International Women's Day is a day to reflect on how far we have come toward equal opportunity for women, and how far we still have to go. Equal opportunity is critically important for women themselves - reason enough to aspire to it - but it is also important for our economic system, our environment, and for peace.

Bringing women around the globe out of poverty and into the economic system as earners means we bring them in as consumers too, expanding overall well-being. Muhammad Yunus made this clear when his Grameen Bank, focusing on micro-lending to women in Bangladesh, created a virtuous cycle, with the diligence of the female borrowers lifting their families' earnings and improving economic conditions all around them. Grameen's work was rewarded with a Nobel Peace Prize; the Nobel Committee made a connection between bringing people out of poverty and peace. Peace doesn't come solely from the absence of poverty, but communities are more likely to live in peace when basic needs are met.

Andrea Jung, President and CEO of Grameen America, works to apply the Yunus model in low-income areas in the U.S. "By investing in women, we are investing in their families and communities," she says. "Research proves that investing in women has a multiplier effect. Women are an investment vehicle for their family and communities."

Grameen America has released the early results of a study of the impact of its micro-lending, compared with the finances of a control group that received no Grameen loans. More than 94 percent of loan recipients, women who borrow in groups and are accountable to their peers, reported that their financial situation was better than it was the previous year. This was 13% more than the control group. Women who have borrowed from Grameen both in the U.S. and in the developing world have been highly likely to pay back their loans, along with growing their local economies.

Women aren't just good at paying their debts. Project Drawdown, a comprehensive plan to reduce global warming, lists "Educating Girls" along with "Family Planning" among its top 10 solutions. Along with other benefits, educating girls "shores up resilience and equips girls and women to face the impacts of climate change," explains the project's website. Educated women "can be more effective stewards of food, soil, trees, and water, even as nature's cycles change. They have greater capacity to cope with shocks from natural disasters and extreme weather events." Climate degradation contributes to poverty and to conflict; the three are interwoven and therefore solutions can affect the whole system: environmental, economic and social.

Big businesses have taken note and are investing in women. Salesforce, AT&T and others have partnered with Girls Who Code, a nonprofit aiming to get more women into computer science. Intel has a program called "She Will Connect" to build digital literacy skills and help women get into the workplace, pursue further education, or become entrepreneurs.

Mastercard makes inclusive growth a cornerstone of its corporate citizenship. "Building a more inclusive and sustainable world is essential to the future success of our business," Shamina Singh, Mastercard's executive vice president of sustainability, recently said in an interview with womendeliver.org. "Closing the gender gap in women's workforce participation is one of the clearest paths to inclusive growth. If we closed the gap by 2025, we could add more than $12 billion to the global economy."

Goldman Sachs has recognized the importance of funding women's entrepreneurship. Its "10,000 Women" initiative offers business and management education, access to capital, mentoring, and networking to underserved women entrepreneurs in 56 countries. According to a 2018 press release, "Eighteen months after completing the program, nearly 70% of surveyed graduates increased their revenue and nearly 60% added new jobs. On average, graduates doubled the size of their workforces and revenues increased nearly fivefold, and nine out of ten participants pay it forward by mentoring other women."

A recent extension of this program is the Women Entrepreneurs Opportunity Facility. This is a partnership between the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women program and International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group. The facility has invested more than $1 billion in women entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

In the U.S. around 40% of businesses are owned by women, yet those businesses only account for 4.3 percent of total private sector revenue. Women-owned businesses notoriously attract less capital.

But in low income settings both here and abroad, women entrepreneurs are taken seriously, attract micro lenders and investors, and make those funders proud. MicroVest, an asset management firm with over $384 million assets under management, seeks out "good investments that generate solid returns and create deep social impact. It just so happens that a majority of those investments in emerging economies are led by women," according to a company statement. MicroVest has invested in over 9 million female businesses owners in 26 countries.

This year on International Women's Day, let's reflect on how to unleash the power of women's entrepreneurship to combat poverty, slow global warming, and reduce conflict. And in the process, deliver on equal opportunity for women.

Published on: Mar 8, 2019