By Suzanne Biegel, Investment Director, SPRING, and Founder/Chief Catalyst, Women Effect
On this 2016 International Women's Day, it pays to reflect on the global partnership efforts achieved since 1975 – the International Women's Year, when the United Nations (UN) officially started to commemorate the accomplishments towards women's empowerment and gender equality. The theme set by the UN this year, “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality,” is yet another strong reminder that women and girls are not a segment or a niche group of our society, but equate to half of the world's population, and play a critical role in the world economy. Many would be familiar with diverse studies conducted by development institutions, governments and foundations which demonstrate that investing in women and girls has the highest untapped return.
Impact investors are starting to see girl-centered innovation as a smart bet - delivering returns not only to the girls but also to the companies, their social/environmental objectives, and to society. Investing with a gender lens(es) has surfaced as a paradigm shift in our thinking about how to bridge the “smart thing to do” market logic of financial returns, with “the right thing to do” of gender-equality. And as there are significant market needs and opportunities in areas such as health, financial inclusion, access to quality education, food security, access to energy, and more, placing a gender lens on investment can help us to recognize the value of girls and women in every picture. Investing in girls today means those girls can grow to be their own agents of change, as scientists, business leaders, teachers, technologists – who will solve their societies problems tomorrow.
However, despite the the growing recognition of the central role of women and girls, and the explicit focus of many gender or sector development programmes, this 50 percent of the world often ends up being underserved by classic development or pure market approaches. What needs to change? Collaborative innovation and diverse partnerships are likely the answer: the idea of creating more opportunities and reducing the risks, by designing products and services that empower women and adolescent girls, by building multi-stakeholder, inter-disciplinary models of change.
Take for example SPRING - a programme born from the conviction that smart money would find business ventures that recognize the hidden, underserved market in assets for adolescent girls, and which understand that any investment would yield a far greater return for society. It is an innovative partnership between three founding donors, UK Department for International Development, Nike Foundation and USAID – with additional strategic support from Girl Effect – who have pooled their ideas, expertise and resources together to try something very different to address gender opportunities. SPRING brings together gender expertise, human-centered design, business know-how, and investment readiness in one package.
An interdisciplinary consortium with girl, investment, and human-centred design knowledge, the SPRING consortium delivers SPRING Accelerator - a nine-month programme for high-potential businesses to build market-oriented prototypes of products or services that will change the future for girls, attract investors, and bring their businesses to market. Private sector companies innovating for girl-focussed products and services brings the best of the private sector and public sector together to solve for development challenges, and opportunities.
SPRING Accelerator’s participants will eventually be more than 75 businesses by 2019, impacting the lives of 200,000 girls. Businesses are selected for their interest in using human-centred design to better serve the needs of girls, uncover market opportunity, and attract impact investor interest, all through a nine-month cohort that balances intensive learning and research, with local operationalization of prototypes into new products, services and business models. The current 18 companies from the first cohort in East Africa span across different sectors such as health, education, agriculture, and finance, and there are 20 planned for the upcoming cohort in South Asia launching in April 2016.
Those of you following the gender and/or impact investment discussions would no doubt be familiar with the oft-recognized need for more data. Metrics are important not only in creating incentives but also for tracking results and monitoring progress, showing the real impact on the ground. SPRING is targeted to deliver not only girl impact and investment, but a robust, data-backed evidence base about what works (or doesn’t) for girls to businesses, investors, public sector, and development actors.
SPRING's impact goes well beyond the cohort duration, as businesses benefit from linkages with corporates, public sector actors, philanthropists, and investors who can continue to bring them to scale on both the commercial and girls impact front. These ventures are partnering with multinationals, relief agencies, public sector clients, and other entrepreneurs. In fact, current investor feedback is that this novel approach equips businesses with skills that they will use in perpetuity, and which they first demonstrate to bring ground-breaking products and services for girls to market.
So, on this 2016 International Women's Day, think about girls and young women as customers and beneficiaries, but also as managers, micro-franchisees, sales agents, and producers of goods and services that make sense to them. Think about the types of cross-sector partnerships that can come from the desire of diverse actors to tap into innovation, new markets, new products, and customer insights. See girls and women differently. See them thrive. And see the potential that could be unleashed.
Suzanne Biegel (@zanne2) is the Investment Director of SPRING and Founder/Chief Catalyst of Women Effect.
SPRING is a business accelerator with a focus on ventures that help girls learn, earn, keep safe, and have secure ways to enhance savings. Find out more about us at www.springaccelerator.org.