The following is a conversation between Mary Ellen Iskenderian, President & CEO, Women’s World Banking, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: Across the world, there remains a very considerable gap between men and women with regard to access to finance and technology. But women’s financial inclusion, in addition to improving their lot and that of their family, also has extraordinary benefits for her community, including improved water sanitation, better education, and better health. An organization that’s been at the forefront of this financial inclusion movement for some 40 years now is Women’s World Banking. It’s a pleasure to have with us tonight, their President and CEO, Mary Ellen Iskenderian. Good evening, Mary Ellen, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Mary Ellen: Thank you so much for having me.
Denver: Give us a snapshot of Women’s World Banking, your mission, and what the organization was created to do.
Mary Ellen: As you pointed out, we were created 40 years ago just at the early, early stages of the microfinancing movement. Women’s World Banking for all of those 40 years has really been focused on working with local financial institutions. Initially, those were microfinance banks for the most part…but working with those local institutions to make sure that they were providing not just loans, but savings accounts, insurance products, the whole range of financial products and services that low-income women in developing countries would really need to be secure… have security in their lives, but also to maximize their prosperity.
The really exciting thing I think about our evolution and where we are today is that there are many, many more players in this space today than just the microfinance institutions. So, today we’re partnering with cell phone companies and mainstream banks and retailers, fast-moving consumer goods companies. The way I think about it is, any institution, organization, or company that has a distribution channel into the life of a low-income woman in a developing country is a potential partner for us to work with to deliver her financial services.
…we’ll look at a product that is probably a good product and maybe is very popular with low-income men, or they’ve had some success, but it’s just not resonating with women, and we’ll look at whether that’s because the onboarding process doesn’t make sense, the marketing doesn’t make sense, or whether the things that the product can do just aren’t things that women need it for.
Denver: How would you describe your role in this larger ecosystem, as you’re trying to get these low-income women in developing countries to connect with the financial institution? What role… what exactly do you do?
Mary Ellen: Our major role is as a connector, I guess you’d say, in a couple of senses. We have three main lines of business. The first is, there’s a very strong correlation between gender diversity in the management and the governance of a financial service provider, and that organization’s outreach to women clients. So, we have a very long, well-established training program that we provide to senior executives and high-potential women. They come into the program together… our academic partner is the Wharton of School of Business– and they go through nine months of training together on why gender diversity is important, why financial inclusion is important, why women are great customers; but they’re also working together on what we call a strategic business initiative.
So, they’re looking at something that will either increase their outreach to women clients or the number of women clients, and I think that’s really where we’ve seen some really exciting outcomes…when these senior executives– who tend to be more men than women– and the high-potential women joining together to solve a common problem. We’re very excited. First week of April, we’re going to be rolling out a very similar program. There our academic partner will be Oxford University for financial regulators – insurance regulators, central bank governors– because there’s very little understanding of the importance of gender diversity, let alone gender diversity itself in the institutions that are doing this regulation. So, that’s one line of business.
The second is the one I think we’re probably best known for where we’ll go into a financial institution, and we’ll either look… and I’d say this is turning out to be the biggest line of business right now… is we’ll look at a product that is probably a good product and maybe is very popular with low-income men, or they’ve had some success, but it’s just not resonating with women, and we’ll look at whether that’s because the onboarding process doesn’t make sense, the marketing doesn’t make sense, or whether the things that the product can do just aren’t things that women need it for. We’ve got examples of all of those things. So that acting as that interlocutor, telling the organization what it is they need to be doing, changing, tweaking very often; sometimes it’s not a very big change.
Then the third line of business, and I know we’ll talk about this a little bit later, is we’ve become an investor in these financial institutions, and we’ve just found that the impact you can have as a shareholder, as a board member… really sitting inside a company is turning out to be far greater than what we are able to have, even just as a consultant or an advisor to that organization.
The official number of excluded people is just at 2 billion. Of that, the number of women is about 1.1 billion. At the risk of getting a little nuanced here, what that number really refers to is only whether or not you have a bank account in your own name. It doesn’t say anything about whether you’re using that bank account, whether you have any services that you really need from that bank account. It just means you have an account in your name.
Denver: How many people in the world are excluded from the formal financial system, and of those, how many of them are women?
Mary Ellen: The official number of excluded people is just at 2 billion. Of that, the number of women is about 1.1 billion. At the risk of getting a little nuanced here, what that number really refers to is only whether or not you have a bank account in your own name. It doesn’t say anything about whether you’re using that bank account, whether you have any services that you really need from that bank account. It just means you have an account in your name. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is there’s been a dramatic improvement, and really there’s been tremendous change. In the last three years alone, well over half a billion new accounts have been opened, but they’re not being used, and that’s really where the game is shifting, and where I think Women’s World Banking’s role is taking on particular importance.
… low-income men and women both face significant barriers that are often very similar. It’s just they seem to hit women even harder.
One of the single greatest issues, not in just getting access to finance, but getting access to the formal economy more broadly, is lack of identification. Does the woman or the man have anything that he or she can demonstrate that he is who he says he is, or she is who she says she is?
Those issues can really be compounded for women. In many countries, girls births aren’t even recorded. In Bangladesh, they made a huge step forward about 18 months ago because you were required to have a birth certificate in order to get a SIM card for your cell phone, and women’s births aren’t recorded. There aren’t birth certificates for girls. So right out of the gate, a woman was going to be denied that access.
Denver: Do women face any unique barriers that men don’t face in terms of getting included in the financial system?
Mary Ellen: Interesting that you use the word “unique” because our experience is that low-income men and women both face significant barriers that are often very similar. It’s just they seem to hit women even harder. One of the single greatest issues, not only in just getting access to finance, but getting access to the formal economy more broadly, is lack of identification. Does the woman or the man have anything that he or she can demonstrate that he is who he says he is, or she is who she says she is?
Those issues can really be compounded for women. In many countries, girls births aren’t even recorded. In Bangladesh, they made a huge step forward about 18 months ago because you were required to have a birth certificate in order to get a SIM card for your cell phone, and women’s births aren’t recorded. There aren’t birth certificates for girls. So right out of the gate, a woman was going to be denied that access. The government of Bangladesh has changed that requirement, but that issue of identity is just huge for women.
Denver: No access to government services, getting to school, all those things we take for granted…just don’t exist.
Mary Ellen: Because you just can’t prove who you are.
If there were a unique aspect, it would probably be some cultural and social norms that, again, hit women harder than they might for men. In many countries, their mobility outside of the home is constrained. Even the owning of a cell phone is suspect. Is it going to be… Can she be contacted by another man? Her husband might be reluctant to let her have that access. Getting past those cultural issues can often be difficult for women.
There’s a dramatic impact on the welfare of the people in that household if the woman has more say and more control over the financial resources.
Denver: What happens to a woman when she gains control over her own finances?
Mary Ellen: It truly is transformative. This is really the exciting part. There is just a whole wealth of evidence that shows that a household that has a woman with more control over their resources, either by virtue of her bringing more income in–or if there’s a government payment that’s coming directly to her, and she has some say over how that gets spent– is just a healthier, better-fed, and better-educated household. There’s a dramatic impact on the welfare of the people in that household if the woman has more say and more control over the financial resources.
Denver: Is there a relationship between domestic violence against women and self-sustainability on the part of the woman?
Mary Ellen: I’m so glad you asked that question because it’s really one of the saddest and knottiest issues that we see in the relationship between physical security and financial security is so strong. The research is actually a little contradictory in a sense, but what it appears is that if a woman is living in a country where culturally she can get out of a marriage that’s a violent one, having more financial resources in her own name is undeniably a positive thing. It can play both ways, however, if she is in a more traditional culture, or one where she would be terribly ostracized from society if she were to leave the marital home… Then, having more income, having more control over resources can often increase violence.
We see a pretty clear pattern in the microfinance world where when a woman first becomes a borrower, unfortunately, we often see a spike in domestic violence where the woman is more susceptible to intimate partner violence. But then, we also happily see a pretty consistent pattern that once her partner sees… two things. One, there’s more income in the household. People are breathing a little bit easier. The month-to-month is a little bit less stressful, and when he recognizes that he’s not the only one in the village or the town that’s allowing “his wife” to… those two things seem to really reduce the level of domestic violence below where it might have been before.
One more quick thing that I always find absolutely fascinating: the data also clearly shows us that the single silver bullet, if there were one, is around property rights– making sure that the woman’s name is on the title to whatever property they’re farming or they’re owning, or the man and wife are sharing, is almost a guarantee that he’s going to have to deal with her.
Denver: They’re partners!
So, I’m a banker; I’m dealing with a woman in this developing world right now, and I want to get her business. What are the most important considerations for her as I try to get her business?
Mary Ellen: That’s a great question. We see that… I always find it amazing that bankers don’t just ask the women and don’t listen to the women about what they want. They’re usually pretty clear. We found though that there are a couple of signature things that if you don’t have in a financial product, a woman is just not going to listen to you. One is really convenience. You’ve got to make it really easy and indeed to the extent that you can bring it to her, which is why we are so excited about cell phone banking. Their bank is literally in your hand. If you can bring that product to her, she’s going to like it a whole lot more. She also needs to know that she’s physically secure. She’s not going to be at greater risk of physical security by carrying around a lot of cash or being exposed in any way. But I think the one very salient point that is… we see much more with women than with men… is confidentiality. Women really don’t necessarily want their husbands or their fathers or even their neighbors to know that they’re saving, or what they might be saving towards. Being able to keep that to themselves is a really important factor in their decision to choose a product or not.
Denver: Is it true that women demand a lot more information before making a financial decision?
Mary Ellen: It’s true. They take a lot longer. That’s true really everywhere. Fidelity has done some studies here in the United States on just how much longer and how much information a woman needs to feel comfortable, to establish trust with the financial service provider, before she signs her name on the dotted line.
Denver: But they’re great customers, once they do.
Mary Ellen: They’re very loyal customers. That’s the big payoff. You’re absolutely right. Women are more loyal customers. It’s very… there are some really fun data around net promoter scores, around women will be much more likely to recommend a financial service provider that she trusts than a man would. But boy, is she going to talk about service that she’s not happy with, much more so than men will, as well!
We were finding that women were saving 10% to 15% of monthly income. That’s a lot of money being saved when you don’t have a lot of money coming in, purely in the case of health emergencies, just to make sure that they wouldn’t be drawn right back into poverty if a family member got sick. We also saw that women were always going to de-prioritize their own health, except in the case of pregnancy.
Denver: That sounds like a double-edged sword to me. You better service her well. We talked a little bit about the suite of products women need, and so much of it is a bank account people think about, but it’s gotten way beyond that. Talk about what that suite exists of, what products women are availing themselves of.
Mary Ellen: The microfinance movement really centered itself around credit, and often credit for informal enterprises–businesses that might be home-based, or only have the woman and maybe her spouse or one or two employees, but really weren’t formal businesses. We started to see where women would really be drawn into the formal sector was the ability to have a safe place to save. We see all around the world that women have a much greater… if the economists were here, their jargon is… “propensity to save” than men do, and are usually doing it in the mattress or in little envelopes that they hide around the house… which, if we would go back to those three issues that we know the women really look to see in a product, isn’t really very secure. So, we’ve seen women really make a shift into the formal financial sector if she can be guaranteed that safe place to save.
The third thing that’s been added to the tripod that Women’s World Banking has been very excited about providing to women is insurance. A few years ago we very successfully launched a very simple product that we’ve called the “Caregiver.” So that a woman, because we were finding a couple of things… We were finding that women were saving 10% to 15% of monthly income. That’s a lot of money being saved when you don’t have a lot of money coming in, purely in the case of health emergencies, just to make sure that they wouldn’t be drawn right back into poverty if a family member got sick. We also saw that women were always willing to de-prioritize their own health, except in the case of pregnancy. During pregnancy, a woman will make sure that she’s being healthy.
So, we designed a product that could take care of health emergencies, had to cover maternal health as well, and that would provide a woman with basically a per diem that was equal to a day’s wage essentially in the event that she or a family member had to have a hospital stay. And it’s really been tremendously successful. We’ve rolled it out now in six different countries. What we find really fascinating is that cash payment, that per diem, is tremendously needed and well-received by women across different countries, but what it’s used for is really different. In Uganda for example, the ability to pay for transportation to the healthcare facility is literally the deciding factor on whether or not you will go to the hospital or not. So, we saw that cash payment being used to guarantee transport.
In Egypt, the cost of… there was government health insurance for the hospital stay, but it didn’t cover prescription drugs and the cost of prescription drugs, like here… here in the States, is really prohibitive. So we saw a lot of that cash payment going not for the hospital stay, but to make sure that the drugs that they went home with could be paid for.
The role of cell phone technology and digital financial services in reaching previously excluded people cannot be overestimated. It has completely changed the conversation. it has made all of the things that we’re talking about here today solvable problems, and I have absolute confidence that we will be reaching those 2 billion people who currently don’t have access, and they will largely be reached through digital technology.
The cell phone has dramatically made it more efficient to service that customer, but that face-to-face interaction can’t be forgotten.
Denver: Very interesting. You mentioned cell phones before, so let’s talk a little bit about the role of technology in advancing you work, and what you do to create a balance between that technology and that all-important human interaction that’s needed to engage these women? Talk about that.
Mary Ellen: The role of cell phone technology and digital financial services in reaching previously excluded people cannot be overestimated. It has completely changed the conversation. it has made all of the things that we’re talking about here today solvable problems, and I have absolute confidence that we will be reaching those 2 billion people who currently don’t have access, and they will largely be reached through digital technology.
But what we’re also seeing is that it’s not just… you hand somebody a cell phone, and they understand it immediately. You’ve got to make sure that there is not only financial education, but then digital education, so that both men and women understand how the phone gets used and what it is best used for. Unfortunately, we have about 300 million fewer phones owned by women than by men. Literally, just access to the technology– because remembering that confidentiality issue– a woman may be very happy sharing a phone to make a phone call or get weather information if she’s got crops, but she’s very clear with us. She is not going to bank on a phone that she shares with another family member. So getting something again that she controls and that she can keep private is really critical.
But part of that whole education process we’re learning is to balance the human interaction. Just have a minute for a quick story; one of our most exciting, and I think most successful, interactions was with a large bank in Nigeria that wanted to make their first foray. They were the fourth largest corporate bank in Nigeria. They had not built much of a retail presence. They recognized that the 56% of the Nigerian population that weren’t banked were probably where their future was, but that they wanted to do it digitally. So, they brought us in to help design a very simple transactional savings account, and we built… it could be accessed by your cell phone. It could be accessed at an ATM. Very, very easy access. But we built this group of people; the name of the account was called BETA. We built this group of people who went around to the different clients. It was mostly for shopkeepers in these large, open-air bazaars that you see all over Nigeria, that were called “BETA friends.”
Our idea for this was that they would provide basic information about setting up the account and a little financial education about how the account actually worked. Flash forward a few years, we see fully 69% of all of the deposits made through that account are made from that face-to-face interaction with the BETA friend who goes around to the businesses. We’ve had both men and women say to us, “I feel an obligation. This person is coming to my business. If I don’t have a deposit for him or her, I feel I’m letting them down.” They become really part of that person’s life, and there’s a real resonance between those two individuals. The cell phone has dramatically made it more efficient to service that customer, but that face-to-face interaction can’t be forgotten.
Denver: It’s interesting. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate what your organization does in terms of focusing on the impact on the bank. We always think of the women and the family and the community, but you really have to have the banks involved in a very self-enlightened way. You’ve worked very hard at that.
Mary Ellen: That’s probably the hardest nut to crack. We found that you’ve got to have a bank or a cell phone company… or whoever will work with it… at least acknowledged that financial inclusion might be an important thing. In the case of the cell phone companies, they are all about increasing subscribers. So, if I can say to them, you are dramatically under-reaching 50% of your population that you could be going after, that gets their attention. So, you’ve got to be able to present a business case to them but understand where their business case is coming from. One of the things that we’re saying to a lot of banks today is where there has been this big government push towards financial inclusion, all these accounts have been opened up, and then they’re just lying dormant. It’s super expensive for a bank to leave a bank account unused. So, we can make the case for… we can get that account, we can turn that account to an active account. Not only stop the hemorrhaging from losing money, but actually have you making money with that account.
Denver: Another good story took place in Pakistan when you were looking to deliver banking services to low-income women in rural Pakistan, and this was no easy task. Tell me how you were able to crack that nut.
Mary Ellen: That’s a great example of so many of the things that we’ve talked about. So, there was the largest cell phone provider in Pakistan. It’s a company that recently changed its name. Its name is now Jazz. They had what’s called a mobile wallet called JazzCash which allows you to perform a whole series of financial services just directly on your cell phone. I’m convinced the reason they even looked at this number is because their chief digital officer was a woman. She looked and saw that only 12% of their clients were women. She actually asked us to come in, thinking she needed a woman’s product. But when we took another look at the data, the women, that 12%, were using or using exactly the same products that men were using, at exactly the same volumes. They were absolutely as profitable as the men were.
Their problem is that the way their main acquisition channel, the way you are onboarded as a customer of JazzCash was through a nationwide network of agents. These are largely mom and pop, but really pop shops around the country, where you would go and open an account. As I alluded, 95% of these agents of Jazz around the country were men, and if the intrepid Pakistani woman went into a shop which really started to rub up against some of the cultural and social norms in Pakistan, if she went into the shop, she then had to give that man her cell phone number. That’s not going to happen.
So, where we looked at working with Jazz was to partner with Unilever, who had already established this nationwide network of women shopkeepers who were selling all of the Unilever products. They had done an excellent job in picking highly respected women in the community already and trusted women in the community. So we trained them to be agents for JazzCash. It was a significant additional source of monthly revenue for that woman shopkeeper. She was already a trusted person in the village, so both the woman and her husband was comfortable with her, engaging with her, doing business with her. Jazz has not only increased its number of women agents; it’s gone up by 49%, but the number of women who are actively transacting on the JazzCash platform has really skyrocketed. So, it’s been so far a real win, win, win for everybody.
Denver: It always makes sense to plug into those established lines of communication instead of recreating the wheel. It really makes an awful lot of sense. You mentioned a while back about this impact investing fund. I know you set it up a couple of years ago. I think it was $50 million. Give us an update on that and some of the things it’s been able to achieve.
Mary Ellen: The fund really came out of this intellectual, this research that we had done about seven or eight years ago. We had tracked what happened when a microfinance institution decided to move from being a nonprofit entity to becoming a fully-fledged bank. We looked at a pretty robust sample size, about 39 institutions. Unfortunately, we saw that from the start of when they were going through this process of becoming banks, they went from an average 86% women clients to four years later, an average of 59% women clients. What happened in leadership and governance and the staff was a bloodbath. There was this almost across the board, all of them had been run by incredibly talented women, but somehow when you became a bank, you had to have a male CEO. You had to have a male chairman of the board. We’d done this piece of research. We were shocked that it turned out to be as bad as it did.
So, we thought, we should be that investor that says, “No, after you bring in outside capital, after you make that change from nonprofit to for profit, you should stay with the women clients and the staff and diversity structure that got you there. That got you that great success. Out of that, our $50 million Women’s World Banking Capital Partners was born. We have deployed that full amount; our investment period ended this past June; we’ve made 10 investments. I am absolutely delighted to tell you that on average, we’ve had a 46% increase in women clients in all of our investees since the date of our investment. Each one of our investees leads their market in terms of gender diversity. I think we’ve done a really good job in not just being the only voice for gender diversity, but making sure that all the shareholders who are investing alongside us are united, and making sure management understands the importance of this.
Our favorite story of the moment is, there’s a wonderful bank in Bolivia that we became a shareholder in. They were terrific; 84% of their clients were women. They were really doing well, but their internal diversity was pretty bad. We set some pretty firm targets when we invested three years ago. Management kept missing the targets. So, the compensation committee of the board where Women’s World Banking does not sit or not represented there, they said, “Alright, let’s take this seriously.” And they tied the CEO’s bonus to his ability to hit those diversity targets. He got his bonus in 2018. He hit those targets. It can really, really work. But I think we can’t be the only people in the room who are making that case.
Denver: All this wonderful work you do doesn’t happen by magic. Who are some of your partners and financial supporters that make it possible?
Mary Ellen: That’s always a great question to answer. We’ve been so fortunate over the years to have the support of some European… currently we’ve also got Australia, so European and Australian governments who fund all of our work. There are important core funders currently, Sweden and Australia provide support for our entire strategic plan, but we have important support from Germany, from the UK, from a lot of other European governments. We were absolutely delighted in October 2017 to receive a very significant grant from Visa Foundation. We were the inaugural grant of their newly formed foundation. It was a real game changer for us. We’ve also… what we do is very clearly understood I think by a lot of banks and financial service providers, so they’ve often been quite supportive of the work that we’re doing as well.
I think if you don’t communicate, and you leave a vacuum, people start to fill in the blanks, and they typically fill them in with the worst possible scenarios.
Denver: You know I’ve heard such wonderful things about your corporate culture. Tell us a little bit about it and what you do to shape and influence it, and what you believe makes it such a special place in which to work.
Mary Ellen: That’s wonderful that you’re hearing that because I think the overarching thing I’d say about our culture is that people bring a huge sense of passion and responsibility for the lives of the women that they’re trying to help, and they’re trying to give a voice to. I think that really shapes why they’re there and how they act together. I have to say, right now, we’re in a really important inflexion point, some of it motivated by that large Visa grant, because we really had to start thinking in larger terms than we had before.
We also wanted to really start acting more at scale. We have a real history of making tremendous change at an individual institution level, but we’ve still got a billion unbanked women… probably closer to 2 billion if you think about under-banked, and not getting all of the services they need. So we really needed to start working more at a systemic level, at a market level, and it’s been fascinating over the course of the last year as we put that strategy in place… how important change management has been.
And I think that’s where my leadership team and I are really focused right now… is making sure that as we shift from what was a very successful strategy, but just trying to make a bigger impact, we’re very clear to everyone in the organization what the impact on them is and why we’re doing this, and where they fit into that puzzle. I think if you don’t communicate, and you leave a vacuum, people start to fill in the blanks, and they typically fill them in with the worst possible scenarios.
…it was even harder to communicate: This is what we’re keeping; this is what is not changing. This is what is still absolutely going forward. I do think the one thing that I think everyone grasps is that the mission– serving low-income women– will not budge, will not change. And that’s absolutely the core of who we are.
Denver: That’s why you need transparency. It does sound like whatever has gotten you here is not going to get you there. And I also think it’s important…I’d like to get your thinking on this as well, is that it’s important for people to know what’s going to stay the same… because I think in change management, everybody’s focused on what’s going to change, but a lot of what you’re doing is going to remain the same. And if you can anchor them in that, it’s easier for them then to adapt to the change that’s going to be coming down the pike.
Mary Ellen: That is such an insightful comment. In some ways, that may even have been harder. People… we had a very inclusive strategy development process. A lot of people in the organization bought into it. So, they saw the change, but I think it was even harder. You’re spot on; it was even harder to communicate: This is what we’re keeping; this is what is not changing. This is what is still absolutely going forward. I do think, the one thing that I think everyone grasps is that the mission– serving low-income women– will not budge, will not change. And that’s absolutely the core of who we are.
Denver: You mentioned earlier that you will be celebrating or are celebrating your 40th anniversary, and you’re going to commemorate that in an event here in New York on April 4th. Tell us about that.
Mary Ellen: Thank you so much for bringing it up. This is our 40th anniversary. We are actually one of fewer organizations that I’d realized that have been focused on women’s economic empowerment that are still around and perhaps even flourishing, and even more relevant than when we were first created. We’ll be celebrating all year long at events in different parts of the world because we are a global organization, but our home base is here in New York. We’re absolutely thrilled, April 4th, from 6 to 9 at the IAC Building. If there’s any interest in tickets, please go online to womensworldbanking.org. It’s the first thing that pops up when you go on the website. It’s going to be… I think it’s going to be a wonderful party with many of our original partners. We really wanted to make it about saying: Thank you… acknowledging all of the people who helped us get where we are today.
Denver: Let me close with this Mary Ellen. At the end of the day, this all comes down to helping one woman, one family at a time. Share with us the story of one that you’ve had the pleasure of meeting and what the work of Women’s World Banking has meant to her and her family.
Mary Ellen: The story that I always go back to because it had such an impact on my own life… I came to Women’s World Banking after a long career at the World Bank. I thought I had been doing development for many, many years, but really saw upon coming to Women’s World Banking what the lives of the people that we were working with on the ground really looked like.
A woman that I met on my first trip to Africa with Women’s World Banking, Joyce Wafukho, is the story I return to time and again. Joyce is a client still to this day of Kenya Women’s Finance, which is one of our longest and oldest partners. The iconic chair of that organization will be at our April 4th event. Joyce was living in a small town outside of Mombasa in Kenya. Her husband had had really no luck in putting a job together and had gone to the city, had gone to Mombasa to become a police officer. He was sending money home, but really not enough for Joyce and their kids to live on. She really needed a business but wasn’t sure exactly what to do. But she noticed how many of her neighbors were constantly upgrading and refurbishing their homes. There was nothing remotely like a hardware store in the village or anywhere near it. So, she thought that would be a good business to go into.
I only saw a picture of what her original business was, but it literally was a shack on the side of the road. It had a couple of used two-by-fours, some nails, some eggs and some tomatoes. Not the Home Depot that we’re all familiar with! I was meeting her, standing in her business seven years later. It was a beautiful store that had all sorts of workmen coming and going. She had managed to get a loan from Kenya Women’s. She had gotten some financial training. The original loan was only $70. No other bank would think about lending to her. She would have exhausted all of her friends and family and their savings but if she really wanted to grow her business. Kenya Women’s made her her first loan. She had a savings account with them.
She was very, very proud of the fact that she now had 25 employees in this business and that her 26th employee, her husband, had just come back to open a sideline business, a lumber yard out behind the main store. What I think the thing that just stays in my mind from that conversation that I’ve never forgotten is that I sort of went into banker mode and started asking her about: How much does this cost? And what is her profitability on these different businesses? And how much was she going to invest in the lumber yard? And she could totally answer all those questions. But it was very clear very quickly that the things that she thought of as marking her success, and why she did what she did, and why this was important to her were the fact that all of her children had gone through secondary education. She had put her younger sister through graduate education. All of them were in good health, had three healthy square meals a day. It was really the thing that made the difference for her was not only the growth of business. She was absolutely a proud entrepreneur. But it was what she was able to do for her family and her community that really mattered, and that made such an impact on me and has really been borne out by women all over the world.
Denver: Not to mention her sense of self-worth. Mary Ellen Iskenderian, the president and CEO of Women’s World Banking, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. Tell us about your website, what listeners will find there in addition to the April 4th event, and how they can get involved.
Mary Ellen: It’s very simple. It’s www.womensworldbanking.org. There you’ll find we have a very popular blog that both our staff and guest writers participate in, all of our latest research, some great photography that our team loves to post. All the latest information on what’s going on in the world of women’s financial inclusion, and why it’s such an important ingredient to women’s ultimate empowerment.
Denver: Thanks Mary Ellen. It was a delight to have you on the program.
Mary Ellen: Thank you so much for having me.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.