Making women's economic contributions to their communities visible

What if you were never asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” When I was younger, I wasn’t aware that people had different expectations of girls and boys. My parents wanted me to get good grades and have a career. They never asked, “When will you get married? How many children will you have?” Instead they asked, “What are you thinking about” And “What interests you?” I followed my interests – sometimes circuitously – to graduate school for international development, the World Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, consulting, business school and eventually the New York Fed – free of the constraints of societal or familial pressures that so many women around the world face.

When I came to Oxfam, I began to see things differently. The doors that so easily opened for me – largely because of the zip code of my birth – were either shut or perhaps not even visible to others. Education, mentors, books, contacts, encouragement – these were all assets that I’d taken for granted. It killed me that the world was so full of people with incredible talent and drive who were routinely set back, minimized or unacknowledged largely because of their gender or the color of their skin.

Making the invisible visible

At Oxfam, we set about developing an initiative known as Women in Small Enterprise or WISE. The objective of WISE is to support the revaluing of women’s economic contributions. We seek to demonstrate how women – especially indigenous women – are already contributing meaningfully to their economies as producers, suppliers and employers, but their contributions are going uncelebrated. We call this “making the invisible visible.” For those women, who are running their own small businesses, generating employment and supporting their families, we want to elevate their accomplishments. At the same time, the WISE initiative tries to make the road a bit easier for those women – through access to business training, coaching, peer networking, and financial links.

I worked in finance and felt confident that the impact investors could be part of the solution. There is a rising tide of interest in gender lens investing that invites investors to create economies that re-value women and their contributions. Furthermore, we knew that tackling a problem as big as women’s economic marginalization requires a systemic approach involving multi-sectorial partnerships that bring together the unique skills sets and resources of the financial sector, non-profits and academia. Oxfam would play its traditional convening role and use its platform as a global advocacy powerhouse to trumpet the voices of the entrepreneurs to change the paradigm of what a successful entrepreneur looks like.

Incentivising investment in women

We went on to raise Oxfam America’s first ever impact investing fund in support of a pilot that we launched in 2014 in Guatemala. Fund capital is used to provide a partial guaranty to local financial institutions to incentivize increased lending to women-run businesses. This financial access component is paired with coaching and peer-to-peer learning opportunities (supported by separate grant funding) for the women participating in the program provided by our local partner organization, IDEA. The training weaves together business skills with themes of empowerment and agency. The very first training session helps women define their “life plan.” It asks – “What do you want to do?” to women who may never have been afforded the luxury of answering this question.

Take Elvira Yolanda Ralda Vasquez, owner of Marranería Centenario. When Elvira’s father retired he entrusted the business to his sons. The sons proved haphazard leaders, periodically leaving the business to work in the US. During these times, management passed to Elvira. The business prospered under Elvira’s leadership but when the sons returned from the US, the business would suffer when they again assumed management responsibility. In October 2015, Elvira’s father attended the WISE graduation ceremony. Elvira won the business competition that is held at the WISE graduation and her father, so impressed by her hard work and excellent reputation among her peers, formally transferred business ownership to Elvira. WISE gave Elvira a platform to “make the invisible visible” – she was the person best suited to run Marranería Centenario all along.

What can investors do?

What can socially responsible investors do to hasten this change? Applying a gender lens to your portfolio is a great way to start. Veris Weath Partners piece “Women, Wealth & Impact” is a veritable how to guide to do just that. If your impact focus is clean energy or animal welfare, a “gender lens” may feel unattainable but it’s not. Have you ever considered the number of women executives in the firms in which you invest? Have you asked investees about their maternity or paternity policies? When you select the imagery you use to highlight your successes, do you think about how your communications products can be used as a platform to say women are credible leaders? You, wherever you sit and whoever you are, have access to some resource that can make a difference in how women are seen and how they see themselves. It is critical to “make the invisible visible.” As Marian Wright Edelman has written, “It’s hard to be what you cannot see.”

What if you were never asked what you want to do? What if no one ever encouraged you to pursue your interests? Worse still, what if you were told that your dreams were impossible because your gender dictates inescapable responsibilities such as caring for children, parents and the home. And what if you went against the odds and pursued your professional path, and as a result neighbors gossiped, your husband was frustrated and you risked both your reputation and your safety on public transport. Would you do it? I know I wouldn’t. It is for those women brave enough to assume roles outside of what is expected for whom WISE was created.

Mara Bolis is senior advisor, Private Sector Department, Oxfam America ( She has over 15 years of experience working in the fields of international development, emerging markets finance and business. Mara is the global lead on the Women in Small Enterprise initiative, which includes Oxfam America’s first impact investing fund that focuses on women entrepreneurs in Latin America.

This article was originally published at Green Money Journal