a priority at different times in your children’s lives, but it cannot always be the case that your partner’s career comes first. Also, be more financially savvy and invest your money as soon as you can to build your own financial security.

Finally, I believe that impact investing is a great career choice for ambitious young women who are passionate about social and environmental issues and interested in developing a professional career that offers access to wise and willing mentors, where you will not be penalised for wanting to have a family as well!

Nora Bavey, general partner and co-founder, Unconventional Ventures

Beyond financial returns, impact investing presents a strategic avenue for promoting gender inclusion and equity on a global scale.

Picture this: impact investing as a catalyst for change, with a focus on women’s empowerment. By strategically allocating capital to businesses and initiatives that prioritise gender equality—whether it’s supporting female-led startups, championing workplace diversity, or funding projects that address gender-based barriers—impact investors can drive tangible social and economic progress.

Nora Bavey, Unconventional Ventures

However, navigating the landscape of gender-lens investing isn’t without its complexities. From assessing the true impact of investments to overcoming systemic biases in the financial sector, there are challenges that demand innovative solutions. How do we measure the effectiveness of gender-lens investments? How do we ensure that our efforts translate into meaningful change for women and girls around the world?

Yet, amidst these challenges lie opportunities for forward-thinking investors and entrepreneurs. The rise of gender-smart investing strategies, coupled with initiatives like the 2X Challenge, underscores a growing recognition of the pivotal role that finance can play in advancing gender equality. By aligning investment portfolios with gender-positive outcomes, investors not only drive social impact but also unlock new avenues for financial growth and innovation.

On this International Women’s Day, let us embrace the power of gender-lens investing to drive positive change. Let us leverage our resources, networks, and influence to create a more inclusive and equitable world for women and girls everywhere.

As readers and leaders in the business community, let’s make gender equality not just a priority but a cornerstone of our investment strategies. Together, we can redefine success in the world of finance and pave the way for a future where every woman has the opportunity to thrive and succeed.

Dimple Patel, CEO, NatureMetrics

My advice to female leaders is that it is essential to build a strong team around you. The climate and biodiversity space is challenging, complex, and constantly evolving.

Your team needs to be highly competent, creative, agile, and, most importantly, you need to be able to trust each and every one of them.

Dimple Patel
Dimple Patel, NatureMetrics

When building products in the sustainability and climate markets, it’s important to constantly remind yourself that nobody has all the answers! The solution space isn’t clearly defined yet, and there aren’t many giants whose shoulders you can stand on. You are as much of an underdog as everyone else – which should help you to remain objective when assessing the viability of your product. 

Additionally, these are new markets which are developing rapidly and closely linked to the regulatory space, which makes it a multi-stakeholder problem. But these stakeholders may have conflicting priorities and interests. It’s as much a human solution, as a technical one, as this will be key to adoption. I always urge female leaders to lean into this, fostering genuine relationships and using empathy to bring together stakeholders to deliver novel solutions. 

When it comes to funding and capital, my main advice is to choose carefully. It’s encouraging to see the growth of impact funds and increasing levels of investment into the climate space, although funding to female and minority groups remains disappointingly low – only 1.8% of VC capital went to female founded companies in 2023 in Europe.

From my experience, integrity is key – always ask yourself, will they (and more importantly, can they) help you to achieve your goals? Once onboard, it’s important to invest in your relationship with your investors, to ensure you’re fully aligned on the path forward.

Finally, be resilient! Setbacks are unavoidable, but often end up as crucial milestones. Be open to feedback, but don’t let it make you question yourself or your mission.

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