A recent article in the New York Times with the title 'It’s Payback Time for Women' caught my attention as I began my customary Sunday morning newspaper binge. Author Judith Shulevitz discussed the debate around Universal Basic Income (U.B.I.) which involves governments paying every adult citizen a fixed income on an annual basis.
The U.B.I. proposal comes from a welfare state perspective, and the argument against whether it's 'free income' creates disincentives for unemployed citizens to get back to work. The article laid out the feminist argument – that it would finally be a means to reimburse mothers and other caregivers (mostly women), for the work they do at home, caring for families and volunteering at non-profits and local organisations.What caught my attention was that the article’s title was clearly another call for action for women, even though women and girls were arguably not the obvious theme of the suggested policy. It's another sign that the focus on women and girls is no longer an isolated effort of women’s rights’ groups, affirmative action programs or academic researchers, but that it's acceptable and even expected that the other half of the population is centre-stage. Political issues not explicitly targeted at women can be viewed with a gender lens; there is a parallel with gender lens investing. Any investment, public or private, mainstream or impact, can also be seen through a gender lens and requires that women have an equal stake in our economic and social systems.
The notion of women having an equal stake in all aspects of society acquired new meaning for me when I relocated to India from the US seven years ago. I had grown up in India in an environment where gender parity in my own life was taken for granted, while the broader social questions affecting women including dowry, lack of education for girls, sexual abuse, maternal health, female infanticide and other issues were subjects we cared about deeply but didn’t address directly beyond student protests and volunteering at local NGOs. Having lived most of my adult life as a professional with children in New York, the debate around gender parity that struck home at the time concerned female representation in senior management at financial services firms, sexual harassment questions, work-life balance and additional maternity leave.
India is both addictive and shocking, and it brought back an acute awareness of the adversities that women face across societies. There was only one path for me – to use my experience to invest in organisations that have an impact on women and girls. My first investment was in a skill development company led by a female CEO that focused on men and women workers and subsequent investments have included a microfinance firm where women make up the bulk of the client base, additional training companies, and a rural distribution network. I invested with a gender lens without having read the research, and over the past three years have learned the state of the field by being a part of workshops, panel discussions at conferences, and engaging in dialogue on a regular basis with investors, enterprises and organisations globally.
The challenges of investing with a gender lens in India come from unexpected quarters. In private markets, businesses that have an impact on women are everywhere, and they are often managed by inspiring women and men. Investors however, are mostly men and they often view these businesses with a single, more traditional lens. My investment tagline is “it is not about excluding men, but including women”, and with that comes an implicit assumption that we need more women investors to work with men and steer the conversation as well as the investment strategy so that we can really help to change the lives of women and girls. The lack of consistent data and metrics is another pressing issue – in both private and public markets. Investors deploying capital in a sustainable fashion need to track performance across companies and sectors, and issues of transparency complicate the data problem.
I recently moved back to New York but continue to travel frequently between the US and India. I am working on setting up a US-based fund that will invest with a gender lens globally, although we will start with investments in India and the US. Women Effect is not simply an organisation; it is a movement and I am excited to be a part of a community that is committed to engagement on a global platform. Learning by doing and learning from others with common values is a forceful combination, and more voices translate to more power. Since 'It’s Payback Time for Women', we need more women and men on board to make it happen.
Reena Mithal is the Managing Partner of Sankhya Capital in New York, and an investor and mentor to women impact businesses in India. Previously, Reena spent over two decades in the financial services industry. She is currently also a faculty member at the Vedica Scholars Program for Women and is on the Women Effect Advisory Council.
Image credit: CC Roy Sinai